That was the year that was!
On the 19th December, 2017 my life turned upside down.
It all started when my wife Linda, irritated by my constant cough, booked me in to my local GP for a check up. The Doctor took one look and advised me to see a specialist. The next day, I was in the Nuffied.
As an expert ran a camera up my nose and down my throat, I was still convinced I had nothing to worry about. After around two minutes, the Doctor paused, casually sat back and declared that it looked bad. How bad, I asked? I’m not sure, it may be cancerous but we need to dig a little deeper. Within three days, I was having a biopsy.
As I sat in my NHS bed, they said the results would not be known until the 4th, January. Furthermore, Cancers come in all types so we need the detail, and of course, there was still the slightest possibility they could be wrong. For now, all I could do was go home and enjoy the best Christmas possible. That festive period was the longest two weeks in my life!
At 9.45am on the 4th, Linda and I walked into a room to be met by a large number of people all wearing worrying faces. The very sight of so many instantly said to me that this was not going to be a favourable chat. I was right. John, I’m afraid you have Cancer. Six words that I won’t forget.
Furthermore, they went on, the tumour is much larger than first thought and it is sitting on your tongue and tonsil. As a former broadcaster this kind of news was particularly upsetting. They explained the type I had but by now, I wasn’t really listening. The positive was that they believed it to be beatable although the treatment itself was going to be difficult and painful. They weren’t wrong.
What followed was a level of pain that I’d never experienced before enduring many a night in a hospital bed or taking in copious amounts of drugs. Mostly both! As I sat in various waiting rooms, it struck me that my life was in the hands of people I have never met before and surprised at how many were involved. I was in the NHS system and that meant following the plan which takes you from one department to another in quick succession. They have a policy of telling you exactly what’s going to happen and when, including the removal of my teeth. You can't help noticing that the more they do, the more you learn, yet nearly everyone around me was cheerful. Quite something to watch.
Looking back, the side effects from the treatment turned out to be much more difficult than anything else. Once, I was in so much pain from a rogue kidney stone, that I lay on the hospital toilet floor begging for the nurses to put me to sleep. They refused, insisting that I pass the stone naturally. The radiation treatment seemed never-ending with a session each day for six weeks. I started out confidently but ended up crawling into the last one. No matter what, I was determined to ring that bell on the way out to signal the end of it all and surviving the power of those machines. Most of all, I was grateful that I could now leave behind the mask they made me which they used to bolt my head to the table. Accuracy from those beams was essential yet it is a memory that I won’t forget.
Chemotherapy was delivered to me in a large half circle room filled with people of all ages, all trying to beat this awful disease. I felt ashamed for feeling sorry for myself at a time when others were going through a lot worse, some were just trying to prolong their life by a matter of weeks. It quickly brought me to my senses, I was very much the lucky one.
Laura, my Macmillan nurse was a gift from God and I will never be able to thank her enough for what she did, and the manner in which she did it. Yes, it was a team of people looking after me, but she was the one that made me believe. When you’re told you have the big C, belief is everything. I loved her bluntness.
“It’s going to be a shit six months, she said. Just do what I say, keep to the plan and I will get through it. And remember, the only way to get through it is to go through it and I will be with you every step of the way”
Linda and I could see that she meant it so we hung on to those words like glue. We didn’t look anything up on Google, instead, we followed her advice to the letter. What I didn’t want to do was read something different to what I’d been told. These were the experts, these were the people who knew what they were doing so why look elsewhere for information or confirmation? I trusted her implicitly.
Even though it was a difficult day, I recall leaving her consultation room with hope in my heart and a belief that it may turn out well. It must be amazing to have that talent at your fingertips, I thought. Throughout my ordeal, she was always there, either in person, on email or on the phone. We agreed that it was fine to have down moments, but never down days. If ever I needed a few seconds to myself, that’s exactly what I’d do before coming back smiling, or fighting, depending on the next item on the agenda. My day turned into one long period of sleep, drugs, hospital, treatment, home, drugs, sleep.
There was a lot of prep involved including operations, mask building, numerous X-rays, drugs galore and yes, one or two moments of despair. Linda and I found ourselves often talking into the night, sometimes in tears, occasionally in laughter, always holding hands as we smiled at each other with a gritty determination. It was all about the next day, the next challenge, or the next appointment. The hardest part was not seeing my children for the time I was having chemo. It was important not to get an infection so we felt it best if everyone kept away for six weeks so I’m forever grateful to Steve Jobs who created FaceTime. It kept me smiling!
By mid-March, the treatment had stopped and the healing process began. It was slow going at first, unable to swallow or eat anything by mouth and thankful for a small tube that was inserted into my stomach weeks earlier so they could keep me alive with liquid food. Day by day, the pain subsided, the discomfort slowly eased until the end of May arrived. It was then that I had to return to the hospital to meet the same consultant who had given me the bad news in January. This was the moment where we would find out if all that effort, pain, chemo, radiation and drugs had actually worked. A tense moment if ever there was one!
The camera was again placed into my nose and down my throat. Two minutes later, she sat back and smiled confirming that all signs of the disease had gone. I filled up, so did everyone else and we hugged each other for what seemed like an eternity. It was emotional stuff for all including the medical staff who had gone from giving me the worst news possible to seeing me come out the other side. They were delighted that their skill, care and treatment had done its job and it made me wonder how many other professions can witness such a thing? When I got home, the family were waiting, and we hugged and celebrated. Yes, we love to hug!
So, where are we now?
Well, every two months or so I return to get the all clear until my next visit (you’re not cured until five years has passed) and slowly but surely, my eating has returned. For those who know me well, eating was always a passion although mostly for the wrong reasons. Today, I’m encouraged to eat more.
Due to the radiotherapy received, I don’t have saliva glands in my mouth any longer so I need a constant bottle of water by my side. I can eat soft food, toast and quiche for example, but not meat or anything substantial, as yet. Thankfully, my voice is back to normal and my taste is restored, something that doesn’t happen to all. Luck is on my side.
It seems hard to believe now that a whole year has passed so quickly. It shows you that no matter how bad life may be, you can always come through it. Medical science, positive thoughts, great people and wonderful care were the core of that success along with a few prayers. Each month, I still notice improvements. My confidence has returned, so too has my golf swing and I remain thankful for the brilliance of the NHS staff and the inspirational care from Linda, especially, alongside that of my family and friends.
Some people ask if this was the darkest period of my life? The answer is no, watching my parents suffer and pass away was much worse. Yes, it was a difficult year but it was also, perhaps, my greatest triumph. What I do know is that the experience has made me a better person. I witnessed and received a level of kindness that I never thought possible and I work hard to return that whenever I can. I am certainly more chilled.
I was given a mentor at the start of this journey (Gary) and now I’m a mentor for others who have been given the same, difficult news. It’s a kind of buddy system and it really helps. We need more of that.
This Christmas and New year therefore is going to be different, that’s for sure. On the 4th Jan next, instead of listening to bad news and feeling helpless, Linda and I will be boarding a cruise to toast our good fortune and the joy of knowing that we have great friends, a loving family and an NHS service that is the envy of the world. It certainly saved my life.
To all that helped me in some way, thank you for being there. I would urge anyone going through a personal battle, whatever that might be, to never, ever, give up. Also, to never doubt what a little kindness can do, believe me, it made a huge difference. We need to sprinkle more of that each day.
Wherever you may be, I hope you will have a Happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year but most of all, keep well.