The chemotherapy was administered over three days and nights in the ward, and another two visits to a walk-in clinic (day 8 and day 15) where small top-ups were administered. It’s all quite painless apart from one or two sharp injections in the belly – I think they’re steroid injections, and I don’t know why they hurt so much! Ouch! But anyway.. the actual treatment is no big deal. I was feeling a bit miserable by the time I was released to go home on day 4, partly because of the gradual deterioration induced by the chemo, and partly because of the emotional turmoil of being in a cancer ward. I was also slightly worried by the huge suitcase of tablets they gave me, and the long checklist of potential side-effects to watch out for, and the strict instructions to get back to the hospital immediately if I felt any pain or tightness in my chest, but I was really happy to be going home.
Back to normal. Normal clothes, normal house, normal stuff – it was great to be home. I was starting to experience some side-effects and certainly didn’t feel 100%, but a small celebration dinner cheered me up no end after a few days of hospital food.
While I’d been in the ward, I’d asked one of the doctors to draw me a graph of unwellness vs time, and we expected max unwellness to occur around day 20-25. I’d already started to experience some side effects that were making me feel a wee bit grumpy – fatigue, tinnitus, gum inflammation, mouth ulcers & blisters, pelvis pains, loss of taste etc – they all combined to make me a bit miserable. We’d made the bed in our spare room for me to sleep in, so I could be as miserable as I wanted without bothering Kim & George. Sorted. I had the iPad loaded with episodes of ’24’, I had the clock set to wake me up for tablets, I had bottles of ginger beer.. I had everything I needed. So, after my wonderful steak dinner I excused myself and went for an early night in the spare room. I was as happy and comfortable as I could be in the circumstances, but my thoughts returned to the people I’d left behind in the ward that morning, and I silently wished them the best of luck.
At 3.30am I woke up with extreme pain in my chest, stabbing with every breath, and in a panic I fell out of bed and with one hand pressing hard on my chest, I stumbled through to wake Kim up. “Kim! Hospital! Now! It’s my chest! I’m having a fucking heart attack! Please! Let’s go. Now!”. Kim got out of bed all disoriented and raced to get some clothes on and we bundled into the car and straight to Addenbrooke’s Accident and Emergency department. At 4am it wasn’t busy and, as soon as the triage nurse saw me – pale, shaking and clutching my chest, she put me straight into a wheelchair and took me into a side-room where she attached ECG sensors all over me. By that time I think the worst had passed and I was feeling a bit steadier, although I still had pain in my chest which seemed worse when I inhaled.
“Your ECG looks okay to me”, the doctor said after a couple of minutes, “But let’s get you along to a bed and we’ll try to find out what’s going on”. I was wheeled along to one of the main A&E rooms and asked to lie on the bed, and they measured blood pressure lying down, blood pressure sitting up; they listened to my heart and my lungs; they poked and pushed here and there, but couldn’t find anything unusual. Noting my recent history, they wanted the advice of an oncologist, so they said there would be a bit of a delay while they contacted the ward and waited for the registrar to attend. By this time I was looking a lot more stable, so they left Kim and I alone in the room with the door ajar. Kim was sitting beside the bed, holding my hand, while I was coming to terms with what had just happened, when I suddenly felt another stabbing pain which actually induced a little bit of sickness, and then a penny dropped…
When the doctor eventually came back into the room, I sheepishly had to suggest that my heart attack might just have been a very extreme case of indigestion. He was very professional about it, but I could definitely see a look in his eye, and I felt like such a flippin’ lemon. Notwithstanding this new information and likely cause, he recommended that we should have a chest x-ray done, and then go back to a bed in the ward for a few hours to make sure everything was ok. In my defence, I can only say that I’ve never experienced anything like that pain before! It turns out that it wasn’t simple indigestion, but in fact a pretty bad case of oesophagitis. Blimey. Enough about that.
By Day 25, I’d had extreme, bursting headaches (caused by steroid withdrawal apparently), more oesophagitis, terrible acid reflux, chronic hiccups, and to top it all off, the first few tufts of hair had started to fall out. This was a whole new challenge – I didn’t know if pulling the hair out or shaving was the right approach. In the end I elected to shave, and I’m not sure it was the right decision because the hairs had stopped growing and therefore, once shaved, became stuck in the follicles and caused lots of little sores. It was just another minor inconvenience in a growing list of miseries that all combined to make life pretty grim for a couple of weeks.
Five weeks later, on a fine, sunny day in Downing College, Cambridge, surrounded by family and friends, Kim and I were married. Despite being bald as a coot and still looking like a cancer patient, it was the best day of my life and I still get all emotional when I think about it. If the past few months hadn’t gone well for me, it could have been one of the last days of my life.
And that brings me to the point of the story, I guess. Two years on, I think I’m in the clear now, and I hope it doesn’t seem self-indulgent for me to write about ‘my journey with cancer’. I wanted to do this as a thank you to all the people who helped me get through it – Kim of course for being right there, all the time; Gianna for supporting Kim and looking after George; the medical staff at Addenbrooke’s for my life; all of my family, friends and colleagues for their support and never once making me feel like a cancer patient; and most of all little George for bustin’ my balls, literally, on that lazy morning in February 2013. He’ll probably never know that he saved my life that day.
Finally, I’d like to pay tribute to the bravest people I’ve ever known – the people in the cancer ward, many of whom know they are fighting a losing battle.