Editor’s Note: This piece was submitted by a contributing writer and does not represent the views of CURE Media Group.
About six weeks later, I went to the oncology department at Belfast City Hospital where I met my hero and savior, Dr. Seamus McAleer. He explained the process of postoperative treatment and follow-up. We would become good friends over the following years.
One day he examined me, checked both the CT results and his notes and gave the bad news. The tumor was malignant and the cancer had indeed spread to my lymph nodes. As before, my heart sank, I went numb and cold, but this time I didn’t lose it.
The lymph nodes in my back were 1.2 centimeters (.48 inches), but they should be only be 1centimeter (.39 inches). This meant that I would have to have chemotherapy, probably just one shot, but I would need another CT scan for more info. They said they would call me back in January.
I tried to make the most of Christmas. We spoiled the kids rotten, but the whole time the phrase “death sentence” was rattling around inside my head. It was really tough, mentally. Towards the end of January, I went back to the City Hospital for a more detailed CT scan. I changed into a hospital gown and was then given a special sugar drink that the cancer cells would go daft for. I had to lie still for 20 minutes to stop too rapid an absorption. They put a Venflon needle into the back of my hand. When I went into the scanner, they injected a dye to show these rotten little cells. I felt a warm flush around my groin, but was not to reach down to see if I wet myself. All went well and for the next 40 minutes as I lay there listening to the Eagles, until the cd stuck for the last five minutes.
I went back approximately four weeks later for the results. They had worked out from the blood analysis and scans what evil chemicals were going to work on me. After another chat with Dr. McAleer, I learned that without the chemotherapy, I would only have between 18 months and two years to live. I chose the treatment.
He advised me to take up to three months off work. I laughed-- three months for just one shot? Yeah right.
When it was time for treatment, I headed down to the treatment area had the worst experience imaginable. I had IV steroids! The best description I can give is to imagine you are wearing a vest, underpants, gloves and socks made from thistles. Then you sit in a bath full of nettles. That lovely feeling lasted about 10 minutes. As a consequence of the steroid treatment I had to carry an “I’ve had Steroids” card for a year.
The chemotherapy was given by IV drip over an hour. It came in a brown paper bag. At least I hope it was the chemo because I felt nothing. No nausea or sickness. I wondered what all the shouting was about.
After, I pottered about the house for week, almost bored. I picked up mentally. But I also ate like a horse, one of the side effects of the steroids.
Then the chemo struck with a vengeance. I was not unfit. At work I would lug goods on and off my truck by hand. But now, I was left that I couldn’t climb stairs, or walk 20 feet in one go. I could just about take a shower, and drying off was a different matter, so I had to use the air to dry myself. I was barely able to do anything for myself, never mind do anything to help around house. I was so exhausted that I rang my doctor in case there was something else wrong. She arranged an urgent blood test to check my white cell count because sometimes chemo can kill off your white blood cells. I got a phone call from her later, my cell count was fine, it was just hitting me hard.
For next week or two, I felt like this. I felt useless and helpless and a burden on my family, especially on my wife.
Depression started to set in. I heard that 80 percent of chemo patients suffer from depression. My physical strength slowly returned, but I still suffered mentally. I tried to rush back to work and do things to stop being such a burden. It was a real struggle, but I needed to get out of the house. I needed to work. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t fit enough. I just needed to.
In April I went back to the City Hospital for checkup number one, where I was told that all was clear. The chemotherapy had done its job. My spirits lifted slightly, but I was still depressed and tired. I would come home from work, sit down and fall asleep. I was too tired to socialize or visit. It was a real struggle to go out. To be honest, I didn’t want to go out.
This went on for over a year. I couldn’t shake it off. But then on May 2, I woke up alive! Not feeling happy, not feeling good, but alive! Take the day you met your soulmate, the day you got married, the day you became a parent and multiply by 10 and you’re coming close to how I felt.
The words of one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite groups ran through my head. “I’m alive again on a May morning, Gonna wipe the slate clean, follow my dream.”
I danced into the shower, went down for breakfast. Then my phone rang, it was work telling me I have the day off due to production issues, so I booked the Friday off and went to the Coast album launch in Inverness feeling alive. As I was feeling good, I decided to try and lose some weight. Steroids and sitting about had put the odd pound or two on. I went on a supervised diet aiming to lose two or three pounds per week. I thought that this should be realistic, since I was walking on average eight to 12 miles per week.
So for the next four weeks, there was no booze or fries or red meat. I lost just two pounds.
Then depression hit again for a couple of weeks. It was a struggle to go out of the house, talk to people and to go to work. Then, at the beginning of September, I had an upset tummy. It took me six weeks to recover my strength. Depression once again reared its ugly head. It seemed that it was two steps forward, one step back, another two forward and several back. I just couldn’t see a winning line.
I went back to the doctor and had another blood test. I was lacking in certain vitamins, so I was given some advice on vitamins and told to eat some red meat to boost immune system.
I just had a checkup. It was a small one, just a blood test and physical. The physical went OK, but you have to wait for a week for blood test result. They only phone you if there’s a problem, so if there’s no call, all is fine.
Exactly one week later, I got a call from private number. With heart in mouth I answered it.
“Would you like to buy car insurance?” I politely declined, very relived.
Physically I’m doing fine and mentally, the depression is slowly lifting, but it’s a nasty condition that can rear its ugly head very quickly.