“You are going to have a horrible time,” the doctor said, “a really horrible time.”
I had turned up for what I thought was a routine appointment with the consultant. He looked at his notes, then at me, before leaning over his desk and telling me that the test had come back positive.
I did not feel any physical pain, but a numbing sense of shock. His words were well meant, but not reassuring as I found myself going into battle with cancer.
After the diagnosis, I had a million questions, ranging from – can I be cured, how are you going to treat me and – the most pertinent question of all – how long have I got? Like millions of others, I suffered an agony of uncertainty and anxiety.
This was especially acute during the so-called staging process, when you know you have cancer but are undergoing tests to find out just how widespread or aggressive it is.
After ghastly weeks of waiting, during which the doctors extracted blood and gouged out lumps of flesh from under my arm. I was passed from one consultant to another.
An intermediate prognosis
The first had a look at me and said, not terribly reassuringly, that he had dealt with tumours the size of marrows. “I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to treat you, possibly even cure you.”
He insisted on a rectal examination, sticking his fingers up my bum with what I felt was an excess of enthusiasm. “If you don’t put your finger in, you’ll put your foot in it,” he jested, while I grimaced.
The second told me I had an intermediate prognosis.
What did that mean, I asked?
It wasn’t as good as a good prognosis, he answered cryptically.
“How long have I got?” I asked.
“David, you have years to live.”
There was a pause.
“But we just don’t know how many.”
For a while, I didn’t have any symptoms at all, and it was easy to imagine that the diagnosis was a bad dream, all in the imagination of the medics and the ghostly shadows of the ultrasound.
Yet I soon found swellings the size of raisins all over my body. Before long I was living with lumps as big as apples under my arms, and bumps merely the size of walnuts in my neck and groin. This is the so-called watch and wait regime: a seemingly endless period of inaction, when I was encouraged to ignore the multiplying maleficent cells and what they were becoming inside me.
Time for chemotherapy
As I watched and waited, I realised that the things were growing, and before they turned into melons or courgettes, it was time for chemotherapy. After two years of treatment, these unwanted fruit and veg-shaped lumps in my body fortunately shrivelled up and went away, and so far they haven’t come back (though I can’t help nervous fingertip investigations on a more or less daily basis…)
As my experience underscores, cancer is rarely a medical emergency – only in a small percentage of cases does the patient need to be rushed into hospital for immediate treatment. More often than not, there is a lot of time – sometimes it feels like too much time – between diagnosis and treatment.
Cancer cells are indeed dividing rapidly. But it’s only when a tumour in the bowel or gut causes obstruction, or in similar cases, that the doctors need to move really rapidly. For most cancers, you have weeks to carry out tests and figure out the best treatment options.
Even if the doctors need to take their time, you as the patient are going to be scared witless in these early weeks and months. In short, cancer is rarely a medical emergency, but it is almost always an emotional emergency.
I’m not starting this blog to talk about me, but to make a plea, through my experience, for doctors and institutions to change the way they view patients because what happened over the following months and years left me utterly bewildered. And to encourage patients and their loved ones to have a better understanding of the disease.
In my next post, I will look at the reasons why more people are getting cancer, and more surviving. Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.