Day 1: I'm told I have cancer
22 Apr 2011
My wife, Chrissy, and I sat down with the doctor in the chest clinic. After initial enquiries about how I was feeling ('pretty good, cough a bit better, energy levels still down, but managing to cycle and take long walks'), she hit me with it.
'It's bad news, I'm afraid'. It seemed an eternity before she elaborated. 'You have cancer'.
It was like two physical blows, one after the other. I slumped to my right in the chair, as if recoiling from the doctor. Chrissy put out an arm as if to hold me from toppling right over.
I just felt shock. No anger. No fear. Just surprise. How could I who had never smoked in my life have lung cancer? How could I who have always played sport, run and cycled have cancer? How could I who always expected to live to a good old age have cancer?
And had this very doctor not told me, just two weeks earlier that I did not have cancer? Had I not been told by my GP back before Christmas that it was not cancer?
I was gobsmacked. The news I had been expecting today was that I had a chest infection of some sort, serious enough but certainly curable.
I was feeling quite well. I was still working normally. Yes, I had been troubled with this cough for almost a year now. It had grown worse during the autumn and I had finally gone to the GP in November.
X-rays showed slight shadowing on the left lung and I embarked on a series of tests and treatments for asthma and TB. They proved negative After further X-rays and a CT scan at the end of January, a new theory emerged: Sarcoidosis. The test for that was a rather uncomfortable bronchoscopy operation (a mini-camera put in through your nose and down into your lungs) and a small sample of tissue taken for a biopsy. That took place on 24th March. It was the results of this that I had come in for today (Thursday April 7th, 2011) and which had produced the cancer verdict.
While I remained in shock, Chrissy was angry. 'Why had it taken so long? Why was I not getting this news from the consultant?' I was grateful that she was feeling angry on my behalf. I did not have the energy for it.
I was instead very calm. I wanted to know more. But the doctor could not tell me much. She was not a cancer specialist and could not yet say what type of cancer it was. Further results were awaited. There was 'a glimmer' of hope (how critical is the choice of words at this moment) that it might be a certain type of cancer which had a better prognosis and treatment. But I would have to wait until Monday when I had an appointment with cancer consultant to find out more.
She admitted that they had been 'amazed' that it had turned out to be cancer as I had seemed so fit and well.
I walked out of the clinic in a daze.That evening the questions crowded in: how long did I have? what should I do about my work commitments? what to tell family and friends? how would Chrissy and my daughters, Louise (24) and Rachel (21) manage financially? what state was my will in? how do I tell my parents who are in the middle of coping with my dad's chemotherapy treatment for bowel cancer?
It felt so unfair? I had always kept fit through playing sport and not only had I never smoked I had always been strongly anti-smoking. My parents had never smoked nor had anyone in my immediate family.
Telling my daughters was the first difficult step. Louise was at home and I could tell her in person. It did not feel right to delay telling Rachel so I told her by phone, even though I had misgivings as she was still recovering from being knocked off her bicycle and had a lot of university project work to get through.
Finally one more immediate dilemma: I am due to be on a panel of speakers at a fund-raising event this evening for former Guardian education journalist, Donald MacLeod, who was very seriously ill after being knocked off his bicycle many months earlier. I did not want to pull out but would I cope on a platform just hours after receiving this news?
I decided it was best to try to carry on as normal. I would go but not tell anyone my news. I travelled in to central London in an almost disembodied mode. I was seeing myself at a distance. Surely, this person with cancer was not me?
I got through the evening but had blurted it all out to one old friend and colleague and almost given it away to a couple of others. On the whole the distraction had been good.
But my life has changed suddenly and irrevocably this afternoon. What now lies ahead?
It was a difficult decision whether or not to write this cancer blog. I am not used to writing publicly about anything so intensely personal. But, as a journalist, it seems the best way to deal with it. While I see it as a coping mechanism to help me channel my fight to defeat the cancer it is also a way of keeping family, friends and colleagues up to date. I also hope it may help others in a similar position.
Finally, as I also intend to follow an integrated path of combining complementary and conventional medicine, I hope this might prove a worthwhile record of what is effective and helpful in treating both cancer and the effects of chemotherapy. I welcome your comments.