Several years ago, I went through a period in my life where I thought I would only have weeks to live. I had been diagnosed with cancer, and had to go through four months of chemotherapy, doing all the scans, blood tests, transfusions, injections, hospital appointments and so on.
At the time I was a driver with Ulsterbus. I was doing a bit of overtime that week, and was feeling very tired and going to the toilet every hour. I put it down to a urinary infection and made an appointment with the doctor for that Friday, in between my shifts. On the Friday, the inspector asked me if I wanted to do more overtime the next day. I remember thinking to myself, ‘You're lucky I've been even working this week, as I have been feeling shattered,’ but I agree to do the extra hours anyway.
On Friday around lunchtime, I went to the doctor and was given a slip to go and get my bloods done. As there was a long queue in the treatment room however, I decided to leave until the Monday. I worked that Saturday, but that weekend I was really feeling rotten, going to the toilet every hour, even during the night, and it was taking a lot out of me. So, in between my shifts on the Monday, my wife Adrienne told me to go down to the GP’s surgery to have my bloods done.
Once I finished my shift, I headed back to the station. To this day, I don't know how the heck I drove home – only the Lord knows that. After work I went straight home and was on the couch, watching TV with Adrienne and taking it easy, when the phone rang. It was a doctor telling me that my blood results were showing a high level of calcium and advising me to go to A & E so they could check me out.
Well, talk about feeling physically sick! We went up to A & E and I was given a bed, and before I knew it, doctors were all around me. Alarm bells rang in my head: you don’t normally get so many doctors around one patient, unless they are worried about something . . .
I remember one doctor had long locks and all I could think about was Engelbert Humperdinck! The other doctor, as I remember it, was very eccentric, with a dickey bow on, and I thought, ‘Why the heck would these guys be down at A & E looking at me when you normally just get a junior doctor?’
They prodded me around my tummy, mumbled to each other and then did a bit more pushing and feeling. The nerves started to flow through my body, and I was thinking, ‘This doesn’t look good’. The doctors went away, and then Engelbert Humperdinck came back to talk to me. I said to him, ‘OK, doctor. What does a high calcium level mean? It must point to something, right?’ He was very honest and to the point, replying, ‘It is about 99% likely that it is cancer. There is a mass in your abdomen, and I am surprised actually that you have not collapsed with this calcium level.’
My first thought was that I had just been driving buses around!
From A & E, I went to Ward 4, in a room of my own. I know Adrienne was as worried as I was. The nurses were very good and I was told I would be staying for some tests, etc. It did not take a rocket scientist to work out what type of ward I was in, and weighing everything up, I did not think I would ever see the outside world and breathe the air there again.
Life seemed so precious at that point, and all I could think about were the many things I wanted to do - it was a big list. I also thought about how Adrienne and our lads would cope. We take life for granted so much and put things off till tomorrow, instead of living life today as the gift that it is - but that's human nature, I suppose.
So, I settled down as best I could - well, I didn’t have many other options, really. I got a chest x-ray and various other tests the next day. I was allowed out of hospital that weekend, but had to be back in again on the Sunday. The second week, I went for a CAT scan (no, not a cat walking over me and having a look!) something I had always been afraid of having to go through. But I had to face up to it and a lot more fears in the weeks to come.
Before going for the scan, I was given a drink to take: it tasted of aniseed and looked a bit like orange juice. Adrienne came down to the scan room with me and to give me some moral support. I remember sitting in the corridor outside that room, shaking all over and wondering what would show up.
A droning noise was coming from inside the room, and this made my mind work overtime too. The door opened and a nurse brought me into the scan room. There was a machine in there which looked like a big doughnut with a bed in the middle. To one side were the TV screens which the nurses and doctors would look at as you were being scanned. I was told to lie down on the bed.
For other scans I was to have after this one, I was given an injection each time beforehand: the stuff they injected me made me feel as if I had wet myself - a weird feeling. I do not remember getting such injection for this first scan, but so much was going through my head at that stage, perhaps I just didn’t notice. I think though they may have been worried about my kidneys at first, and so perhaps didn’t want to give me the injection in case they damaged anything.
Anyway, the nurse who had brought me into the room left, and then the big doughnut seemed to start going round, making a loud noise. A voice came from a speaker above me, telling me to, ‘Breathe in and hold, please’, then I was moved through the doughnut until it stopped and then the voice said, ‘Breathe out’. This was done a couple of times. When I looked over to my left, I could see the doctor and nurses looking at the screens, a couple of them with very worried looking faces, which made me feel very uneasy.
I was completely alone, and after what seemed like forever, a nurse came out, unstrapped me and told me to go back to the seat outside, to wait for the porter to come down. I told Adrienne about the nurses’ faces looking worried, but she told me not to fret, and that it was probably all in my mind. I was then taken back to the ward again, where more blood was taken.
Adrienne left later that afternoon to go home to see the boys. Left alone, I started thinking a lot. It is hard, being on your own in this type of situation: your mind wanders all over the place. I started to pray and ask the Lord to forgive all my sins and to wash them away. I also asked Him to help me through and help me face my fear, and from that moment on, I felt more relaxed – as if I knew that the Lord would be with me through whatever was sent my way.
The next day Adrienne came to see me again, and while she was there, around lunchtime, the doctor with the dickey bow came in with his head down, looking as if he had something to tell me. He said I had a large mass in my abdomen which seemed to be just sitting there, apparently not attached to anything. He then said he wanted me to have a bone scan and a chest X-ray, and so on, and he had another feel around my stomach.
During the next few days, other doctors came in and examined me – I felt that I was either very important or just a guinea pig! Each day which followed was the same: the doctor with the dickey bow would come in, looking glum and with no more information for me. But I felt somehow more relaxed, knowing the Lord was with me. I was still anxious though to know what exactly it was I was facing.
Not knowing anything was the worst thing of all. I am sure that the doctors did not know much more than what they had told me, and I suppose it was a good thing that they did so many tests to be sure about how – and if – they could treat me, but I was wanting answers right away. It is often hard to get doctors to talk to you on a level playing field, and it is true that some do not treat you as a human being. But they gave me all the tests anyway and assured me that staying in the hospital would make these tests quicker. Yet I of course was busting to get home and back to normal and, to me, feeling like this was a good sign, I thought . . .
Near the end of the week, I had an appointment to go and have a bone scan. I was called into a room and given an injection to prepare me for the bone scan – I was then told to go away and come back about an hour later. So we went and had a coffee and a wee drive and headed back, coming up to the hour. I was called into a sizeable room containing another bed with a large scanner connected to it. I lay down on the bed: there were two guys sitting to my left, where the screen and other equipment were situated. As they chatted to me, they worked the scanner over me very slowly. The room was very hollow and intimidating, and it all seemed to last forever. I was glad when it was over and we were able to go back to the hospital, where I was settled back into the ward.
Being in a room by myself had its good and bad points. You never got to know many people or what was happening on the ward – but I presume that on this type of ward, people need their own space anyway.
I got home at the weekend again and boy, did I dread going back in to hospital again. I had no choice, of course. On the Monday morning the doctor with the dickey bow (a nice man, but who didn’t usually have much to say) told me he was sending me to have a biopsy that afternoon. When the time came, I was wheeled down in my bed to the ultrasound room where I was having the biopsy: there wasn’t much space to turn the bed round into the room!
One of the young student nurses came down with me: she was very good, as were all the nurses on the ward. The doctor prepared the equipment for the biopsy. I did feel very nervous as to what was going to happen, but he explained what I could expect to happen. He proceeded to numb the area where he was going to do the small op, and then he pushed a long instrument into me (not musical instrument like a guitar or anything, though!). There was a gripper on the end which he would use to take a bit of the tumour for examination. It was uncomfortable at first, but when he went in deeper and tried to take a bit of the tumour, it was actually painful, so he stopped and injected more anaesthetic around the area. He tried again and got a chunk of the tumour – thank God! He brought this out and put it onto a tray to be sent away. He then got cleaned up and patched up the wound, and the nurse came back to take me back to the ward.
The biopsy was sure an experience! The area was very uncomfortable for a few days, but the nurses kept a good eye on it.
I loved getting home at the weekends. When I was home one weekend, I happened to open my father’s Bible at the page marker, which had not been moved since he died in 1999. My eyes fell on the words, from Jeremiah 30:17, ‘For I will restore health unto thee and I will heal thee of thy wounds, saith the Lord.’ To me, it was like my dad was talking to me and I got some comfort from this. Odd, the marker being at that page and my eyes falling on this verse. Many such things happened during my illness, like signs that I was being looked after and that I should not to worry.
The days passed, and the doctor with the dickey bow came in most mornings, still with a worried face and no more information about me or what they were dealing with. So many things went through my head when I was in hospital for those 3 weeks: worry; all the things I still wanted to do; questions about why God had let this happen to me; how long did I have; how would Adrienne and my sons cope . . .
There is so much that you think about, but I got comfort from praying and, with a little reading of my dad’s Bible, I knew that God did not do this to me. And I knew He was with me, no matter what.
As I have said, word back about the biopsy seemed to take forever. But one morning when Adrienne was with me (as she always tried to be: she was truly a tower of strength to me, then and always), my friend with the dickey bow came in, and he actually had a smile on his face! ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You have a semi-noma tumour and we can treat this type of testicular cancer.’ It seemed so much of a relief for him that he finally knew what they were dealing with – and such a relief for us that I had a chance of survival! He told us that I would have radiotherapy, as semi-nomas respond well to this treatment.
This is an edited excerpt from one of many stories in a book produced by a UK cancer support group. All proceeds from sales go to help cancer patients, nurses and treatment centres.