On being Diagnosed with Cancer
By: James Foley
On being Diagnosed with Cancer
Many people have shared their stories about being diagnosed and treated with cancer down through the years. As I start to write this blog I am conscious that my story is just that, my story.
If you have cancer your story will be different in a multiple of ways. I am sorry if you feel my story does not reflect the truth of what you have endured. All I can say is that my story could never be your story. I hope that in sharing mine you will find something that will be a comfort or a reassurance for you.
If you are in a close relationship with a person with cancer then I hope this blog gives you an insight into what your loved one may be going through. It may be hard to ask questions of them and in these Covid 19 times. Perhaps something here will give you answers to the questions you have not had a chance to ask yet.
The purpose of this blog is to focus on my lived experience of cancer diagnosis and initial treatment. I am still in my very early days so that is all I can do.
I will not go into great clinical details. Not only is that my personal information but also it is not going to help you to know that. Trust me I have enough clinical discussions these days. I don’t need more.
“Can I have a leg and back transplant?”
This was the ongoing joke that I had with my 11 year old son. He has since reminded me that it would have made no difference.
My initial experience of cancer was lower back pain. Initial GP treatment dealt with that. But then it came back. Eventually the back pain was added to by leg pain. That fortnight or so before hospital admission was painful and scary. Slowly my mobility just got replaced by weakness and pain. My natural inclination to push myself was stopped when I collapsed at the top of the stairs. I could easily have fallen and ….?
My wife was increasingly anxious. She spent many nights on the phone with on call doctors. Thanks to Covid 19 the doctors never came to see me. I talked my wife out of bringing me to the local A&E one of those nights.
Eventually my GP had ordered a spinal scan privately. It took over a week to get the appointment. As corny as it sounds little was I to know that two or more hours after the scan I would get a phone call from the GP telling me I had to come to their office. If I wasn’t so distracted by my pain I would have slowed down perhaps to take it all in but really how can you take in such an ever changing process.
The GP was grave as she went through the scan report with me. Something was fracturing my L4 disc in my lower spine. Something was around my disc causing pressure on a nerve serving my leg giving me this pain. My wife, the GP and myself all knew it was not a huge jump to think that something was cancer, but it remained unsaid.
Where they only have half a face
The GP said we had to go to hospital immediately. We did as told. What can you do when you are seriously ill and in great pain but do as you are told. Cancer and any other serious illness for that matter takes away the control you thought you had over your life. My cancer has indeed taken a lot from my life so far. What I reclaim or gain through it is truly in my hands. Hopefully I can have the balance in my favour.
As the A&E admin staff said my wife could not go any further we had a few moments. I said to her, “Will we do a runner”. Yes I joked but running away can seem very attractive. As I write this I am aware that even writing this may make me feel that I have faced my fears and I can tick the box. Daft and wrong. This time will always be with me, to learn from again and again.
During this pandemic season hospitals are by their nature strained places. Arguments over wearing masks are left at the door. It is strange to realise that those who’s hands I was placing my physical life in I only ever saw half their face. While I could never see their smile I could see their eyes.
I have to say the masks did make me feel more isolated and alone.
Over my stay in hospital I have stayed in three different wards, enduring many numerous tests and times of great physical and emotional pain. As a man who worked as a psychiatric nurse for many years my cancer has challenged a lot of my memories of how I practiced. Needles really do hurt no matter how small they are, being told you can’t go home really is heart crushing. Perhaps one of the greatest eye openers was having to put a pad on myself as I moaned my way through a night of constipation.
The moment of being told the actual diagnosis was just that, a moment. I was eating a bowl of grapefruit at my bedside in a six bedded ward. Within the next three plus hours I was visited by a barrage of various medical teams. At one stage I stepped off the ward so as to take a breath. It seemed I had now become the property of the oncology team and I would be getting chemotherapy on their ward, the cancer ward.
Loss, all seems lost
Each of us emotionally react to the changes brought on by cancer in different ways. Coming face to face with the fear of mortality is what is generally perceived as the big issues with the big C.
From the onset of the diagnosis I was constantly reassured that my cancer was extremely treatable, even curable. Also my mind and body were overcome by various physical pains. Contemplating life and death was simply beyond me.
But still I cried.
I cried in private because of the loss of life I was already loosing. Time with my family. A summer holiday of some kind. Missing being part of their lives and for them to be part of mine. As I became aware of that as my black dog of low mood I knew I had to avoid it. My wife and I both agreed to not go into the negative space of loss.
Yes I did cry over the diagnosis itself but more so out of shock. While by my nature I don’t dwell on a fear of death I knew I needed to express it somehow safely. I suspect in times to come my reaction will deepen from one of shock to a realisation of a possible death.
I have developed a real gratitude for the life saving treatment I am receiving and know without it I would have a truly painfilled death.
What to cling to through the watches of the night
So what has sustained me during those dark times when my hope seemed unfounded and my heart was sore?
Firstly my faith in God as a good God. It may seem totally supid to believe God is good and actively showing you His goodness when you are just about to start your first cycle of chemotherapy. All I can say is that believing in the goodness of God comes first, not the situation I want God to show his love in. I already believe God is good because of what is revealed about Him in His word, The Bible. Looking for proof of the goodness of God based on our circumstances is like judging an Irish summer based on your expectations of what summer means. Totally pointless.
I have been blessed by the genuine kindness of many who care for me. Family have truly played a role in my ability to stay calm. The practical loving support of family and friends has been a true strength and comfort. We may make assumptions about this like a message on a greeting card. Constant messages of prayer, practical support and just hellos really mean a lot when you believed you didn’t deserve them let alone expect them. WOW ordinary people really do care for me and my family.
While Covid has destroyed my access to visitors I have utilised modern technology to stay in contact. Having a laundry swap with my wife became an opportunity for a brief seeing of half her face and all her love.
An underrated tool in the face of such adversity is a simple sense of humour. Humour can cover over a multitude of painful situations. Humour does not have to be a complete denial of what is happening, though it could be. Humour has allowed me to feel human, develop good working relationships with staff and be honest with other patients about where I am at. Being a first time chemo patient I am definitely the new guy on the block.
An amusing aside for me is how my relationship with doctors is totally different now as a patient than what it was as a nurse. As a nurse, doctors were primarily people I worked with to get my work done. Sometimes this relationship was based on coercion.
Now I genuinely look upon them as extremely hard working, caring professionals who have tried their hardest to do for me as they could and to whom primarily I owe my life.
Before I started my chemotherapy I had two days of immense pain. I am choosing to look upon that pain as a gift. A gift that has told me how much I have to be thankful for. It is vital that I always am overjoyed to be alive. Perhaps some years ago my prognosis would not be as good as it is today. Having an appreciation for just being alive truly grounds you in life. The frustrations of what I can now not do are truly miniscule compared to the triumph of every breath and every smile.
When I arrived on the cancer ward I was afraid to leave my room for fear of what I would see. Sickly, bald headed people on their last stages of life. I am not going to say such people do not exist here but my perception brought about a fear that would have prevented me from learning from the experience and strength of others as I met them around the ward. Viewing the strength of others has shown me I have a long way to go till I develop such a strength of character.
Fear leads to suffering
This is one of the messages from Yoda the little green puppet from the Star Wars films. I have found it to ring through in this season of learning to live with cancer. Giving into fear is truly one of the greatest dangers I currently have.
Fear is the basis of every bad choice I could now make. I have repeatedly said to the medical team that I can do little with the medical realities of treatment. The area where I do have the scope to act is in my attitude. How I feel about having cancer, my treatment and its side effects determines a lot how I will recover. It is my choice to either recover well or recover poorly.
For the next six plus months I will not be in employment. It would be easy to be overcome with fear of the consequences of that. Professional and financial stagnation are not good. Literally figuring out how I will spend my time between times of wellness and sickness is a fear in itself.
We all know how closely cancer is connected to death. While I am not concerned about death itself the process of it is naturally worrisome.
The fear of how my condition may affect my wife and children is ever present.
I choose not to live in fear because I believe in a God who drives out all fear.
I can not end this blog neatly with any conclusion. There is too much ahead, too much that is unknown. To be straight I have no idea as to what my future days, weeks and months have in store for me. How can I? I have never had cancer before.
So I have no conclusion. It is possible that this will never conclude. This could be a process that will be with me for all my days on this planet. Or by Christmas I could be seeing the return of a normal life free of cancer related concerns. Who knows I may even have energy to get annoyed with politicians again. Truly a sign of normal humanity?
In finishing I want to deal with an issue that some of you may have with me. You may feel I am a typical example of modern self exploitation for commercial gain. I won’t argue against you on that point, however I ask you to consider the following reasons I am posting this.
I am a counsellor. Dealing with the ups and downs in life is my stock and trade. Counsellors by their nature integrate their life experience into their work. For me not to do that would be remiss. It helps me to be more grounded as a professional as I work with others with similar issues.
Also during my absence from direct work I need to keep the business alive. If occasionally blogging my story helps to do that I consider that a good thing.
Finally I hope that this blog may help someone. A story shared could be another story changed for good.
The events in this blog cover from the 14th of July to the 11th of August 2020.