5 Things I Learned From Having Cancer

Nothing can ever prepare you for the news that you have cancer. And it’s different for everyone. The observations that follow are personal to me. While some may resonate with others who have gone, are going, or will go through the same journey as me, many aspects may not.

After nine months of feeling unwell and suffering from a persistent cough, and having finished off a major project, I fell sick with what I thought was a simple flu. During the preceding months, I’d been consistently told I needed treatment for post-nasal drip and asthma. On 17 October, that turned out to be false.

It’s not done to question medical professionals. And despite seeing several doctors, having x-rays and receiving treatment, nothing was working. Friends commented that I looked ill, that I’d lost weight. I felt run down, yes, but I put it down to overwork, looking after my wife when she’d had a major operation, being the full-time parent to our daughter and working on an intense project that was taking up to 15 hours of my time per day.

I was rushed to hospital in an ambulance on a Saturday. By Monday morning, we knew what was wrong. A tumour in the bronchial tube between the mid- and lower lobes of my right lung. Diagnosis wasn’t easy — that is, what type of tumour — and it took a further three weeks to get that. A fortnight later, I was in surgery having the two lobes removed. What followed was a series of adjuvant chemotherapy and a course of radiotherapy. Here’s what I learned from that experience.

1. Cancer affects your family, and most people don’t seem to notice
Think about what would happen — or, perhaps, has happened — when someone close to you says they have cancer. Did you stop to think about their spouse, their kids, their closest friends? I admit, I hadn’t. Yet, they bear the brunt of it. They have to deal with the unknown and helplessness; they have to run you to and from hospital appointments, taking time off work and school, and they are as scared as you are.

My wife was, and continues to be, amazing at dealing with the crap my cancer and subsequent challenges have thrown at us. My daughter was brilliantly resilient during it all, not once missing a day of school, although she has had to have counselling to help deal with the trauma of seeing her father vomiting litres of blood every day for a week. And the not knowing if he’d be around to see her open Christmas presents (that was the pneumonia, rather than the cancer, and it was, I think, more of a threat to my short-term health at the time).

I admire the pair of them so much for what they’ve had to deal with — and what’s still throwing curveballs at us. I felt and feel like a burden when I’m unwell. There are a small number of people who did offer help, who cooked us food, who took my daughter out for meals and visits to the cinema, etc. I can count them on one hand. That’s not to disparage anyone else, it’s just how most of us would think: what can we do for the patient?

If anyone else I know ever has to deal with cancer, I’ll be sure to focus some time on those around them, not just the patient. I’d counsel you to consider doing the same should you ever find yourself having to comfort someone with a diagnosis of any sort. You’ll find yourself appreciated by everyone.

2. It’s not a fight (at least it wasn’t for me)
This is divisive, I’m sure. However, the idea that I was fighting my cancer, in a battle with it, only came from advertising for cancer charities and people outside of the medical establishment imposing that idea on me.

I never, ever felt like this. To do so put me in a negative frame of mind and I chose from the outset to be optimistic about my prognosis and recovery. As far as I was concerned, it would turn out okay until such time someone with the necessary expertise told me different. Best thing I decided to do — to look forward and believe everything would be fine; to dismiss the ideology and language of fighting and war, and embrace a sunnier outlook.

3. The mundane is wonderful
Life carries on while you’re in hospital, sitting in a chair feeling sick, sleeping or whatever your body needs to do to deal with both the cancer and the treatment. Days merge into one long blur of puke, sleep, and staring. I personally found it hard to concentrate on anything, so reading took a backseat — and I love to read. My brain couldn’t cope with anything, so I took to playing simple games on my phone and sleeping. Even chatting to visitors was tiring — the constant answering of the same question — how are you? I felt as bad as I looked, but people don’t know what to say, which is fair enough. (It’s okay to talk about what you’ve been up to, by the way.)

Then I received a text from my friend, Marcus. It said: I’m backing up my hard drive.

It was hilarious, and reminded me of the mundane aspects of life that I was missing out on.

Updates likes this from Marcus and others brought me solace, gave a shape to my days and connected me to them in ways that asking how I was feeling never could. It was an inspired thing to do, and I’ve since passed on this advice to others. Take it as read that someone with cancer is generally feeling tired, sick or probably both. Constantly. Help them forget about that for the briefest of seconds and you’ll be doing them a huge favour.

4. Some people will go quiet
Part of not knowing what to say makes it hard for people to ask questions. The word cancer (in fact, the two words lung cancer) tend to make people think the worst is going to happen. That’s tough to deal with.

People retreat. Some may never come back. Yet, they really shouldn’t feel any guilt. There is no malice in not making contact, news such as this is very hard to deal with and for many people it’s just too much to bear. Apologies are not necessary, for what is there to be sorry for?

I can’t pretend there wasn’t some fleeting anger, for I’m only human. Yet, in the grand scheme of life, it was a short-lived ire I didn’t wish to hold on to for more than the fleeting second it flitted across my thoughts. I like to think the sense of helplessness that people feel around potentially life-ending illnesses is at the root of these absences. It’s hard to feel angry about that, when you think about it in those terms.

5. Recovery takes longer than anticipated
Once I’d had the major operation that saved my life, I thought I’d be fixed and done and back to doing what I was doing before within a matter of weeks. That hasn’t been the reality of the situation. The chemotherapy and radiotherapy alone took a further 6 months of my life, the latter being particularly energy-sapping. Now there are complications that have resulted in my contracting pneumonia three times in 6 months, each time more severe.

There are ongoing clinics and check-ups, pain management from the surgery, physiotherapy so I can breathe better and walk upstairs again, and so much more.

This puts a strain on my ability to work, and maintains a level of fear that someone is going to tell me that news again sometime soon. It’s a rollercoaster of a journey, but then so is life itself. I have to learn that to find as much of it as thrilling as possible, to keep my cynicism at bay and my optimism high.

And so, I have my family and friends (old and new) to thank for keeping me focused, supported and happy. I have clients who have been fantastic throughout this entire experience, and the new ones who are willing to partner with me as we get into 2018.

With only this life to lead, I can’t look back at what’s happened and change anything, but I can look forward and ensure that, from now, I make the most of every opportunity to enjoy this life. I’m not done with it just yet.

If you’d like to help people who find themselves in the same position I did back in 2016, please consider donating to the amazing work of the Royal Marsden.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for the support.