When you’ve just found out you’ve got bowel cancer, I’m not sure you really want to be told that it is the UK’s second biggest cancer killer and that someone dies from it every half an hour.
But that’s the startling fact and why April has been designated Bowel Cancer Awareness Month.
Talking about any life-threatening illness can be tricky: sometimes more difficult for family, friends and colleagues than the person actually wondering what is going to happen now they’ve been diagnosed with the disease.
So, I hope this blog can help by describing my personal strategy for coping and that at least some tips may be useful to others finding themselves in a similar situation.
I don’t intend to go through all facts and symptoms about bowel cancer.
Focus on the 90% figure!
But one fact I’ve kept focused on is that if diagnosed early, more than 90% of bowel cancer cases can be treated successfully.
Sadly, many people ignore the warning signs and leave things too late to tell their doctor.
I’m still not sure just what they mean by ‘early’, but I’m optimistic that it includes my case.
That certainly seems to be how the nurses, doctors and other medical folk are approaching my treatment – and I don’t want to disappoint them!
Humour can be help
I’ve also found that having a slightly dark sense of humour can help you get through and that fighting cancer can be a voyage of discovery.
I’ve certainly discovered just how marvellous our National Health Service is – despite all the political meddling and stories of doom and gloom that I keep reading about in the press.
I only hope it stays that way after the general election – not that I’m trying to tell anyone how to vote, of course!
Where, were we?
Now, back to where I left off in my last posting.
I already knew I probably had bowel cancer after my first colonoscopy (the dreaded bowel camera). Actually it sounds a lot worse than it really is!
What are CT and MRI scans like?
Anyway, to find out more, I was invited to have my first CT, or computerised tomography scan. This is a type of X-ray, which builds up a series of 3D images of the area inside your body that the medics want more detail about: in my case the abdomen/pelvis region.
The CT scan took place a week after my first colonoscopy; and just days later, I had my first meeting with consultant surgeon Doug Aitken, who was going to handle my case. Thankfully, he was pretty easy to talk to and he recommended a second colonoscopy the next day.
I also underwent another scan – this time an MRI, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan. So much new vocabulary to absorb!
Like a massive tube of polo mints
The MRI is a bit more scary than the CT. Probably best described as a massive tube of polo mints, it is open at both ends and requires you to lie still on your back on a sliding coach, which is then ‘sucked’ into the scanner to keep the polo mint theme going….
Luckily, I went into feet first and could just about see daylight from inside the tunnel.
The part of your body being scanned is positioned right in the centre of the scanner.
The great benefit of MRI is that it can obtain high quality images of the body without using ionising radiation. It is safe and painless, but if you suffer from claustrophobia it could be rather daunting. It is also very noisy while the scanner is working and you feel a bit trapped inside. And you are inside the tunnel for 30-40 minutes!
So, what’s the best way to cope?
My best advice is close your eyes and remember that it is only trying to help. Headphones are supplied to try to drown the noise.
If you can, try to teat the whole experience as part of that voyage of discovery I mentioned earlier, and be amazed at all the expensive machinery being used to try to make you better.
If your cancer case is handled in any way like mine, things will now be moving at breakneck speed as the medics rush to meet government targets for treating cancer patients. So, you won’t have much time to worry about what is going on.
I saw Mr Aitken three days after my MRI. He said the scans and tests had confirmed that I had rectal cancer and pinpointed the precise area.
I was already prepared mentally for an operation to remove the bad bits within a matter of weeks, and even before Christmas.
Be prepared for things changing
But that meeting with the consultant surgeon taught me to be prepared for things changing when fighting cancer.
And I was actually disappointed when he told me a panel of medical experts had looked at my case and recommended a course of radiotherapy and chemotherapy before the operation.
I was so geared up for the ‘op’, but pleased at least that I could have Christmas and the New Year at home instead of James Cook University Hospital.
So, instead of an operation, I headed down to London to meet up with some old university PR colleagues from the EUPRIO network and attend the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ Education Journalism Awards in Mayfair.
More about that next time, when I’ll also describe how I picked up some new work by being honest about having cancer.
I’ll also talk about my communication strategy for letting people know I had cancer outside immediate friends and family.
For me, this meant saying nothing on social media about my predicament for six months, despite being an avid user of Facebook and twitter. I waited until after my radiotherapy and chemo had finished and I had the results from follow-up CT and MRI scans.
I wanted to be ready to tell the story properly: hence this blog.