THERE HAVE BEEN a lot of newspaper reports lately concerning cancer. The statistics are quite clear – in terms of survival rates, Ireland is doing OK but could do a lot better. Survival rates are on a par with Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom but lag considerably behind other developed nations such as Canada, Australia and Sweden. That quite simply is not good enough.
I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 31, a very young age to be given what many immediately understand to be a death sentence. I’d lived a lot more than many people at that age – travelled extensively around the world, run large parts of a bank’s operations overseas and just spent the last three years in prison – but however you look at it, it was far too young to be contemplating my own death. I had no children so the legacy was going to die with me.
I was as ignorant about cancer as you could be. Other than being able to spell the word and being aware that it was a killer; that really was the extent of my knowledge. Shocking and rather embarrassing when you think that my mother had died of lung cancer and my father was suffering from myeloma. Maybe, like many I had shut myself away from the detail. I remember sitting by my mother’s bedside – a fresh-faced, innocent new recruit to Coutts and Company, the Queen’s bank in the City of London – delighted to hear that the doctor had told her that she would live another ten years. I was twenty; my younger sisters were fourteen and ten respectively. She had been so happy that she would see them to adulthood.
The very next day I was sat at my rather posh desk in Lombard Street and I got the call that said I needed to rush to the hospital. No more than 18 hours after my mother had received her uplifting news, she was dead. I had no chance to say goodbye and certainly no chance to ask why. It’s simply not good enough – and equally, embarrassing – that I didn’t ask more questions.
‘I had a tumour the size of a large orange removed from my stomach’
Just ten years later I had a tumour the size of a large orange removed from my stomach. It had grown to such a size that it had occluded my bowel passage and had led to my lung collapsing. I had an emergency operation to remove the tumour. The tumour at this stage was grade B, bordering on C. Had it progressed to Dukes C, we would no longer have been talking about my chances of recovery, but rather about methods of prolonging a very short life.
Cancer is a very debilitating disease. Once diagnosed, many people succumb very quickly. Your life changes immediately and you have to alter many of the things that you do. I was warned that when my stomach was resected, I could have a colostomy for the rest of my life. I was lucky; very, very lucky, probably for the first time in a number of years; and my diagnosis was ultimately very good. But from the moment that I woke up in a treatment room and faced the kaleidoscope of colours on a viewing screen, faintly remembering a doctor saying ‘It’s cancer’, my life changed.
There had been so many warning signs. The history of cancer in my family should have been the biggest reminder for me to be careful. I was eating as much as I possibly could within the prison but never had enough. I was eating like a horse but putting on no weight. I would have the strangest dizzy spells when I had been sitting and go to stand up, I often had to hold the wall for support or else collapse in a heap. My bowel movements had changed and the smell was awful. These are all signs that something was wrong and each and every one of them ignored by me.
‘Knowledge is power, and where cancer is concerned you can never have enough’
I am 45 this month, and have had regular check ups but even writing this article has reminded me that I have become a little complacent. I have had regular 18-month check ups over that time but am now letting them drag further apart. First thing in the morning I am booking a colonoscopy with my oncologist. We should all know more than we do. Knowledge is power and where cancer is concerned you can never have enough.
What frustrates me though is the seemingly never-ending bias towards research. We seem to be bombarded with TV advertisements looking for us to make donations. All are designed to tug at the heart strings, and losing a loved one is an emotive subject but should our attention be elsewhere? Treatment for various forms of cancer has improved immeasurably but there is still no cure. Personally I doubt that there ever will be – the disease seems to advance, become more aggressive and even more deadly just as fast as research looks for new developments and improved methods of treatment. More often than not, cancer seems to take the lead.
Informed opinion has said that the survival rate for people diagnosed with cancer today could be 10 per cent better five years on if well organised cancer control and prevention systems are implemented – but at the same time cancer rates are expected to rise from 30,000 new cases diagnosed annually to 40,000 by 2020. We all owe it to ourselves to be better informed.
My son will be eight this year, it’s not the time just yet but he will not suffer from the ignorance that I did. The better informed you are, the better prepared.
Will research save you? It has a very important role to play but the answer is probably not! Prevention certainly can help. You owe it to yourself.
For more information on reducing your risk of cancer, see this website.