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Cancer 'My Big C news had no Ali McGraw or Marcus Welby MD moment of discovery'

I neither look nor sound like a person with cancer but I know that could change tomorrow, writes Peter Gunning.

UNLIKE THE GUY in the ad it never occurred to me to ever say I want to get cancer. I never wanted to get it.

I preferred to keep my head down and hope “it” would continue to bypass me. Fair enough if “it” happened to the guy next door, the woman at the checkout in Tesco, the fellow who drinks and smokes far too much in The Maple, the postman, the bus-driver, the parish priest, the barber, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. Anyone. Except me.


And then… Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma Stage Four Grade Three A. Sounds like a poor result in an exam. Which is literally what it is.

I had been feeling fine. In fact, I would probably still be blissfully unaware of “it” if I hadn’t read the notice on the back of the shower door in the leisure centre advising “grab your bits”. A men’s health notice that I would usually ignore.

However, out of curiosity and for purely scientific reasons I did indeed grab my bits and give them the between forefinger and thumb rub as per instruction. I discovered that one of the bits, Mr Left, had a bit more bittiness than his twin, the perfectly smooth and bit-free Mr Right.

My GP was reassuring. A cysty post-vasectomy scar tissue bittiness was how I would paraphrase his almost unconcerned response. Besides, he told me, you’re 57, a bit too old for testicular cancer. I took that as the good news slightly shading the bad.

He was right. The testicular ultrasound report confirmed both Mr Left and Mr Right had weathered their 57 years of pleasure-producing and procreating with little more than a battle-weary benign scar or two. According to the report which was sent back to my GP however, the grape-sized lump in my groin displayed ”a worrying morphology which required further clinical investigation”.

My GP again oozed reassurance. Don’t think you have anything to worry about, probably viral. The surgeon whom I met one week later concurred. Swollen lymph node. More than likely viral. We’ll scan you and maybe do a biopsy. Don’t fret about it though. About a one per cent chance there’s anything sinister going on here. A hundred to one? I liked those odds.

A hundred to one chance

The trouble with that particular hundred to one chance is that that person in that hundred happened to be me. I had always imagined in my pre-cancer life that being told you had The Big C would be the worst news that you could ever imagine to hear.

That recurring nightmare of sitting in a consultant’s room with the theme tune of Love Story as the musical backdrop while a white coated Marcus Welby lookalike begins with “I’m afraid it’s not good news…” The Wife sobbing uncontrollably telling me that it will be alright she will be with me every step of the way as if she had just received an epiphany in which she morphs from The Wife to The Guardian Angel.

But my Big C News had no Ali McGraw nor Marcus Welby MD moment of discovery. There wasn’t even a wife. The surgeon’s receptionist phoned me to tell me that my specimen had been sent to St James for a second opinion. “That would be St James the hospital… not the brewery?” She didn’t laugh and neither did she tell me what the first opinion was. She didn’t need to.

A week later I got a letter telling me my file had been forwarded to an oncologist.

Rollercoaster doesn’t come close

Then just like the lovely Carmel from in the VHI ad …rollercoaster doesn’t come close.
I was officially told in a very matter of fact but warm manner by Brian, my oncologist, last September. In describing cancer, he likes to use the metaphor of a cat. He uses a scale which ranges from a pet kitten to a lion. Mine, he thinks is a like a wild Scottish Highland cat. Dangerous but not quite king of the jungle.

He showed me slides of my bone marrow which indicate that the disease has spread but as the grade is 3A not yet 3B I have been placed on “active surveillance” with no intervention necessary until I start showing pronounced symptoms such as night sweats, weight loss, chronic fatigue and of course more “bits”. There’s always something to look forward to.

While my cancer appears dormant is also unpredictable. Meanwhile Brian has advised me to get on with things as if nothing has changed even though of course everything has changed. Everyday questions such as the banal “how are you?” are suddenly loaded with a new found profundity.

How am I?

I’m fine. I have NHL S4 G3A but I feel absolutely fantastic. One year on from diagnosis, I neither look nor sound like a person with cancer but I know that could change tomorrow, next week, next month or next year. The bone marrow slides Brian showed me had little silver discs called centrocytes. Them are the bad boys.

When they grow up their anti-social behaviour in my blood stream will start to cause me problems. The trouble is there is no way of knowing when they will hit puberty and start wanting to go out more. How am I … really?

“How I am” is a constant rollercoastering variable. I am happy. I am sad. I am anxious. I am worried. I am relaxed. I am frustrated. I am content. I am accepting. I am denying. I am disbelieving. I am believing.

I am tired. I am energetic. I am tolerant. I am intolerant. I am sleepy. I am wakeful. I am optimistic. I am pessimistic. I am fed-up. I am fearless. I am fearful. I am philosophical. I am more generous to waitresses. I am mindful. I am thoughtless. I am thoughtful. . I am kinder to homeless people.

Beginning to get cancer

My am-ness keeps on changing but the underlying feeling is one of constant anxiety. Try as I may to follow Brian’s advice and carry on as normal there is a new normality in my life to which I must grow accustomed. Pre-cancer me harboured a fear of dying. So much so, I deliberately dismissed all thoughts of mortality. Death, which up until my diagnosis was out of sight and out of reach is now edging both visibly and tangibly closer.

Brian asks his patients to fill out a questionnaire prior to all oncology consultations. The last section is for questions or worries you may have about your cancer. At my last check-up I asked him a very simple question. Am I ill? No, Peter. You are well. But you have joined the ranks of the worried well. I’m beginning to get cancer.

Peter Gunning lives in Midleton where he has recently retired as a primary school principal. He is a children’s author and freelance journalist. His books for young people include Alas in Blunderland, Stanley, Reaching The Heights and Kick the Can.  His poetry has been published in the Hennessy New Writing awards. Peter wrote extensively as a sports writer for The Sunday Tribune having won the 2008 Peter Ball Prize for aspiring sports writers. Now retired from his teaching he plans to work as a full-time writer.

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