Stage 3: The Surgeon’s Verdict

The Road to Recovery

Lucy, Anna, Matt and I At a Comedy Night – 10.06.22

Dealing with a cancer diagnosis is hard for many reasons. People frequently comment on how well I look and say that I’m dealing very well with it. These types of comments are nice and give me a lot of reassurance and strength. I believe I deal with it quite well given the gravity of the situation. Especially when I consider how quickly it changed everything about my life – I am far less able to be active now, work has not been a part of my life for the best part of 8 months and I’ve had to move back in with my parents. That is all a lot to process, never mind with the added ‘you might die in the next few years’ also playing on my mind. My biggest attribute in dealing with it all, I think, has been simply knowing myself well and knowing how I deal with things that bother me. It may sound generic and stupid, but I really do believe it to be true. I want to discuss it a bit before I go into what the surgeon at Manchester Royal Infirmary (MRI) said today.

The first time I tried yoga was when attending a beginner’s class in North London circa 2019. I went along with a woman that I had been dating at the time. It was a weird time in my life – I had been living and working out in America for about 8 months, working on a big project that we’d won. That project had wound down for a few months as it was between phases, so I was living back in London, but I wasn’t sure how long for. There was talk of my company drawing up an American contract for me, meaning I’d be permanently living out there, for a few years at least. There was also talk of them employing more people out there, though, to make it more cost-effective. I really enjoyed working in America and was pretty hopeful that the contract would work out and that I’d be moving back. At the same time, I loved London, I loved living with my sister and brother-in-law, who I’d been living with for two years, and I knew I’d miss regularly seeing my family and friends. Having said that, I really enjoyed living out in the states and was aware that I wouldn’t have to be there forever. The first phase of the project had gone well for me, so I thought it would be interesting to keep going until the end of the whole project, and wanted to see where it could take my career. One thing was certain, though – I was in two minds about it all. There was an obvious crossroad forming in front of me and I couldn’t decide which route I preferred.

On top of all of this, the situation with the woman I was attending the yoga class with was strange. We had dated before I left for America, but we had cut it off when I decided to move abroad. It was fair enough – we had been seeing each other on average once a week but nothing had really bloomed so to speak. Since getting back, we had seen each other once to clear the air a bit, and I wasn’t sure where we were at now. I agreed to go to the yoga class not really understanding where I stood with her. I also wasn’t sure what I wanted at the time, knowing that I could be going back to the US in the next few months. It didn’t feel like we were ever dating in reality – it never had, to be honest. There wasn’t much of a connection and we didn’t seem to know how to communicate properly; the lack of communication frequently caused problems for us and left me feeling quite self-conscious. I had never really understood what her intentions were in the situation.

Communication and confidence weren’t things I had ever really struggled with whilst dating up to this point. It was the first time I truly felt out of control of a situation with someone I was seeing. It felt weird to even say that we were dating as we weren’t really. We were just hanging out. We got on really well but only ever as friends – why did neither of us just say that, accept it and move on? I didn’t understand why I couldn’t admit that to myself and I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t say it to me either. Why was I investing time in this, when I could just clearly say to her “we’re just friends,” and be done with all of the weird aspects of our relationship? We’d regularly do things together around the city and it was fun. All the awkwardness came from the fact that we had never really identified what the motivation for us hanging out was – at first, I thought it was romantic, but that theory had long faded for both of us, I believe. It was starting to annoy me.

The yoga class was fun, despite me being terrible at it. Yoga is not a graceful thing to be a starter at. You are almost definitely going to look like a total clown during your first few sessions. It is much better to do some at home and learn the basics before going to a class, but I didn’t know that at the time. This class was specifically aimed at beginners, but beginner yoga is not the same as the beginner category in other things. I’ve been doing it for a few years now and I struggle to go up to the intermediate setting on DownDog, the app I use to do yoga classes, or when finding videos on Youtube. As soon as balances are thrown into the mix, it gets much more difficult. I’m better at them than I’ve ever been, but that isn’t saying much.

At the end of a yoga session, you finish in the Savasana position. This is where you lay on your back, with your arms and legs stretched out and separated, and completely relax. Your palms face upwards and your feet relax to the sides. The aim is to empty your mind, allowing yourself to be still. It’s extremely relaxing if you are used to it; if you manage to actually clear your mind of thoughts, it is also extremely therapeutic. I did not know about this position during this class. As we went into Savasana and the instructor told us to be still and try to dispose of our thoughts, my panic levels built. I never just sat and thought about things that were going on in my life necessarily; my primary intention in life was to not think about things as my mind quickly went to bad places and made me worry. I felt much better only tackling my worries when out running, which allowed me to feel productive in tackling those problems. Even running is a distraction, though, albeit a positive one.

All of a sudden, my mind was flooded with negative thoughts. My mind was screaming at me – “Why are you getting yourself back into this weird situation with this woman?” “What happens if you agree to go to America and everything goes wrong with your job?” “Will you miss your friends too much; will your relationships with them start to break down if you’re away for that long?” It was the longest five minutes of my life. I thought I was having a panic attack but I couldn’t stand up or leave as I felt pressured in a room of strangers. It was horrible.

I remember that feeling well. Some of the details about the day are a bit hazy, but I remember the panic I felt during that Savasana. It told me that I needed to do more to address things in my life that I was not happy with. Even if that only meant addressing them with myself to help me deal with them better. It did not necessarily mean I needed to go around shouting my mind about every little thing that annoys me, but I felt that I was uncomfortable with the way I clearly wasn’t being honest with myself about things that were annoying, worrying or upsetting me at the time. The running wasn’t doing enough to help me process these thoughts. When running, you work through things in quite an indirect way, whilst endorphins flood your mind, also making you feel better about those things. It is not addressing them in quite the same way that sitting and contemplating them with a clear mind does.

This is how I am linking my anecdote back to my main point. Through that uncomfortable situation, I bettered my life. I didn’t want to enter a state of panic if I just sat still, alone with my thoughts. My thoughts should be the last thing that scare me – they come from my own consciousness and reflect things I think and feel about the world around me. If I cannot address things with myself, how can I expect to address them with the external world? I had identified something that I considered a weakness in myself and improved it. A few months later, I could easily Savasana because I was taking time to work through my thoughts, not letting them intimidate me. It made me feel more in control of my life. I consider this a key strength of mine now, and one that has been critical in dealing with this journey through cancer.

So, fast-forward to today, with me, Anna and my mum sitting in the surgeon’s office. As is normal for me, I had felt incredibly stressed in the waiting room. The anticipation is a million percent worse than the news for me. Even if the news is incredibly bad, once I know it, I can deal with it. That alone provides relief to me. Waiting around in a hospital, listening to fraught conversations around me and watching the clock ticking is the definition of anxiety, in my opinion. It is hell. As soon as I am sitting in the office and a human is looking back at me, I feel better. It’s my time to know. I was ready.

The surgeon told me a lot of things about my cancer that I did not know, as well as going on to explain what his team’s intentions were from here. Probably the biggest thing that he expected me to know, but that I did not, was that my cancer is in stage 3. The tumour has completely surrounded a major artery. He said that the scan does not seem to indicate that the chemotherapy has managed to make the tumour recede enough that it can be fully removed. There was a big BUT here, though. The CT scan image represents a shadow of your internal body. As a result, it can be quite inaccurate compared to what is actually inside you. It was a key point that I needed to understand before discussing the next options.

It was interesting that my cancer is stage 3. Straight away in my head, I couldn’t help but think that this was the third stage of my treatment so far. I had the diagnosis stage, the chemotherapy stage, and I was moving into the surgery stage. For some reason that thought made it feel better. It didn’t actually matter to me anyway; staging is something that the medical professionals use to help describe something, but it doesn’t mean a lot to me. Us muggles assume that we understand far more than we do about staging, as an oncologist once pointed out to me. “You can have a good stage four and a bad stage one – it doesn’t mean very much on its own,” she had said to me during our first meeting. I’ve held onto that. Just because stage 3 is one away from stage 4 and one above stage 2, does not mean I understand it any more than the next person aimlessly walking around the hospital and attending appointments. Don’t cling onto something you don’t understand – the people who need to understand it are the ones giving you the information and that is all that matters. I’ve got good at saying mantras to myself. They help me sleep better at night.

The crux of the conversation was that they are going to get me in for surgery. He said I could do radiotherapy now if I wanted, but he did not recommend it. Apparently, radiotherapy can cause so much scarring that it can make surgery impossible. For this reason, he recommended doing the surgery first. That surgery did not have a clear plan, though. Until they open me up and look inside, he said, they would not know whether a full removal was possible, or if it would be Nano-knife that would be utilised. Full removal is the best scenario for me but if the scan is accurate, it won’t be possible. The next option, Nano-knife, is an experimental treatment which has not been used very much for pancreatic cancer. They electrify the tumour in an attempt to kill the cells. He told me that there is little documentation and research on its application for pancreatic cancer and that it has not been used very often in this instance in particular (i.e. stage 3, surrounding an artery etc). As a result, he really didn’t know how likely it was to offer good results, but he was willing to try if I was. He emphasised that it was more likely to be Nano-knife than a full removal. I understood. He sent out a few more warnings – may reduce my life expectancy, may not cure me, and he was satisfied that we were on the same page.

We were at MRI for a few hours after that as the surgeon asked me if I’d do another CT scan. The last one was unclear and he could not see the major artery that was surrounded by the tumour. He wasted little time in calling up a friend in the radiology department, requesting an urgent scan and pushing it through the booking system. It was amazing; his colleagues clearly have a lot of respect for him. My family researched him after the appointment and he is an internationally recognised surgeon, so that is very encouraging.

My mum and Anna were both upset, my mum especially. It is hard to hear things when they are put so bluntly, but also incredibly necessary. For the first time in a while, I felt that I left a meeting at a hospital understanding more about my cancer than I did when I went into the room. Now a few hours have passed, I still feel positive about the whole thing. No matter what happens, I’m getting a surgery, whatever that ends up being. The minority of people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer can say they managed to get a surgery. I feel well at the minute and I’m managing to run a little and cook a lot. Those things mean a lot to me. So long as I keep myself positive and enjoy these next few weeks before the surgery, that’s all I can do.

Whether I have one year, ten years, or a whole lifetime ahead of me, will only be revealed in time. For now, I have to live every second of my life with the knowledge that this unwelcome cancer is doing its best to destroy my body. All I can do is live with that knowledge and enjoy those seconds with even more vigour. I can’t cry away my disease and it’ll only make my life more unpalatable to try. I choose to spend it in a way which encourages happiness, hope and love, as any alternative to this is too bleak for me to fathom.

I want to thank my amazing family, fiancee, friends and everyone else for their ongoing support. It means so much to me. Dealing with this without you all would be impossible, no matter how established my ability is to address my own worries and concerns. It is a strange twist of fate that I met Anna when I did – without her, this entire journey would have been far bleaker; she is a constant beacon of light, always looking out for me and helping me through the endless curveballs, emotional breakdowns and detrimental diagnoses. Let’s see what comes in this next part of the journey and hope that it is more good than bad. Either way, what will happen will happen, and I’m going to have to deal with it. There’s a strange comfort in that.

“Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”Christopher Hitchens

24 thoughts on “Stage 3: The Surgeon’s Verdict

  1. Lynne Jean Eardley says:

    Gosh Dan, you truly amaze me! We’re so very humble after reading your blog and some times it takes several attempts as I can’t cope.
    you’re a beacon for all who are struggling and we feel so proud to know you. x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Lynne. Yeah it isn’t easy reading, that’s for sure. I know a few friends who don’t read it because they find it tough. Thanks for sticking with it and for the lovely words x

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  2. Nicole Cantwell says:

    Dan – I get the Savasana scenario…there’s been times when I’ve been lying there in tears. But, it’s something about having that calm moment that allows us to process and move forward. I’m amazed at your approach, your thoughtfulness and strength, and thank you for allowing us in. Hugs, Nicole

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Nicole! Thanks for commenting. Ah you must have been processing a lot. It can feel weirdly entrapping, but that also brings light to things that you maybe need to deal with, or needed to think through. Thank you – happy to have as many in for the ride as possible! Makes me feel all the stronger knowing that you are 🙂

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  3. The Lark Family. says:

    Great blog as always Dan. It sounds like you are getting the best possible care and attention, you have fabulous people close to you in support, and your youth means you are best placed to continue to meet whatever the remaining challenges ahead may be. You have already shown you are the match for whatever has been put before you to get this far. It might be a bigger mountain than any of us imagined but you are still climbing!
    Love, cuddles and best wishes always, from us all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Trevor (I’m certain it is you writing these comments – I can tell by the inspirational tones!). It was nice seeing Georgie last week. Hopefully, see the rest of you soon.

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  4. CG says:

    I think you have done exceptionally well and will continue to do so! Both my parents died in the 80’s within 2 years of each other from pancreatic cancer. In those days 6 weeks was the best that could be done and that’s exactly how long they lasted. So I am waving banners and cheering you on!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah sorry to hear about your parents. That really is horrible. It does seem to have come a long way since then. I wonder if I ever would have recovered from jaundice 50 years ago – it would have probably been over for me last October. Scary thought really!

      Liked by 1 person

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