The Chemotherapy Diaries
Last Monday, I read a victim story posted by Pancreatic Cancer Action on Twitter. I try to read them when I see them, as I’ve written for the charity a few times, and they generously shared my story on their website before. It feels like a tit-for-tat situation – people read my story, so I want to do the same in return. What I read that day instilled the fear of god in me, though, and it continues to haunt me.
There are a few things that are creepy about the story. Firstly, the subject’s name is Daniel. Who else is called Daniel? You guessed it – ME! Daniel was also very young to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, being only 37 years old. His diagnosis was stage 2, and he was able to go straight for surgery, something which I wasn’t able to do. On the day of his surgery, however, he failed the mandatory Covid test, and his operation had to be delayed. When they finally performed the operation, they opened him up to find that it had actually spread to an artery, like mine had. The surgeon thought in his feet and managed to get the whole tumour out, with good margins, by performing a total pancreatectomy. Who had a total pancreatectomy, and had their tumour removed with good margins? You guessed it – this guy writing the blog! Hopefully, you’re 2 for 2 in the Ebb and Flow quiz today.
So far, so good. These stories are always hard to read, especially when you have pancreatic cancer yourself, but there wasn’t anything abnormal about this story yet. I was reading the story and thinking about all of those pivotal moments in my journey so far – the horrific news of the diagnosis, the anticipation before the surgery, and the elation upon hearing that the tumour had been removed with good margins. Then, I started to read some information which I couldn’t tether to my personal experiences so far…
Daniel started a regime of mop-up chemotherapy. Can you guess what regime he was following? You might be able to… he was on the exact same chemotherapy routine as the one I find myself on. Can you see a theme emerging?
Four cycles into his treatment, he became very ill and began projectile vomiting. After going to A&E, he learnt that his cancer had returned, was now in the bile duct and stomach, and was essentially out of control. Daniel was moved to palliative care. Despite being given only days to live, he managed to fight on, with the oncology team eventually deciding to put him on further chemotherapy after he miraculously started holding food down again. Unfortunately, after 3 further cycles of the new treatment, his tumour markers flared up again, and the decision was made to stop.
On June 5th 2022, my wife’s birthday, he passed away.
The story is tragic by anyone’s standards, but it hit me differently. So many things jumped out of the page at me. I tried to process what I had read alone. It didn’t work. I mentioned it to my mum, and she immediately broke into tears. I sent it to my wife, who was working down in London; she didn’t speak to me for hours, before ringing me and telling me that it had really affected her. I felt terrible, yet it stayed on my mind.
I’d written myself into the tale… Whilst recovering from surgery, I had to go into A&E after projectile vomiting for about two hours, but it turned out to be an issue with my bowel. What if that had been a spread? I’d broken down in tears in the hospital at the mere thought that it could be; I can’t imagine how I would have responded if it had materialised to be true. As I sat there processing what I had read, I imagined receiving the news that Daniel had at the hospital when he had gone into A&E. I’m not sure if it is how the article is written, or if I can just relate to it incredibly well, but the whole thing emanated pain and struggle to me. I was living it.
Then I thought about my treatment days. The main thing that keeps you positive about attending chemotherapy is the knowledge that it is the primary device you have in fighting your cancer. I hadn’t given much thought to the idea that you could show up to a chemotherapy session, only to be told that your blood results have shown a spike in the tumour markers and that you’ll be moved to palliative care. Of course, I knew something like that was technically possible, but I assumed that it was such a rarity, it was almost not worth worrying about. Now I was picturing myself walking into the chemotherapy ward, greeting the nurses with a smile and making some inane chit-chat about it being cold outside, only to be met with those eyes that I’d seen before my diagnosis. People steel themselves when they’re delivering life-changing information – it is palpable before a single word leaves their mouth; you know something is wrong. “Your markers aren’t good, Daniel. The team is deciding what the best course of action is, but for now, your treatment is on pause.” I was writing the script and everything. It felt like it was really happening to me. My sleep was laboured that night. I’m still struggling to shake it all off.
The next day I was due to have treatment at 14:00. At around midday, my phone started to vibrate. I looked at the screen and saw ‘No Called ID’. The hospital. I took a deep breath in and wondered why they would be calling me. I’d done bloods the day before. My mind was already hypothesising.
“Hey,” I said, nervously.”
“Hi, Daniel. It’s The Christie here. I’m sorry to tell you so late, but your liver functioning is extremely high. I can’t get hold of the oncology team at the minute, but I’m sure they’re going to tell me to delay your treatment by a week.”
This had happened to me before. I hadn’t thought anything of it last time. My liver is a busy body at the minute – trying to process all of the chemotherapy drugs (and the odd beer I have when I decide to ‘treat’ myself). Things weren’t the same this time, though. After reading Daniel’s story, I was prepared for a disaster. It was happening.
“What does that mean? Could it have spread?” I asked.
I honestly can’t remember what the nurse responded to me, but she wasn’t shocked by the question. She reassured me that it is very unlikely to be and that my liver likely just needs a break from the drugs. She then had the presence of mind and heart to ask me why that had been the first thing that occurred to me. I explained the story I had read the night before. She sighed and made a light-hearted joke.
“I hope your mum and wife have banned you from the internet for a few days.”
She told me that the nurses were all there for me, that I could ring them whenever I needed to, and that I need to stay positive. It was helpful to hear those words, but I’d be lying if I said it resolved the issue. It didn’t. I spent the rest of the week feeling incredibly conscious of every abdominal pain, fantasising about it until it grew out of control. I didn’t need a scan or a doctor; it had spread. I knew it as a fact.
I’ve managed to settle down a bit since last week. Today I had treatment again. Apparently, my liver functioning is still high, but it is within the permissible limit. The thing that is still bothering me is how ill I seem to feel all of the time. This morning, after a week off the drugs, I was feeling better than I have been. I managed to have a solid morning of work where I finished a few things that had been hanging over my head. Treatment was at 14:00, and after about 10 minutes of being hooked up to the line, I started feeling notably worse again. Now, I feel tired and sick, and the nerves are starting to come back.
For some reason, one of the first things I thought about when I got home was how happy my dog Lucy is every time she sees me. It then occurred to me that if I did die, she’d never be able to understand what had happened to me. In my mind, she would forever think I’d left her and would be expecting the next knock at the door to be me back. Maybe I’m dramatising it too much. Maybe she wouldn’t even remember me after a few months. The feeling that she would always be waiting for me to return feels harder to process in some ways than my own family dealing with my death. At least they understand that this is all part of life and that someday the same will happen to them. I doubt a dog is aware of such things. It is all just a stupid, morbid thought anyway, but it is upsetting nonetheless.
I’m really not sure if it is because of the article I read, or if I’m just in that sort of mood at the minute. It frequently feels like life is just happening to me at this minute; as if I am not an agent in its happening. I feel myself getting frustrated at things that wouldn’t usually bother me, and I’m spending a lot of time being annoyed at myself for not being more present, or for not managing to enjoy things as much as I want to.
Two of my close friends have recently raised the subject of Survivor’s Guilt with me. After talking to them about the way I’ve been feeling, they both responded with the same thing independently of each other. Perhaps I am experiencing a bit of Survivor’s Guilt, but at the same time, I don’t classify myself as a survivor yet. Things are still very early on, and as Daniel’s story showed, a couple of months don’t mean that much when pancreatic cancer is involved. There probably is an element of it in play, though. It isn’t nice to read about someone’s story that is so similar to yours but with the worst outcome possible. One side of me selfishly doesn’t like it because it opens up that reality as a realm of possibility for my own fate, but it is also because I can relate to so much of the story. I’ve been in many of those positions spoken about, and I know how it felt to be there. The faces of my loved ones wet with tears; the sternness of the diagnosis. That feeling of utter helplessness when the reality sets in that your future feels more uncertain than ever before. It’s horrible.
But the tedious trip through chemotherapy drags on, and I’m grateful that it does. In spite of all of my negativity at the minute, I am managing to gain some useful perspective on my situation. I’m still plodding along; I’m still planning on moving back to London in a few months, so I must have some faith in the likelihood of me surviving this thing a little longer. My amazing friend Dee told me that I was probably in survival mode last year, which would have been helping me kick on in the hard times. I think there is truth in that. This time everything feels like a chore, and I just want to be rid of the entire experience. It was almost a relief to find out that my liver functioning was bad in some ways, as I thought the sickness was all in my head for a week or so. Now I just need that poor liver functioning to not result in some kind of spread of the cancer. I’m not drinking beer during the World Cup games, and I’m trying to eat as well as I can when I feel like eating… how much more can I give? I already hate every pancreas in the world, don’t make me start hating livers too.