Mouth Ulcers and The End of Chemotherapy

The Chemotherapy Diaries

Bedbound and Down

I thought I’d left my abusive relationship with mouth ulcers in the past… the mouth ulcers had another thing in mind. They decided to come back in force and ruin my victory lap week with the mop-up treatment. Rather than being excited about reaching the end of my journey with chemotherapy, I spent the past week in bed, struggling to eat, and even struggling to talk.

The issues started last week on Monday. It seems strange how they form, and I’m not sure if they form differently on chemotherapy, or if I just haven’t had enough in my life prior to being on treatment for cancer to know, but it seems to be different to how I remember it. I know I’m about to get mouth ulcers because my mouth just starts feeling strangely sensitive. All of a sudden, a hint of paprika in a tomato sauce results in my cheeks and tongue feeling hot and irritable. I’ll sit there after the mildest of chilli meals and find my mouth pulsating with discomfort.

“I think more mouth ulcers are coming,” I announce to my wife, with a combination of bitter amusement and familiar disdain. The sentence sounds like a naive plot thread in a horror movie, where the protagonist announces that they’re happy that they live in the safest town in their country, minutes before a gang of weapon-wielding maniacs descend on it with masks on and a vengeance against middle-class bullshitery. In my case, I use the word ‘think‘ as a sign of optimism that perhaps the ulcers won’t materialise, and that my mouth may just be a little sensitive that day. Usually, I wake up the next day to find that optimism to be entirely unfounded, and the ulcers have spread themselves throughout my mouth in the most awkward and painful of places.

This time was particularly bad, though. I couldn’t even drink water from Tuesday to Friday without it causing my mouth to sting so intensely that I’d question whether the government had replaced the local water source with hydrochloric acid. It was Thursday night that I decided to finally call The Christie hotline and report the problem to my oncology team. I was still taking the chemotherapy tablets twice a day at this point and had been for my last infusion on the Tuesday, when it had all started to kick off, so the chemotherapy was rife in my system.

Before the final infusion, I reported the problem to my nurse during the standard pre-treatment survey. She had manoeuvred one of the large extendable lights attached to the wall behind the bed into a position to investigate the contents of my mouth.

“Oh, the back of your mouth is very swollen. Your tongue looks very painful too. They are rather excessive, aren’t they?”

“Yeah. I’m struggling to talk because the ones on my tongue are constantly scraping against my teeth towards the back of my mouth. Opening my mouth is hard because the ones at the back of my cheek strain when I do.” You’re probably reading those sentences in too normal a fashion for how I was enunciating my words at this time. Imagine someone with a lisp who, for whatever strange reason, also can’t open their mouth properly, reading the sentence to you. Looking back, it makes me laugh quite a lot, but I didn’t see anyone laughing around me at the time. What a waste of a painfully funny situation. Another rather funny event that occurred during my final infusion was me receiving a foot massage.

I’d had a minor breakdown at treatment during my first session of the final cycle, and the nurse had referred me to the hospital’s Macmillan team. The next week, during session 2, one of their specialists had come to visit me to talk me through techniques to implement when I’m feeling overwhelmed, as well as services that her team can offer to patients. One of these services was a foot massage during treatment, which is said to help lower the effects of nausea, which I was experiencing in abundance during my sessions at the hospital.

It wasn’t actually the treatment itself causing this, but the smell of the ward. I think it has finally happened that I now associate the smell of antiseptic cleaning products with the horrible effects of chemotherapy, and the experiences familiar to me during the delivery of treatment at the hospital. These include, and I apologise in advance for the amount of toilet-based issues listed, but it is the reality of being on chemotherapy: chronic diarrhoea, blood in my faeces, throwing up whilst sitting on the toilet, sweating profusely, the room spinning around whether my eyes are open or not, going white as a sheet, and my extremities freezing solid, so I cannot bend, or even feel them, which is incredibly painful and irritating.

I declined the foot massage that week, stating that it was a nice gesture but that I am nearly at the end of my treatment, and that I’d made it this far without them, so I’d soldier on. The Macmillan representative was so lovely. She encouraged me to accept it and said that it is really therapeutic, but I felt far too English and awkward about the whole thing. Also, my feet are the part of my body that I am most self-conscious of, as I used to run a lot of ultra-marathons, which isn’t usually indicative of nice-looking feet. Mine certainly fall into the category of ‘That guy likes to run marathons’, and I haven’t even run one for well over a year.

But, during my interview at the start of session 3, cycle 3, the Macmillan representative had come back to see me, and it just happened to be during the nurse’s inspection of my mouth.

“Other than the mouth ulcers, have you had any other symptoms that have been bothering you?” the nurse asked.

“I’m still struggling with nausea, and just generally feeling wiped out. I really struggle to get out of bed at the minute, and I barely leave the house at all,” I replied.

The nurse turned to the Macmillan representative and said the following:

“Do you think we can give him a foot massage to try and help his nausea?”

I’d been rumbled. Had these two planned this? What a deviant, awful, lovely pair of people. How dare they assassinate me with their good nature. How am I going to wriggle out of this one?

“That’d be great – are you Ok with that, Dan? I know you weren’t so keen on it last week,” the Macmillan representative said to me.

Both their eyes were locked on mine; I felt the weight of expectation.

“Ok, sure. That’d be lovely. Thank you,” I said, defeated, and still struggling to pronounce my words properly because of the mouth ulcers.

If you are on treatment and are offered a foot massage, I only have one thing to say to you – do it! The Macmillan representative used the electric remote on my chemotherapy chair to elevate my legs straight in front of me, then placed herself at the end of the bed. She put a lovely white towel under my feet and curved the ends of it around each ankle. She then proceeded to cover my feet in ACTUAL OIL, and softly massaged my feet, whilst chatting to me about everything that was getting me down – acknowledging the trauma that I have been through, the difficulty of the cancer that I am fighting against, and how hard it must be to readjust to my present life, compared to my old one.

The whole experience was absolutely wonderful, and it really put into perspective how important the work is that Macmillan do. What an incredible organisation and, in particular, what a wonderful individual she is. I wish I could shout her out by name in this post, but I’m not sure how ethical that would be, so I won’t. I hope this gets back to her somehow so she can read how much I enjoyed the experience, and how grateful I am for it. Anyway, this post has turned far too positive, lets get back to my week of hell with the mouth ulcers.

As I said, I spent Tuesday to Friday mostly in bed, consuming very little in the form of food or water, and struggling to do much more than sulk. Talking was very painful, and no amount of the hospital-issued mouthwash, or Iglu gel that I put on the ulcers to try and relieve them, was doing much to alleviate the issue. I was still taking the chemotherapy tablets throughout this time, but I was feeling incredibly weak and sick, and I decided it had all become too much. I’d taken to sleeping on the bathroom floor a few times during these 3 days as I was getting such bad abdominal pains and bouts of nausea, that I was worried I wouldn’t make it to the toilet in time from my bedroom if I stayed there. A few times, this proved to be a good idea, and I learnt that my favourite place in the upstairs bathroom was assuming the fetal position on a small rug placed in front of the radiator.

One time, I had been rudely woken up by my wife banging on the door, telling me that dinner was ready downstairs. Dinner? Can one not assume the fetal position on the bathroom floor in peace these days? Unbelievable. I can’t eat anyway – what good is dinner to me?

The Christie hotline wanted me to go into the hospital to be reviewed, as they were worried about a few of my symptoms. My temperature was 37.7, which is right on the border of ‘high risk’. A high temperature can be the earliest sign of infection, so patients are advised to regularly check their temperature whilst they are receiving chemotherapy treatment. The advisor was worried that some of my mouth ulcers may be infected. On top of this, the fact that I was struggling to consume liquids, and had been suffering from bad diarrhoea all week, added to their concern.

I was pretty sure that I didn’t have an infection, though. My theory about the high-ish temperature is that I was taking the reading using an oral thermometer and that my tongue and mouth were very swollen, which would probably be skewing the temperature reading. I didn’t feel like I had any symptoms of flu, which usually indicates that the body is struggling with fighting an infection, and none of the ulcers looked infected to me.

It was nearly midnight at this point, and The Christie is nearly an hour away from me. That would mean an hour to get there, a few hours there having blood tests done, and being put on routine fluids, and then another hour back home. If I was genuinely concerned that something bigger was going on, I would have been happy to do this, but I wasn’t convinced that it was. I gently refused and asked if I could arrange to see the GP the following day instead. The representative reluctantly agreed but said that she would call me back an hour later for another temperature reading, and if it remained the same or increased, insisted that I would have to either go to The Christie or to my local A&E to be checked out. The suggestion that I may go to my local A&E over The Chrstie made me giggle.

“If I need to go anywhere, I’ll come to The Christie. I’m not stupid enough to go to my local A&E anymore – I’ve made that mistake a few too many times over the last year.” That thought cheered me up momentarily. Who would voluntarily go to an A&E in the UK? They’re notorious hell-holes where, if you manage to get out within 5 hours of arriving, you feel like you’ve been blessed by the gods. At A&E you are treated like a problem; I’d rather book a plane ticket to be seen at The Christie than drive to an A&E that is 20 minutes away from me. The overall time it would take to resolve the issue would still fall in favour of The Christie anyway, even if it included navigating airport security, sitting through a flight, the awkward bag collection on the other side, then the mandatory coffee stop before leaving the airport. I once sat in A&E throwing up for 9 hours before speaking a single word to an actual doctor, and that was during my recovery from major surgery last year.

An hour later, my temperature was 37.4. Good, it was dropping. She was happy to let me stay at home, so long as I got an appointment the following day.

In the morning, The Christie hotline diligently called me to see how I was getting on. They had been far sharper than I had that morning, as I had had one of my typical chemotherapy mornings, where I could barely move a limb for how bad I felt.

“Hi, Dan. It’s the hotline here – we wanted to confirm that you have an appointment to see the GP today?” The advisor asked me.

I broke out into a thousand excuses, but the central point was – no, I didn’t book an appointment, and it was now 10:30, and all appointment slots will have probably gone. She asked me to try to get one, and then get back to them once I either had an appointment or learnt that I could not get one, so they could help to arrange an alternative.

Lucky for me, I called my GP and explained the situation, and they offered me a slot at 17:00, only available because a patient had cancelled. I assume that this patient had originally accepted the appointment, only to realise that it cut into their Friday night pub time, which had convinced them that whatever was wrong with them really wasn’t that bad and that it is probably normal for men to have dry testicles that are covered in flaky skin. No idea where that came from… you’d think I was projecting, but I promise I’m not… Anyway, I snapped the appointment up but was concerned that the advisor on the hotline would not be on shift anymore by the time I had seen the doctor, so I wouldn’t be able to report back the outcome of the appointment. Rather than proactively do anything about this concern, I returned to my position under my quilt, falling in and out of sleep until the fateful time came to attend the appointment.

The GP looked at my mouth ulcers and confirmed that none of them looked infected, but said he would give me some steroid mouthwash to encourage them to clear up quicker. He then looked at the results of a recent blood test I’d had at the GP, due to some standard screening procedures for diabetic patients, which I am.

“One of your liver functioning tests is rather high – are you a big drinker?” The GP asked.

I sat there stunned for a second before responding, trying not to sound too condescending or annoyed.

“Erm, no. I believe it is due to all the chemotherapy I’ve been on. I have pancreatic cancer.” I couldn’t help but be a little stern in my tone.

“Oh, of course. Sorry,” he responded, before talking to me a little about how the treatment was going, and how long I had left on it. He was a nice guy – it had probably been a long week.

The steroid mouthwash lasted for 5 days and seemed to do very little. My mouth ulcers are still going strong, though I am managing to eat more. Some recipes I’ve taken a particular liking to are overdone pasta with homemade pesto, a mild daal and, of course, soup – a classic ‘I’m ill and everyone should feel sorry for me‘ meal.

On a more positive note, I woke up today feeling better than I have in weeks. Instead of being greeted by a piercing headache and heavy limbs, I woke up at 8:00am and felt… kind of, Ok? I’ve gotten so used to the first feeling that I wake up to being anguish, as if I spent last night downing straight vodka from the bottle before being hit by a double-decker bus, that anything remotely more positive than this feels like a breakthrough.

In the Wet Leg song ‘Ur Mom’, there is a break in the song where the singer sings the following lines:

Okay, I’ve been practising my longest and loudest scream
Okay, here we go
One, two, three

She then proceeds to scream for an impressive amount of time. It is very random, fun, and the sort of tongue-in-cheek thing that you start to expect from their music after listening to a few of their songs (the song ‘Chaise Longue’ is a prime example of their lyrical good humour). I like to think, if I had written the song ‘Ur Mum’, I would have channelled my anger at mouth ulcers whilst producing that scream. It brings me some pleasure to imagine that was her inspiration as I listen to the song, but it almost certainly wasn’t.

So, to finish off this post – fuck you mouth ulcers, and fuck you, chemotherapy. You can both do one forever. I’m hoping that I am done with you for good, but live in trepidation that my oncology team will tell me that I have to resume taking the chemotherapy tablets until the full course is complete, which would mean another 5 days of tablets to come. I’m purposefully avoiding calling the hotline back to tell them that I’ve completed the course of steroid mouthwash given to me by the GP, as I am assuming they will advise me to now continue the course of chemotherapy tablets.

Can I just say “no” at this point? Will 5 more days of pills really stop whatever may happen from happening? I seriously doubt it. It would give my mouth ulcers more opportunity to thrive, though, and they only need half an excuse to kick off a violent party in my mouth. They’re still at it now, even after 5 days of steroid treatment. If anything, I think the steroids just encouraged them.

Who’s side are these oncologists on, anyway? I’m starting to think they’re funded by mouth ulcers.

I’ve told myself that I have to call the hotline this afternoon to talk about whether I have to resume the treatment, like a real adult. It is so hard not to ignore your problems when ignoring them does, kind of, make them go away.

Delirium

‘Delirium’ wasn’t something I was aware of before being in the hospital after my operation. For the first 5 days of my hospital stay, I still wasn’t aware of the term. If someone had asked me to define it beforehand I’d have probably said it sounds like a term referring to someone losing their mind, or feeling very confused. Perhaps I’m blowing my own trumpet a little bit as that would have been very close to the definition, far closer than I probably would have been.

The term was brought to me in the form of a leaflet, handed to me by my fiancée Anna in the morning after I’d had a dance with the ailment the day before. This was about 6 days post-surgery and was around the time that I started to properly consider the seriousness of what had occurred during the procedure. She had the leaflet in her possession because the nursing staff had given it to her the day before, to try and help explain the erratic behaviour I was displaying. My memory of the whole thing is very hazy now, but I’m going to try and recall what I can, whilst trying to explain how I ended up there, or how I think I did. Some of the blanks have been filled in by my family members who were present during the event, so some of what I write will be based on things I’ve been told, not direct experience or memory.

It is quite difficult applying logic to a situation that, by definition, defies sensible logic. My goal in trying to do so is twofold: firstly, to try and explain my understanding of what happened to my family who witnessed my quick mental decline that day, and secondly, to shine some light on a phenomenon that I was totally unaware of before it had happened to me. Also, in the name of the blog, it feels right to document both the highs and the lows of this experience, and this was probably the most volatile event that has happened to me so far. It far outstretches any experience that I have had in my life up to that point, and I am still processing what happened. I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand it. It is the darkest place my mind has ever been to.

Delirium is defined by the NHS as below. They define the ailment, as well as the causes of it.

‘Delirium is a state of mental confusion that can happen if you become medically unwell. It is also known as an ‘acute confusional state’. Medical problems, surgery and medications can all cause delirium. It often starts suddenly, but usually lifts when the condition causing it gets better. It can be frightening – not only for the person who is unwell, but also for those around him
or her.’

I can vouch for the definition and causes. Everything descended extremely quickly for me, and everyone around me was pulled down into that negative spiral. For my mum, fiancee and brother Greg, it was probably incredibly traumatic at the time, and perhaps still is. They also did not know about delirium, and their introduction to it was a family member spinning out of control, accusing the staff of trying to kill him, pulling out lines that were stitched into his body and screaming accusations of medical malpractice at every person in overalls who came within 2 meters of his being. It is hard to describe how things descend to that place, but I’m going to try.

To provide some context, I had been moved into an individual room a few days prior. My stomach had been very bad since the operation, and the doctors were worried that I might be harbouring some form of virus that could spread to the other patients. I think that is why I was in that room anyway; this is all very hazy to me now. The room was small and only had two thin windows which, from the angle I could see out of from the bed, looked directly at a brick wall of an adjacent building. There were lines attached to my neck, back and hands, so I could not move far from the bed. The lines in my back and neck were actually stitched into the skin, so they could not be removed to allow me to move around. This is to secure them in, due to their important function during the recovery process. It all meant that I had been within a meter of my bed since waking up from the operation. It is also incredibly uncomfortable constantly having lines attached to your body. Personally, I started to feel sub-human, attached to all these machines and relying on others to do almost everything for me. I’d only just had the catheter removed, ‘upgrading’ to the graceful world of the commode… the world of surgery is far from glamorous.

I believe it was the Wednesday after surgery. That morning, I had decided to open my laptop for the first time since my operation. I don’t think that I intentionally set out to research how a full removal of the pancreas affects the patient that morning, but that is where I ended up. The topic had started to sit heavy on my mind. Prior to the operation, I had not been warned that a full removal of the pancreas may be on the table. I’m not suggesting that this was necessary, but if there was even a 1% chance of that happening, I do think that discussing it beforehand would have helped to ease the stress of hearing that it had happened post-surgery. Again, I don’t want to sound ungrateful for what has happened, and I am not accusing any individuals of doing anything wrong, but I would suggest that in future cases, this topic should be broached in the meetings before surgery if it is a possibility. It would allow the subject to process what that may mean beforehand when they are in a stable state with a normal functioning mind. I was processing the news in a very unstable state, with a mind being clouded by all of the painkillers, general anaesthetic and whatever else was being pumped into me. I had an epidural sewn into my back, a line attached to a central vein in my neck and various drugs being pushed into my system via the other lines in my hands and arms. Trying to navigate all of that, alongside the fact that I am now diabetic and have had half of my organs removed (Warning: major exaggeration used to gain sympathy) is bound to be tough for anyone.

At the time I did not realise just how much this was all messing with my brain, but I appreciate it far more now as I reflect. Looking back, I struggle to feel like that time recovering in the hospital even happened to me because my brain was so abstracted from my normal reality. I couldn’t focus on anything – I constantly felt bored, fidgety and I genuinely felt like the situation was never going to improve. The result was a constant state of perceived uselessness, depression and an overwhelming sense that everything was descending into a place of utter hopelessness. It was incredibly difficult to deal with and with every day that passed, I had a slightly clearer mind that was trying to process these things, which was actually more damaging than good in the medium term.

As my ability to think more normally was coming back, I was still under the influence of a concoction of powerful drugs, but I could not recognise that in the moment. As far as I was aware, I was thinking and feeling as I would normally, just those things that I was thinking and feeling were far more extreme and volatile than normal. Well, I was in a time of extreme volatility, so that doesn’t seem strange, does it? In this world, it is easy to find dark thoughts and believe them as logical truths, especially if you are the type of person who has a tendency to dwell on their own thoughts. I’d put myself in that category. It is far easier to identify this now, as I sit in a more normal frame of mind, but at the time, it was incredibly scary and depressing, feeling that my life had irreversibly changed and that I was on a collision course with death, simply counting down the days until my body finally gave in to the growing list of traumas it was accumulating. I was utterly convinced that this was the new me – a person defined by inconsolable grief, anger and fear. Grief of my former life, anger that this had all happened to me without my consent, and fear that it had set my life on a journey towards destruction and, ultimately, death.

I sat Googling ‘full removal of the pancreas’ and read on multiple websites that the procedure was extremely rare, that not a lot was known about it, and that the pancreas is involved in the regulation of hormones in the body which is not fully understood, so could not be easily accounted for post-surgery. The more I read about how uncommon the procedure was, how difficult it is for the subject to adjust to life post-surgery and the drastic changes it has on your body functioning, the more I convinced myself that the surgeon had used me as a lab rat. I created a narrative in my head – I was young and healthy, other than my diagnosis, yet I had stage 3 pancreatic cancer. The situation was incredibly unusual, but that presents a unique opportunity to those in the medical field. Why not try this experimental treatment on this young, unusual subject – it is the best opportunity to see how successful a full removal of the pancreas can be, right? I became utterly convinced that the dice had been rolled by the medical staff, and that my life was the stake that was hanging in the balance.

Alongside this, there had been some tension between the nursing staff and the surgical team that morning. I think they had been trying to hide it from me, but it was palpable. That morning, the surgical team had come to look at the drains attached to my stomach and determined that they could now be removed. The drains are two bags attached to pipes which are inserted into your body. They are there to allow any excess fluid to drain out of your body. The bags then have a plastic valve end which can be opened, allowing them to be emptied out. I had a drain in either side of my stomach, one on the right and another on the left. Although they were collecting a lot less fluid at that point on day 5 post-surgery, they were still amassing a fair bit of liquid each day. After the surgical team had inspected it, they had asked the nurses to remove the drains. I could immediately tell that the nurses were unsure about doing this and felt their hesitation. I waited for a few hours that morning, but the nurses did not follow through on the request. They were speaking to each other in their native language a lot, and I could sense some unease in the air.

A little later on, one of the surgical team returned and asked why they had not been removed. I responded that I wasn’t sure. She then left the room. A bit later, I heard a conversation outside the room where another member of the surgical team was complaining about the nursing team letting down the very good reputation of the HPB unit at Manchester, which was “one of the best in the world”. The whole thing felt very manufactured and I lay there confused about why they were having such a conversation in close proximity to a patient. It was all a bit unusual. Eventually, the nurses did remove the drains, but they seemed very hesitant about it. I think they had my best interests at heart, and they felt that too much liquid was still coming out to remove them, but they are ultimately there to carry out the wishes of the surgical team, who are far more experienced and knowledgable in these areas.

Between my research that morning and the sense of tension building among the medical staff, I was starting to feel very uneasy. By the time my mum and Anna showed up to visit me at around 13:30, I had wound myself up too tightly, to a level that I could not be unwound. I was still conscious and thinking somewhat straight at this point, though. As soon as they entered the room, I asked them to close the door. I told them about my theory, how they had done an experimental procedure on me and that I was being used as a test-case for a new type of treatment that they had little evidence of whether it would be successful or not. I told them that we need to try and get me to another hospital to be treated and give me the best chance of long-term survival…this is where I started spiralling a little more into madness, and where my memory starts to get hazy. Anna and my mum were listening to me clearly at this point, though, and they were very concerned.

I can’t remember how it happened, but the staff started to realise that something was going on. As they realised the seriousness of what was beginning to occur, more senior members of the surgical and nursing teams started to show up to try and calm me down. This only encouraged me – in my mind, they were realising that their plan had been foiled and they were now terrified that they were going to be going to prison for malpractice, or at least exposed and their careers were over… That is genuinely what I thought. By the time my surgeon himself showed up, I was absolutely certain that they were terrified that I had exposed them. I started to get my phone out and record them. Accusations were starting to come – I told them that they hadn’t been managing my diabetes properly and that my blood sugars had been incredibly high. I started to demand that they show me all of my data, as they had been regularly testing my blood sugar levels which were recorded on a system. When they told me that they couldn’t because of data laws, I felt even more firm in my beliefs. They were scared that the data would expose them, I thought. By this time, I was fully spiralling out of control.

At some point, I turned and looked at the machines behind me which were hooked up to my body. This is where my brain was starting to bend reality. I thought I saw the number ‘9999’ on a monitor and thought the doctors were loading my body with insulin to force me into a coma and kill me, so they wouldn’t be exposed for what they had done to me. It is here that I panicked and started to believe that they were really trying to kill me. I ripped the stitched lines out of my neck and back, something which makes me sick to my core in my normal state of mind. The doctors all screamed out and started panicking… this was starting to get serious, and they were now treating me like a danger to myself as well as them. People do all sorts of things when in a state of delirium, including physically assaulting staff and trying to harm themselves. Of course, I didn’t know what delirium was at the time, and I didn’t see their distress as them being genuinely concerned for me. Everything was feeding my central theory – they were trying to save their skin, and my hard-hitting accusations were threatening their reputation as professionals.

Around this time, my brother Greg was strolling onto the ward to visit me. It’s here that my memory gets very hazy. I remember running up and down the corridor in the ward, blood dripping from my neck and back. Security guards were blocking the exit but I couldn’t get out anyway as it was now locked. I was crying, pleading with Anna, my mum and Greg. “Do you not love me?” I was shouting at them, pleading with them to believe me. Anna was telling me that she believed me, but that I needed to let them help me as I needed immediate medical attention. I didn’t believe her. Greg was crying now and begging me to stop. The little memory I have of it is really horrible. I can’t imagine how it was for them.

All that I really remember from this point on was feeling like I had ruined my life. I had climbed up to a place which was impossible to come back down from, or so I thought. I was convinced that I was either going to a police station or an asylum. The people who had helped me, the doctors, nurses and surgical team, wouldn’t want to help me now anyway, whether they had used me as an experiment or not. It felt like I’d dug my own grave in taking this course of action, and now I had to lay in it. I remember running up and down the corridor, my head feeling like it was going to explode. Anna was going to leave me, my family were going to abandon me, I’d ruined everything. The world was genuinely spinning. I can’t imagine what my heart rate was when all of this was going on, but I bet it was dangerously high. Amped up on drugs and totally out of control, this is where any memories I have of the event end.

Anna tells me that the staff got me a seat and told me to sit down in the corridor. I did this, but then saw a doctor coming up behind me with a needle, which made me jump up and panick. When I jumped up, I spilt some water that I had in my hand all over the floor and then slipped over violently. Finally, the doctors managed to inject me with a sedative. As it took hold of my body, I started to calm down and apologise then, eventually, I must have slipped into a sleep.

I had a lot of very unusual yet vivid dreams. They were vivid at the time, but I don’t remember them well now. My amazing brother Greg stayed with me for 8 hours that day – he was incredible throughout my stay in the hospital, visiting me nearly every day no matter how depressing my company was. I’m not sure if I dreamt this or not, but I think I remember waking up momentarily and begging Greg to get them to kill me. I thought my life was over anyway – I just wanted it to happen as quickly as possible.

One of the dreams that I remember was being stuck in a dark room. There is an episode of the dystopian show Black Mirror where they discover a new method of punishment. It is where they can manipulate a person’s brain to make them feel like they are locked in a room for hundreds, thousands, even millions of years, in a matter of seconds. Despite them not actually being locked in a room, the subject experiences being trapped for that amount of time. I had a dream that that exact thing was happening to me. My mind was screaming to wake up, but I couldn’t. I genuinely thought I’d fallen into a state of absolute madness. I gripped my head and pushed my fingers into my eyes but nothing changes. It was agony.

Rather disgustingly, whilst I was passed out, I was apparently repeatedly ‘soiling’ and ‘wetting’ the bed. The nurses were having to clean it up whilst my brother, mum or Anna, whoever was taking the shift of sitting with me at that time, temporarily stepped out of the room. It is pretty horrific to learn these details and I really debated whether I wanted to include them in here, but I think it emphasises just how dark things can get in this state. My family had to witness it and the incredible nurses probably did not even see this as a ‘standout’ event – it is probably just another day for them. I really don’t understand how they do it. Hopefully, by speaking about it, it emphasises what amazing people are working in these jobs, and how brutal the day to day reality of it can be.

When I eventually woke up, it was the next morning. Anna was asleep in the chair next to me. I thought that I had dreamt the whole thing, but I felt immeasurably happy that it was over anyway. It was only when Anna passed me the leaflet titled ‘Delirium’ that I started to realise it had all actually happened. I couldn’t believe that the hospital staff still wanted to treat me, or that my family still wanted anything to do with me. A sense of total gratitude came over me – I felt so happy, like I’d been given a second chance at life, though I could barely comprehend what had happened. I still can’t, really.

Apparently, Delirium is fairly common. I read somewhere that it happens to about 1 in 10 people who undergo major surgery. It is more common in older patients, the same as pancreatic cancer, so of course I had to experience it. I’m always looking to break down these age barriers – perhaps that makes me a hero, who knows. All I know is that being in that state was the scariest thing that has ever happened to me, and for a short period of time, I truly felt that I was experiencing what it was like to be insane, having people look at you like an unpredictable animal, unbound by any social convention or sense of self-preservation. Everything was off the table and I was certain that I had set myself on a course to total destruction – resulting in me rotting in an asylum, prison, or some other institution, with no medical team willing to help me, and with certain death on the horizon.

I want to re-emphasise the gratitude that I have for everyone who cared for me at Manchester Royal Infirmary, especially those who were dragged into this episode. I can’t imagine what it is like for them to sit through the accusations, the impulsive actions and traumatic consequences of them, but I was relieved to hear that they had commented on how surprisingly respectful I’d remained through the whole episode, never swearing or threating them with physical violence. It is a pretty low bar when it comes to Delirium, apparently. I’m also lucky to have the most incredible family around me – my mum, Anna and Greg were all incredibly supportive. Greg was back at the hospital with me the next day, and we were laughing about what happened, with the surgeon even visiting me at the same time and joining in the banter. “Still think I’m trying to kill you?” He jested as he popped his head around the door.

It is all still very strange and it feels like the little parts that I remember didn’t happen to me – almost like they are scenes from a film that I have watched or something. It is yet another chapter in the cancer journey that caught me totally by surprise, but perhaps by writing this, it might help someone else not feel so blindsded by a similar event. The words that have stuck with me from the surgeon the following day, when we were passed joking about the incident, was this – “For you, this situation is not normal. For me, it is very normal. I do these procedures every week and I hope to be doing them more. If it is what it takes to improve the survival rates, then I want it to become more common.” As if I need to prove that surgeons are well-intentioned people – their entire careers are centred around saving people’s lives – but I thought he put it so simply and beautifully. Every medical practice had a dawn where it was not widely used. If I am an early case in a type of surgery that may help improve survival rates of this cancer in the future, then I am incredibly proud to do so. Even if I am a case that proves it is not as straightforward as they had hoped, I still contributed to something. Either way, I feel proud of where I have gotten to thus far, and I am starting to feel a lot of genuine hope for the future, despite all of the bumps in the road to recovery.