Surgery Date

The Road to Recovery

You’ll have to excuse the constant posting about surgery, but it is a bit of a hot topic at the minute. The headline is that I have a surgery date – Friday, July 8th. I need to get to the hospital nice and early – for 7:15am that morning. Upon hearing the time, as the scheduler spoke to me on the phone, I briefly thought to myself, “I’m going to be shattered,” but then I realised that I am going to the hospital to be put asleep/knocked out for approximately ten hours during surgery, followed by days in intensive care recovering from whatever they manage to do to me to improve my cancer. I’m pretty sure I’ll find a way to not worry about how tired I may be after my 5:30am wakeup on that first day. That was a thought that certainly didn’t age well in the five seconds it existed in my head; I travelled from an innocent thought about being tired, to tyrannical thoughts about surgeons playing Operation on my real-life body. Come to think of it, the Whipple procedure may have been thought up as a surgeon was playing the board game Operation considering the aim of the game is to remove all of the organs out of a body; that doesn’t sound too far away from what the Whipple procedure aims to do to your digestive tract.

The surgeon told us in our first meeting with him that the best-case scenario will require about ten days in the hospital. The worst-case scenario that he has experienced with someone he has personally operated on was two months in hospital, where there were many complications. Luckily, he has never had anyone die on him, but he did say that a colleague in his team has. I think that was a veiled dig at his colleague; these surgeons are a competitive lot, even in the most serious of circumstances. I left the hospital thanking the universe that it was him performing the operation and not his colleague, even though I’m sure his colleague is a very skilled and diligent individual. I just don’t want to chance it, really. Although, given that it is such a long procedure, perhaps they work it by tagging in different members of the team like a wrestling tag match. Damnit. Don’t think of it, Dan. It won’t matter to you no matter what happens, you’ll be out like a light.

Specific complications that the surgeon called out included the pancreas leaking pancreatic fluid, the patient needing blood transfusions and I must have blocked out the rest of the list because I can’t remember any more examples. Leaking pancreatic fluid sounds pretty gross, I know that much. I remember him telling me that Nano-knife works by applying a small shot of electricity. The shock is supposed to be small enough so as not to produce too much additional heat, but I think he said that there is a risk that the heat could damage my organs. Maybe I’m remembering that wrong, I’m not sure. The meeting is a little hazy now, so trying to piece together the specific things that were said, and why they were said, is difficult. He definitely spoke about how the Nano-knife technique produces a small amount of heat and spoke about why they wanted to minimise this, but I think that I was high on adrenaline at this point and simply nodding my head and smiling, in a picture probably reminiscent of Christian Bale in American Psycho. For some reason, I always find myself being more upbeat in these meetings; I’ve probably creeped out every oncologist, doctor and surgeon that I’ve met who has been involved in the process. During my diagnosis, I actually started laughing when the doctor said “it’s bad news I’m afraid.” I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a drama on TV and couldn’t believe the news was actually being delivered like this. I was waiting for the Eastenders theme tune to start playing, but it didn’t.

There are a few questions that the surgery has raised, but the most important one is this: is five weeks enough time to recover and go on my stag do? We’re assuming so because otherwise a lot of plans have to be changed. What plans specifically, I’m not sure, as I wasn’t invited to the sleepover where they all drew up the sinister blueprints for the weekend. Luckily, I have literally centimetres of cancer in my pancreas (2.1cm to be exact), so they aren’t allowed to physically or emotionally traumatise me too much. That is how it works, right? Surely I’m not expected to join in with the Frosty Jacks boat races or anything. If Frosty Jacks boat races were not on the agenda already, I’m certain it will be after my best man Luke reads that sentence. He’ll kick himself for not putting it in the schedule already.

For those of you who don’t live in the UK, or who lived a much healthier teenage life than me and my friends, Frosty Jacks is a cheap cider which has an alcohol content of 7.5%. When we were younger, you could buy a 3-litre bottle of it for about £3.50, which is absolutely crazy. It has something like 22.5 units in a bottle and we drank them quite religiously from the age of 16 to about 18. If I tried to drink it now, it may actually kill me, both because it is almost certainly 99% chemicals, but also because the amount of alcohol in it could last me six months with my current drinking habits, or lack of. The thought of actually drinking a 3-litre bottle of Frosty Jacks over the course of six months is so sad, come to think of it… And for those of you who don’t know what a boat race is, it is where you split your group into two teams who compete against each other. The two teams face each other on either side of a table. Starting from the same side, both individuals start to down their drink. When they finish, the person next to them can start drinking. That means that everyone focuses on the one member of their team who is currently drinking, making it quite a high-pressure situation, especially when you’ve already had a few drinks and are getting competitive. The winning team is the one that finishes their drinks first. A truly remarkable game to be discussing in a cancer blog, I’m sure you’ll agree. I haven’t played it in years and have no desire to, but we have to keep the blog content fresh somehow – it can’t all be ‘cancer this’ and ‘cancer that’!

One thing that my best man has shared with me is that he has started baking bread over the weekend. That got me riled up, as I’ve been meaning to start baking bread for a while. So yesterday, I baked my first wholemeal loaf. It actually went pretty well. Today I did it again to test whether it was a fluke. Another success. It’s actually quite easy and makes eating it far more rewarding. Tomorrow, I’m going to try and bake a wholemeal spelt loaf. I know what you’re thinking, “that’s got an entire additional word in the name!” It’s a crazy thing to dare to do, but I’m going to do it. Replacing the wholemeal flour with the wholemeal spelt flour might just be the downfall of my entire bread baking career. If it goes well, though, it’ll mean that I have two types of wholemeal loaf to make in future. High risk, high reward!

Half way through making some banana bread this afternoon, I received a call from Macmillan at Manchester Royal Infirmary. After my meeting with the surgeon last week at the hospital, I had spoken to the nurse about how I was feeling about things. I mentioned the financial concerns I had, which have been ever-present for months now ever since my employer made it impossible for me to return to work, yet only paid me a month’s full salary. Very nice of them. I truly believe that their HR department could receive ‘Worst HR Department in the UK’, which would be nice for them; I’m sure it is the only way they’d ever win an award.

Anyway, bitterness aside, the nurse had told me that she will get one of the Macmillan representatives at the hospital to call me and chat to me. Every time I see an ‘0161’ number calling me, my heart stops a little bit as it is the area code for Manchester, where the hospital is located. I’m always assuming it’ll be someone telling me some new development about my cancer. It was a relief to hear that it was Macmillan. The representative I spoke to was incredibly helpful. She spoke to me about all of the things that concerned me, offered to speak to my mum to further support her and said that she would get the financial advice team to call me after I have been discharged from the hospital, after the operation.

There was something in particular that she said which has really stuck with me and has given me such a lovely perspective. She stated that surgeons won’t decide to do something unless they see value in it, and that they believe that the pros will likely outweigh the cons of doing it. After all, it isn’t only my life at risk, but their own reputation (and pride too, probably). These decisions are highly calculated and scrutinised by an entire team of extremely skilled individuals. Not only that, but this is an expensive procedure to perform, requiring a complex surgery with a lot of equipment, and a long period in hospital afterwards for aftercare. Going ahead with it must mean that they perceive it worthy of that cost, which could be used elsewhere, for another patient.

Although I had thought of it in many different ways to help me process the news, I really hadn’t considered this one. It made me reconsider so much of the conversation that the surgeon had with me. He is always going to focus on the risks, concerns and potential issues – all of this information is incredibly important. If a patient walks out of that office not understanding the full extent of the consequences of agreeing to such an operation, they could end up agreeing to something that they, in fact, do not consent to at all. It is, therefore, the intent of the surgeon to ensure that the severity of the situation is communicated in the clearest of terms – that there is little evidence of how successful Nano-knife may be, that the operation is a major surgery and carries a lot of risk, and that my general diagnosis is a damning one, especially statistically. He also pointed out that most people in my position wouldn’t get an operation at all, but I am getting one, so they must see something different in the situation. Whether it is my age, health or diagnosis that they see as ‘different’, or a combination of those things, I don’t know. I don’t care, of course. I’m grateful that they made the decision that they did and I need to remind myself of that when I am fearful or anxious about the surgery. Surgery is what I wanted, and it was not guaranteed at all. It does create a strange dichotomy between the excitement of achieving that goal, yet knowing that it means I will be having a big operation, but that’s ok. Life is full of situations which leave us emotionally confused, being pulled in multiple directions at the same time. We are complex beings; we cannot expect ourselves to always feel certain we understand how we feel about a situation, especially where it is complex.

There is one last thing which I saw today that I thought was worth talking about. As my Twitter account is for the blog, and the primary things I follow on there are cancer-related accounts, I get a lot of cancer posts in my feed. Today on my feed, I saw the below post by the actress Mindy Kaling, who was put on my radar by the series The US Office, but has had her own show since, and has been in various big-budget films.

I thought that I was glad she was posting about it to her 11.5M followers. It has to be good for pancreatic cancer, I’d think. Spreading awareness on such a big platform is a great thing. Being nosy, I went to the comments. That’s where I found an …interesting… take. The following comment had been posted:

“What you’re doing is great but children with multiple malignant brain tumors with so much treatment that they suffer a stroke and end up paralyzed and still tumors in the brain that cannot be removed to cured.

I’m honestly not sure what the central point even is here, it is so confusing how it is written. It seems to continue adding new ideas as the sentence drags on. What I do know is this – it may have been written with the best of intentions, but certainly doesn’t come across well to me at all. Why do people find a way to apply some form of elitism to every topic? What benefit is there to treating cancer like it is a new edition of Top Trumps? Mindy posting that she supports pancreatic cancer gaining funding from the government does not mean that she does not support more funding going towards children with cancer, or any form of brain cancer research. Why this person thought that this was a helpful or mindful thing to say, I do not know. The two things are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps they actually know more than I do, and the additional money would be allocated from brain tumour research, in which case it may make more sense. They have not said this, though. Sometimes I really wonder what people’s intent is – I’m sure this person came in with the best of intentions, but what help does it really provide? Is it really an appropriate place to raise such an argument?
So, I want to make this clear – when I say that I believe pancreatic cancer needs more funding, given it has the top mortality rate of any common cancer, it does not mean that I want money diverted away from any other cancers necessarily, or that I don’t value the struggle that other cancers bring. Having said that, pancreatic cancer seems to be low down on the priority list, due to an average diagnosis age of 72 and difficulty diagnosing it early enough to do anything about it (in most cases). Of course, the second issue is also probably that way due to a lack of funding, which I believe to be because it has been designated as an ‘old person’ cancer, which relates it back to point one. It is a vicious circle.

No one will say the words ‘it’s fine if old people die’ publically, but that is essentially what is happening in terms of pancreatic cancer, and I do believe that it hurts the attractiveness of the cancer in terms of research funding. I understand that having such an old average age of diagnosis is a genuine consideration when dealing with cancer and research grants, as it is much harder to save people who fall ill at this age, but it seems to be becoming unjustifiable. I regularly see pancreatic cancer charities sharing posts stating that the survival rate has not changed in over 50 years – how is that acceptable with how quickly our technology seems to move? I’m sure that the other common cancers have experienced at least some improvements in this period, if not significant ones.

The overall lesson is simple, though. Think about what you write online. It may feel like it only matters to you, as you sit alone on your phone and decide to voice your opinion on something, but by writing it, you are throwing it out into the online ether for anyone and everyone to consume at their will. I’m not sure if this comment was trying to imply that so long as children get brain tumours, no other cancer is worthy of consideration, but if it is, that isn’t fair. It isn’t fair to make people who care about pancreatic cancer feel bad for doing so, and it isn’t fair to take away from the message of Mindy’s post. No one would disagree that the things being described by them are horrific, and if that has happened to someone this person knows then I feel even more sympathy, but it is not the only consideration at play. It is also not the place to make such an argument. Would they be happier if Mindy took the post down, choosing to only post about brain tumours instead? Will she see your comment and repent, or simply ignore you? I believe the latter is more likely.

Rant over (until the next one). One day closer to surgery!

Surgery and Yellow Mayonnaise

Taken 04.06.22 at a Music Festival

It has been a few days since the meeting with the surgeon. The response has been a bit varied among my family and friends. Surgery certainly makes everything more real. Knowing it is a major operation which carries so many risks brings an entirely different element of worry to the situation, I get that. If the situation with the tumour was more positive and the surgeon was more confident he could do a full removal, the decision to push on with surgery would bring a further level of comfort that it is the best decision. Seeing as this is not the case and that the tumour seems to be surrounding the artery still, it brings much more anxiety for all involved. For me, I will not be conscious for any of the surgery, or even most of the intensive aftercare. It is everyone else who will have to painstakingly sit for hours, waiting for the news of how the surgery has gone, what they managed to do, and if there were any ‘complications’. By the time I’ve found out these details, it’ll likely be days after the operation. I’ll be off in dreamland, so deep under the influence of drugs that I’ll probably be exploring Narnia from my vantage point, riding on a dragon’s back (I’ve never had a dream like this so I’m not sure why I would start now, but it’s nice to dream about the potential of your dreams).

There have been a lot more tears since Tuesday. Perhaps it is a combination of learning what my staging is and having it clearly communicated that a full removal is unlikely. It could still happen if the scan failed to be accurate in its portrayal of the tumour, but he seemed to doubt it would be so wrong. I did do another CT scan at the hospital, so I’m waiting for the surgeon to call me with the results of that. Perhaps he will be more confident of what will be done in surgery once he has reviewed it, assuming the scan is better quality than the last one and offers more insight. Nano-knife is the most likely outcome. A full removal is not out of the question eventually, I believe, but the surgeon didn’t seem willing to discuss such a scenario. I didn’t try, to be fair. He had an air of confidence about him which was tantalising. Every sentence was carefully thought out, every word scrutinised in his head before it left his mouth. These situations are tense; you could tell that he was experienced in dealing with them.

I’m unsure whether he will do some form of partial Whipple no matter what he decides is possible with the tumour. I need to ask him when he calls me about the scan results, but it’s one of those things that I’m unsure whether getting an answer is better for me. It seems easier to just wake up after surgery and face the music then. The outcomes sound so varied depending on what they see during the operation that I doubt I’d get a straight answer anyway. At least I trust this guy to tell me that the answer isn’t easy and I’d believe him if he said as such. The fact that there is a cyst on the other side of the pancreas to the tumour indicates that the surgeon will have to do more than just deal with the tumour. We did ask him if he would be removing the cyst despite what happened with the tumour, and he said that he would. It was funny – his reaction was almost like this was a total afterthought – an irrelevancy in the face of the cancer. “Oh yeah, there is a cyst there too, isn’t there? Yeah, we’ll get that out,” he casually said when the question was put to him by Anna. Surgeons are so casual. They must realise that their job terrifies the other 99.9% of people on planet earth. I’m sure that there’s a smugness that comes with that territory. I’d certainly be smug about it if I were one. He didn’t seem particularly smug at all. After arranging the CT scan on the phone with the radiology department, he said that he needs to get a nurse to put the cannula in. “I can do surgery on you but I can’t cannulate you,” he chuckled – I suspected this was that smugness coming in to play.

One of the things I have changed about my behaviour recently is my diet. Since learning a little about the immune system and how it is constantly fighting ‘bad’ cells being created in your body, I have been much more taken into the idea that your immune system plays a vital role in how your body battles cancer. Before, I thought whether you developed cancer or not was more a thing of luck, with a heavy dose of genetic makeup. The book I am reading seems to suggest that this is not the case. He references a study about fostered children. The study was conducted in New Zealand as apparently they have detailed records about births and biological parents. In the study, they measured the cancer rate among a group of people who were fostered from a young age. If the formation of cancer was more down to genetics, the numbers in people who suffered from cancer would be similar between the focus group and their biological parents, irrespective of whether they were raised by foster parents or not. If the formation of cancer was more down to behavioural patterns rather than genetics (e.g. diet, exercise habits etc), then there would be less significance between children and their biological parents, and more significance in the trends between the foster parents and the children they adopted. The study showed the latter, indicating that the formation of cancer was effected more by behaviour than genetics.

Now, I’m not suggesting this single study proves the point entirely, and more importantly, I have not looked into this study myself and do not plan to. It is enough to convince me that behaviour must be more important than I perhaps anticipated. As a result, I’m trying to avoid processed food as much as possible, based on some scrutiny of these types of foods. Turning over a food packet to look at the ingredients and seeing different types of sulphites listed is a little concerning to me, even with my limited knowledge of sulphites (and believe me, my knowledge is limited). A quick Google tells you that they are only dangerous for a small number of people who have problems with asthma. Does this mean that it is only an immediate risk to these people, though? I can’t imagine digesting a lot of additional sulphites is good for you, never mind the fact that they are added to foods to preserve them. Anything that makes it harder for the world to digest the food (i.e. through the process of bacteria breaking it down), sure means that it is harder for your body to break it down. The more unnatural the ingredient is that you are adding to preserve the food, the more dangerous it would be for your body, I would assume. It makes logical sense to me. The world isn’t always logical, though, so maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree here.

Yesterday morning, I decided to Google ‘should you avoid food preserved with sulfites’ to test my theory. I had seen ‘Sulphite Dioxide’ on the back of the packet for some dried apricots and it got me interested. Notice that I did not add ‘if I have cancer’ onto the end of the question; I’m not even getting into that with Google. Searching for anything specific to cancer with Google can lead you to all sorts of dark corners of the internet. It seems to be the most prolific hearsay topic on the planet.

The first article I clicked on was one titled 5 Food Additives You Should Avoid. According to this list, and after doing more reading around, it seems that sulphite dioxide has a low toxicity for humans in most cases, so is generally regarded as safe. As I stated previously, though, I’m sure it isn’t completely inconsequential eating it in a lot of your food, but anyway. The thing in the article which got my attention more was food additive number 1 in the list – Sodium nitrates. Want to know why? Because it states that they increase your risk of pancreatic or colorectal cancers. If there is one way to grab my attention, it is by throwing around the name of my beloved cancer. Pancreatic. Dancreatic. Dan’s Dancreas. Dan’s Dancreactic Dancer. Anyway…

Apparently, sodium nitrates are mainly added to meat to stop it from discolouring. That should make them extremely low risk for me, an individual who does not and has not eaten meat since 2016. Perhaps this is another cruel irony of the world, like when a non-smoker gets lung cancer. During the digestion process, toxic chemicals are released due to the sodium nitrates being broken down by stomach acid. It is them which pose a threat to humans according to the limited research I did on the web. Rather than always researching other people’s research, I thought I’d conduct my own. I headed down to the kitchen, opened the fridge and found a packet of bacon. It had come from Waitrose, one of the more expensive supermarkets here in the UK. I turned the packet over and read the ingredients. Just like that, I completed my study. Sodium Nitrate. Confirmed – it is indeed added to meat. Study complete. Science is so easy. You probably thought I was somehow going to confirm that the breaking down of sodium nitrates in the stomach releases deadly toxins didn’t you? I’m not that good – go speak to a real life scientist if you want real research.

It just feels like a minefield trying to investigate diet further. Information seems so inconsistent and you wonder how things get approved for use if they truly are so bad for you. What is true, apparently, is that cancer rates in the west are much higher than in the east, and it would make sense to me that the key difference between us is diet. We have been eating highly processed foods for longer in the West, with the quick growth of fast food since chains like McDonald’s grew in popularity. Now processed food is everywhere and considered very normal. We look at things like butter as being intrinsically bad, despite us being able to comprehend how butter is made. Look at the back of a margarine tub and try to figure out what on earth the ingredients are in it – half of them sound like they belong on the back of a toothpaste packet or something. Do we really feel better eating that just because it is lower in calories? Fats are very useful to us humans, we seem to forget that fact. My body struggles to process them now and I have to take supplements constantly to ensure they are being absorbed by my body. What I’m trying to say is that you should revel in the fact that your body can absorb fats naturally (if it can) and utilise it by eating full fat butter, damn it! I do it now more than ever and it is a beautiful luxury.

Sometimes I find myself pondering whether knowledge is power or not. Do I find myself feeling empowered by it or intimidated by it? The question never feels more applicable than when trying to research diet and cancer. My new thing is to mercilessly avoid food with preservatives in it, where possible. All of a sudden, I am not eating any crisps, baked goods from the shop or heavily processed chocolate bars; those of you who know me personally will understand what a huge deal that is for me. If I want something sweet, I try and bake something quickly. For example, I’ll bake apricot and walnut bars to have at breakfast, alongside fruit. I’ve started making my own mayonnaise instead of having it out of a bottle; the home-made stuff is much more yellow than white – it’s strange when you have only just started making it yourself. It really does taste lovely when fresh and you can mix up how much mustard you put in it, which is nice. The next step is to learn to make loafs of wholemeal bread but I’m building myself up to that. It’ll probably take me a morning to get into it as dough is not something I have worked with so far. Rivetting stuff, dear reader, I know. This blog is probably your guilty pleasure these days with such innane ramblings about diet and food, if you even try to have any pleasure from it. At least it isn’t all cancer cancer cancer; it also makes you feel guilty about enjoying the foods you’d normally mindlessly eat.

Yet, this obsession with avoiding preservates is probably just a new scheme to feel in control of the diagnosis. I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t assist in the fight against cancer too, but plenty of people have spent their entire life eating terribly, not having a care in the world about how many preservatives are in their bacon sandwich, yet don’t develop cancer. It is difficult to reconcile that, as I believe I’ve lived a fairly healthy life so far and still managed to get cancer. The fact that I likely ran 100km with the beginnings of cancer brewing in my pancreas is almost comical to me at this point. It was after I had originally got to the doctor’s complaining of stomach issues. The result of that was multiple scans at the hospital, but with no meaningful results. Their conclusion was that I had a strange form of constipation; it never convinced me. I guess when your tumour is 3.2cm at its largest, it is difficult to see with conventional scans. You have to step up to the expensive PET scan which they weren’t willing to do at the time. They don’t tend to assume that an otherwise healthy adult in their late 20’s would have pancreatic cancer; I know that from the first few weeks when trying to be diagnosed – “It’s probably pancreatitis but we can’t rule out cancer, although it’s very unlikely to be that.” I can’t remember how many times I heard words to that effect, but it was a lot.

So, here I am. Dan with the Dancreatic Dancer trying to research diet in an attempt to stop the Dancer getting the better of the Dan. Maybe the fight against preservatives will provide a useful distraction over the next few weeks, until the surgery day comes. Making everything from scratch is certainly time consuming. I’m getting used to the yellow coloured mayonnaise now, anyway.

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

Note to Self (The First Meeting With the Surgeons)

The Road to Recovery

Anna and Lucy on a Dorset Beach

Elephants and Tea – Dear Cancer Letter

Elephants and Tea have posted my Dear Cancer story under the title Dear Cancer, Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining. You can find a link to the online post here. The full magazine can be found here. You can purchase physical copies of the magazine on their website which is a great way of supporting their work. It is free to view online.

They do amazing work, providing support for Adolescents and Young Adults (AYA) with cancer. Early on in my cancer journey, I sought out several support groups to help me feel less alone. Although some of them had amazing people in them, no one was under the age of 55. It did sometimes feel isolating, as if I was the only person this young actively seeking support. Finding Elephants and Tea was a huge relief to me, and their online resources really helped me out. I was incredibly happy when they accepted my submission.

In the June edition, you can find many other Dear Cancer letters, from all different kinds of perspectives. I’m still making my way through them but have thoroughly enjoyed the ones I have read. It is also the first time that I’ve seen something I have written in physical print – exciting!

You can follow them on Twitter and other platforms (I assume, I don’t have any others). They will appreciate all of the support, whether it is having a read of their posts, buying a physical copy of the magazine or just engaging with their social media accounts.


The next stage of treatment commences: I have my first appointment at Manchester Royal Infirmary with the team of surgeons. After the disappointment I felt at the final scan results post-chemotherapy, where I went into the meeting thinking I would be getting more information than I did, I’m trying to keep my expectations as low as possible. Maybe my life goal should be to become a blank slate with no hopes, dreams or inhibitions; that would make dealing with cancer much easier. It is tempting to convince myself that this will be the meeting where they will tell me I will be having this procedure on this day and everything is ready to go, but I feel I’m setting myself up to be disappointed by creating those expectations. Perhaps I need to go into the meeting having convinced myself that they are going to tell me absolutely nothing. “It’s an induction meeting,” I’ll repeat to myself over and over again until I truly believe it. That way, no matter what happens, it’ll feel like progress. Unfortunately, I’m not a machine and my stupid emotions won’t allow that to happen.

At this stage, I feel quite sorry for the medical professionals who are dealing with my case. I’m always extremely polite to their faces and truly do appreciate what they do for me, I want to make that clear. After we were told that it may take the surgeons a month to contact me, though, Anna and I left the meeting feeling surprised. An entire month to be contacted? Isn’t that far too long? Why the holdup? Surprise turned to righteous preaching as we spoke to friends and family about the meeting. “He even told us that if they do not contact us within a month, we should contact the surgeon’s secretary! How can they expect them to be so disorganised?” We were riling ourselves up. Righteous preaching turned to minor rage. Then, we realised that hearing nothing from them for a month meant a month of true freedom. No chemotherapy, no hospital appointments, nothing. We decided to do the things we haven’t been able to: go to London, visit Anna’s family in Dorset, enjoy ourselves. I’ve settled into the new life. It almost feels like I don’t have cancer anymore, other than how bad I feel every time I go running. For some reason that is only getting worse. Also the neuropathy. Also the abdominal pain. Ok fine, it doesn’t feel like I don’t have cancer. I’m even using double negatives now; everything is going wrong.

Wednesday evening, as I sat at my friend’s house in north London having dinner, I received an automated message from Manchester Roal Infirmary. ‘You have a new appointment letter. Click here to open it‘ it read. Here we go again – back on the appointment clock. The period of peaceful bliss only lasted about 12 days. Now I’m scorning the medical professionals for contacting me too quickly. I can’t even keep up with what I want from this process; I’d hate to be them on the receiving end of my negative energy (which I keep completely contained between me, my family and my friends, and which only ever lasts a couple of days before I see how unreasonable I was being). It is why I feel sorry for them, but I don’t actually criticise them. I realise that they are probably managing a lot of cases. You need to vent about things to your friends and family, it helps you process information that is difficult to comprehend.

The link that they had text me didn’t work at first. I called home and spoke to my dad to see if I had a physical copy of the letter but there wasn’t one. “Just move on,” I said to myself, trying to seize the day and just let it be. Ten minutes later I tried again; how can I seize the day when I might have a letter telling me that I am going to have my organs pulled apart by someone I have not yet met? This time the link worked and I was in the hospital mailbox. The letter didn’t contain the words ‘we are going to pull apart your organs’, which was a relief. They went for the standard template of time, place, person I would be meeting. A bit boring but understandable. Some may find ‘we’re going to pull apart your organs’ a little too direct.

As I left my friends house, I called my parents to tell them. Once I had hung up I think it all hit me properly. I sat on the train home, holding Lucy, thinking about what might come next. In my head, I bounced between telling myself that it was good and that I need to do this to survive, whatever this was going to be. Then I thought about potentially being under general anesthetic for half a day, about a knife cutting away at my organs, about waking up in a hospital bed and not being able to see anyone that I loved. It should have made the train journey go quickly, but it didn’t. As my mind played mental table-tennis with itself, my eyes evaluated the tube map over and over again, counting the stops before I got home. Lucy the puppy was sat on my lap. She was getting irritated as I wasn’t letting her on the floor. I could see her eyes surveying it for any crumbs that she could lick up. London has been a revelation for her. As you walk her down the street, you have to constantly look out for stray chicken bones and other food that has been carelessly discarded. It is everywhere and she loves it. I didn’t have the patience to deal with her at that time and it was another thing that was stressing me out.

By the time I finally got home, I felt stressed. It took me a few hours but I managed to get out of that headspace. It has come back a bit at times, though. Last night I lay awake in bed for an hour or two. I wasn’t focused on it the whole time, but it regularly seeped back into my mental. It never felt like I was struggling to get to sleep, to be fair. I’d watch something on my phone, listen to a bit of music, read a few articles. Anything to distract myself. Eventually I fell asleep but I don’t remember when. Anna was up at 4:30 this morning for work; I vaguely remember waking up and looking around as she got ready, but not really. Luckily I slept more and I’ve felt energised today.

I’ve spoken before about how quickly humans seem to adapt. We felt it during the Covid lockdowns and I’ve felt it throughout my journey with cancer. For six or seven months, the chemotherapy cycle was everything. None of it was enjoyable, but I made it work. I’d make plans with friends to take my mind of it, joke around with the staff whenever I was attending appointments at the hospital and I’d think of things to write in the blog. It all kept me busy; the time flew by. Post chemotherapy, it took about a week to start winding down from it. Not having these regular appointments anymore started off feeling very scary. As I resumed living a somewhat normal life, I realised that it was a blessing. I can be more independent again – there really is life after chemotherapy!That feeling stuck and it felt like I’d taken a big step towards beating the cancer.

Why did it feel like that, though? I’m barely through the first phase of a complex journey – ever changing and unpredictable. Perhaps it is a defence mechanism. Maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to feel like that; it did help me enjoy life much more while it lasted. Now I have appointments looming over me again and my expectations are building and building. What are they going to say? Will I finally get some concrete answers? Why can’t I just relax and let whatever it is, just happen? Doubt is back and the reassurance of familiarity is gone; no more appointments at The Christie hospital, no more nurses and doctors I recognise. It is all about Manchester Royal Infirmary now. I’ll have to make new connections, learn new processes. Who knows what I’m going to go through in those hospital buildings.

So, this blog post is more for me than anyone else, and it is to remind myself of a tough truth: YOU wanted this, Dan! You wanted them to contact you quickly, you want the surgery (or whatever other procedure you may need to get you to the surgery) and these days you have spent enjoying your life should be the motivation for getting back to normal life, cancer-free and rocking a badass scar. You can tell people that you were attacked by a shark or were involved in a skydiving accident. Or, you can tell people that you went through a major operation, after months of chemotherapy, and likely before months more of chemotherapy. Through the years of abdominal pain, the weeks spent jaundiced in hospital waiting rooms, the shifting diagnosis, the shared tears with your family and loved ones, the sleepless nights and the fear-filled days, you fought on. You did all of that. That should be enough. Sharks and skydiving aren’t necessary. It’s time to sink or swim, and although you hate swimming, you’d rather do it than sink.

‘Sink or Swim’ with Lucy

Results Day: The End of Chemotherapy Scan

The Road to Recovery

Covid Check Mid-Cooking

I woke up earlier than usual this morning. My eyes were reluctant to open, but my brain had made up its mind. Time to get up. I searched for my phone with one eye half-open; the other one hadn’t got the memo yet. Sunlight was peering through a gap in the curtains so I knew it wasn’t too early. 5:58. Ok, it was earlier than I thought.

Lucy the puppy was snoring and I could feel her body heat against my leg. She likes to sleep underneath the sheets, either in between my legs or between Anna and I. Sometimes we go to sleep with her in the bed, then wake up and she’s in her own bed on the floor, fast asleep. We used to wonder what we did to insult her during the night, but now we tell ourselves that she was probably too warm. I think it’s Anna’s snoring personally, but I do have a tendency to move a lot in my sleep so it might be that. Maybe I’m always dreaming of being a ninja, spin-kicking cancer in its ugly face. If that is the case, I haven’t remembered a second of the dreams. Maybe one day I’ll remember it all and experience it so lucidly that it feels like it is really happening. For a few hours, I’ll be content, beating up cancer with no regard for poor Lucy in between my legs. She’d experience each kick as a sudden jolt and eventually decide she is safer in her own bed. I’d try and fight the urge to wake up in the morning, reluctantly doing so in the end. “You were moving a lot in your dreams again,” Anna would say. I’d smirk to myself – “I was kicking cancer’s ass.”

The appointment with the oncology team wasn’t until 15:15. Before that, I had a bloods appointment scheduled for 14.15. That means that we didn’t need to leave the house until around 13:15. I knew I had time to kill, so I made a few plans in the morning to keep myself distracted. Those plans didn’t account for me waking up at 6:00am. They expected an easy-breezy wakeup time of 8:00, maybe even 9:00… make sure I’m well-rested for the big appointment – ready for any adrenaline hikes or dives that may kick in. 6:00am was unacceptable. I got up and went to the bathroom, then came back to find Lucy had gotten out of the bed and gone into her own. Proof – it was Anna’s fault all along, not my sleep-kicking. My only fault had been going to the bathroom…which meant I had moved…which may have disturbed her into going into her own bed…damn, maybe the evidence isn’t as conclusive as I thought. Luckily, I then slipped in and out of sleep until about 7:20. Better, but not perfect.

Once I got out of bed, I fumbled around the house a bit – cleaning this plate, playing with that dog. I then settled onto the sofa to watch a few YouTube videos. I can waste an impressive amount of time on YouTube. If it was a sport, I’d be in the regionals at least, maybe even pushing nationals. This session was short-lived, as my mum rudely interrupted me – “Want to do yoga, Dan?” she asked in her incredibly polite, caring and enthusiastic tone. “Yes, I’d love to,” I replied. How dare she suggest doing something useful with my time; I proceeded to get the yoga mat out, feeling deeply offended.

I then showered, before heading to ProCook with my good friend Jack. We’ve known each other since I first moved to Alsager when I was about 9 or 10. For all those years we spent playing on his farm, going to gigs together and attending football games, we had a first today. We’ve never been to a cooking store together. Who would have guessed it? He was after a set of knives, and I was flirting with the idea of purchasing a new baking tin. Adult life is one hell of a ride. Jack got his knives, and I left disappointed. They only had 23cm tins and I needed a 20cm one. I hoped this would be the only emotional turmoil I’d experience today, but there was a certain event lingering in the air that was threatening to topple it. I should probably just move on to the exciting bit, shouldn’t I?

We got to the hospital at around 14:00. Anna and my mum found a spot in the cafe, whilst I went and signed in at the desk. It was the receptionist that knew me well. For the first time ever, I approached and she simply said “Hey Daniel. Bloods and a meeting with your consultant today, correct? You’re all checked in.” Usually, you have to reel off your name, date of birth, home address and confirm that you are at the same GP surgery. I had to check if my mouth was open I was so shocked. So this is what it’s like to be a local at your local pub? You walk in to be greeted by a smile before someone tells you exactly what you were just about to order. I’ve never got to that level of familiarity before. It felt good. I’m going to start drinking in my local pub more.

I remember learning about pathetic fallacy in English when I was in school. The teacher used a scene from a film to help explain the concept. It was a sad scene, and as the actor sat there crying, the shot panned to a storm outside the window. She said that the weather was being used to emphasise the human emotion being displayed. This was called pathetic fallacy – the use of non-human elements to express or emphasise human emotions being portrayed in the scene. As we sat waiting for my name to pop up on the appointment screen, I couldn’t help but notice that it was torrentially raining outside. It had been sunny earlier in the day. I hoped this wasn’t a reflection of the results to come; if it was, there was a higher power mocking me today. That higher power was probably also responsible for giving me the cancer in the first place, so it was most definitely not the worst thing they’ve ever done to spite me. Perhaps it is the kind of humour I appreciate – the thought alone made me chuckle a little bit in a cynical kind of way.

The bloods appointment was approximately 30 minutes later than planned, which is reasonable. It went fine – we chatted about my tattoos and I complimented a few of hers. She told me that the one on her arm cost her £13 because her local tattoo shop does random tattoos for £13 on Friday the 13th. I remember my best friend Luke telling me about that once; it’s quite a funny concept. As if I needed more proof that blood nurses were vampires – this one brought up Friday the 13th out of nowhere. She’s mocking me… She managed not to lick her lips too obviously as she pulled the blood from my veins. I did notice her getting a little bit excited, though. She thought I hadn’t noticed, but I see everything with these monsters. I counted the canisters of my blood before walking out of the room – she had filled four. Is that a light snack or an evening meal? One day I’ll just ask, I’m sure they’re happy to chat about it once they know that the secret is out.

I made my way back to our spot in the cafe. More waiting, more rain, more anxiety. It was building fast now. My stomach was feeling tighter and I was getting restless. Finally – my name popped up. We made our way to consultant room 18. The nurse took my weight – 76.2kg – checked my blood pressure – a little high but not concerning given the context of the meeting – then she left Anna and me to the confines of the office. Nothing left to say, nowhere to hide. Approximately ten minutes later, the oncologist entered and introduced himself. Here we go…

In summary – the results were not bad. He stated this quite plainly as he began. “I don’t have any bad news for you today,” he said. I think those words may have been more reassuring in his head. In reality, that immediately said to me “he doesn’t have good news for you either, Dan. Prepare yourself,” and I was right to think that – he didn’t have any decisively good news to give us. In fact, I learned something that has worried me quite a lot, but I’ll come back to that.

The tumour has not shrunk any further since the halfway scan. My tumour markers in my blood are very low, which he emphasised was a good thing, but the main tumour seems to have stabilised at 2.1cm. That means I still have a net reduction in tumour size over the whole of my treatment, but it was disappointing news. The thing that I learned which worried me was in regards to what has previously been called the ‘cyst’. There had been mention of a cyst throughout the period when the doctors were trying to diagnose me. At first, it was the cyst causing all the problems, then the cyst had given me pancreatitis, and then they stated the cyst may have a soft tumour on it. The last time I heard about it was when I was finally diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at King’s hospital in London. I had asked the doctor who delivered the diagnosis if the cyst was in fact the tumour, but he had told me to forget about the cyst as it is no longer important. The oncologist today told me that they did not know what this “mass” was, but that it had reduced in size slightly. He said this could only be a good thing, but what concerned me was the whole ‘not knowing what this ‘mass’ actually was’ thing. Apparently, they know it is full of liquid, but they do not fully understand whether it is another tumour, whether it is a cyst with a bit of tumour attached to it or any other infinite amount of possibilities (the last part is my own interpretation). Hmm, concerning.

He told me that the case is being handed to the surgeons at Manchester Royal Infirmary and that if I do not hear from them within a month, to contact my surgeon’s secretary. That was it – that was the news. It felt extremely deflating, both because we did not get any news which felt overtly positive, but also because we had misunderstood the process again. We thought we would be getting more information on the next steps, but all we were told was that my team of surgeons will review the case and make a decision on what is next then contact me. That may be fully removing both the shady ‘mass’ and the tumour in surgery, which would be best, or it may be some lesser version of that, perhaps using the Nano-knife technique instead. I asked if anything but outright removal would be with a view to extend my life only and not cure, but he couldn’t answer as he was not sure. There were many things he couldn’t answer because he was not a surgeon. It makes sense, it just wasn’t what I expected. I thought The Christie managed my case, and the surgeons get involved in it when they are required. If that was the case, it would be reasonable to assume the oncologists would be able to answer more of the questions. That is not the case, though, so I understand that the oncologist’s role is now to hand over to the surgeons who will take the lead on the next part.

It was hard to not feel deflated. We were all upset as we left the hospital – knowing that we should feel positive overall but also feeling like we hadn’t quite got the final hammer blow that we wanted against the tumour. Now more waiting, and not knowing whether the next meeting will be when we find out the next steps, or if that meeting will be another ‘we need to discuss this further before making a decision’ type of meeting. The journey home was long and the traffic was terrible as it was rush hour. We didn’t speak a lot in the hour and a half it took.

As I got in the car, I’d just played whatever was last played on my Spotify. It was the ‘Moody’ mix playlist that Spotify makes automatically for me – perhaps not the best choice given the context. At one point, Bon Iver’s Holocene came on, which is a song I always find very emotional and moving anyway. I sat listening to him sing the words “And at once I knew, I was not magnificent,” and found it hard not to buckle under the weight of the situation. The song conjures up a lot of emotion in me at the best of times, but it felt extra hard to process during this moment. I’ve always found it strangely comforting too, though. The lyrics mean different things to me at different times. Today, it reminded me that I am another person trying to fight cancer, hoping I’ll have plenty more years to enjoy with my family, fiancee, friends and my dog. I want to see my siblings get married and have children, I want to buy a house in the countryside, push for a better job, support my friends when they need me, run 100 miles just so I can say that I could, and did. I want to see my parents grow old and be there for them as they do. None of it feels as tangible anymore; it feels like a far-fetched dream, as if I am asking to win the lottery. But I’m not magnificent and neither is my story – there are thousands of people attending appointments at The Christie every day who are suffering and hoping for the same things. There have also been tens, maybe hundreds of thousands who have hoped for the same things walking around that hospital’s corridors. A lot of them will have gotten their wish, but there are many who didn’t too.

So, as the chemotherapy fog gradually clears over the next few weeks, I walk into a new sort of fog. No longer under that cover of protection that chemotherapy offers, I’m forced to address new realities about the future. Whilst on chemotherapy, you have a specific battle to refer to. You have side effects, illnesses and symptoms to fight. You feel like you’re in a struggle, and although that struggle sucks, it is real and you know it is for the best. There’s a number you can call whenever you need help, where someone picks up quickly and reassures you, telling you where to go and what to do. I didn’t realise that at the end of chemotherapy, I’d actually not be under the care of The Christie anymore. Now, The Christie is writing a referral to Manchester Royal Infirmary, who will be the new custodians of my case for the foreseeable future. Of course, this is a good thing. It is the next step in the journey, and a full removal of the tumour is still on the cards. It just feels like a shock and I’m struggling to come to terms with it. New faces, new processes, new unknowns. I’ll adapt to it, I know I will. It just leaves you feeling stupid – like you should have realised that this was the case, but you didn’t because you didn’t listen closely enough or weren’t smart enough to comprehend it. I’m getting the same self-critical feeling about the lack of positive progress in the second half of the treatment cycle – was it my diet, the fact that I couldn’t exercise as much over the past 3 months, did I not sleep enough to allow the chemotherapy to be as effective? It all feels like my fault, and now I’m paying for it.

Whatever happens, I know that I have incredible support around me. In reality, the news today was always going to ultimately be that it is now being passed to the surgeons for review and they will decide the next steps. I know that, but it doesn’t make it feel any better. We didn’t walk away with a big headline – THE TUMOUR HAS SHRUNK. Instead, we walked away with more questions and fewer answers. But it is back to being patient and embracing the unknown. The chemotherapy did shrink the tumour overall and even managed to shrink the unknown ‘mass’ too. Just focus on that and hope that the surgeons decide they can get the bastards out. If they can’t, hope that whatever path we are embarking on is still one that leads to being cured, not just being made to be ‘more comfortable’. After all, Nigel’s story tells us that there are people who are magnificent, and I haven’t been fully excluded from that category yet. The sun came out as we waited in traffic on the way back from the hospital – that higher power really is mocking me today. Maybe it’s in jest, communicating that things are going to be fine. Let’s hope so.

Illegitimi Non Carborundum

The Chemotherapy Diaries

Another treatment day rolls around… I’m not used to having to do things on Monday mornings anymore, so it’s been an anxiety-filled morning. My treatment day is usually Saturday but, because of the last-minute change of treatment after I failed the platelets test last week, they couldn’t fit me in on the weekend. That meant it was a Monday morning job for me. I make the platelets test sound like a qualifying round for a sport. Your platelet count is a key thing the doctors check in your blood tests before treatment. If they are below 75, it is a sign that your body is still working off the chemotherapy. Mine was at 72, so I was just below qualification the permissible level to undergo treatment.

I assumed traffic would be terrible so we set off at 7:45 for a 9:00 appointment. We usually leave 45 minutes before the appointment time, for reference. It appears we benefitted from the working from home revolution as there was very little traffic. The majority of people seem to have swindled Monday as a concrete working from home day. I can’t blame them. We ended up getting to the hospital 30 minutes early. Very punctual, but very annoying. 30 minutes less in bed. Woe is me.

Not only was it Monday morning, but I was feeling extra tired. Lucy decided that she would get up at 4am last night and start whining by the bedroom door. The notion that she may have needed the toilet did occur to me, but I was desperate to sleep more and not entertain it. She had the last laugh, as I heard her little feet tapping around the room a few minutes later and could smell something rather unpleasant. “Why didn’t I just take her outside,” I said to myself as I searched the room for the source of the smell. Being a small dog, Lucy’s ‘presents’ can be hard to find. Eventually, I found them behind the armchair in the corner of the bedroom. Thank you very much, Lucy. Four whole presents and it isn’t even my birthday…

This, in turn, meant I had to wake my mum up to help me clean up and wash Lucy. Being on chemotherapy, the internet advises that you regularly clean dogs if you are handling them and stay away from cleaning up their mess. The reason for this is that you are very susceptible to disease and infection when on chemotherapy. A Dog’s excrement and urine are filled to the brim with dangerous stuff, apparently (not a vet, or a medical professional; this is very much in layman terms). You really do have to love them to want them, folks. They’re not just for Christmas (or chemo). Anna is away all week in London so I’m heavily relying on my mommy again for these tasks – she’s a saint.

I struggled to get back to sleep after the incident. It was the typical scenario – laying awake in bed, knowing that you really need to sleep, and getting absolutely none as a result. My mum had a similar problem, she informed me in the morning. Lucy had the same problem too, but she can just sleep all the time and do nothing because she’s a dog. She poos constantly in the house, is a threat to my entire being and robs me of my sleep, but I still love her. For now.

Having had an extra week off for two cycles in a row, I actually was a bit nervous about treatment today. Not nervous meaning I was actually worried about the treatment, nervous because I felt like I was forgetting how to do the treatment. It’s stupid really. All I do is show up, sit down, get stabbed in the chest, then try and not feel too awful until I’m allowed to leave. There’s nothing to it really. I feel nervous about the needle going into my chest again, how shit I’ll feel during bag 2, and that the nurses won’t give me compliments about my cake. Well, the needle in my chest was fine, bag 2 was shit but it’s always shit and the nurses COULDN’T STOP TELLING ME THAT MY CAKE WAS AMAZING. Boom. Two out of Three ain’t bad. Take that nerves, you irrational, irritating irritators. I hate you bag 2, you are good for absolutely nothing (other than potentially saving my life and killing cancer).

The way that bag 2 makes me feel has actually evolved. I seem to be slightly better at handling it based on the amount of nausea I get now (or don’t get) during its delivery. That negative aspect of it has definitely declined in the past 2 sessions. It used to be crippling and I would have to sit with my eyes closed and head between my legs. I’d have a steady flow of nurses approaching me and asking me if I’m Ok, telling me to have the injection. “I’m fine thanks, I don’t need the injection,” I’d say, eyes still closed, head still framed by my knees. “Daniel…” they would start, indicating that I was in trouble, “just have the injection. It’ll make you feel better. You only have to stay an extra hour in the hospital. We aren’t that bad are we?”. This is what happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force. “I’m good, it’ll go in an hour or so,” I’d say, trying to sound as confident as possible, knowing I was mostly lying through my teeth and not moving my head from its brace position.

Nowadays, though, bag 2 just makes me sweat a lot, gives me a runny nose and leaves an awful metallic taste in my mouth during treatment. The nurse told me that the metallic taste is actually from bag 1, but it only ever comes on during bag 2 so I refuse to believe it. Bag 2 is responsible for all of the evil in the world, bag 1 is just an innocent bystander.

During bag 2, I overheard another patient asking if they could have some anti-sickness tablets. She had told the nurses that she didn’t need any more at the start of her treatment because she had a large stash at home; anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer will know that you build up your own little pharmacy over the course of treatment, so you start to decline the drugs after a while. The trouble was, her treatment had made her feel sick straight away, something which didn’t usually happen, she said. I learned all of this by being nosy and eavesdropping on their conversation.

The nurse told her that she would need to get the pharmacy to prescribe them and that there was a big wait – approximately 3 hours. Hearing this, and knowing that I had been given a new box of anti-sickness just 20 minutes before, I interjected. “I’ve got loads of anti-sickness if you need some,” before turning to the nurse, “I assume everyone gets prescribed the same pills for it, right?” The nurse said yes, then quickly walked away whilst saying “I’m not allowed to witness this happening!” She turned and winked at me, indicating that she wasn’t too mad about the situation. I gave the woman a strip of pills and she wished me well with my treatment. Hopefully, I purchased myself some good karma, although my intentions were completely selfless, of course.

Today contained another sobering moment too. You get used to these when you regularly spend time in a hospital, especially one specialising in cancer. I’ve mentioned before seeing a young boy with leukemia sitting in the M&S cafe with his dad, and another one where I witnessed a woman ringing a bell indicating she was cancer-free. These two examples demonstrate the different ends of the scale of experience – from negative to positive. Today, it was towards the negative end of the scale.

A man who was sitting next to me was just starting treatment for the first time. From what I could gather, his diagnosis was bleak and the treatment was palliative. He didn’t seem very old at all, I’d guess about late 30s, early 40s. I heard him say various things, about how his mum is struggling to deal with his diagnosis and how he doesn’t have anyone to look after him at home. He sat with his eyes closed as the drugs pumped around his body. I wish I could write about how I said some inspiring words to him, or simply offered him my best wishes. None of it felt appropriate. Everything was too personal and I felt bad for even overhearing the things I did.

It served as yet another reminder of all the things I have to be grateful for. My treatment is still aiming to cure, it isn’t looking to make my time ‘more comfortable’. I also have an amazing set of family and friends around me, as well as my fiancee. There’s so much to be thankful for in my situation; I try my best to always remind myself of that. These situations make you realise it more than ever.

The rest of the treatment actually went Ok. All of the nurses were lovely as ever and made the whole experience infinitely better than it should be. After about 4.5 hours of being hooked up to the pump, I was packing my things up and leaving with the baby bottle (of chemotherapy) attached to my port. My mum wasn’t going to arrive for about 20 minutes so I found a table in the waiting area and watched patiently out of the window at the drop off point.

As I waited for my mum to pick me up, I saw the man who had been next to me in the chemotherapy ward walk outside and light up a cigarette. He was pacing, staring at the ground. I just sat watching him and wondering what was going through his head. I wondered how he could smoke after chemotherapy – he had seemed quite distressed on the ward, I guess that emotion making him want a cigarette was more powerful than the sickness of the drugs. Maybe the cigarette even relieved some of that tension for him. It was hard to blame him, especially if he’s addicted. His body was probably crying out for something normal, maybe even something destructive.

The novel I’m currently reading, Don’t Point That Thing At Me, reminded me of the mock-Latin phrase ‘Illegitimi non carborundum’, often translated as ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’, despite not actually meaning this in Latin. The source of the Latin-English pun has been attributed to the British army in World War 2, and I’ve always loved it for its very British-style humour. It manages to perfectly symbolise both hope and cynicism at the same time somehow. I like to think of it when things feel hard. As I watched this man pacing and smoking his cigarette, I said it to myself in my mind. I wished there was a way I could communicate it to him which would adequately get across the good sentiment, but there wasn’t. He’s been in my thoughts for the rest of the day.

Unfortunately, my state descended a bit as the day wore on. Although the treatment went well on the chemotherapy ward, it started to deteriorate in the waiting room. I got diarrhea and started feeling really nauseous. Sitting in a tiny public bathroom in the hospital, I was starting to feel horrible. The car ride home was a struggle. Every sharp turn, speedbump and roundabout made me want to throw up. My puppy Lucy was on my lap and her body felt hot, which made me feel extremely uncomfortable. I’ve spoken on here about how I’ve always had a weird phobia of feeling too warm. Sitting and sweating is my idea of hell, and it is emphasised by other things being hot. Sometimes I even hate it when people touch me if they feel too warm because it makes me feel weird. There’s a strange thing I have where in certain moods I want my food to cool down before I eat it too, not because it’ll burn my mouth but because it makes me feel uncomfortable. I don’t know what it is, and I attribute some of my obsession with exercise to it. Keeping myself very fit means my resting HR is lower and I sweat less; that’s how I feel anyway, I don’t know how valid it is in reality. Lucy’s hot body laying on my lap was making me feel worse, but I persevered. She’s too cute to disturb.

I got home at about 14:30 and got straight in bed, which is where I remain now. I’ve been in and out of sleep all day. Things still feel positive. I’ve had much worse first days in a treatment cycle, but I’m back to walking the hard miles. Having that extra week in the last two cycles has been a blessing and a curse, really. It’s great to have that third week off, feeling better than ever and enjoying life more than I’ve been able to in a long time. The mentality shift when you are back at treatment is tough, though. It feels like the time off makes you less prepared to deal with the realities of the current situation. I fight on, though. Cycle 9 has begun and I only have 3 more to do before the next scan. After that, I finally find out if I can have the surgery. If I can, it will probably be followed by a day of pure euphoria, followed by the realisation that I am going to be having a major operation and all the dread and anxiety that brings. If I can’t, it’ll be adjusting to the next thing that the oncology team throw at me and trying to stay positive about things.

Illegitimi non carborundum

Smooth Seas Don’t Make Good Sailors

It has been a week of luxuries so far. I spent yesterday afternoon getting a special massage for cancer patients before spending the evening in a beautiful spa. My sister and brother in law got it for me for my birthday. They also paid for Anna and my mum to come along, and Anna also got some treatment. It certainly was a treat. I’ve only ever had sports massages, so I assumed all massages were an exercise in masochism and self-perseverance. Certainly not the case for a chemotherapy massage. I lay there with my eyes closed, listening to a backing track of birdsong and harp. The biggest issue was trying to stay awake. It was lovely. During the middle part of the massage, I spoke to the masseuse about my cancer. “I think patients with cancer should get massages free on the NHS. They need them more than anyone.” I’m sure she was just trying to please me, but it worked. She should run to be prime minister; I’d vote for her.

I should have predicted that something would disrupt the positive wave I’ve been riding. Last Thursday, I learnt that my tumour had shrunk and that the tissue around the artery looked healthy. My case was put forward for discussion at the MDT meeting yesterday. This is where it is discussed with multiple disciplines, including the surgeons. I got the follow-up phone call today. The decision is that I am not ready for surgery. I’ve been sentenced to completing the entire chemotherapy cycle – another 5 sessions (totalling 2.5 more months of treatment). Following this is another CT scan at the hospital, another meeting to review the results, another wait for the MDT meeting to discuss, and another call where I either get the green light or a discussion on the next techniques we’ll be harnessing to get me ‘surgery-ready’. In tune with the blog’s name, I’m experiencing the ebb and flow of cancer. It’s exhausting.

I should have been prepared for this; I’d even convinced myself it was what I wanted. “I’d rather complete the whole chemotherapy cycle before having surgery,” I said this morning as I sat in a cafe with my mum and two good friends. The tone was confident; I thought I meant it at the time. As the oncologist spoke the words later in the afternoon, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.

It isn’t that I needed to be surgery-ready per se. There is still a certain insecurity about my position with the cancer that I think I’m fighting against on a more personal level. I still want to hear the experts tell me, “It’s going well”, “You’re nearly there”, and “We’re winning”. Medical professionals don’t tend to operate in a world where such colloquialisms are helpful. Today, the oncologist’s sentences came out like he was reading a legal document: plain in tone and feeling, apathetic to the meaning of the words. It’s fine; it isn’t supposed to be a criticism. They want to deliver facts, and they don’t want you to misconstrue the information they’re communicating. These people also do this all day, every day. You must have to numb yourself to the pain and suffering you so commonly witness; even if you don’t do it purposefully, I assume it will just happen regardless. Suppose my job was to steal milk off children. I’d probably start to embrace my inner-Thatcher eventually and look forward to that sweet, creamy taste, even if it was at the expense of innocent, defenceless children.

Maybe I, as the cancer patient, should be given a form after diagnosis saying, “How optimistic would you like your doctors to be with you?” I can then rate it on a scale of 1 – 5. I like to think I’d go with a 3, a nice grounded 3. I’d be tempted by the 5, though. Let’s see how optimistic these doctors can get. I want party poppers going off every time I walk into my appointment. “CONGRATULATIONS, DAN! You still have cancer, but one day you might not anymore!” the oncologist would say. I’d start crying as they cut the cake, with the word “DANcer” written in icing on it. Other doctors and nurses would come into the room in a conga line and call me boring for not joining in. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea…

The phone call was at about 15:00 this afternoon. After 30 minutes of feeling deflated, sending the Comms out about the surgery (or lack of) via the usual channels and wallowing in the news, I did what I always do to clear my mind… I went running. It felt good; I did my first sub 1hr 10K since being diagnosed. Anna ran the first 6K with me too, which was nice. She wasn’t too happy with the route I planned as she said it was too hilly. If I was being cynical, I’d tell her that she would call a route too ‘hilly’ if it had too many curbs that she had to ‘climb’. Luckily I’m not a cynic, so I’d never say that. A shoutout to Lucy puppy too, who provided plenty of cuddles during the 30 minute wallowing period. She’s always there when I need her most. Anna is too, of course. I’m not picking favourites here.

Telling Lucy About the Phone Call

As I ran on my own during the last 2K, the phrase ‘Smooth seas don’t make good sailors’ came into my head. I know the phrase from a song of the same name by the band Neck Deep. They won’t be to everyone’s taste; if you are an avid follower of the blog, you probably realise my music taste is all over the place. Part of the chorus is as follows:

But smooth seas don’t make good sailors,
Jump ship and head for failure,
Find yourself a tragedy,
Slowly lose your sanity

I thought of these lines in my head as I ran along, listening to a completely different song on my headphones. It made me feel better. I’ve already faced so much adversity in my journey with cancer; the news I received last week is highly positive. That is what I need to focus on. Being surgery ready now would have been a total outlier, and I’ve had my fill of positive news for now, back to the struggle.

To refer to this as a setback would actually be insulting to real setbacks in life. I fell into a bit of a trap. Last Thursday I received very good news; news so good that I wasn’t expecting it. That meant some part of my brain, beyond the part I can control, really expected the good news to continue coming. I really felt prepared for anything in my own head and thought I was reserving any preconceptions of what may happen today. Unfortunately, that was a lie to myself. I REALLY wanted to be surgery-ready, and I knew that deep down, but I didn’t admit it to myself. I wanted to be told that the chemotherapy was over. I wanted to finally face the next horrible step towards being in remission, the major surgery. But, this was a reality check. From every survivor that I have spoken to who were inoperable before starting treatment, none of them was surgery-ready before completing the full 12 sessions of chemotherapy. This is the common road to tread; there is barely a disruption to speak of with the news today. Sometimes, the reality of a situation does not stop you from feeling a certain way, though. I felt disappointed as I heard the words. I had to let that feeling simmer.

I feel like I’m bouncing back, though. I’ve had a lovely extra week off chemotherapy after a tough cycle. My birthday weekend, when I was expecting to be having chemotherapy, was full of fun, family and friends. This week I’ve felt the best I have since I first went into the hospital. My energy levels are better than ever, and I’ve been thriving off the positive news last week. Now, it is back to reality. 2-week treatment cycles, mouth ulcers and uncertainty over the future. It’s all good; I just need to get back into the swing of things.

In other news, I recently mentioned that the local paper, The Chronicle, had contacted me about my Run 40 Campaign, but I hadn’t heard anything else about it. It turns out that the story was printed but has not been put on the website. Today, a good friend I met through the blog met me for coffee and gave me a gift. She had framed the article I did not know existed. What a wonderful and incredibly thoughtful thing to do! I’m not sure if you’ll be able to read the article from the picture below, so I’ll also include the PDF for those who want to read it. The author regularly refers to me as Mr Godley, the only taste of being a teacher I will ever have in life. I’m not sure I like it. Good job I have no desire to become one; I’ll leave that to my younger (and far brighter) brother, Greg.

Article in The Chronicle