I have been having an affair with cancer since 2010. After I read a blog by a fellow traveller, Deborah James’ (@bowelbabe) and met her in the reception area of the Royal Marsden’s oncology day unit, I wondered if blogging about the disease might be cathartic. Deborah Alsina, CEO of Bowel Cancer UK, suggested that it might also help others. So that’s why I have titled this piece in a way that might surprise you. I am focusing just on the last couple of weeks but I should give a bit of context.
I was first diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer in 2010. I was 46. All the usual clichés apply. I was devastated, my world would never be the same again (it wasn’t) and I worried for my wife and our two young children and my wider family. After seven years, I tend to talk about being in a relationship with the disease. It’s an on-off relationship. Latterly more on than off. I was originally diagnosed just over a year after I had done the Edinburgh marathon. I had bowel surgery in August 2010 followed a rough time with a chemo concoction known as folfox in 2010/1. I eventually returned to work in September 2011. Two months later a scan revealed lung metastases on my left lung (so now stage 4)-more surgery. I was just about to return to work (again) in January 2012 only to find that I needed surgery on my right lung preceded and succeeded by 3 months of a different chemo (folfiri). After nearly two years of pretty constant treatment, I got a break. I returned to work at the end of 2012 and, from a start point of 2 miles in twenty minutes, I worked my way back to a successful tilt at the Great North Run (a half marathon) in September 2014.
“Dramatic pause”! At my next scan, May 2015, the disease was back. And since then, I’ve been having pretty much continuous chemo treatment. The recurrence of the disease was a catalyst for the family to move from Nottingham to Dublin in time for the start of the school year. I continued treatment in the Marsden (two/three days every other week) and I continued to work (I do short term contracts these days) until April last year. The first treatment went well, then we had a few setbacks (eg failed radiotherapy) but we seemed to get the disease under relative control by Christmas. So in January this year I switched treatment to a tablet called capecetabine. The attraction of tablets was that I could fly to London first thing on Tuesday, get my treatment and take away two weeks supply of tablets. One day every three months in London as distinct from 2/3 days every other week.
Buoyed by a relatively easy time with the tablets, I started to look around for a bit of contract work so that I could earn a few quid and not feel guilty going to the pub! I had to explain the gap in my CV in numerous job applications by saying that I had had a course of chemo, that it was now complete and that I was ready to return to work. There remained a risk of fatigue so I applied for jobs that I hoped I could do within a normal work day. That of course deterred some recruiters. Not Paddy Power Betfair though, who asked me to come and see them.
I had a scan booked for Monday at the Marsden and was getting the results on Tuesday. I was seeing Paddy Power on Wednesday. I was convinced that the tablets were working and was all geared up to receive the scan results and continue treatment on Tuesday. However, when my old friend Doctor Kaz explained a delay in starting the treatment because they were studying the images, I knew something was up. Needless to say, the drugs were not having the desired effect. Long story short, we were going to go back to visits to London every other week, 48 hour chemo pump and travelling home by train and boat (I am not allowed to fly with the pump).
There’s always a period of disappointment when the results are not good. My immediate thought was to cancel the Paddy Power interview. An hour later, Prof Cunningham appeared on his round. I asked him two questions-could I go for a holiday to New York in July and what about the interview scheduled for the following day. To the first question, “you’ve got to live and make sure you have insurance”. To the second, an unequivocal “go for it”. If I make a habit of blogging about cancer, Prof Cunningham will feature prominently. A hugely respected internationally renowned consultant oncologist, he is one of the greatest human beings I have had the privilege to meet. So with his encouragement, I decided to go meet Paddy Power the next day.
I wouldn’t describe the interview with Paddy as tough but Reg did ask me a few technical questions and I didn’t quite score 100%. His delightful colleague, Faye, tried to reassure me by pretending that she had not known one particularly esoteric point until they had been prepping the questions!!! In any case, the interview went well and I thought I was in with a chance when enquiries were made about availability to start and so on. Of course, I now had to explain the impact of the news received the previous day-namely that I needed 2 days off every other week. Reg didn’t blink. On Friday Paddy Powers’ HR guys called me to say I was being offered the job-that they just needed a letter from my doctor essentially to confirm that it would not be harmful to me to start work (their duty of care).
Delighted with this news, I set off on Saturday morning for a family gathering I had organised in Ennis, County Clare. The idea of a family reunion in Clare had been hatched at my mother’s funeral last year, when a few of us had been saying how we Murphys never seem to meet any more other than at funerals. As I was off work, I took the lead in setting up a dinner and we ended up with 55 people accepting the invitation. I won’t go into the evening in detail but I will say that it was as good as I could have hoped for. Of course, I was delighted but the success of the evening was 100% about the people who showed up. We don’t all know each other so well but no-one left before midnight, the chat was brilliant and the tail end was still hanging around at 2.30am.
I woke up on Sunday and took my dog, Gertrude, for her morning walk around the Fair Green in Ennis. Reflecting on the previous evening, I could only think how lucky we were to have started to get to know a whole new bunch of cousins and their partners and families. My wife and daughter headed back to Dublin because Katie is studying for the leaving cert. I spent the afternoon on the Cliffs of Moher with my son, Luke, my cousin Pat, his wife Aileen and my new bestie, their daughter, Evelyn. We had lunch in Vaughan’s in Liscannor-amazing oysters!
When I was diagnosed in 2010, I was COO of a small business. I had, in my own mind, made it. I worked long hours, I drove a big car, I enjoyed nice holidays and I was stressed out of my head. A memory of the time of diagnosis that I am not proud of is hoping that I would need chemotherapy because that would allow me more time off work. How messed up is that?
At the time of diagnosis, I remember reading a one page Observer profile of Lance Armstrong (pre scandal) which was headlined “Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me”. And that message chimed with me. I don’t think cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me. But, if I had not got sick, I’d still be living in England (I love England but it’s not home), I’d probably be earning more money, have a bigger car and taking more luxurious holidays. But I might also be dead due to stress or on meds to manage it. I wouldn’t have had so much time with my children (admittedly not something they always appreciated!). I wouldn’t have had the time (or possibly the inclination) to organise a family get together like the one we had inn Ennis. I would not have had some very precious time with my mother before she died. In fact, my mother’s terminal illness last year forced me out of a low mood and I am grateful that I was able to see her always smiling face every day I was in Dublin between April last year (when I had to stop working) and her death on 29 June.
So in a nutshell, I am grateful to cancer for helping me to become more like the person I want to be. I am a grateful that I am in Dublin and that I can visit my dad regularly and have him round for dinner regularly. I am grateful that my wife is in a job she really enjoys and has her beloved brother and sister in law living nearby. I am grateful that I have had time to coach my daughter Katie for her exams. I am grateful that I can watch my son Luke playing soccer, Gaelic and hurling (he just been promoted to the senior hurling team in school-not bad for a proud English boy who just took up the sport last year). Above all I am grateful that I now feel more pride in having facilitated the family re-union than I ever did in having a big car and a “big” job (in a small pond). Many of my friends have genuinely big jobs and are themselves. I think I wanted a “big” job in order to be someone else. It took cancer to make me realise the real truth of the oft-quoted Oscar Wilde remark “Be yourself-everyone else is taken”.
And I am grateful to Paddy Power for giving me the chance to get back on the horse. I can honestly say that I have never felt as happy as I do today. And all I am wanting is to stick with it for the next 9 months because I like to deliver. And there are new drugs coming on stream all the time and I know that if we hang in there something is coming that will allow me to plan more than 9 months ahead….