It is now a year since my six months of post-operation chemotherapy finally drew to a close and I moved from fighting bowel cancer medically to dealing with the after-effects mentally.
So many medical procedures took place during my first year fighting cancer – 2015 – that it came as both a shock and pleasant surprise when last Christmas arrived and I was still intact.
It was even more pleasing to get the result of the biopsy from my latest colonoscopy in August and be told by my consultant surgeon Doug Aitken that the little polyps removed were entirely benign with no worrying features.
As soon as we heard we went ahead and booked our first holiday in three years (much of the year before my cancer was discovered was spent driving back and forth to Sunderland to see my wife’s mother who was very poorly with Alzheimer’s disease).
In case you’re interested, Ann and I holidayed in the Portuguese island of Madeira for a week at the end of September. It was just the break we both needed – lovely place, nice people and very relaxing.
We recharged our batteries and the trip also changed my fortunes as I was contacted with two new freelance job offers while sitting in the hotel rooftop bar: one from a business school in Bergen, Norway and the other from a university in Prague.
I also met up with an old friend from the UNICA universities in capitals’ network after she posted on Facebook that she was also holidaying on what she calls ‘paradise island’.
Since getting back from Madeira, I’ve been busy, busy: finishing off some research journalism for a university college in Oslo and starting the new English editorial projects for Bergen and Prague.
So has it all been plain sailing?
I never expected things to get back to normal immediately after 12 months of heavy, heavy cancer treatment, which began with combined chemotherapy and radiotherapy back in January, 2015, and ended with six months of chemo from July to December. Oh! I mustn’t forget the two operations the NHS managed to squeeze in between?
But the move from being a cancer sufferer to a cancer survivor has been greatly eased with help from Middlesbrough’s wonderful Trinity Holistic Centre. They stepped in at crucial points with group counselling and other activities, like aromatherapy to support the recovery process. See my blogs Helping cancer patients through the dark patches and You are not alone: life after cancer to get an idea of what this excellent resource funded by voluntary donations offers to those preparing for treatment and people trying to get their lives back together after cancer treatment.
I’ve already blogged about my sleeping problems, which got so serious earlier this year that I was prescribed sleeping tablets by my GP, but as he cautioned I quickly became dependant on them. It has been a struggle to wean myself off pills using a combination of mindfulness techniques, alternative herbal medicines and counselling, which the GP suggested, to help reduce post-cancer anxiety.
During chemo, I had a routine of getting up before 7am for breakfast and my first dose of chemotherapy tablets, which must be taken with food. Then I’d usually go back to sleep for a few hours. The next dose of chemo I had with my tea at 6pm. You need 12 hours between treatments.
Now that routine is over, I’ve tried to get back to normal with early morning swims – a banned activity during my chemo year to avoid picking up an infection – and walks in local parkland to try to get fitter.
The chemo tablets and associated anti-sickness tablets had a sedative effect that helped me to relax. Now that prop to getting a good night’s sleep is gone.
The herbal supplementary medicine I take for anxiety is ‘Dormeasan Sleep’ (about £10 for a 50 ml bottle from health food stores). It works best for me when I wake up during the night. I take 30 drops with a little water and usually get back to sleep eventually.
Ongoing issues with bowel movements don’t exactly help my anxiety, either!
When I was virtually housebound during 2015 this wasn’t such a problem. But now I’m branching out again, I worry where the nearest loos are and take a few Loperamide or Imodium tablets to help avoid any mishaps.
Mobile twilight app
Sometimes I read rather boring articles on my mobile using the ‘Twilight’ app to cut out red glow and dim the screen while waiting for the Dormeasan to do its stuff.
I know you’re not supposed to use mobiles at night, but just lying there in the dark doesn’t work for me. I also take an anti-sickness tablet or some Paracetamol if I’m still awake after an hour.
It is not the perfect solution – and sometimes it does take until 5am before I drop off completely; but I now only take a sleeping tablet about once a week to make sure of the occasional full night’s sleep.
Daytime, I don’t have the same anxiety issues – apart from fear of the aforementioned ‘poo attacks’ – and keep myself active with swims and good walks.
I then usually get down to up to four or five hours work, writing stories about international higher education and other English-language editorial tasks for European universities and my website.
So, as my first full year as a cancer survivor draws to a close, I’m reasonably pleased with the progress.
I realise I am not completely out of the woods and it does alarm me – as it did this week – to learn of yet another journalistic colleague dying of cancer.
I suppose it shows we are all different and that illnesses can strike at anytime with varying consequences.
Catch cancer in time
Remember there are over 200 different cancer types and it is often a question of catching the cancer in time.
Raising awareness of this is what drove me to start writing these ‘Cancer-talk’ blogs. Particularly with bowel cancer, the warning symptoms are often pretty clear and shouldn’t be ignored, as it can be treatable if caught in time.
As for my recovery, you can never be sure what is round the corner. But I’ve just signed-off my counsellor and feel well on the way to overcoming my sleeping disorder. If four or five hours sleep was enough for Mrs T as prime minister I reckon the same will do for me.
Half yearly check-ups
Following the positive news about the latest biopsy, I will now see my consultant again every six months for the next year and then just annually unless I suddenly lose weight or see blood again in my poo again (it was the red poo that first raised the alarm in August 2014).
I feel 80% back to normal – not bad going after a pretty tough year-and-a-half.
Of course, you need to be alert to the possibility of the cancer returning, but you can’t let that stop you living for the day.
Last point: If you ever find yourself in my circumstances do think about writing a blog. It can help to put things in perspective and raises awareness of what cancer is and what to look out for. But only write when you are feeling positive!
+ Grow a beard and raise money for Beating Bowel Cancer in December. See here for more details.
+ Find out how you can support the Holistic Centre at the James Cook University Hospital, Middlesbrough. They have a text donation facility:‘ THCE60 £5 ‘ to 70070 or you can click here. ( https://www.justgiving.com/Trinity-Holistic/ )