Cancer free and moving forward

This article was originally posted on 8GramGorilla just after Keith's all clear in August 2019.

It’s been a spectacularly bad year. But finally, on my birthday (dangerous game Dr Nixon!), Keith was given the all clear.

“You’re no longer of interest to us.” Dr Nixon, 13 August 2019

To be told you’re of no interest to your medical team because there are no longer any cancerous cells floating around your person is the best sentence your consultant will ever utter!

But it’s also a very odd feeling to lose the routine of hospital and treatment, to forget medical knowledge, drug regimes and next appointments. Keith’s cancer team have been our constant and they are now focussed on someone else. It’s the perfect outcome and weirdly melancholic at the same time.

Treatment challenges

It’s incredible that we’re now in August. Whilst we all frequently question where the year went, the past 8 months have disappeared in a haze of hospital wards. It’s been bananas, but I’m so proud of everything Keith has ploughed through, smashing the shit out of a terrifying stage 3 diagnosis and treatment. By the time they caught his throat cancer it had spread into 3 of his lymph-nodes and was sitting in the node above his lungs. Whilst treatment has cured him, it wasn’t a smooth process and he suffered with a barrage of complications and side effects, including:

  • Post surgery infection

  • Collapsed chemo veins

  • 3 teeth removed at once (he’s very funny high and awake!)

  • A blood clot on his lung

  • Being so resistant to morphine that one ambulance ran out of options

  • 30 days of radiotherapy

  • The loss of his feeding tube, which fell out of his stomach and into his chest, poking around his lungs and leaking liquid into his pelvis

  • Neutropenic sepsis

  • 290 hours of chemo

  • An arm full of contrast dye where it leaked out of his vein during a CT scan (known as an ‘Extravasation injury’ which is a great word for scrabble)

  • Next level radiotherapy sickness

  • A morphine pump, driving the drug into his arm 24/7 for 6 weeks

  • Two solid months in hospital

  • No swallow

  • All. The. Drugs.

  • Extreme weight loss (2.5 stone)

He even quit treatment at one point but found some energy to keep going

It’s funny to write this list out because it’s easy to ignore and therefore forget how dreadful treatment was, and how perilous Keith’s cancer diagnosis felt. Some things I’ve also learnt about myself:

  • I have a morbid fascination with medical procedures and can watch pretty much anything (blood, tubes, needles, whatever)

  • But I cannot stick a needle into a person

  • I can get to the local Cancer Assessment Unit from our flat in 7 minutes when required (and in emergencies only)

  • I can remember the name of every drug Keith ever took

  • I do not deal well with vomit

  • You can’t be a 24 hour worker, carer, wife, friend and healthy person. Don’t try it!

It’s over and it’s not over

Our experience of cancer and its impact on Keith is far from finished. We have that ‘new normal’ Macmillan talk so much about, with life-long symptoms and regularly torpedoed plans because he’s simply too sick to leave the house. He will be monitored by the team every month or so for a year. However, his all-clear is the best possible result and we are luckier than so many others we’ve met on this mad trip. Exceptionally lucky, and exceptionally thankful to Keith’s wonderful Cancer Avengers and the epic NHS.

To have an organisation ready and waiting to throw all the expertise, medicine and money at you — that they possibly can — is precious. I’ve written personal letters to each of Keith’s primary care team such is the impact they’ve had on us. We couldn’t have navigated it without the dedication, compassion or care of an extensive body of people at the Western General.

Yes, the furniture could do with replacing and the buildings are old and challenging, but the medicine on offer free of charge at the point of delivery is nothing short of exceptional.

Looking forward, vomit free!

Dr Dev, Keith’s Consultant Oncologist, once called Keith his “very zen patient” and he was right (mostly). Keith approached treatment with a stoic focus and resignation that he would eventually get better, no matter how awful it got, and it was inspiring. I am not a good patient and know I would not have managed treatment in the same way.

I’ve never been happier to look back at a year and realise what we’ overcome, and we never lost that dark humour during it. Whenever you look at death, laugh at it - it’s coming for us all at some point!

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