A cancer diary: 'When the time comes to fight for your life'
- Credit: Maurice Gray
Back in 2019, photojournalist Maurice Gray shared his cancer diary with us.
Nearly three years on from his original diagnosis, he brings us up to date with a new series of features about his treatment for the ‘Big C’.
In the second part, he remembers his first hospital appointments
A cancer diagnosis turns your whole world upside down.
My wife suddenly became a ‘nurse’ for a long-term patient – me.
And what we both hope to convey by sharing my diary is the reality of three years of cancer treatment – our feelings, the procedures, hurdles and side effects.
In the last three years we have met a professor, consultants, doctors, nurses and the volunteers who do the running around and even make the refreshments, always with a smile, who are on this journey with us.
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They are amazing.
Between them they work 24/7 to keep us alive and it is humbling.
In my last diary, I mentioned our GP who was immediately ‘on the ball’ and arranged for me to have a blood test, X-rays and a visit to the ear, nose and throat consultant.
On the day of my appointment at the hospital with the ENT consultant I waited in a large waiting room until my name was called. I was accompanied by my wife who, being a former personnel manager, absorbed everything, which was extremely helpful because by this time my lumps had got larger in my throat and it was affecting my hearing.
The consultant and his nurse were very attentive.
My first encounter was with the nasal scope – a gadget which to look at reminded me of a former prime minister’s necklaces (say no more!).
It was pushed into my nose and I was still talking when I felt it at the back of my throat – cough!
It didn’t hurt, but was a little uncomfortable.
It showed the consultant everything on his monitor.
He printed off a picture of the culprit and he explained that there was a possibility it was cancer, but to be sure he arranged a biopsy on my throat to confirm his professional thoughts.
So the next stop was another part of the hospital where we met two young ladies, a surgeon and a nurse, who explained how they were going to ‘snip’ a piece from the throat lump for the laboratory to assess and that it would take a few days for the results to arrive.
I was asked to lay on a couch, side on. I asked if I should remove my shoes and I was told that I could keep them on.
I heard some rustling sound like paper: “Just going to put some gauze against your neck, then give you an anaesthetic”.
I didn’t say a word, closed my eyes and a voice said: “Just a little sting”.
I just about felt a slight prick, heard some clicking noises, then another voice said: “All done”.
I was amazed, they even showed me the samples taken on glass plates for the microscopic diagnosis.
Two weeks later we returned to the ENT consultant, clutching hands, and said that whatever the results showed we will fight it – which is easier said than done.
My wife accompanied me throughout and became, as well as my ‘nurse’, a mentor, minder and ears, for which I am so extremely grateful.
We went into the office and shook hands with the consultant, but knew that would not make any difference to the diagnosis. He was very courteous and asked us to take a seat.
“Well, I have bad news and good news,” he told us. “The good news is that you will not need any surgery, but the bad news is that you have got cancer: Non-Hodgkin’s Follicular Lymphoma, Stage 3 Grade 2, a blood cancer and therefore I must refer you to Haematology in the Colney Centre [at the hospital].”
So the next call was to Haematology for more blood tests, then a ‘PET’ Scan – I thought I would have to make an appointment at a veterinary clinic for this one!
However, it turned out to be a Positron Emission Tomography scan in a massive articulated lorry, by the side of the building, where patients had to wait in a squatty reception (just past the mortuary, which wasn’t very encouraging!).
I waited my turn to go down the metal steps in the freezing cold then up to the unit in the side of the vehicle and was shown to a small cubicle, where after an injection in my hand of Fluorodeoxyglucose I had to wait one hour before the scan, to allow the drug to circulate around the body.
The hour dragged, but eventually the door opened and I was ushered back up the iron stairs to have a pee (apparently compulsory before the scan!), then back down the iron stairs into the scanning unit.
I removed my jacket and laid on the unit and was told at intervals to breathe in and out and sound noises for 20 minutes.
Then it was back to the hospital, and by this time we were meeting up with a professor of haematology.
I had imagined a professor as someone with large specs, halfway down his nose, bearded and a bit grumpy, but no.
The professor was a really nice, polite, smart young man who spent a great deal of time explaining what the future was for me and the options for treatment in the form of chemotherapy.
He explained, saying: “For your condition, we can offer three types of therapy”.
He went on to explain there were two choices of chemotherapy and a trial that I could be assessed for, but it meant I would have to go through all the tests again.
The nurse, who had sat discretely in a corner, handed me a blue folder full of literature and booklets containing all the information that I could take home to consider.
She also handed me a card (like a credit card), with a direct 24 hour telephone number which I could contact at any time, if I had any problems.
That was reassuring.
I had been allowed nearly an hour with the professor and his nurse and during that time my wife and I were reassured, good or bad, that we were able to take it.
We had no choice.
We were told that the type of cancer I had, Non-Hodgkin’s Follicular Lymphoma, Stage 3 Grade 2, cannot be completely cured, it could only be partially cured, but hopefully controlled.
During that time, I asked the professor what would happen if I did not take up the treatment offered.
This was when he bluntly said: “Three months at the most before serious problems would set in, but if you have chemotherapy treatment I can offer you a lot more years”.
He added: “This type of cancer can reoccur, sometimes in five-six years, and then the treatment would start all over again”.
The PET scan results had showed that there were no other cancers elsewhere in the body (I thought I had enough anyway!).
But, they needed to do a bone marrow check to see if it was in the bones.
“You will get a phone call with a date for that,” the professor said.
We left the office with the nurse reassuringly saying: “The professor and his team are great, so, if you have any problems, or queries just contact us, you’ve got the number”.
At this point my wife just turned back to the professor’s door, tapped gently and I heard her say: “Do you have a couple of minutes, please?”, and went in. I am not certain, but I have a good idea what happened.
Best left at that!
Next the appointment arrived for the bone marrow test.
I immediately had visions of my wife who had a massive bone marrow procedure at Addenbrooke’s Hospital a few years ago, which I sat through.
We waited in the waiting room, mainly talking about how much had happened since the GP appointment, in just six weeks.
Then we were called into a room where a young lady doctor greeted us as if we had been invited for afternoon tea!
She was very down to earth, and with no hassle said: “We want some of your bone marrow, it’s a simple procedure and we take it from, (here it comes) the hip, so we can get a good sample.”
In my next diary, I’ll tell you about the bone marrow test, the start of chemotherapy and the side effects.