Living with Cancer in the time of Coronavirus

These are strange times. Living through the current Coronavirus crisis is something probably nearly all of us could never have envisaged. Living through it while undergoing cancer treatment is even more surreal.

As I have now finished my Radiotherapy treatment and have a date for my Surgery (21st May), I thought this was a good time to reflect on where I have got to.

It was only 2 months ago, but the day I got my cancer diagnosis almost seems like it happened in a different world now, Of course, in late February we knew something was amiss, but, even after the diagnosis I carried on working as normal, videoing events in Reading and London, and delivering a workshop in Glasgow, which involved my first ever trip on a sleeper train. In the runup to my first Radiotherapy session I had to negotiate with various people in the NHS about getting transport to the sessions. Although we were not yet in lockdown, I was increasingly uneasy at the prospect of travelling from Huddersfield to Leeds by train and then getting a bus from Leeds Railway Station to the hospital 25 times. After the intervention of my GP it was eventually agreed that I could get NHS-provided transport to each session. And that has been something of an illustration of the changes that Covid-19 has brought about. For the first few sessions the NHS transport consisted of an ordinary taxi, and usually involved detours to pick and drop off other patients on the route. Then it switched to always being an NHS Patient Transport ambulance, but still with other patients on board, and then, for the remainder of sessions, it was always me as the only patient, as the NHS policy switched to one patient per vehicle. It wasn’t always an ambulance as the army of volunteers recruited to help the NHS during coronavirus kicked in, and I met some lovely people who were giving up their own time and using their own vehicles to add to the NHS’ resources in these troubled times. A couple of times I even had to do some impromptu digital inclusion work as new volunteers struggled to come to terms with their mobile phone-based reporting systems and satnavs. But 25 times I travelled to St. James’s Hospital in Leeds, and 25 times I came home again.

The Radiotherapy itself was pretty straightforward. You lie on a bed and are strapped into a mask which is designed to make sure you don’t move during the treatment (mine is pictured above). The machine rotates around your head, and then emits a concentrated dose of radiation into the targeted area for about 5 minutes. I never experienced any kind of discomfort during the sessions. I did, however, experience some side-effects, although it is difficult to distinguish which of these are directly attributable to the Radiotherapy, and which could be caused by the multitude of strong painkillers I have been taking throughout the period. The painkillers were necessary because the cancerous tumour was impacting on my nerves causing intense pain. But, whatever the cause, I have had bouts of nausea at various points during the treatment, as well as times of extreme tiredness. There was one particular weekend, early on, when, without the discipline of having to get up for Radiotherapy, I slept for the majority of the two days.

And as the treatment progressed, the lump and the area around it got more and more sore. For the last two weeks, or so, I had to visit the nurses after every Radiotherapy session to have what became an increasingly elaborate dressing applied to protect the skin and reduce the soreness. I, of course, put up with this because it’s a necessary part of banishing the cancer.

And so, things have progressed quite quickly in the past week. On the day following the end of the Radiotherapy I met with the Surgeon who will be doing the operation to remove my tumour. At that point I was told it was likely to be 6 weeks before the surgery could take place. Two days later I got a phone call to say that, pending a satisfactory outcome to an examination on 19th May, the surgery would actually be conducted on 21st May, so the 6 weeks has been truncated to three. The surgery will involve removing the tumour and grafting skin from my back onto my arm. I will need to spend a week in hospital, part of which will be spent draining the wound. Following that, I am told that it should take around a month to regain most of the function of my left arm. And, as I may have indicated, I am left-handed.

So, I am approaching the surgery with a certain amount of trepidation as well as impatience as I want to get it all over with. The only other surgery I have had was 20 years ago on a broken leg, and I don’t have good memories of that with, in particular, the intense pain I felt after waking up, plus the fact that the shape of my oesophagus resulted in a tear caused by the anaesthetic tube which, to this day, causes me to experience acid reflux. I have made sure that the medics are aware of that latter factor. But the fact that the end of the process, and, hopefully, the end of my cancer, has been brought forward is a sense of relief to me. Apart from anything else I need to get back to earning an income.

And that brings me back to Coronavirus. Who knows where we will be in June / July when I should be back to full health? One thing that is pretty likely however is that conferences in the traditional sense will be thin on the ground. I will need to pivot what I do, but, above all else, I hope to have my health, and that overrides everything else.

There are a small amount of lovely people who have been providing me with some financial assistance to help me get through this situation. I won’t say who they are because I am not sure they want me to publicise it; but I am extremely grateful.

If you feel like helping me out in any way, pleas get in touch or you can support me on a regular basis via Patreon or as a one-off here.

Thanks for reading. I hope to see you all again when this is all over.