I was told I had bowel cancer in November 2015. I felt like the room was collapsing inwards. The consultant kept talking, but the words ‘bowel cancer’ were racing around my mind. I was forced to embark on a long, unwelcome journey. Two coloscopies, multiple CT scans and MRI scans, a mountain of letters and leaflets, one Macmillan nurse and a stoma later, I’m still here!
I prepared for the worst-case scenario. I sorted out my pension and insurance for my family, then faced the time I needed to tell them. My mum is in her 80s and is widowed, so I worried about upsetting her. Telling my younger brother was also difficult. I was diagnosed around the time of his birthday, so I didn’t tell him straight away. The next time I saw him, we went to a football game, and I didn’t think it was appropriate to tell him from crowded football stands. Unfortunately, I had to tell him over the phone.
I discovered that I would need a stoma when I got a call from my Macmillan nurse. She told me that the doctors had conducted a meeting and decided the best course of action was to remove the tumour. I would be left with a permanent stoma. I was delighted to see a light at the end of the tunnel, but I did have one question. ‘’What’s a stoma?’’ The nurse explained that an opening would be made on the tummy, and the rectum would be sewn up. No more crosswords on the toilet! Output would empty into a pouch attached to my stomach, but she assured me that nobody would be able to tell that it was there.
Frankly, the pouch could have been on my forehead if it got rid of the cancer. My dark sense of humour will get me into trouble one day, but it’s how I keep going. I was with my daughter Lisa, wife Carolyn and granddaughter Sami one day when Sami said, ‘’I read that one in three of us will get cancer, so Grandad has taken one for the team.’’ We all burst out laughing. Humour really does help.
My surgery was scheduled for January 2016, so it was in the back of my mind during the Christmas before. My granddaughter Abby asked if I was scared. I saw her tears well up when I admitted that yes, I was scared. I felt guilty, but I wanted to be honest, and for her to know that it’s natural to feel upset or afraid. I couldn’t help but think that this could be my last Christmas, but the rum and cokes helped me to forget about it.
I had to have laxatives to prepare for my surgery. The evening before, I’d planned to watch the Manchester City vs Liverpool game, but I was busy running to the toilet! After the surgery, I spent four days recovering in hospital. My daughter-in-law collected me and although I wanted to walk to the car, she insisted I use a wheelchair. She happens to be a nurse at the same hospital, so I knew better than to argue. We picked up chips and gravy on the way home and I was really looking forward to tucking in.
I slept on the sofa for a few days so I wouldn’t have to use the stairs. On the first night, my pouch leaked. Output was running down my leg and blood was dripping from the wound where my tumour was removed. I remembered how my dad always used to say that no matter how bad things seem, there are always people in worse circumstances than you. From that moment, I stopped feeling sorry for myself.
I had about five weeks off work, where I was very sore. Sitting down was uncomfortable, but I tried to walk to the local shop and go out for coffee to keep myself moving. A few weeks after my operation, I was told that the oncologist had examined the removed tumour and decided that I needed six months of chemotherapy, followed by radiotherapy. Without chemotherapy, there was a 50% chance that the cancer would return.
I had my first appointment at The Christie Hospital. I went alone because I didn’t want to drag others around with me. I was lucky that the chemotherapy didn’t make me sick and I tried to keep fit by walking. Before my diagnosis, I had arranged a trip to France and Belgium. I am Vice Chairman and Vice President of the Rochdale Fusiliers Association, and the group were going to visit the World War One cemeteries and battlefields. My oncologist said it wasn’t an ideal time to go away, but I was determined. We travelled to Belgium first and then travelled by coach between locations. I hadn’t done any travelling since before my stoma, so I was slightly unsure of what to expect. We visited the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme, where my great uncle was killed. 2016 marked the 100th anniversary and I laid a cross at the specific village where he was killed. The trip felt very worthwhile and gave me a much-needed break.
I felt extremely lucky to be cared for at The Christie. It’s a world-renowned hospital and rightly so. I spent a night there when I got an infection, where they gave me antibiotics and worked their magic. I was allowed home after less than 24 hours. I live quite a distance from the hospital, so I was lucky to be able to have my last six chemotherapy sessions at one of their ‘outreach’ clinics, which turned out to be a converted lorry in an Asda car park! I know that supermarkets sell just about anything these days, but I didn’t think they did treatment for bowel cancer!
At my final treatment session, the nurse told me ‘’Don’t take this the wrong way John, but I hope I don’t see you again!’’ I’m not the only one that uses humour to lighten the mood. A CT scan revealed that I no longer needed radiotherapy, as I was now cancer free. I had follow-up scans in 2017 which showed I was still free of cancer. Now, I’m not due another scan for five years.
During my treatment, my granddaughter Chantel and her husband welcomed a baby boy. They named him Brook, and his middle name is John, after me. I feel privileged to have such a wonderful family. Having a great support network and a positive mindset really helped me.
My son-in-law’s friend was recently diagnosed with bowel cancer, and I was asked to let him know how I coped with my own diagnosis. I told him how I focused on family and friends and tried to control my mindset at a time where my body was out of my control.
I’ve faced lots of challenges before, and I’ve come through each one. In my military career, I was shot at multiple times with some very near misses. I also had a grenade narrowly miss my vehicle. On one occasion, I was alone on a bridge when intelligence reported that there were gunmen lying ready to fire at me. I had to run across the bridge, completely exposed and my heart thumping, but luckily, I was uninjured. By the age of 20, I could have been killed three times. Now, I’m 64 and I’ve managed to survive everything that life has thrown at me.
I explained to my son-in-law’s friend how I found it helpful to maintain normality. Going out for a drink, meeting your friends or just getting out of the house is important. I went to work throughout my chemotherapy and I even attended a football game with a chemotherapy bottle attached to me!
When the devil would whisper in my ear that I couldn’t survive the storm that was coming, I would tell it, ‘’I am the storm.’’ Now that I’m cancer free, I can either live in fear of it returning or move forward and live my life. I have chosen to live my life.