Tuesday 6 February 2024

Cancer: No journey is the same

Cancer humanises us

The news that King Charles III has been diagnosed with cancer brings a sense of shared humanity in its frailty, suffering, mortality, and survival. We are told it is not prostate cancer and it was discovered when he went in for a procedure due to an enlarged prostate. [BBC: King Charles diagnosed with cancer]

As a monarchist, a fellow human being, and a survivor of cancer, I can only wish His Majesty a full recovery and restoration to health and vigour. Yet, a cancer diagnosis can come with shock and a dire prognosis, in my experience, is not a battle to fight as only the real tools we have against cancer are faith and hope. Faith that the medicine, the miracle, or both work and the hope that there is a life after cancer.

This looks serious

I watched as what seemed like Athlete’s Foot on my left sole change from the dark blotches of discolouration into a painful weeping sore, I foolishly thought it would go away even as a little voice in me whispered this was cancer tugging at the heart of my life ready to thrust me off this mortal coil.

Eventually, I summed up the courage to go to my doctor demanding urgent attention as the pain had become otherworldly unbearable. The moment she saw my foot, she said, “This looks serious, I have to refer you.” Immediately, she was on the phone to the hospital and moving heaven and earth to get me in as soon as possible, and I got an appointment for the day after.

On observation by the consultant, he said, this is serious and is related to internal diseases, the internist would be in next week on Tuesday, it was Thursday, and I’ll be the first person he’ll see. I was given painkillers that killed nothing, a placebo would have done much better to manage the pain.

I have heard, then again, I know the pain of cancer, I was eventually on 4 different kinds of pain management, the most effective being a Fentanyl patch that I received a doubled dosage of after a few weeks because that pain just refused to fully subside.

We can treat this

Several analyses were conducted on what were fungating tumours that antibiotics did not seem to affect, having eliminated a diabetic cause, a deep biopsy of the lesions was done, and then the consultant came to my bed to give me the news on the 9th day of my admission to the hospital.

These were his words, “We can treat this, but it depends on how your body can take the treatment, if you can tolerate it, you’ll be fine, otherwise, you probably have 5 weeks.” Two things I took away from this message, the advances in cancer treatment for Kaposi’s sarcoma were such that medicine had confidence, and the fact that mortality loomed 5 weeks away left you with a sense of the gravity of what a cancer diagnosis might mean to anyone.

At that point, I thought, I am going to survive this because I had by then navigated the K├╝bler-Ross Five Stages of Grief, skipping Depression and Bargaining to reach an Acceptance that I spoke within myself, “Akin, you have cancer, what next?” I was already looking beyond cancer and with that, I had my belief, my faith, and my prayers with the support of many friends and particularly neighbours.

Treating cancer, killing cells

I began my 1st course of chemotherapy on the 5th of October 2009, it was to be administered at 10:00 AM but delayed for 3 hours, I did not know that after the course I would be consigned to cytostatic ostracism as the cytotoxic component of pegylated liposomal doxorubicin (tradename Caelyx) meant no one should be in contact with any of my bodily fluids for up 5 days after chemotherapy. Nurses had to don personal protective equipment (PPE) to take blood or dispose of my urine. It was unpleasant, the treatment and the treatment.

As I tolerated the chemotherapy, more sessions were added, and I became more nauseous after every session three weeks apart that by the 5th session, I was given novel anti-emetic medication to help keep my food down for the days after chemotherapy.

When I saw that a 9th chemotherapy session was scheduled, I remonstrated to my consultant that I was planning on restarting my life from the 1st of March 2010 when I was to have received the 8th chemotherapy dose, they stopped with the 7th which I took on Monday, the 8th of February 2010 in the afternoon after I had attended the funeral service of my dear friend Dick van Galen Last who sadly did not tolerate the chemotherapy as well. We had the same oncologist.

By the 4th chemotherapy dose, the cancer lesions had disappeared, and beneath the necrotised skin which had to be stripped off was fresh pink skin which however did not retain that colour.

What to expect

Each cancer journey is different, I count myself fortunate that the body of knowledge accrued from many who had no hope when medicine first encountered these cancers, others on whom experiments were conducted and never survived, then those for whom successes led to improvements and advancements that we further down the line took advantage of because medicine was confident and the treatments could be better managed for good outcomes.

  • Do they know what you have?
  • Do you understand it and how far gone is it?
  • Is it treatable and what is the prognosis?
  • What particular outcomes do you want, what options do you have, some might just want to go home than face gruelling cancer treatment? 
  • How prepared are you in spirit, mind, and body for this journey?
  • What is your source of hope in the midst of adversity?
  • What support networks do you have to draw on?

Hope springs eternal, I believed and saw myself beyond the cancer and probably not much further, but each stage of progress gave the kind of assurance that there will be life after cancer and even if there was none, I would not have died in despair, hopeless, hapless, and without any sense of having lived well.

It is the most encouragement I can give to anyone facing cancer, it is a difficult process, it is part of the human story, some survive, and many do not, we are all grateful for life, but the biggest battle when faced with adversity is whether you can see yourself getting beyond it or life ending because of it.

There is no judgement in what you see, either way, your life and your story would be you lived, you loved, you touched and were touched, and the rest falls into the annals of timeless eternity, you walked this earth and will never be forgotten.

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