This would be tough. I need to be robust to get through cancer. My thoughts drift to when I was nineteen. My elder brother, Marky, saw an article in the local newspaper entitled “Teessiders Can Take It” in bold letters. It was a recruitment drive for the local Parachute Regiment battalion – part of the Army Reserve (formerly known as the TA).
“You think you’re fit, but I bet you can’t get into the Paras,” Marky goaded.
I’d watched a documentary about the Paras a couple of years before and it looked hard. I thought about it for a moment. “Fuck it, I’ll give it a go,” I replied. We shook hands and smiled.
A doctor once said I had athlete’s heart as my resting heart rate was much lower than normal, about forty to fifty beats per minute. It’s a syndrome caused by sustained aerobic physical training and I’d done a lot of running for years. I decided to test my fitness on a local route of about three miles.
Beginning from home, I set off at a blistering pace on the road toward a country estate, then stormed over some hills in the direction of a village and powered back to the house. My lungs were bursting as I drilled down the home straight and hit my stopwatch at the finish. With hands on my knees, I coughed up blood and spat on the pavement. I looked at my run time. It was fourteen minutes and fifty seconds. I knew the battle fitness test for the Para reserves was to run a mile and a half in ten and a half minutes (reducing to nine minutes, forty seconds for the regular Paras). I’d worn trainers instead of boots, but I felt ready. It was time to step up to the plate.
I went to an open evening at the drill hall and saw an aggressive-looking soldier dressed in black DMS boots, green trousers, combat jacket and maroon beret with a badge over his left eye. He directed me up the musty stairs to a room. Loads of people were crammed in there, all dressed in civilian clothes. No one seemed to know anyone else, so we sat in relative silence. The dim light from the windows cast shadows on the oak-clad walls. After a while, Captain Hodgson, who looked in his early forties, entered and announced this course would not be easy.
“Listen in! This training is progressive, which means there’s going to be a gradual development of stamina and skills. The recruit cadre is split into three phases. First, will be the build-up of your physical training in terms of improving strength and speed, which leads to the intensive circuit training and longer runs, carrying heavier weight. In this time, we teach basic military skills such as weapon handling, first aid and map reading. Second, at the end of this training, your mental and physical determination will be assessed in P Company. Third, only a few of you will go to the Parachute Regiment depot at Aldershot. You must pass all three phases to earn the right to wear the coveted maroon beret and regimental cap badge. You’ll turn up every weekend and each drill night on Wednesday evenings. A lot of you will leave this course of your own accord – others will be binned – but we will fail most of the rest of you at P Company. Any questions?”
Silence around the room. We were led away to sign a few papers to begin the recruit course. First of all, we had to do a medical. I was given a quick check over by the doctor and passed. I was officially a Para recruit. There were a few weeks before the recruit course began and I was given a brief programme of runs for preparation. I set about doing the runs at an exhausting pace and threw in lots of other exercises for good measure. During this time, somebody told me “You’ll have to be able to run to be a Para.” If nothing else, I had endurance. But this was going to be a hard test. I still felt rock bottom after dropping out of Newcastle University, so I had to prove to myself that I could be good at something.
I check in and fill out some forms. This is my first experience of a cancer hospital and it’s really depressing. There’s a pungent smell of disinfectant and floor polish. All the other patients in the waiting room are twenty to thirty years older than me. Some look in quite good shape, but one woman looks frail, wearing a trademark cancer headscarf. Her eyes are drawn and she hobbles in, leaning on her husband. No one gives her a second glance and I realise this is not out of the ordinary around here. Eventually, I’m called to another waiting area and pass the refectory on the way. I look in the windows and see groups of people huddled around tables filled with hot drinks. Some people appear normal, but there are the inevitable bald patients, the deathly pale and others with an intravenous drip on a stand. I make a mental note that cancer hospital canteens don’t look much of a laugh, so I’ll stay away from those places.
I reach the waiting area for the scan and sit down, trying to make sense of it all. A nurse calls my name and I’m led into a small room. She prepares my left arm and slots in the cannula needle. A small amount of radioactive liquid is injected into my arm as a tracer. This will travel to places where glucose is used for energy and show up the cancer because it uses glucose in a different way from normal cells. After the injection, I wait alone in a room as the radiation spreads around my body. When the time comes for my scan, I lay on the bench and operators make sure I’m comfortable. I’m told that I have to stay absolutely still for at least an hour and it will be better if I keep my eyes closed, put my arms down by my sides and breathe slowly. Some music will be played to help pass the time. The scan will produce an image of the radioactive tracer in my whole body.
As the scan begins, the machine hums and it’s claustrophobic in the doughnut-shaped scanner, but I don’t mind. The first song to be played is Take On Me by a-ha. I mull over the words in my head as the scanning machine whirs overhead. Cancer has taken me on and I will find out what I’m made of. There could be only two possible outcomes: Either I’ll live or die. But I’m going to fight harder than I’ve ever fought before. I remain calm. I’m convinced I can survive. This will not end me. As I try to think positively, I hear the scanner humming back and forth, clunking overhead, only centimetres away from my face. Afterwards, I talk it over with my wife, Michelle, and mention the song.
“Anything that takes you on has no chance,” she says.
This is the single most important thing anyone has ever said to me.
My next appointment is at Mount Vernon Hospital, in Northwood, for PET and CT scans. They will illustrate body tissues and show the cancer in more definition. These scans are key to determining a survival rate as they can show the stage of cancer. I eat nothing for at least the recommended six hours before the appointment time, but am allowed to drink a little water.
I drive alone to Mount Vernon Hospital for the scans. When I’m nearly there, typical for the area, a car behind flashes its lights and bangs its horn as it closes up and tailgates me. The driver unsuccessfully tries to overtake on a corner. I look down and see I’m travelling just under thirty miles per hour in a thirty zone. I stay calm.
As I turn left into the road running along the back of the hospital, the driver swings out to overtake on the wrong side of the road at the same time. I slam on the brakes and my car skids to a halt diagonally in the road. The car behind somehow manages to avoid hitting me and we remain motionless for around a minute while I stare daggers in the mirror, making the driver behind appear uncomfortable. Eventually, I drive away and make sure I go a steady twenty miles an hour all the way to the entrance of the hospital while the driver behind keeps his distance. I pull into the hospital and he accelerates off. Parking the car, I crank on the hand brake and sit for a moment. This is an important day and I will not tolerate a dickhead in a hurry.
After a few slow breaths, I get out and walk across the car park to the reception of Mount Vernon Hospital. My first operation at Bishop’s Wood Hospital was in the next building along. I remember looking at the cancer unit then and thinking, those poor bastards in there. Now, here I am, taking my place as a poor bastard.
A few days after the surgery, I’m in bed at home. My discharge from hospital is all a bit hazy, but I’m definitely home. Michelle has a night out pencilled into her diary and, for obvious reasons, she doesn’t want to go out. I tell her I’m alright. I feel fucking awful, but she deserves time to unwind a bit. She agrees to meet her friends, reluctantly. But she wants me to call her if I feel unwell. Michelle leaves and I have pain shooting through the middle of my head. I can taste chemicals and blood. I should check on the kids, who are asleep in the rooms next to ours, but can’t get up. My head’s pounding, the room is spinning and I feel sick. And I’ve already taken the maximum pain relief and other meds allowed.
“Boo hoo… you’ve got cancer,” I say aloud and force myself upright.
I stagger down the hall to check on the kids. They’re both fast asleep and tucked up in bed. I ease back into my bed, completely exhausted. I think about the moment. I’m hard on myself, but it’s for good reason. Self-pity will only weaken me and I need to be strong to make it through. I have to suck it up, be positive and believe I can do this.
I have a few appointments to see Mr Hogan over the next week and he tells me the surgery went well. The tumour is out and he has taken a biopsy. He cheerfully says he’s “Skewered” my stomach in order to put a PEG in, which makes me smile. The PEG is a plastic feeding tube going into my stomach, with a triangular blue plastic cap on the outside. It isn’t overly comfortable, but it’s going to be necessary if the cancer treatment makes me so ill that I can’t eat orally. If I reach that stage, the hospital is going to feed me with liquids via the PEG, which all sounds very cancer-like. The results of the biopsy are good, but I don’t understand the medical terminology Mr Hogan uses. He says putting me into the cancer system will be essential to eradicate the disease.
I soon have complications with the PEG, which pulls on my clothes and gets infected. A mixture of blood and fluid seep into the front of my shirt. There’s a searing pain like I’ve been stabbed in the abdomen which, of course, I have. I make a Friday afternoon appointment with Mr Hogan, who prescribes antibiotics and stronger painkillers. He also arranges to have the wound dressed by a nurse. The wound is cleaned and patched up with silver-based dressings.
It’s early evening when Michelle’s Dad drives me to a supermarket pharmacy to get medication and I double up in pain. I’m rocking backwards and forwards on a chair, holding my stomach with both arms. The front of my shirt is stained with a large patch of red goo. Out of the corner of my eye, I see people staring. I’m a bit distracted, but manage to glare back. After what seems an age, but is probably only a matter of minutes, the antibiotics and strong pain relief turn up and I take the pills immediately. No time for a cup of water, so I just gulp them down. I must look like a drug addict, but I’m in too much pain to care.
Unbelievably, it takes more than a day before the pain ebbs to a continual throb. The next week is taken up with nurses regularly dressing the wound until I’m given the necessary kit to do it myself. I dress the wound every day for months and am in a state of discomfort with that PEG, which sticks out and often gets painfully caught on my shirt.
The consultant loads the scans on his computer and takes some time to review them. I’m studying his face and panicking. After an agonisingly long time, he turns to me.
“It’s good news, the tumour in your nasal cavity is small.”
Relief rushes over me like a waterfall.
“I’ll have that out no problem,” he says, “but, I need to find out the extent of the cancer so take this form to the scanning centre.”
He sends me off for an ultrasound scan to see if there is any sign of cancer in my neck. If cancer cells have got to my lymph nodes, the spread around my body would be swift. With this information echoing around my head, I go back to the scan reception and they see me without delay. I go into the scanning room, take my top off and lay down on the examination table. The doctor puts the gel on the end of a probe and scans my neck area to see if the cancer has spread from the tumour in my nasal cavity. Michelle and I make our way back to the waiting room. After a short time, we’re called back into the consultant, Mr Hogan’s room.
“I’ve looked at the ultrasound of your neck and it’s clear so the cancer is contained. But the tumour is in the worst possible place. It is between your eyes and next to the brain. On the positive side, in all my years of practice, I’ve never found cancer this early in a patient. You are the luckiest person I’ve met with nasal cancer!”
I’m trying to take this in. Mr Hogan continues.
“I was really surprised to find that you have cancer because I can usually tell just by looking at the face of a patient. The tumour is often so big it pushes the face out to a slight convex shape. By this time, the patient has a very low survival rate.”
Then it strikes me. “What’s the prognosis?”
“It’s good. No guarantees, but you have a good chance.”
I try to appear calm, but inside I’m waving my arms around and leaping about with a big smile on my face. We talk a bit longer about the logistics of the surgery and the series of appointments his secretary will book in for me.
“You are going to be very busy. I’m signing you off work for six months.”
Later that day, I think about the shock of being told I have cancer and the best possible result of my scans. For a bad situation, it doesn’t get any better than this. I’m lucky. Then I think about something that stays at the forefront of my mind for a long time. It’s better that I have cancer and not Michelle or the kids. Forty-two is not too old for a clash with cancer. And I’m best placed to deal with this – fit, strong and pig-headed enough to be convinced I’ll get through. Anyway, I really wouldn’t know how to handle it if someone I loved got this terrifying illness. I’m up for the fight.
Only a few days later and it’s the night before the operation. I try to watch a film on the sofa downstairs, but lay awake. My thoughts are focussed on the malignant tumour that has invaded my head and is trying to infect the rest of my body to kill me. I can feel the pulse of the constant throbbing inside my nasal cavity. I know now this is the tumour. I have a letter beside me with the words “Diagnosis: Squamous cell carcinoma” in bold print. It’s a lonely night with little sleep. Just me, the film, a tumour and that letter.
In the morning, I’m weary and get a lift to hospital with Michelle. This is the big one. I do the usual procedure: Sign the consent form; put the hospital gown on; cannula in my left arm; see Mr Hogan and Bill the anaesthetist in their green scrubs; and now it’s time to say goodbye to Michelle. I have no idea how she keeps it together. I lay on the bed and am wheeled down the corridor, into the lift and to the operating theatre. This is REALLY serious. Bill is straight-faced and decides to give me the standard anaesthetic, so that’s some comfort. He pushes the solution through the cannula and I feel drowsy. The square ceiling tiles above become blurred. The drugs hit the back of my throat, I cough and am about to go under. One last look at the clock on the wall above the operating theatre doors and I float away.
I come to just over an hour later and the pain is excruciating. The male nurse in the recovery room assesses the situation quickly and gives me a shot of morphine. Everything calms down into a hazy sensation and life seems a lot better. My bed is wheeled back to the room and I’m so happy to see Michelle that I feel the tears welling up. I stay in hospital for two nights, resting up, talking to Michelle and quick visits from our kids. I’m getting used to hospital now, but realise I shouldn’t get too comfortable as it’s easy to become institutionalised.
After brief snatches of sleep, it takes a moment for me to recall where I am. Sluggish, I recognise my surroundings. The house we’d recently moved to. My wife, Michelle sleeping beside me. Our bedroom would have to be redecorated. Thinking about the past was good as far as it went. But I needed to instil a fearless frame of mind.
I’m ragged and serious today as I drive to the Clementine Churchill Hospital with Michelle for my scans. After checking in at the reception, I wait only a short time for the MRI scan. In the scanning room, I take my top off and lay on my back. The bench slides into the scanner and clunks to a halt. Despite the electronic buzzes, beeps, pulsating and thuds over the next hour, I manage to remain still and go into a trance-like state. When the drugs are injected through the cannula, I feel a warm sensation in my throat. Afterwards, the doctor is friendly, but gives nothing away as I’m ushered back into the waiting area.
Before long, I’m told the next patient hasn’t turned up so I can take their slot for the CT scan. This involves stripping to the waist again and reclining on a bench with a foam support under the back of my knees. I remain still as the doughnut-shaped machine buzzes into action and my head and shoulders are slowly scanned. Again, this is easy enough and the scan’s over in about fifteen minutes.
The rest of my day is quiet and I’m in bed at home while Michelle plays with the kids in the garden. It’s good to hear happy sounds, but my weekend is full of worry. I lay awake again the following night, thinking about the cancer. The key is whether it’s spread. If not, I may have a chance. If it has spread, well, I’ll face that if I have to. By the time Monday morning comes around, I’ve lost half a stone in weight and am stressing out. In the evening, Michelle and I go back to the Clementine Churchill to see the constultant, Mr Hogan, for the scan results. I’m uptight and feel sick with fear in the waiting room. Sitting still is out of the question so I fidget, my eyes darting around. I could be about to face terminal news and am terrified. Mr Hogan comes out to get us, but I don’t recall going to his room.
“What are the results?” I blurt out.
“I don’t know, I haven’t looked at the scans yet,” Mr Hogan replies.
Well, fucking look at them! I scream in my head.
A few days later, I had a meeting with the course tutor and received a roasting for producing a sub-standard essay. She was right, of course, because my essay was rubbish. She ordered me to read the set texts again and produce better work. I took it on the chin, left the room, went slowly down the stairwell surrounded by wooden panelling and onto the pathway outside. It was a breezy November morning as I walked, the imposing History building to my right and walled gardens to the left. A few students mingled around the benches. Others sat on a low wall.
Despite the swirl of red and purple leaves, everything looked grey on that late autumnal day. I thought about the awful feedback on my first essay and the monotony of the course. I couldn’t seem to think in the way that was required. It made me feel really stupid. And the hunger was beginning to stab at the pit of my stomach again. I crumpled the essay in my right fist and decided to drop out there and then. Emotionally, I plummeted. I’d unwillingly gone to Newcastle and only did so because I had nothing else to do. This was the wrong time, wrong place. From then on I was going to do what I wanted, when I wanted. A huge weight seemed to lift from my shoulders.
I didn’t know what I was going to do next, but my thoughts turned to this life-changing decision. It would affect where I’d go and who I would marry. With that in mind, I walked through a double archway and toward the Student Union building. I glanced at the placards and banners. Students rattled coins in their yellow collection buckets for the striking miners. Beyond the commotion, with ambition at its lowest, I ran down some steps, turned right and walked away.
Just over a week passed and I ventured to see that tutor one last time. She was expecting a re-draft for the most boring essay in the world competition. I explained that I hadn’t done it. She was furious and ripped into me until I stopped her and explained I was dropping out because I wasn’t ready for all this. To her credit, she was supportive and seemed genuinely to wish me well as I left her room.
I packed a bag, left in personal disgrace and arrived at my parents’ house. Here I was. Useless. My world seemed to implode and all the confidence ebbed away. I lost my sense of self-worth. Those were difficult times. I reflected on quitting my first real test in life. In my bedroom one evening, I fell to my knees and swore never to give up on anything ever again.
I signed on the dole and was left with only ten pounds a week after paying the rest of the cash to my parents for lodging. This was spent on lunches as I left the house first thing in the morning and returned in the evening. I tried to look for work, which seemed a pipe-dream without any experience. I ended up just reading in the local library. I’d got myself into a rut and needed to get a direction. I had an idea for a book, but becoming a writer wasn’t about to happen to someone like me. My life was out of control and events rushed toward me.
The reality of my financial situation soon kicked in. I didn’t have any money of my own. My parents gave enough for rent, bills and food, but nothing to socialise with. I was eighteen, living away from home for the first time and going out was high on my list of things to do. I could have tried to get a part-time job, but was struggling enough with the studies.
My parents had already pre-paid my rent and bills for the term so the only money I had left was for food. It was an easy decision to compromise food for a social life. Roughly speaking, each night out cost about two days’ food. The following week, I went out on both Friday and Saturday evenings which meant, by the time I was nursing a hangover on Sunday afternoon, I hadn’t eaten all weekend and the next few days were going to be spartan. I sat alone in the dingy kitchen at Summerhill House and decided to borrow someone else’s food. There was no choice because I was so hungry. I peeled three potatoes and washed them. I didn’t know how to cook spuds, so I cut them into quarters and looked at the plate. Fuck it. I ate them raw. Hands in the air, I really was that naive.
I went to lectures over the next few days, as normal. Later in the week, Dad had some business near Newcastle, so he arranged to meet me for a beer. We met in a little bar on Newgate Street as it curved toward the River Tyne. When I walked in, Dad was already there and bought me a pint of lager. We talked for a bit and I took a gulp of my drink. The whole room span and I fell off the bar stool, landing on my back with the pint all over me.
Dad stood and asked, “Are you okay?”
“Err, I feel a bit dizzy.” I got back up.
He fired off several questions and soon got to the crux of the matter.
“What have you eaten today?”
Dad looked confused and asked, “What? Why’s that?”
‘When was the last time you ate?”
“A few days ago.”
He bought me a slap up meal. I still remember it. Rump steak, chips, fat mushrooms and tomatoes. Up until then, I didn’t like tomatoes, but I ate them. Feeling too full afterwards, I talked about how bad my University experience was going and admitted it wasn’t for me. Dad took me home so we could talk things over. But, Mum and Dad were firm. They said it was far too soon to tell and I needed to understand it takes time to get into things. I was dejected. Utterly fucking dejected. I barely spoke a word more. It was clear no one else was going to help, so it was up to me. They sent me back to Newcastle. I was about to grow up very quickly.