“By this time I thought I would be sleeping in a pine box for all eternity, My faith keeps me alive and I know I’m only living By the saving grace that’s over me.”
(Bob Dylan 1980).
“Tell me how it feels?”
It was my mother’s voice; there was no mistaking that. I struggled to say something but a dryness in my throat allowed only a smile.
She clenched my left hand.
Beyond her the ward clock reported 9.30. I drifted back to sleep.
Sometime later I again opened my eyes.
Mother’s own eyes brightened and, as if from her mouth, I heard my father ask: “How is it son?”
I was surprised. I managed to reply: “Fine, but I can’t move.” The ward clock betrayed 10.10.
“Is that all it is?” I asked looking up at the wall, knowing that I had been led to the operating table at 8.30am.
“It’s 10pm,” my father replied.
I gagged for some reason… why had I been out for more than 13 hours?
Over the next three days my parents, surgeons and nursing staff gradually outlined to me the most telling day of my life: a day when surgeons worked tirelessly to remove two thirds of my right lung and repair a damaged aortic artery.
It was an operation plagued with difficulty and twice they thought they had lost me. But working straight through, they never gave up and used finely honed skills to take away the cancer and repair my body.
It was the final stage of a rebirth of life and spirit.
Some eight months earlier, I had been diagnosed with a malignant histio-cytoma of the right shoulder.
The diagnosis followed a year of failing health, tiredness and a strange and growing lump on my shoulder blade that would not go away.
Eventually, after claims of a sebaceous cyst and a muscular haematoma, I was told the truth.
“I dinna ken what it is,” said the plastic surgeon, betraying his Glaswegian roots. “But it looks malignant and we had better have a closer look.”
It was like being knocked down by a bus: cancer only happened to other people. It was a disease, which was difficult to talk about and even more difficult to contemplate.
Now I struggled to take in what I had been told.
A simple biopsy of the lump, as we all learned to call it, confirmed the surgeon’s suspicions. I was quickly booked into a local hospital for immediate and radical surgery.
Whether in shock, or just out of single-mindedness, the diagnosis passed me by.
I responded by reading every piece of medical literature I could find. Somehow I had to cope and knowledge is a weapon.
My sister-in-law was a cancer research specialist at Leeds University Hospital and furnished me with reams of reports about this rare and seemingly deadly cancer.
As I prepared for the surgery, I asked questions of doctors, cracked jokes with my parents and worried for my ability to cope. I saw fear in the eyes of those I loved and suddenly felt alone.
Eventually I cracked… and phoned the Samaritans.
It was probably the most important call I have ever made. I hurriedly explained to the female voice at the other end of the phone that I was not suicidal, but terrified of dying. I detected an intake of breath at the other end of the line. There was a rustling sound as she rummaged through her files and with an uplift in her voice she gave me the number of the organiser of a local cancer support group.
I tucked the number away.
A few evenings later, when the depression hit me again I picked up the phone. Diana was her name. At 38, she was a few years older than me and had recently been given remission from breast cancer. Diana was ebullient, encouraging and above all told me that whether I lived or died was up to me.
“You must visualise this thing that has invaded your body and fight it,” she said.
“Only you can beat it… with perhaps a little help from the surgeons and God.”
That was the key.
Diana and I were to begin an enduring friendship. I was able to reciprocate her help, I hope, when her cancer came back to taunt her three years later. I began to learn the value of friendship.
But what about God?
I had always believed in the saving grace of a higher spirit, but my church-going days had lapsed many years earlier and to be frank I was an atheist.
Somehow I had to find my own strength and faith to deal with this cancer.
The next morning, calmed by a warm early autumn sunshine I walked to my nearest church. After all, if there was a God, this was where he was supposed to dwell.
Gothic, cold and empty, the church provided space to think and pray to whatever was out there.
I made a few more visits to the empty church over the next couple of days before I was taken back into hospital for the surgery.
The operation to remove the cancer and replace my shoulder and back with re-constructive surgery was awkward, at times bloody painful and most of all seemingly endless.
Many days and nights of lying cramped on my left side as the skin grafts and flaps healed. Days and nights to think and determine whether I would recover.
I didn’t fear death… but I did fear pain.
I lay there warmed by the gospel lyrics of my musical hero, Bob Dylan. I still find it difficult to call it God, but a gentle spirit always seemed to be there and never again did I become frightened of this cancer or its likely consequences.
Three months of radiotherapy followed at Cardiff’s Velindre Hospital. Three months of finding more about myself and more about my fellow human beings.
Housed in a small hostel within the hospital grounds, up to 50 patients of all ages and with all forms of cancer worked within and without to tackle their own disease.
There was Coral-Ann, who denied her own malignancy. “It’s just a small tumour and is what you say: benign,” she lied. There was Maureen, colostomy bag in hand, who sipped morphine as she told tales of her childhood in Rhymney.
There was my roommate David, whose pituitary cancer had given him a grossly large head, hands and feet and made him appear like a freak at his job in the local tax inspectors’ office.
“Well boyo, this thing won’t beat me,” he cracked. And it didn’t.
And then there was Andrea.
At 21, she was the sweetest and most beautiful girl I had ever met and we quickly became inseparable soul mates.
Racked in pain, with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a bone cancer, she knew her chances of survival were slim.
“But I’m going to fight it,” she urged, willing me to do the same. “I haven’t yet got my degree, I haven’t learned to drive… and I’m still a virgin.
“I want to live a bit before I die.” She did.
But that did not dull the agony when three years later David and I stood together and shared tears at her funeral.
There is no reasoning in this.
My memories of Andrea remain. Her smile and her laughter as she beat me in a physiotherapy game of football, where she was only allowed to use her right leg and I only my arm. At the end of the game we collapsed side by side on the gym floor guffawing at how silly all this was.
And then there was the rainy December day when she returned from a Christmas shopping trip in Cardiff City centre laden down with presents and a £300 hole in her Visa card.
Her pleasure was manifest and her laugh stays with me.
A year before her death I visited Andrea again in a hospital in Birmingham, where she had undergone a hip replacement operation in a last attempt by surgeons to remove the seat of her cancer.
I sat and clenched her right hand and looked into her sparkling eyes.
I giggled. “Hey, you’ve got freckles and hair,” I exclaimed.
“Yes,” she answered, “I have been off chemotherapy for three months now to build up my strength for the op.”
I had only known Andrea as a tall, underweight, pale-faced girl under an horrendous NHS wig, which at times made her look like an extra in the Addams Family.
But now, holding her hand, this was how I was going to remember her.
I had found God in my fellow human beings and in the karma of knowing that far from myself being the key in this battle, the door was unlocked from without.
When the cancer returned to my right lung some months later I knew I had the strength to face it down.
My life was saved by the dedication and skill of the surgeons. But my spirit had already been saved.
At the time I was told I had less than a one in 10 chance of surviving beyond a year. But I was also told: “Doctors are seldom right when they predict the end.”
Now 26 years later, to the very month of the diagnosis and first operation, the cancer is gone for good and I know my life is still in its springtime.
And Andrea never leaves me.