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Damian Boyle: My fight with cancer – Part One

In November 2016 I was diagnosed with lung cancer. I decided to fight it with a combination of natural  medicine, chemotherapy, and a lot of positive thinking. This has been the greatest challenge I have faced so far in my life. Follow my story as I fight cancer.

PART ONE

“Is it Cancer?” I asked the Doctor. Her face said it all. My heart turned to an iron fist and ploughed down through my inner workings, coming to a stop in the pit of my stomach somewhere.

“It looks like it,” she said. She said more stuff but it was lost in the thunder roaring in my ears, the earth span but my feet no longer touched it. The world was a blur of colour passing around me. It may as well have been the ocean giving me the low-down for all the information I was managing to process. All I could focus on was that word, circling around and around in my head, Cancer.

The writer William Burroughs once said that the real danger from nuclear weapons was that they atomized a human’s soul as well as their corporeal forms. Well William, let’s add to that being told you have Cancer.

Afterwards I went outside. It was hard to grasp what I had just been told. I turned it around and around in my mind. I felt like I had had some unfathomably large, terribly cruel joke played on me. I coughed up a little blood a week ago, I was worried, but there could be lots of reasons people cough up blood, it doesn’t have to be Cancer, that’s your worst fear, how often does your worst fear pan out? And then one day it does.  I called my mother in New Zealand and told her, she cried. I called one of my sisters and asked her to make sure Mum was okay and tell my other family members. I have another sister in Perth, I called her too.                                                                                                                                                          

Waiting, that’s what illness is. Waiting for tests, for specialists, for your turn. I was often confounded how people who came in after me could get taken before me. I waited five hours one time. The first time I went to see the Oncologist I didn’t know where to go and I kept crashing up against hard faced nurses who told me in no uncertain terms that wherever I was supposed to be, it most certainly wasn’t here, there, or perhaps anywhere for that matter. I quickly noted that while none of the female nurses spoke English, the male ones did, and they were invariably sent out to deal with me. We worked it out and I waited to see Doctor H.

I can’t remember much about those days, except the first time they stuck the camera down my throat. Harrowing, that’s a good word to describe a bronchoscopy. Harrowing really embodies the feeling that you are choking for five odd minutes. Many things were told to me, but the crux was, I have Cancer. Tell yourself that a thousand times and see if it means anything. Tell yourself every day, three times a day, morning afternoon and night and see if it means anything to you. See if it registers. I have it inside me now, a malignancy, and I can’t feel a thing. It is a subtle enemy, this one. I once read you could cut your lung with a blunt scissors and feel nothing. I felt nothing. The Doctor said this was the best prognosis. Naturally that made me feel a little better, but the question still had to be answered, how far gone was it, and was it anywhere else in my body? You might think the worst of it is being told you have Cancer, and you might be right. But it doesn’t end there. Next comes the tests to see what type it is, what stage, is it small cell or large cell? Am I going to die or have I got a fighting chance? The closest analogy I could fumble in my brain at the time was to say it is like sitting in an airplane, and the pilot has just announced there’s a technical problem and the plane is going to crash. He then says he’ll get back to everyone to let them know if the plane is going to attempt to land on the ocean or attempt to land on the side of a mountain. Mountain or Ocean?

Neither ideal prospects, but if you are going to chose one you will choose the ocean. I didn’t have the luxury of choice. I had just to accept whatever was going to be served up to me. I prepared myself for the worst, day in, day out. My friends were there to support me if I needed them, but I am hopeless at asking for help. The worst was in the evenings alone. I’m not currently in a relationship, so those long nights were all mine. I slept if I could, stared blankly at the wall if not. I went to bed scared and I woke up scared and I was scared for all the endless moments in between.

A friend of mine from Canadian Medical Care recommended I met her friend, a lung specialist.

I met my friend Martina in the late afternoon to have a consultation with her friend. We went to his surgery and I sat silently why he read through the notes. I knew it was bad when he stopped and gave me an appraising look at one point. That look said, there is a discrepancy in what I am reading and what I am seeing sitting before me. Eyebrows rose in surprise. One thing is for sure, I clocked that look and icy spandrels crept up my back.

“At this point it is crucial to know what stage it is,” he said, putting down the notes. He stopped for a moment, “are you happy there, at Thomayerova Hospital?”

I nodded, “It’s close to where I live.”

“Doctor H. is the best lung oncologists in Czech Republic, you’re in good hands if you want to stay there.”

“I’m fine with staying there.”

“Well, I’ll work in the back ground if you need anything. If we can operate I’ll get you the best Surgeon. In the meantime we will get you booked for a PET scan; it will take about a week.”

I left and shook his hand, “Thanks for everything Doc.”

”For nothing,” he said.

On the tram Martina said to me, “I’m not going to lie to you, he said it’s bad.”

As opposed to the good type of Cancer I thought, I managed a wan smile, “Yeh, well...”


23 November 2016 · Prague (Facebook post to my family).

Hi guys, thanks for the messages. It seems they don't know how bad it is, in truth, so I have to prepare myself for the possibility it is much worse than initially thought. They will know in a couple of weeks when they do a deep scan of my body called PET. In the meantime I have here the best medical care available in the modern world, already paid for by my health insurance. I now have the two best doctors in Czech working with me thanks to the Czech health system and contacts through friends. I'm still fit and can do all the normal stuff like work etc, so that is a big help. I will update you when I can, thanks for your thoughts and prayers:> I am thinking of you all too. Cheers :>


Staying positive was key. I knew at least half this battle was going to be fought in my head. Maybe more than half the battle, maybe the whole war.  Long days and nights followed. Ask me what I did, or what I was thinking then and I would be hard pressed to tell you. However there were certain hard truths I had to accept, the most difficult being that I might not live to see 2018. This had the most astonishing effect of releasing me from the world, from attachment, from fear and want and a thousand other distractions.

I realised I wanted to live, and really, that was all that mattered. I never cried, though God knows why not. Believe me, I asked myself many times. When the concept of why me popped into my head I frowned and said instead, why not? I’m not special. People get Cancer. I’m a person. End of story. I’m coldly logical like that. I also wondered why I hadn’t experienced a mental breakdown. Maybe it was coming. Maybe it had happened and I was in La La land this very moment. No, I decided, it wasn’t coming. Instead I felt an almost eerie peace. Even then, as I went through the worst of it I questioned how I was able to maintain my mental integrity. Perhaps it was some kind of detachment my brain enforced to protect itself, and me, presumably. I’m still asking myself how I managed it to this day. There is one caveat, I had no physical symptoms. I coughed up a tiny amount of blood on three spate occasions at the beginning and that was it.  I asked Doctor V. what would have happened had I just gone on living my life. It would’ve been easy to have missed that first red spit. Naturally it is always difficult to say, and Doctors will typically show reluctance to answer questions that start with “How long...”

Doctor V. had said probably ten months before something serious would have happened. Serious included death by the way. Whatever the outcome, I knew it was a good thing I had discovered it. I still pat myself on the shoulder like a dog and say good boy, well done, for letting me know. We shouldn’t have such a separate relationship with our bodies, but we do, and with our brains. I told my sister while I was waiting to find out if it had spread to my brain and bones that my brain knows everything that is going on in my body. It knows about the Cancer and has known about it since it was a single cell and before. It knows if the Cancer has spread around my body. Do you think my brain told me anything? No.

As I mentioned earlier, my lack of symptoms was promising, but it didn’t rule out that the Cancer had spread.. I can move through it, but I am no longer a part of it. I’ve experienced directly the loneliness having Cancer gives you, and the sometimes misplaced words and actions from people who mean well, and others who were oddly callous towards me. It is their Karma, I told myself. It isn’t my place to judge anyone, as much as I would like to. I have been given a gift, they haven’t. Remember that. But I have to work with it, develop it. I have to live by these principles I believe are important now, not just expound them.

On the day of my appointment a young orderly named Martin met me at the gate and took me to the Nuclear Medicine Dept for the PET scan.

I waited for about an hour before being led into a separate room with a bed. “Make yourself comfortable,” the nurse said in Czech. She placed a large glass of water beside my bed, “drink this over the next hour.”  The water had a heavy metallic taste and I assumed this was the tracer liquid that would course through my body and bounce back whatever information the PET scan needed. I was essentially drinking a nice cool class of radiation.

I entered into a long white tube and I said another prayer of thanks that it was 2017 and such medical treatment was available for me. I hated to think what the odds for surviving my condition were thirty years ago, maybe even ten years ago. Right now, however, we were trying to find out exactly what the odds were I was going to survive. Red lights, blinked here and there, reading invisible signals from deep inside me, telling a painfully mapped story of my condition. After twenty eight minutes it was done.

“We’ll send the results to your Oncologist,” the nurse said, “By Tuesday at the latest.”


8 December 2016 · Prague

Hi everyone, PET scan done. I guess I'Il be glowing in the dark for the next few days, luckily its xmas time. I have to contact my doc next week, probably Tuesday or Wednesday, so part two of the waiting begins. Thanks for your thoughts and wishes, they mean a lot:)


 

Damian Boyle  ABOUT ME

  I have lived and worked in Prague for eight years as an English teacher, including
  for Canadian Medical Care.

 

 

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