As a patient from the vintage year of 2003, I am living testimony to the vital work Prof Heald continues to pioneer around the world.
I was diagnosed with rectal cancer in February 2003, after a routine examination for IBS. I was then referred to a consultant, who opened the conversation with ‘How much do you know about this cancer?’ - to which I replied, ‘Not a lot actually’. He said, ‘Well it ain’t good news’, and proceeded to tell me that muscles would probably be damaged, which would mean a permanent colostomy bag, and he then moved to fatality percentages. I could not take it all in but managed to stay composed until I reached my car and then – flood gates! I telephoned his secretary and asked if he could call me that evening, as I had not understood all that he had told me. He rang back and I asked one question: ‘Are you telling me that I need to put my house in order?’ to which he simply replied, ‘Yes – I think I am’.
I thank goodness for this man’s honesty, as he knew that his knowledge and general surgery were not going to be enough, on this occasion. I duly followed the trajectory of waiting for the appointment at Guys Hospital in London for the ‘unavoidable’ chemo and radiation. I still bear the tattoos from this - but I never started the treatment, as I was about to be re-routed!
My journey to recovery actually began with some literature sent to me by a girlfriend regarding alternative treatments for cancer. From this, I telephoned a doctor in Tunbridge Wells to find out more about oxygenation treatment, but he said to me, ‘Don’t come and see me - make a telephone call to Basingstoke Hospital. I do not know exactly who you need to speak with, but I do know you will have a 40% better chance of survival’. I made the call the next morning very nervously. The Welsh girl on the other end listened patiently whilst I relayed my story. I asked ‘Do you know with whom I need to speak?’ to which she replied, ‘Oh yes – it is Professor Heald. Would you like me to make an appointment for you?’ She then told me that she was the Colorectal Macmillan Nurse.
I asked my surgeon’s permission to transfer to Basingstoke, and if he would release my scans and medical papers from Guys. He was more than delighted and we gathered all of this and I presented for my appointment with Prof Heald.
My prognosis in the main stream was not good, and I still remember Prof Heald’s words to me, ‘Well, the bad news is, you have cancer. But the good news is, I will perform a curative operation, with hopefully no chemo or radiation. I will just need another scan to confirm and then we will book you in for the operation. You may have just a temporary ‘bag’ whilst you heal.’ I believed every word - and from that moment on I had absolutely no doubt that I had been given a prescription – it simply read ‘Life’.
I then had to ‘take on’ the NHS for funding. This delayed the operation for a few months, whilst I waited for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn! My GP was fighting my case for the funding to be transferred but one day, I rang and asked them to give me the telephone number and I would pursue. The guy that picked up the telephone listened and then quietly said to me, ‘Ms Woods, I cannot understand why you wish to go to Basingstoke, when you can have the treatment locally’. I took a deep breath and explained, ‘If I stay in the main stream, I am to have chemo and radiation, which will surely destroy good organs/tissue, and then an operation that will leave me incontinent. If I transfer to Basingstoke, I am to have an operation with no chemo or radiation and no colostomy. Now, tell me – which would you choose?’ He replied ‘You have the funding’. I cried…
Professor Heald operated in November 2003 and kept every promise he made to me. He attended my operation and even found the time to visit me after in the ward. It was three days later when Nikki, the wonderful Macmillan nurse, came to see me and asked if I had looked at the ‘bag’, which I dreaded the most. I asked her to look first and when she announced ‘No bag’, I was elated! Not even a temporary bag was quite an achievement and so aided my recovery. I was back in my home town of Bexleyheath within five days, mentally ready for the journey of recovery. An angel guided me to Prof Heald, and I pray for this same angel to watch over this wonderful humble man.
I remember, when I was diagnosed, thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, how am I going to tell people that I have rectal cancer?’ I felt ‘dirty’, but I soon realised that it was my absolute duty to shout from the roof tops: ‘I had rectal cancer and I know a man that has the knowledge to change lives!’
Prof Heald is pioneering surgical techniques that will save lives, and every bit as important as this progress toward a cure is that this news must be carried around the world, so that every person has a chance for life.
Written by Mrs Cheryll Woods, March 2011