A patient and his wife have written some points that they found particularly useful after being diagnosed with rectal cancer and treated by Prof Bill Heald and Mr Brendan Moran:
“When you are told the bad news, the initial reaction is always one of profound shock, followed by fear and ending up with a degree of anger in the form of a “why me?” question. We certainly experienced this before resigning ourselves to a “here we go again” outlook. There are a number of things that are very important at this stage of the cure process and we have tried to capture some of them here;
- Understand that from now on, every day is a bonus. This will help you and those close to you to overcome periods of depression and to adopt a positive “can do” attitude.
- Understand that life owes you nothing and that you owe it to everyone around you to fight as hard as you are able to. Fight, fight and fight again as without doubt mental strength and determination is a vital part in winning the battle that you will be undertaking.
- Don’t be too proud to ask for and accept help, support and encouragement from those who love and care for you. You will need it and sometimes that support may come in strange forms like a kick up the backside.
After that initial shock, many questions will form in both your own mind and those close to you. Family and friends will be very important to you as you start what will probably be the toughest fight of your life. Here are some tips that will hopefully help you overcome this challenge:
- Always remember that however bad the treatment process becomes for you, it is always many times worse for those that are near and dear to you. Try to understand some of their concerns as well as focusing on your own issues. As the patient, you are fully focused on the fight – as the bystander, they feel helpless and frustrated.
- Always try and be honest and open with those around you so that they understand what is going on and are able to share in your concerns and support you. We have a son who was ten years old when I had bowel cancer and he was a star. We never hid anything from him and as a consequence he has able to play a hugely important part in the recovery process as well as being able to develop his own “life skills” at an early age.
- Accept that some of your family and friends may find it difficult to cope with your illness and may consequently avoid the subject or even avoid you! Try and understand that some people find illness impossible to cope with or embarrassing to talk about and can only deal with it by ignoring the issue. They don’t mean to upset you.
Many people finding themselves in this unenviable position then start to worry about some of the more practical matters close to home such as their work and financial security:
- Do your utmost to remove immediate worries concerning financial security to enable you to focus on the immediate task of battling your cancer. Recognise that you are not indispensable to the business – others around you will step up and provide support.
- Be honest with your employer and try and ensure that he fully understands your situation and what lies ahead. If your employer values you (which most do), then they will do their very best to support you and your family through the fight. In return for this, make sure that you are a loyal employee when you return to work.
Once you overcome the initial shock of being told that you have bowel cancer, you realise very quickly that you are now in the hands of the medical experts. You do your bit and then they can do theirs:
- Your consultants, doctors and treatment specialists are not mind readers. It is vital that you are open and honest about your symptoms and concerns. They can only fully assess and recommend the correct course of action if they are aware of the patient’s full picture and circumstances. Just remember that they have probably both heard and seen it all before and that they will be using their resulting knowledge and experience to cure you.
- Build a relationship of equality, trust and honesty with your medical team. Ensure that you establish full and frank communication with them as without that, their ability to make you better is seriously impeded.
- The medical experts also need to appreciate the importance of engagement with the patient’s family as provision of the resulting support structure is hugely beneficial to a successful outcome. The team in Basingstoke is particularly well aware of this need and this no doubt contributes significantly to the high success rate achieved by them.
For many people facing bowel cancer, one of the biggest concerns (after the obvious one of survival) is the fear of a colostomy. This is an entirely understandable fear that tends to persist in spite of all the explanations provided at the time by the medical experts. I guess that the concerns emanate from a fear of disfigurement or social stigma. Having had a bag for a period of time, I would offer the following words of encouragement:
- They are much easier to manage than you at first believe and they very quickly just become a part of your life.
- It is entirely possible to dress so that they are not noticeable.
- Learn to manage your diet to suit the fact that your plumbing has been short-circuited. Some foods will aggravate your stoma.
- Try and be humorous about “your friend” with those close to you – it will greatly ease the whole process of managing something which you regard as fundamentally undignified. When you have a “blow out”, (which you certainly will), have a good laugh about it rather than getting embarrassed or upset.
- Although I only had a temporary bag for five months, I learnt not to fear it and could accept that as a permanent situation should that need ever arise.
I am writing this in 2009 having returned from a five mile walk through the woods. Eight years on I still feel a very lucky guy and I definitely view every new day as a bonus. Through my “cancer experience”, I can honestly say that it never really occurred to me that I might not make it. I am deeply grateful to my family, our friends and the medical profession that supported me through these battles and hope that whoever reads this may draw some suitable encouragement from our experience.