Every morning, within the first few minutes of getting up I look in the mirror, pause and mutter something like, “I can’t believe it.”
I told you last week that it’s been a year since my successful bowel cancer operation and that’s what I can’t believe. Well, not the passing of time; that’s easy enough to understand. No, what I can’t believe is that I’m still here.
When I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2017 the prognosis wasn’t good. The cancer was advanced and had spread to my liver and pelvic bone. Palliative chemotherapy was offered but no chance of a cure. My life expectancy clock was ticking loudly!
In 2015, to help win the General Election, David Cameron launched the Cancer Drugs Fund. This was additional cash for the NHS to pay for drugs not routinely approved for use by oncologists for the treatment of cancer patients. Cetuximab was one of the drugs which would become available.
Cetuximab isn’t chemotherapy. It’s a targeted therapy specifically for bowel cancer cells which have metastasised into the liver. It’s very expensive and only became available via the Cancer Drugs Fund shortly before I met the oncologist who was to treat me. He explained that Cetuximab was only effective for patients with a particular type of K-ras gene. He was waiting for the results of a biopsy of my tumour to see if I would benefit from the new drug.
I say new drug. Cetuximab had been around since the early years of the 21st century, but not for NHS patients in the UK. After a couple of weeks the results were in; I had the right type of K-ras gene and could start the treatment.
I was to have the Cetuximab every two weeks along with conventional chemotherapy. I started the treatment on 14th August 2017. And the treatment continued fortnight after fortnight for the rest of 2017; throughout 2018; throughout 2019. Until January 2nd 2020. And then I started to prepare for the surgery that occurred in March last year. Followed by a liver re-section in June 2020.
And that’s why I look in the mirror every day and say “It’s unbelievable!” The drugs I was prescribed were supposed to extend life not cure the cancer. Indeed, one of the chemo nurses explained to me that yes, it was possible to cure cancer with chemotherapy. But the resulting toxicity would kill the patient first. Or words to that effect. The first oncologist who treated me actually referred to the treatment as “poison” so that I’d be under no illusions as to what was going on.
I’ve read many academic papers by medical professionals all round the world relating to the use of Cetuximab. Struggling, I might add, to understand them but generally managing to get the gist of the findings. Which were overwhelmingly that Cetuximab would probably extend a cancer patient’s life. Ten months extra seemed to be the average. Nowhere did I read any research in which Cetuximab cured bowel cancer. And of course, no-one is saying that’s what happened to me. But there’s no doubt that after my treatment, the tumours were hugely reduced in size to the extent that they were thought to be operable with a good chance of safety and success.
And that’s where I’m at. After fifty six cycles of chemo and Cetuximab and two major surgeries, I will have blood tests and a CT scan every six months for two years and then annually until five years have passed. And if I live that long, then the cancer care team will decide what monitoring is required going forwards.
So, every day I say, “I can’t believe it” and I really still can’t. But also every day I say “Thank you” to my husband Michael whose love and care kept me going throughout. And I also say “Thank you” to the oncologists, surgeons, nurses, radiographers, health care assistants and all the support staff that I’ve encountered within our National Health Service. (And to David Cameron for kick-starting the Cancer Drugs Fund.)
I keep seeing promotions on Channel 4 for “Stand Up To Cancer” which I believe is a fund-raiser for Cancer Research UK. I’m sure that’s a very worthy aim but we also just as importantly need to Stand Up For Our NHS. We keep reading about the increasing number of patients on the NHS waiting list because of the Covid pandemic. Many are waiting for referrals and testing for possible cancer symptoms. As a patient who’s experienced our NHS at its very best, I’m hoping that everything will be done to support the NHS so that all patients receive that same high standard of care. This campaign is worth checking out if you’re interested in a non-party-political organisation campaigning against the privatisation and underfunding of the NHS.
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