Beating bowel cancer together

John Coyne, Renfrewshire, Scotland

I was diagnosed with stage 2/3 bowel cancer in March 2021.

I've had issues with my bowels most of my adult life, always having to rush to the toilet and sometimes having the odd bit of blood in my stool. I also had a colonoscopy in 2017 which discovered a few polyps, these were removed and I was advised that was the end of the matter.

Then in the summer of 2020, during the first lockdown I began to notice more blood, it wasn't all the time and it wasn't dark, so I didn't think too much of it. By autumn and early December it started to become more regular and quite a bit more blood. Like most people, I didn't want to bother the doctor during the pandemic and I'm an HGV driver and sitting down for most of the day so I put these symptoms down to haemorrhoids.

Then in December 2020 I decided just to go to the doctors and get it settled once and for all. I explained my symptoms to her and she gave me a check over and reassured me that it was just a haemorrhoid and due to my age and my pretty active lifestyle that I didn't have anything to worry about. She gave me a prescription for the haemorrhoid and I went away happy.

My bleeding however continued through Christmas and New Year and by now I started to get myself worked up. I was having dark dreams and waking up in the middle of the night most nights. I just had this nagging feeling something was not right. Through talking about this with my friends I just put it down to work and tried to laugh it off.

In February 2021 someone I knew passed away and something inside me clicked, I phoned the doctors for an appointment. As much as I thought I was just going to waste their time and mine, I wanted another opinion. This time I had a different doctor, he examined me yet this time couldn't even find the haemorrhoid and again told me because of my age and lifestyle I had nothing to worry about. Though when he asked me if I was worrying about anything I said "yeah, dying". I don't think he expected that but to be fair he decided to book me in for a blood test and a stool sample. Probably just to shut me up.

A couple of days later I received a phone call from a doctor telling me there was some blood coming from somewhere and I was booked in for a colonoscopy two weeks later. The doctor who had examined me also called and told me again there was nothing to worry about. Though, given that things were moving so fast I did begin to wonder.

I put everything to the back of my head and looked at it as a few days off work and was actually quite looking forward to it. I had planned a decent cycle and a couple of cold water therapy sessions with my brother and mates.

The Wednesday of the colonoscopy came and my partner Claire drove me over for it at the Golden Jubilee Hospital in Clydebank. I sauntered in with my book and basically just chilled out. I was taken through for the procedure but this time was a bit different from the last time, it was agony. When it was done I had my tea and sandwich and got myself ready to head home. A nurse was taking me round to speak to the doctor about the results. Again I just sauntered round with not a care in the world. They put me in a wee room and told me Claire was coming up as well, that should have rang alarm bells but I honestly didn't have a clue. Claire came in and the doctor started explaining about the procedure and why mine was so painful. I thought he was going to give me a high five for not passing out but it was quite the opposite. He explained that they had found a tumour and the pain was him taking samples but he was 99% sure that it was cancerous.

The rest was a blur, it was like getting hit by a bus. I think all I could ask was if I had cancer and he said it was looking that way.

The rest was a blur, it was like getting hit by a bus. I think all I could ask was if I had cancer and he said it was looking that way. I couldn't believe what they were saying, I looked at Claire and could see she was in shock as well but all I could think about was how this could not have been happening. I was a fit 43 year old father of two. I walk miles, cycle miles and jump in and out of frozen reservoirs... this was a bad dream… a nightmare.

I got home and a few friends who knew about my appointment called to ask how I was. I could hardly speak trying to tell them. Hearing them upset just made it even worse. It was my daughter's birthday four days later, there was no way I could tell my family. I didn't want her upset until I really had to tell her. I just about managed to tell another of my friends but it was too much having to tell people, thankfully this was a job for him now but I was still keeping it away from my family. Claire had to call my work and explain to them as well because I just wasn't up for it.

I didn't sleep at all that night, I couldn't look at my kids, I couldn't look in the mirror. I must have been in shock. The next day, Claire and I went out for a walk and I probably cried all the way round. Claire tried to persuade me to tell my family and other close mates but I just couldn't do it.

I was called on the Friday and told there was a cancellation for CT scan on the Monday if I wanted it. I had nothing better to do so thought I'd pop along. Later on the Friday I was called about an MRI scan on the Thursday which obviously I took as well.

Writing my daughter's birthday card was horrible, I honestly thought my world was ending and I'd never see any more of these birthdays. The word cancer does that to you.

I went for my scans and just could not believe this was all happening to me. Between the scans I managed to tell my mum and family about what was going on but as it was in the middle of lockdown we were standing in my mum's garden. Not really ideal but I'm not sure there isn't actually any ideal place to tell your mum you have cancer.

Monday 8 March and the call I had been waiting on came. The surgeon told me what I already knew, it was cancer. It had not breached the bowel wall and did not look as though it had spread. I was actually happy, though I think Claire had been hoping they would come back and say it wasn't. As bad as it was, it was good news to me. I began getting into the mind-set that I was lucky. Plenty of people get told a lot worse in those phone calls. I had cancer but I knew I had cancer, some people have cancer and don't know. What if I had not gone back to the doctors? I started to see things from a better perspective now.

My first appointment in the Beatson, west of Scotland was on 24 March 2021 and I was meeting my oncologist for the first time. I was told by family and friends that they do not sugar coat things in the Beatson, they say it as it is and my god did the doctor put the fear of god into me. She talked to both Claire and myself through the next stages of treatment for me and also the side effects which I wasn't too keen on. I was to receive five weeks of radiotherapy and chemotherapy both at the same time. My nurse ran me through the ins and outs of the chemo and told me that if I ever had any problems, questions etc. I was to call her. She probably got sick of me to be honest.

Claire would take me up for treatment but eventually I decided I wanted to go up most days on my own. I wasn't going to lie down and become a victim, as long as I was ok to do things myself, I was going to do it.

On Monday 19 April 2021 my treatment started and for the first two weeks I was actually thinking it was a breeze. After that though, things were not as much fun. I was up most nights on the toilet, I couldn't get out walking either and started feeling really tired most afternoons after treatment. Claire would take me up for treatment but eventually I decided I wanted to go up most days on my own. I wasn't going to lie down and become a victim, as long as I was ok to do things myself, I was going to do it. After one of my sessions I sat in my car and opened a message from my daughter, though it turned out to be a video message from two singers from a band wishing me luck. I watched them with tears coming down my face, then when I called her she said she had something else for me. I picked her up and she opened another video message on her phone... It was from John Hartson and he was wishing me luck as well, I couldn't believe it. He was taking time out to wish me well. Over the next week or two I received another good few video messages from ex-Celtic players including the ex-captain Tom Boyd. He actually came to my seat at Celtic park a few weeks ago for a catch up. I genuinely cannot believe the messages I have received and cannot under estimate how much they meant to me.

My treatment finished on 21 May 2021 and I was over the moon not to be doing my daily drive to the Beatson. However, the side effects would go on for another few weeks, even to this day.

On 12 August 2021 I had my MRI and CT scans, one of these wasn't due until almost September but they managed to slot me in for both on the same day. For every appointment I have during COVID, it's hard keeping away from everyone but it's impossible to ask kids to stay away from their friends at school etc. I was glad to get these appointments out of the way.

Just over a week later I was phoned by the doctor and she told me that my scan results looked pretty good. I was cautiously over the moon. The surgeon also called and explained about my next procedure, a sigmoidoscopy. We also had a chat about the results I had from gene testing that I had undergone during this time. There was a gene fault found which will have some impact on further treatment but again I've just put this to the back of my mind. The surgeon can tell me the best course of action and I will take it, plain and simple as far as I'm concerned.

On Saturday 11 September I was in the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley for my sigmoidoscopy, I decided not to take the anaesthetic which turned out to be a very bad idea but after I nearly passed out a few times the sister showed me pictures of where my tumour was. She told me it was looking like scar tissue now and that there was no sign of any infection etc. She sent away samples for the surgeon but told me my consultants would be happy with these results. Coming home and telling my family good news feels great. I'm still waiting on the results of the biopsies and more than likely going to be having surgery due to the gene fault but back in February I would have bitten your arm off to be in this position right now.

It's probably hard for people to understand when I tell them that I feel like a lucky man after the year I've had but I genuinely feel as if I am. I had an issue and went to the doctor but I wasn't happy with what I was told and I went back to see another doctor. Going back to the doctor probably saved my life. I've had my family with me ever since the minute they found out. I've had Claire every step of the way with me, she has been amazing and my friends also, anything I have needed they have helped out with. I'll never forget what people have said and done for me this year, also all the members of staff at the various hospitals and departments I have been in and out of this year. The last two years have been so hard for the NHS yet they have worked wonders in really hard circumstances.

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