Treating and living with Oesophageal Cancer
“Six months prior to my diagnosis I had trouble swallowing. I didn’t think much of it at the time and would dismiss it as having to do with the food I was eating or because I was taking too big a mouthful. In fact, my mother had recently experienced a similar problem and had tests which came back fine so I really didn’t worry too much about it and assumed that it was likely just genetic.”
Over a short period of time John’s difficulty in swallowing became more frequent and intense.
“I was at a big family lunch gathering and mid-way through the meal I had to excuse myself from the table as I couldn’t swallow at all. I went to the bathroom and spent about 10 minutes trying to regurgitate the food I’d eaten because it wasn’t going down and was stuck.”
John, then 46, knew at that moment something was seriously wrong and after encouragement from family and friends he made an appointment to see his GP who then referred him to a specialist for a gastroscopy.
On the day of the gastroscopy, when John was coming to after his anaesthetic, he was informed by his specialist that a growth had been discovered in his oesophagus and that they had taken a biopsy. At that stage John remained positive: “I wasn’t worried at all, as I was relatively young and fit; worst case scenario I thought I would have to take a couple of tablets to clear the blockage and it would all be back to normal”.
He remembers the next day clearly.
“It was a Thursday evening, the sun was setting, and I was sitting in the passenger seat of a car when my phone rang. It was my specialist who told me my results had come back and I had Stage 3 Oesophageal Cancer. It was a surreal moment and just like that I became a cancer patient.”
Treatment commenced immediately. First, John underwent six weeks of chemotherapy combined with radiotherapy. This was followed by a three-part oesophagectomy to remove his oesophagus which hospitalised him for two weeks including three days in ICU.
While in hospital John received some more bad news. The pathology report on his removed oesophagus showed there were still some active cancer cells which the initial chemotherapy and radiotherapy had failed to eradicate. The decision was made for to recommence four months of chemotherapy just in case any cancer cells had metastasised to other parts of his body.
During this time John’s family and friends played an incredible role in his treatment.
“I couldn’t have done it without my family’s physical and emotional support. This was particularly important during the time of COVID when, as a cancer patient with low immunity, I had to be particularly careful with outside contact.
“As a very independent person, accepting help was initially difficult but I was reminded that if my family and friends were in my position, I would love to be given the opportunity to assist them. Meals were cooked and emotional support from all my friends during lockdown was invaluable”.
When John reflects on his own experience from initial symptoms through to diagnosis and treatment there are some things he wishes he’d known more about.
“I wish there was greater encouragement to get checked early and not dismiss and ignore symptoms like I had. If you sense that your body has changed, and that it doesn’t feel quite right, don’t ignore it and get it checked out as soon as possible. Just because you may be young or you may be fit or relatively healthy it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are safe from cancer. I didn’t fit the demographics for my cancer and I am grateful that I got checked out just in time – it was treatable.
“If I had waited a few more months or even a few more weeks my Stage 3 cancer might easily have become Stage 4 cancer and I may not have had the chance to share my story with you. My early detection has given me a second chance which I’m using to encourage you to get checked for cancer – it could save your life and spare your loved ones from unnecessary suffering.”
Cancer diagnosis and treatment have both physical and emotional impacts. John reflects on the mental effects of cancer:
“Often patients are treated physically – and that should be the main priority. However, cancer is a mental battle as well as a physical one. I was surprised by the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) associated with cancer. I want to let patients (and their carers) know that feelings of anger, sadness, unfairness, etcetera, are real and justified. I would like to encourage cancer patients to look out for those signs and seek help”.
After the emotional and physical impacts of his treatment John is doing better.
“Life is going well at the moment. I have finished my treatments and my medical tests are looking encouraging. I am gaining strength physically and am able to exercise and see my friends, and I am gaining strength mentally as well and feel much more like my old self. Life seems full of hope and potential. I have decided to spend some of my time volunteering to help other cancer patients along their journey and that is proving to be rewarding and very healing as well.“
While emotional and physical support were incredibly important to John during treatment he is also a champion of raising awareness of Oesophageal Cancer symptoms. With a low survival rate, early detection and awareness of changes is critical for treatment and survival, and he hopes everyone educates themselves on the risk factors and indicators of it.