When John experienced ongoing trouble swallowing, friends and family encouraged him to visit his GP, they were also there to provide much needed physical and emotional support as he underwent extensive treatment for stage 3 oesophageal cancer.
“Six months prior to my diagnosis, I had some trouble swallowing. I didn’t think much of it at the time, I 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 swallowing became more frequent and more 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 for about 10 minutes I was trying to get the food back up, as it wasn’t going down and was stuck.”
John knew at that moment that something really wasn’t right, and after encouragement from family and friends John made an appointment to see his GP, who then referred him on 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”.
John remembers the next day clearly. It was a Thursday evening, the sun was setting, and John was sitting in the passenger seat of a car when his phone rang. It was his specialist, and in what John describes as a numbing and surreal moment, John was told that the biopsy results had come back. He was diagnosed with stage 3 oesophageal cancer, “just like that, in that moment, I had become a cancer patient at the age of 46”.
Treatment commenced immediately. First, John underwent 6 weeks of chemotherapy together with radiation treatment. This was followed by a 3-part oesophagectomy to remove his oesophagus, after which John spent 2 weeks in hospital, which included 3 days in ICU.
While in hospital John received some more news. The pathology report on his removed oesophagus showed that there were still some active cancer cells which the initial chemotherapy and radiation treatment had failed to eradicate. The decision was made for John to recommence 4 months of chemotherapy just in case any cancer cells had escaped 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 families 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 I were in my family and friends’ position, I would love to be given the opportunity to help. 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.
“I wish that there was greater encouragement to get checked early and not dismiss and ignore symptoms. 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 waited a few more months or even a few more weeks, my Stage 3 cancer might easily have become stage 4 cancer and I might not be speaking to you right now. My early detection has given me a second chance. And I am using that second chance, to encourage you to get checked out for cancer – it could save your life and spare your loved ones from unnecessary suffering.”
Cancer diagnosis and treatment has both physical and emotional impacts. John reflects on the mental impacts of cancer, “Often patients are treated physically – and that should be the main priority, but cancer is a much a mental battle as it is 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, and unfairness etc. 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 symptoms is critical for treatment and survival and he encourages all Australians to educate themselves on the risk factors and symptoms of oesophageal cancer.