Allan Emmot, originally from Keighley and now living in Lincolnshire, is a regular contributor to our Readers’ Poems pages under his pen name ‘Aemot.’ In the last issue of Northern Life (NL65) we featured his very personal poem about his experience of cancer, and here Allan turns to prose to tell his story in full.
Cancer. Six letters that, when brought together, still possibly form one of the most feared and emotive words in the English language. My dad died of cancer, aged 38, in 1961. I was 14. My stepfather succumbed to cancer in 1975. My mum, God rest her, ever-after thought that she may have been responsible in some way for them contracting cancer.
Over the years relatives, close friends and work colleagues had met the same fate. To me, and I suspect to most of my generation and older, the word cancer sent my imagination racing.
In August 2008, while living in Keighley, I was seen by a consultant, to get treatment for a long-term back problem. At his recommendation, I was sent back to my own doctor, who sent me for a blood test for a PSA reading. (PSA is Prostate Specific Antigen, first recognised as an indicator for prostate cancer in 1979).
The reading came back as 9, which my doctor described as being in the ‘grey’ area, and I was subsequently sent for a biopsy.
Two weeks later, the back-of-themind worries I had harboured were confirmed, and I was told that I had prostate cancer. I was 61 at that time. I went numb, and thought I had been handed a death certificate with the date left blank. No matter what my wife, Danie, and others said, I took their words as nothing more than reassurances of support.
Our son Dave (only ever called by his Sunday name David if we thought he’d done anything wrong), then aged 20, had been selected to play rugby league for a small town team in Australia. A dream come true for him, secretly somewhat less so for Danie and myself. Jointly we decided not to tell him of the diagnosis. We knew he would not go if we did. He flew out in October 2008.
A vivid imagination is a dangerous thing – I secretly feared I would not see him again.
I underwent MRI and CAT scans in November. No other cancers were found.
I was given an appointment to see a cancer specialist at St James Hospital, Leeds, in January 2009.
The weeks between the initial diagnosis and the visit with Danie to Leeds were long and anxious. Although her support was tremendous, and I had no physical signs or symptoms whatsoever, my mind was taking me into all sorts of dark places; places where self-pity was a major factor – where sheer guilt took hold of me for having to put my wife and son through the hell I imagined they would face by themselves.
Where avoidance of talking about it – cancer – did not make it go away. I realised that waking in a cold sweat was not just something which appeared in a film or book.
The visit to Leeds produced a further shock of sorts to my system – but a shock for all the right reasons. I was seen by Ann Henry, a consultant in non-surgical oncology.
Danie was present when Dr Henry outlined my condition, and the treatment options. The shock came when I read her written assessment of my condition. The word ‘CURE’ was in there, written down. CURE – not treat, not contain – cure.
That had rarely been considered by me, and even when I did, my mind interpreted such thoughts as clutching at straws. I queried it with her, asking if that was an accurate diagnosis.
Dr Henry was adamant that my condition was curable, and recommended the treatment I should receive to achieve that result. The trust – the hope – I put into that one word was immense.
My brain had been back in the 1960s and 70s, whereas the progress made in cancer treatment has advanced out of all recognition to that time.
In February 2009 I underwent a procedure called brachytherapy. Tiny radioactive ‘seeds’ were injected directly into the prostate gland. I was in St James two nights.
I was told at the time that the operation would make me infertile. Danie and I were both 61, so that was not going to be a problem.
Apart from slight tissue scarring, there was, for me, only one other side effect. (Okay, I’m sorry, but I can’t word this any other way, it was a lack of pee power, which is still there).
One of the unexpected limitations imposed on me because of the radioactive aspect of the treatment was that I was not allowed to hold a baby on my lap for six months after the implant.
I didn’t realise until then how many friends of ours had children who had youngsters.
For the first year after the operation, I attended at both my own doctor’s surgery and the Urology clinic at Airedale Hospital for fairly regular check-ups, which involved catheter testing and a PSA reading. I now attend a clinic annually, and in the last six years my PSA reading has never exceeded 0.03.
The treatment I received was, and still is, provided by the medical staff in the NHS, for whom I have the utmost respect and gratitude for the care and attention they provided.
As in most things, the ‘gift’ of hindsight is wonderful, but I can see now that, back then, my own vivid imagination, and my out-of-date belief that cancer was incurable, only served to make my situation worse.
Now, more than ever in the past, there is real hope. There have been giant strides made in the medical and surgical treatments now available – advancements which are improving at a pace never seen before.
There are many, many thousands who can now say, like me, cancer is only a six-letter word, and ‘hope’ and ‘cure’ are two of the best four-letter words I have ever heard.