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The road to recovery....

It’s late August 2010 and outside London is starting to bleed into the colours of autumn. Despite the four days of summer they were spoilt with this year, my colleagues are envious of my dark tan. It’s a souvenir from the 3 weeks I have just spent in Thailand with my fiancé, Federica

That said, she wasn’t my fiancé when we left to go on holiday, but having been together for so long I thought it was about time I acted on what I knew when I first met her.  There’s that old adage about knowing when you have met the right person and when I reflect on the 9 years we have spent together, I’m surprised that I did not propose sooner. When I return to work a few weeks later after much lying on the beach, scuba diving and boat trips I am energised and content.  Federica has shot off to Germany to visit family for a few days, and I’m using the opportunity to focus on work. 
 
Six months ago I became the business manager of a small management consultancy, the recession has been tough but I’m feeling invigorated from my holiday and I’m exploring new strategies to take us forward.  As usual, however, the trickster figure of Life has vastly different plans. It all starts with a phone call. 
 
“Mr Fisher?”
“Yes?”
“It’s Dawn here from Guys Hospital.”
“Hi Dawn how can I help you?”
“You had your appendix removed here a month ago, is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right I had it removed a couple of weeks before I went on holiday.”
“Unfortunately Mr. Fisher we found a tumour in your appendix.”
“Oh….I see…really…ummm, was it malignant?”
“I’m sure this is going to be quite a shock for you but, yes it was malignant…it’s a rare and aggressive form of cancer. We need you to come in for a CT scan tomorrow morning to see if it’s spread.”
 
The rest is a blur, I’m suddenly walking down the street and my phone is ringing. It’s a colleague from work wondering why I left work so abruptly without telling anyone. I cancel the call. I’ve just turned 30, I go to gym 5 times a week…I can’t have cancer. I look at the hastily scribbled notes from my call with Dawn and make the mistake of sticking the terms I’ve been given into Google. I’m confronted with chilling results.
"…has frequently spread at the time of diagnosis."
"…5% chance of survival if caught late"
"…rare and dismal prognosis"
 
The overarching feeling is one of being disassociated; I’m inside a fish tank. I don’t have the heart to call my fiancé, my parents, my sisters or my friends. I decide I will only tell Federica when she gets back from holiday; I don’t want to ruin her time with her family. I decide I will tell my family once I have the results of the CT.
 
I go for the CT scan the next day and have to wait a week to find out if there is discernible spread. I spend the weekend drinking too much and hanging out with a few close friends with whom I have decided to share my burden.  I’m well aware of the fact that I’m behaving in a counter-productive way, but right now I’m too frazzled to care.  
 
Federica returns on Monday, our anniversary, and I drop the bomb. She is silent at first, then hastily becomes a pillar of strength, and assures me we will get through whatever comes together. A week later, after the longest wait of my life, the CT comes back clear. But it’s not over. The oncologist tells me that CT scans are inaccurate and can’t detect smaller growths. He says the choice is mine, but he recommends they remove the right half of my colon to be safe and check it for cancer. 
 
I say yes and my father flies over from South Africa, followed a week later by my sister to support us. It’s a big procedure – thankfully there won’t be a need for a colostomy though. They tell me I will need 7 weeks before I can go back to work and that I will need to inject myself in the stomach every day to avoid clots and that run a risk of lethal infection if I’m not careful. 
 
After the operation I’m on enough morphine to anaesthetise a moose and so when they phone me with the pathology report to say that they found cancer in my lymph nodes I’m not too shocked. They give me the staging – it’s locally advanced. The old enemy Google tells me once again that I’m in trouble. 
 
Then comes the helplessness, followed by the toxic hell of chemo. Perpetual nausea, needle-like pain in the hands and feet, falling out of hair, weird metallic tastes in the mouth, weight-loss and the immobility of severe fatigue. I vow not to complain, to be resolute and push on. There are children with leukaemia who are braver than I am, people in oncology who are terminal and joke and laugh when I see them on treatment days – if they can do it, so can I. 
 
My friends and family are supportive in ways I did not think possible. The messages stream in, people drop by with food, books, articles, recommendations and attentive ears. Through all of it I have to keep working to keep the company alive, I manage to get in about 50% of the time but it’s hard going. Thankfully the business owner, Archie, is very supportive and understanding.
 
I want to go home, but I’m stuck in the UK until my chemo comes to an end. No South African medical aid will have me and I will have to wait a year before I’m covered. With scary reports filtering through from friends who are doctors in South Africa regarding the treatment available at government hospitals, I decide to take my chances with the NHS. They turn out to be remarkable. 
 
When I can, I force myself to go to gym. A friend put me in touch with a retired CNN journalist in New York. He was exposed to a nerve toxin in Vietnam and has beaten 3 resulting, different forms of cancer over a period of 10 years. He says to me in a no-nonsense, America accent “You exercise, you hear me? Exercise! Even if you can only lift 1kg when you get to gym – lift it. If you can walk 50m – walk 50m! That’s why I’m still alive.”
His words stick with me and roll around in my brain. I decide to do some research. Suddenly I start feeling like I have more control over this situation. The evidence is indisputable. People who exercise frequently are 3 times more likely to beat colon cancer. The same goes for a host of other cancers including prostate and breast cancer.  If only everyone knew this. 
 
But exercise is not simply about a healthy body. So considerable are the benefits of regular exercise that many doctors are now insisting that patients battling depression adopt a regular exercise routine before anti-depressants are prescribed. Through bloody mindedness I run when I can manage. I cut out fried foods, sugar, refined grains and red meat. It’s not hard though, as I have no appetite. 
 
My chemo comes to an end and I weigh a ridiculous 57kg. I go for some tests. I’m in remission. Fed and I are elated. We quit our jobs, buy tickets back to South Africa, say goodbye to the remarkable friends we have made and head home to Cape Town. The sunshine and proximity to my family have a healing effect I can’t quite quantify. Five months later I run the 10km Gun Run with my sister, followed shortly by the Impi Challenge. 
 
I am so thankful to be alive. I can’t find any greater expression of this gratitude than exercise and pushing myself a little further each time. I’m literally running for my life, running to stay cancer-free, running away from the pain, uncertainty and difficulties I have overcome with the unfailing support of Federica, my family and friends.  And while the future is still uncertain, I know I can go the distance and will fight with everything I have. 
 
The Two Oceans Marathon is coming up soon. I have decided that I’ll do it and start training for the half. While it is true that I went to gym a lot before I was diagnosed it was always weight orientated, with little, to no cardio.  For me 21km will be a challenge, particularly considering the pain I still struggle with when I run. Regardless, I have decided that I will do it in a sub 2 because I have an unfair advantage. I now know what I’m capable of doing when I put my mind to it. I’ve tapped into reserves I didn’t know I possessed and in the process altered my fate. 
 
Even if it’s a temporary alteration, it doesn’t matter; it’s life well spent and a chance to transcend the bogus limitations that always hindered me before. We are not afforded infinite years, nor infinite opportunities, but we are afforded the chance to spend the time we are given well.  Advice is cheap but if I could give you any it would be this:
 
You deserve happiness. But it’s not something you will ever achieve if you base it on external circumstance. Whether you are running for your personal best in the Old Mutual Two Oceans, or fighting for your life, it is your internal state (and a bit of exercise) that will make all the difference.  
 
Edward Fisher is running the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon to raise funds for St Luke’s Hospice. If you would like to sponsor him please mail him at edward@colourworks.co.za
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