Monday, 24 December 2018

Christmas at The Christie - Michael Seaton

Michael Seaton, Christie patient

Michael Seaton
In December 2013 I was diagnosed with late stage 2 non-seminoma testicular cancer and bizarrely I was not surprised.


I had an obvious lump, but I had never mentioned this to my GP, mainly due to embarrassment and worrying about having to take time off work - both fairly stupid reasons with hindsight.


What I had told him about were some of my other symptoms, like shortness of breath, sudden weight loss, abdominal pain not unlike irritable bowel syndrome, difficulty keeping food down and what seemed like a kidney stone.


I had tried various medications to tackle these with varying degrees of success. My GP eventually referred me to the gastroenterology unit at Macclesfield District General Hospital, for a double endoscopy/colonoscopy session, something I was not looking forward to. 


Fortunately, someone at Macclesfield had the bright idea of putting me through a CT scanner. I presumably ‘lit up like fairy lights on a Christmas tree’, judging by the phone calls I had later that day in quick succession to cancel the endoscopy/colonoscopy (phew!) and arrange an appointment with a urologist to sort out an orchidectomy.


Eight days later, I was on the operating table at Stepping Hill hospital to have the primary tumour and my left testicle removed. The original plan was for me to go home the following day and recover over Christmas before starting chemotherapy in the New Year.


Unfortunately, my secondary tumours had other ideas. What should have been an overnight stay turned into four days with infections making me rather unwell and not fit to return home. One of the tumours was partially blocking my left kidney, which meant having a nephrostomy (a narrow tube) inserted into my side to help drain it. The stoma bag surrounding the tube needed replacing every couple of days or so, which meant this was the bane of my existence for six months! The antibiotics I received to deal with the infections also gave me candida (oral thrush), which made eating quite difficult.


Clearly I was not doing very well and a decision was made that my chemotherapy could not wait until 2014 and I had to have some as soon as possible. So on a wet and chilly Monday morning, I was put into a wheelchair and bundled into an ambulance. About twenty minutes later, I was helped into The Christie, which (as it turned out) would be as near to a second home as I would get for the following four months or so.


I was going to receive a three-day course of some EP (cisplatin and etoposide) chemotherapy to start attacking the troublesome secondary tumours. This would be a stopgap before I started the main 5-day BEP (bleomycin, etoposide, and cisplatin) regimen in mid-January.


So far so good, but there was one problem! The first day of this three-day EP course would be 24th December. I therefore had to stay in The Christie for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day … no family Christmas at home for me in 2013.


Whilst being in hospital over Christmas is clearly nobody’s first choice, it was actually not so bad an experience. All of the people working at The Christie – the nurses, the cleaners, the doctors – were very nice and sympathetic, helping me through the chemotherapy itself and various other treatments beforehand and afterwards. Even while I was hooked up to my chemotherapy drugs on Christmas Day, everyone there helped cheer me up. Not only did I get a turkey dinner (even though the candida meant I was unable to eat very much of it), I was also given some shower gel and deodorant as an additional Christmas present. Being hooked up to a drip machine for most of my visit meant I could hardly use them while I was there, but it was the thought that counted.


The normally quite liberal visiting hours – 12 noon to 8pm each day apart from protected mealtimes – were also extended to essentially 24 hours during the Christmas period to make it easier for people from further away to visit. This was an absolute godsend for my family – some of whom had come from as far afield as Lancaster, Suffolk and Dubai – and it meant that they could visit me at least twice a day to keep me company. I later learned that my family were understandably not in the mood for a full Christmas dinner on the big day itself, which they postponed in favour of a stir-fry!


Like a lot of people from my generation, I rely on being connected to the Internet for entertainment and keeping in touch with people, which is why The Christie’s free wifi was so useful while I was stuck in bed. I only had my trusty iPhone and a charger with me – I had not intended to be in the hospital for quite so long, so I had not brought in my laptop – but this was enough to keep up with emails when I could concentrate, and to play games when I couldn’t.


The EP chemotherapy did indeed help improve things. The abdominal pains almost completely stopped and, when I could actually eat, I was able to keep my food down. I still had to stay an extra five days to deal with some residual stuff, such as a blood transfusion to help boost my iron levels, filgrastim injections to try and boost my white blood cell count and waiting for a rash on my back to clear caused by a newly-discovered allergy to allopurinol. After all of that, I was finally discharged on New Year’s Eve and I saw 2014 start at home with my family.


Unfortunately, my next visit to The Christie was considerably sooner than I expected. I had to be readmitted about 24 hours after I had left due to an infection while still neutropenic, possibly because the top of an impacted wisdom tooth had broken off (I had visited an emergency dentist and an out-of-hours GP, all to no avail).


This time around, I had to be put into a side-room in one of the wards to prevent infecting other vulnerable patients and be attached to an antibiotic drip. Fortunately, the antibiotics managed to work well enough to allow my white blood cell count to recover and I was able to return home a week later. This coincided with my birthday, so being allowed to go home again was the best birthday present I could have wished for!


The rest of my 5-day BEP chemotherapy sessions were less fraught than the EP cycle I had at Christmas. I was better prepared for my four 21-day cycles. Not only could friends finally come to visit whenever I was there, I was also able to bring in my laptop to give me something to do while the drugs were being put through me. I work as a computational scientist for one of the UK’s research councils, so I was able to do a little bit of programming and catch up on reading research articles while receiving chemotherapy as an in-patient. The candida also cleared up thanks to mouthwashes, so I could actually eat the various meals available. Fish and chips on Friday lunchtimes were my favourite.


Annoyingly, I gained some kind of infection each time I was neutropenic and had to return to The Christie (always on Day 10 of each cycle) to be given antibiotics and allow my immune system to recover. I reckon I must have visited every single ward and most of the side-rooms in The Christie! My hair also fell out, so I had to start wearing hats to keep my head warm.


More positively, I met quite a few other patients being treated for various forms of cancer, including someone else who lived in my hometown. The doctors and nurses were as nice and helpful as they had been at Christmas, telling me how well the chemotherapy was working (very well indeed) and helping me deal with its various side-effects. I had my last top-up of bleomycin in early April 2014 and since then I have only had to come in as an outpatient for scans and check-ups, as well as removing the nephrostomy (hurrah!). My cancer has not returned since the end of my treatment and I am almost certainly in remission.


That memorable Christmas has made me more grateful of how hard doctors and nurses at hospitals like The Christie work, especially when most people are having a peaceful time with their families (as I certainly will be this year).