Why cancer isn’t what it used to be…

Inspirational teenager cancer sufferer Stephen Sutton.

Inspirational teenager cancer sufferer Stephen Sutton.

The ‘Big C’ they used to call it. Once you’d been diagnosed that was it. It was just a matter of how long you had left before the disease took you from your loved ones.

Cancer still retains that aura of dread but with each passing year the reputation of this indiscriminate killer diminishes a little.

This week’s news from Cancer Research that half of people in England and Wales now being diagnosed with the disease will survive at least a decade is hugely significant and should give hope to millions of people.

It is testimony to the wonderful work of scientists, doctors and researchers who have taken enormous strides towards confounding cancer since the dark days of the early 1970s when being given the diagnosis was seen as the end of the world.

New treatments, earlier diagnosis and screening have all played a part in increasing the life-span and, crucially, the quality of life of those afflicted by cancer.

All of this, of course, has been paid for by tireless fund-raisers who continue to underwrite these advances in medicine and treatment – often as a tribute to friends or family members who have been victims of the disease.

It is this triumph of the human spirit which, in my opinion, is doing more than anything to chase away the spectre of cancer.

Just look at the way the courage of cancer victim Stephen Sutton, struck down by terminal illness in his teens, has touched the hearts of people across the UK and even around the world.

Stephen’s legacy won’t simply be the millions of pounds he has raised for the Teenage Cancer Trust. It will be a legacy of hope and inspiration for thousands of young people who find themselves in a similar, crushing, situation.

Then there’s little Frankie Allen, from Burslem, whose beautiful smile as she battles leukaemia has prompted hundreds of people across the Potteries into action to show her she’s not alone.
We’re with you ‘til the end of the line, kid.

And what about Maia Handyside, from Stone? The 13-year-old’s bravery in telling her story in The Sentinel recently has brought into sharp focus the affect cancer has on young people – acutely aware of their own self-image.

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine – former Sentinel journalist Richard Firth – did something amazing.

Together with my colleague John Woodhouse, he ran the London Marathon in aid of the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust (CHECT) in honour of his young daughter who was affected by the disease.

I’m sure Richard won’t mind me saying that, like me, he’s not really got the build of a long-distance runner but nonetheless he completed this astonishing feat for his princess and I am in awe of him.

This is that triumph of the human spirit I mentioned earlier.

Last but by no means least, who could forget North Staffordshire’s very own Women Fighting For Herceptin – led by the indefatigable Dot Griffiths?

Their fortitude in overcoming a postcode lottery and forcing the Government to make the cancer drug Herceptin available to all women who wanted it was a genuine game-changer which has enriched the lives of thousands of women all over the country.

I could go on because there are countless examples of resilience shown by people affected by this most insidious of illnesses.

The important lesson to learn from all these remarkable individuals is that remaining positive, no matter what the circumstances, is crucial – not only to your own well-being but to those around you.

In August 2008 yours truly was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. My mum had spotted an innocuous-looking lump on my neck and forced me to go to the doctor.

When I got the diagnosis I confess I went into panic mode. All I could think was that I wouldn’t live to see my children grow up and that’s a pretty awful prospect.

I bottled up my feelings, made a will and steeled myself for the worst.

The reality, however, wasn’t nearly so grim and I well remember the words of my consultant as he was explaining what would happen in terms of treatment.

He said: “Cancer isn’t what it used to be.” He was right.

I was lucky. I had a couple of operations and a course of radiotherapy. I now take tablets daily because I don’t have a thyroid and, as a result, face a constant battle with my weight. But it’s no great hardship really. I’m just glad still to be here writing this for you.

Cancer never really goes away. Every time I see an advertisement for one of the cancer charities I have flashbacks to the moment I was given the news.

I pray nightly that it never comes back and my missus gives a monthly donation to Cancer Research UK.

I still visit the consultant once a year – in fact, I’m with him again next week.

If I’ve learned anything (and this may sound ridiculously obvious) it’s that life – for as long as you have it – and the way you live it, is all that matters.

I’m genuinely grateful for every day. Yes, even the ones when I have to get up for work at 5am or don’t finish ’til midnight. I’m extremely grateful for my family and friends. For my daft-as-a-brush dog. For the great job I have and the privilege of writing this column. For my geeky hobbies. For the places I visit. For my perennially-troubled football club. For the people I meet. For every night the kids keep me awake when they’re poorly. For every school homework project and parents’ evening. For every hug and every ‘I love you’.

Cancer won’t be eradicated in my lifetime but with each passing decade the fear, pain and loss it inflicts will diminish and we can all play a part in that.

Cancer isn’t what it used to be, you know.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Couple deserve chance to start a family after cancer hell

Try to imagine the shock and despair a woman feels at being told she has cervical cancer.

Think of the fear and the worry. Consider the physical toll and emotional strain on the patient, her partner and their loved ones.

Then factor in, as a result of treatment, the loss of that woman’s ability to have a baby.

It is a scenario awful enough to make you hug your own children that bit tighter as you tuck them in at night and thank your lucky stars that you are in the fortunate majority.

Sadly, this situation is all too real for Rebecca Brown and her husband Elliot, of Meir.

Faced with the heartbreaking prospect of never having a family of their own, the Browns turned to a close friend.

She is a woman who already has children and is prepared to be a surrogate mother to end Rebecca and Elliot’s nightmare.

However, the surrogacy, involving a form of IVF, comes at a price and it’s one that the National Health Service in Stoke-on-Trent is not prepared to pay.

Rebecca and Elliot’s case is ‘not exceptional’, say the powers-that-be.

Given the circumstances, I’m struggling to think what would qualify as ‘exceptional’.

At this point I should say that I have a huge amount of sympathy and respect for the people who sit on NHS panels deciding which drugs and forms of treatment should be made available to the public.

It is not a job I would like. They walk a tightrope that straddles the ethical, medical and financial.

It seems to me to be a thankless task – and, to mix my clichés, a case of having to compare apples and pears and robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The bottom line here is, of course, that there is a bottom line. The NHS budget is not a bottomless pit and the taxpayer simply cannot afford to fund every drug and type of treatment available.

But I can’t help but think that Rebecca and Elliot deserve a chance.

There will be those who say that the NHS saved Rebecca’s life and that she should be grateful for that.

Others will argue that, dreadful as it is, not being able to have children is not a life or death issue and the £5,000 of public money for an IVF treatment cycle would be better spent on other things.

However, for me, this is a quality of life issue.

It is about the Browns, having come through hell and considered all the options, deciding to try for a baby that will be biologically theirs – as close to a normal, natural pregnancy as they will ever come.

A midwife speaking at a ‘parent-craft’ class once told me that being able to carry a child and give birth is the single most natural thing a woman can do. She described it as a ‘keenly-felt need’.

Now just think of all those women who fall pregnant by accident or who churn out baby after baby without a care in the world and turn out to be utterly hopeless mothers – without a stable family background or income to support their offspring.

Think of the money the State throws at them in terms of support, help and benefits.

Yet here we have a solid, married, working couple (because this affects Elliot too) who have been through the mill in recent years only to be told that the NHS can’t help them achieve what so many people take for granted.

The Browns have sought to ensure the surrogacy is conducted properly and are dealing with someone they trust implicitly, but still find themselves stymied by bureaucracy and financial constraints.

Irrespective of their financial situation, I don’t believe Rebecca and Elliot should have to pay for a treatment which others receive a free cycle of and which has been available on the NHS in the Potteries since October 1988.

Some may feel that such a decision would set a dangerous precedent – opening the floodgates to all sorts of claims for fertility treatment.

This is why the prioritisation of funding is key to the ethos of the NHS and why I welcome the new Government’s plan to shift the responsibility for decision-making away from the bean-counters and back to the medical fraternity.

For me this case is simple: It is about the wish, or perhaps need, of a loving couple, a man and a woman, to do that most natural of things – start a family.

How then could anyone, in all good conscience, deny them such a fundamental right?

Our Dot leaves proud legacy following a life less ordinary

Cancer drug campaigner Dot Griffiths.

Cancer drug campaigner Dot Griffiths.

I’ve been fortunate enough, through my work, to meet lots of fascinating and even famous people.

Royalty, musicians, stars of sport and entertainment – I’ve rubbed shoulders with quite a few household names.

Here in the Potteries, of course, we have our own group of celebrities including a pop superstar, TV and stage personalities and one of the world’s greatest sportsmen.

They are all, in their own way, special people deserving of praise who are great ambassadors for North Staffordshire.

But I can honestly say, hand on heart, that the person who has left the greatest impression on me in the last 20 years isn’t any of the above.

Rather it is a woman whose bravery and selflessness shine as a beacons of hope to us all – even as we mourn her passing.

Dot Griffiths died on Friday.

She was, by her own admission, an ordinary woman.

But by anyone’s estimation this grandmother from Hartshill lived a truly extraordinary life.

For 11 years Dot spat in the eye of fate – living, as she did, in the shadow of terminal cancer.

Having fought and won the right to receive the experimental, life-prolonging drug Herceptin back in 2001 anyone would have forgiven her if she had focused on herself during the time she had left.

But that wasn’t Dot’s style.

Despite undergoing a gruelling course of chemotherapy she organised a group of fellow cancer sufferers into a campaign group that became impossible to ignore.

It was a campaign group that went all the way to 10 Downing Street and forced a change in the law which ended the postcode lottery of NHS treatment in relation to Herceptin.

Clad in pink these formidable ladies were – and still remain – the pride of the Potteries.

But they will tell you that it was Dot who was the glue that bound them together.

An appeal fund, named in her honour, then went on to raise more than £100,000 for the oncology unit at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire.

Our Dot’s wonderful achievements didn’t go unnoticed, of course.

In 2005 she was named Stoke-on-Trent’s Citizen of the Year.

The following year she was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen.

Dot being Dot, she considered herself representing ‘her girls’ back in the Potteries.

Personally, I remember the night of September 28, 2008, when Dot and the Women Fighting For Herceptin won The Sentinel Editor’s Award at the Our Heroes ceremony.

Two months earlier I had been diagnosed with cancer and five days before the Our Heroes bash I went under the knife to have my thyroid removed.

In spite of much mithering from my doctors and loved ones I was determined to be there on the night as compere because I wanted to be the one to invite Dot and her pals up on to the stage.

Underneath my shirt and dickie bow my neck was bandaged, sweaty and aching. If the truth be told I was knackered.

I remember ad-libbing that I would have ‘crawled over broken glass’ to be able to announce the award.

Everyone stood, Dot cried happy tears and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.

My doctor had said: ‘cancer isn’t what it used to be’ and, to me, Dot Griffiths was living proof of that.

I was lucky. My cancer was operable and my chances good.

In 1999 when the tumour was discovered in Dot’s breast it was described as the “size of an orange” and doctors told her she had only 12 to 18 months to live.

As it was the ‘ordinary’ woman from Hartshill soldiered on for more than a decade, lived to see her grandchildren born and watched them grow.

More than that, she found within herself the strength to help others who followed in her footsteps.

We are privileged to call this ‘ordinary’ woman, to whom countless thousands of women and their families across the UK, owe a debt of gratitude, one of our own.

Dot may be gone, but her legacy lives on and her life serves as an inspiration to us all.

I can think of no-one more deserving of a posthumous OBE than our Dot.

There’s always someone who’s worse off than yourself…

Yours truly having the operation to remove my thyroid.

Yours truly having the operation to remove my thyroid.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised when the consultant explained to me that I had cancer.

It was my mum who spotted the innocuous-looking lump on my neck last July.

Since then, at every stage of testing, when each one of the experts said that the chances of me having thyroid cancer were very small, I somehow managed to make the cut. I have been in that small percentage.

However, being told the results of the biopsy still felt like an out-of-body experience.

“Now I know what it is I can beat it,” I remember telling myself as I walked back to my car. “I’ll be fine.”

Then I drove home from the hospital, rang my gaffer at The Sentinel, sat down on the settee with our Yorkshire Terrier and wept.

I’m not embarrassed to admit that, at 36, I had myself dead and buried.

Thus I resolved to get my affairs in order. My priority was to make sure that my family were financially secure.

I very quickly did what I should have done years ago and went out and bought a DIY last will and testament kit.

Worldly possessions distributed? Check.

Funeral arrangements sorted? Check.

I spent every minute I could with my children because I figured I was living on borrowed time.

I found it hard to look at my girls without wanting to burst into tears. I just wanted to see them grow up.

To say sleep was hard to come by would be an understatement. My brain didn’t want to shut down.

Colleagues quickly realised I wasn’t just using up the time in lieu we hacks accrue for working daft hours. I didn’t try to keep the illness a secret. I couldn’t see the point.

In contrast, I steadfastly refused to talk about the cancer with my nearest and dearest beyond the occasional ‘I’m fine’.

If this was the beginning of the end I was determined I didn’t want to be remembered as the bloke who spent his last months mithering and being a burden to those around him.

At least that’s the theory. In reality I continue to worry my loved ones to death by bottling it up.

I had umpteen sets of tests and two operations.

Then I saw the consultant who was to oversee the forthcoming radiotherapy.

Like all his predecessors, the doctor spoke reassuringly, almost nonchalantly, about my treatment.

I wanted to shout at him that I was really scared – that it was a huge deal. Couldn’t he look a bit more, well… bothered?

But he’d been here hundreds, probably thousands, of times before. What to me seemed like the end of the world was, for him, just another pre-op appointment.

Then he said it: “Cancer isn’t what it used to be, you know.”

And suddenly the penny dropped. Before that comment, I had this notion that I was slugging it out with the cancer. It was a fight I had to win because I desperately didn’t want to leave my family and friends. It was me against the cancer. Simple.

But it wasn’t. It never had been. In the blue corner it was me, my family and friends, my colleagues and some wonderful NHS staff.

In the red corner was the cancer.

Suddenly I fancied the odds.

I thought about all the amazing and inspiring stories I had written and read over the years. About the Women Fighting For Herceptin and their remarkable triumph over not just cancer, but the establishment that had conspired to deprive them of hope.

I adopted the ‘there’s always someone worse off than yourself’ philosophy and suddenly I felt so much better.

I’m not out of the woods yet… but I think I can see the tree-line.

Cancer isn’t what it used to be, you know.