• Austin Birks

My Cancer Journey

When I was originally diagnosed with Level 4a bowel cancer in September 2018, it was a complete surprise. Mostly, because the original diagnosis was that I was told that I had, would you believe, Salmonella poisoning. The very nice doctor at Nuffield private health care asked me if I had been to any African ports recently. After careful consideration, I advised him that the closest that I have got to Africa was the West Midlands Safari Park, located in Stourport-Upon-Severn, in a very land-locked central England.


After less than a week, and many tests and a crucial CT scan, I had the call that you probably never want to get. My doctor rang me at 10:57 on Friday,16th of September 2018, even though he was on his holidays, to tell me that a very large tumour had been found on my abdomen and required emergency life-saving surgery, immediately. So, that was it, within an hour I was at the hospital in Warwick hospital being processed and prepared. Due to the nature of my illness, I needed to be stabilised and as result was operated upon on Sunday, 18th, where in a 4-hour operation, a tumour the size of the surgeon's fist was removed.


When I woke up I found myself in the Critical Care Unit. There is clearly a clue in the name here, as it means that if you find yourself there, you are close to death. In my case, sepsis was the danger. As a result, after 3 days of extensive morphine shots and fantastic care, I was released. It was only post morphine recovery that the real magnitude of my illness and my survival began to hit me. My wonderful surgeon Miss Busby came to see me, and advised me that she was happy enough. She had removed the tumour, but unfortunately, before they could operate, the tumour had grown so big that it had burst through the bowel wall. Consequently, they did not know if it had moved to the stomach lining or other areas, and as a result I would have to start doing chemotherapy. This was also when I was advised that the diagnosis that I had been given was level 4! This is the worst level, and means that even if you survive, there is a high risk that it will return.


So, fast forward to July 2019, and after 13 doses of chemo, Doctor Peter, my brilliant oncologist advised me that against the odds, the CT scan revealed that the cancer had gone. Absolutely amazing and a huge relief, obviously. At last, life could return to some normality, and dare I hope, a reversal of the stoma bag. Sadly, however that was not to be, as a further CT scan showed that the cancer was back, and after a colonoscopy, cancer infected polyps were removed by Miss Busby who called Yvi and myself into one of those “quiet” rooms where hankies are provided free of charge to help you cope with the bad news.


So, when in October Dr Peter informed me what my prognosis was, it was quite a sobering experience. He explained that basically results showed that the cancer was back in the rectal stump, as well as the stomach lining, which is a tricky place to operate on. In addition, a nodule was discovered near the urethra, not to be confused with the uterus, which of course, involves childbirth, which as far as I know, will not include me. A tough challenge, but a challenge all the same.

Now, to be fair my problem was simple, I do not know why but for the life of me I just could not remember the word urethra. So, I reverted to a school memory trick, and selected something that sounded similar, the best that I could manage was Ulrika Johnson. A one time very popular weather girl, who went onto become a high profile TV personality, who went on to present Gladiators which was a massive prime time Saturday night TV show in the late nineties and early noughties.


All was fine, until I recently met a dear friend of mine who I had not seen for quite a while. He is great guy who I have a huge amount of time for. He is originally from Asia, and has been living in the UK for some time. The first question was: "How are you doing?" As when last we spoke, I had just been given the all clear. I looked him in the eye and said that sadly, the cancer had returned. He looked justifiably surprised and upset, where is the cancer now, he asked. In my stress and confusion, I replied it’s in my Ulrika Johnson, not hesitating nor realising the nonsense that I had uttered. At this point, a look of horrified confusion crossed his brow, his head tilted slightly from side to side as he tried to process the data I had offered that clearly made no sense.

For a second, as I observed him, I was reminded of a toy dog that I had in one of my old cars. It was a Corgi, and when the car moved, his little head would bob up and down, not unlike my friend. He then uttered the immortal line, which I will never forget. “So, you have cancer in the Johnson?”. "Oh dear Lord, no" I said, "I am sorry I mislead you! "and then clearly on a roll, he said: "Did she go out with Sven-Goral Eriksson, one-time England football manager?" "Yes." I replied, now joining in, "She did, along with Hunter from Gladiators."


At this point I realised that the whole conversation had clearly gone off piste. I could not help but start laughing and explained the scenario properly. Just goes to show, does it not, how simple communication can go wrong so quickly. But it also goes to show that in the most serious of times and conversation, absurdity and humour are never far away.

And when you are dealing with something like serious cancer, it is imperative that you keep your sense of humour, and more importantly your sense of strength and determination to overcome the challenge and focus on embracing every day and the beauty of life and the gift of waking up every day, no matter where your cancer happens to be.

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