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  • Writer's pictureAustin Birks

My First Memories Of Living With Cancer, Five Years On From Diagnosis

Friday, September 15th, 2023, was a memorable day in the life and times of yours truly. It marked five years to the day since I had a rather unforgettable phone call at 10:37 am. At the time, I was still asleep in bed, as my sleeping pattern was all over the place. I was staying in a flat which was part of the uTrack office in Sutton Coldfield.

As the phone rang, I woke up and looked at the number, which I did not recognize. So, I answered it. The voice on the other end said, "Is that Austin Birks?" I replied, "Yes." The chap then said, "This is Dr. John," who was the consultant at Nuffield Health in Warwick, where I had recently had a CT scan. "Hello, Dr. John," I replied, now fully awake. "I thought that you were on holiday," I said. "I am," he replied, "but I have had a phone call from the guy who reviewed your CT scan. You have a huge cancerous tumor in your abdomen, and you need to go straight to Warwick Hospital where they are waiting for you." Surprisingly, I did not feel any sense of panic or fear. Just a sense of, "Okay, I need to go." I even managed a quick, "Hope you enjoy the rest of your holidays," as I made sure that I kept my stiff upper British lip fully upright.

And that was where the journey started, and what a journey it has been. As Yvi and I arrived at the hospital, I still felt calm, mostly because at last, I actually knew what was wrong with me, and now that I knew something could be done about it. The NHS machine kicked into life as I was taken to a side ward in A&E and put on a smock. It was one of those strange fashion challenges, as you have to tie it up from the back. Failure to do it correctly could result in an unexpected "blue moon," as it were, as I would discover to my cost later in my cancer journey. Much to the delight of members of the public at Kidderminster Day Hospital when they inadvertently got a surprise flash of my by-then-long-retired bottom. Not suggesting that my bottom was long; indeed, if anything, I would describe said rear passage as pert. No, what I mean is that after my first surgery at Warwick Hospital, my butt was basically closed down as a functional waste disposal unit. In essence, it was stitched up quite literally, given a P45, and told to enjoy its retirement from what the military call active service.

To replace said former waste disposal unit, Doctor Karen Busby, the wonderful surgeon who literally saved my life, created a new replacement, which is on reflection something of a genius life-saver. Obviously, you need somehow to have a process where your body can get rid of natural human waste. So what they do is they simply pull out a part of the bowel through the wall of the stomach, and hey presto, there you have it. That same bowel that shoved the unpleasantness down to the butt for natural release is simply headed off at the pass, as it were. And this is where the famous Stoma bag comes into its own. If you do not know what a stoma bag actually is, it is a lightweight plastic bag (not to be confused with a Tesco shopping bag, which is much bigger) that has adhesive. This is simply stuck around the exposed bowel, and lo and behold, there you have it. When the bag needs replacing, you simply remove, dispose of the old bag, and replace it with a new bag. Of course, you always need to ensure that you have supplies on your person at all times, 24/7, 365 days a year. Those familiar with my blogs may recall the classic calamity that I experienced in my local Morrisons superstore where my bag burst as I was shopping in the freezer aisle. To this day, I cannot look the frozen Cornish Pasties boxes in the eye again, even if they had eyes.

So, looking back, I truly am a very lucky man indeed. When Miss Busby operated upon me, I was in a grave condition. The tumor was massive, the size of my fist, she said, and she had hands like an Irish canal-building navvy, as they used to say. Even worse for me, the worst possible case scenario had happened because it had been diagnosed so late; the tumor had burst through the bowel wall. Now, usually, this is a death sentence because once the cancer cells are loose, they can hitch a lift on the lymph nodes and populate other vital organs. Miraculously, in my case, this did not happen. For some reason, and quite incredibly, after my cycle of chemotherapy was complete, I was actually told that, against all the odds, I was cancer-free. I will never forget that sense of joy and relief. But of course, little did I know that within three short months, it would be back, bigger and more dangerous, but that was all to be part of my five-year journey. So, in conclusion, what have I learned? Well, first, I have to praise the Lord that I am still here. Not many people survive level 4A bowel cancer, but here I am, having survived two major life-saving surgeries and to date, 93 doses of chemotherapy. Secondly, I have been blessed to have the most amazing medical staff look after me, led by the brilliant Dr. Peter Correa, and the amazing nurses, staff, and other members of the team who over the five years have become my good friends. Too many to mention, but to me, every single one of them is my heroes.

Thirdly, last but not least, my family and friends. Yvonne, the good doctor who nursed me through the darkest times and kept me alive, Abi, my beautiful daughter, my reason to be, Tracey, George, Chris, Liz, Cathy, and so many more. And never forgetting my wonderful mum, Margaret, who passed away in December 2021, and my siblings who literally saved my life when I had to pay for my second surgery, which cost me a mind-blowing £51,817.00. Anyway, here I am. I have not given up, I have not given in, and I hope that these blogs might help anyone who is battling with cancer.

Onwards and upwards, my dear chums.

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