I was training for the Dublin marathon when I first noticed something was wrong.
I’ve always been a keen runner but I kept getting infections and muscle injuries while training. Assuming it was fatigue and bad luck, I just took more painkillers and kept on training. More fool me!
After the marathon I went back to my doctors with more pain – this time in my stomach. Then I got a bad throat infection which was treated initially by my GP as tonsillitis but when antibiotics didn’t clear it, I was sent for a blood test. I wasn’t really adding all the ailments and illnesses together to form one big picture… typical for me, I wasn’t listening to my own body!
A few days after the test my GP called and told me to go to my local hospital immediately. I knew something must be seriously wrong, and my mind was racing as I drove from work, fearing the worst.
After more blood tests and an agonising wait, I was finally told that I had Acute Myeloid Leukaemia – a rare form of blood cancer. I was in shock, my mind immediately racing to thoughts about my wife and children.
Like lots of men, I’ve never paid much attention to health problems, and if I’m honest I’d never heard of Leukaemia. I didn’t know that cancer of the blood even existed. My doctors helped me understand the severity of the illness and the treatments I’d be facing, and I underwent four gruelling months of chemotherapy.
My blood cells didn’t recover following the chemo, and I was advised that the best course of treatment was a stem cell transplant. Thankfully my older brother was a cell match and on his 45th birthday he began a procedure to harvest his stem cells ready to be transplanted to me. The transplant was quite an emotional time for both of us, but with the support of our family and the NHS we got through it together. It’s no exaggeration to say that Alan saved my life.
When I was told that I had cancer, I was lucky that a Macmillan Cancer Support nurse was present. Cancer and cancer treatment is not something I had any prior knowledge of, and left to my own devices I would have “Googled” AML and been presented with an unbalanced picture potentially biased towards all the horrible worst-case-scenarios. Instead, my Macmillan nurse gave me fantastic information which was really easy to read and understand – this helped my wife and I understand what was happening to me, and what to expect in terms of treatment options, making sure we understood the entire process. Having this support was invaluable, helping us to remain calm and know what to expect.
I think most people are aware of the physical toll cancer has, but for me the emotional impact was a big part of the journey too. Since going through treatment getting back to the person I “used to be” has been my overarching target, whether it’s fitness levels or even the way I look, everything is two steps forward and one step back. This can be incredibly frustrating. Cancer can change the way that other people view you. To lots of people I became ‘Tom with cancer’ and I hated that. I’m not very comfortable with being pitied, but you get that a lot.
I’m now on the other side of my treatment and I’m trying to raise awareness of cancer and the support Macmillan offers at my workplace Topps Tiles – where a significant percentage of the workforce is male. Some men bury their head in the sand when it comes to cancer and health, but it is vital to talk to those around you and know what support is available.
The advice I always give to others is to be open and honest with those around you. I couldn’t have gone through cancer alone and the support of my wife, my family and Topps Tiles has been incredibly important. People genuinely want to help, but they can only help if you let them in. Choose your support network and use it.
Macmillan Cancer Support is working with the construction, electrical, technology and home improvement sectors to help men talk about cancer and the support available. For more information visit www.macmillan.org.uk/saytheword