Over the next two weeks, I have to decide whether or not to go ahead with chemotherapy that could prolong my life while potentially exposing me to a virus that could claim it.
Last month, this decision would have been a no brainer. I have incurable stage four bowel cancer which, when I was diagnosed 12 months ago, had already transferred to my liver. I was told it was inoperable and put on a palliative care plan. After a diagnosis like that, a small number of people exceed the five year life expectancy. The doctor thinks it is more likely to be two or three years with me. We were already a year into that when this virus arrived, stopping my treatment – and that of so many others around the country – in its tracks.
For the last year I have been receiving a targeted therapy (administered via an IV in hospital every two weeks) which I’ve been fortunate to continue taking as it doesn’t suppress your immune system too much, and chemotherapy. I was told last month I would have to cease for at least 12 weeks because of the huge risks it posed: that your damaged immune system makes you more likely to catch Covid, and that if you do, you have very little chance of fighting it.
I was so disappointed. My last scan in February showed the treatment was clearly doing some good as there was no growth in my tumours. I’ve always known the treatment won’t change the prognosis I received at 39, but it could buy me some time, and time is all I have.
I tried to accept the doctors’ decision, and for the past month have let the challenge of keeping my two year old son Ezra busy distract me as much as possible. He is too little to understand what is happening, but knows that Daddy goes to hospital sometimes.
As the weeks have passed I’ve realised that the approach to cancer treatment during the pandemic is a postcode lottery. Some hospital trusts, like mine in Manchester, are still administering chemotherapy, some patients are having it at home, and many private patients are still having it. Knowing that, I vowed to push back a little on my next phone check up.
On Monday, I asked the doctor to go back over my options. He said the risk was still extremely high, too high to have the chemo. I gently said I’d heard of plenty of people continuing their chemo. He went away to talk to the hospital’s leading oncologist. When he returned, he said the treatment would be available to me if I really wanted it. Did I? Without much thought I just said yes.
I am, of course, deeply concerned about what might happen should I contract Covid-19. Ethical guidelines suggest terminally ill patients may be treated as low priority, so I’m probably going to be at the back of the queue. Priorities have changed and I understand that, but more people die of cancer every year than will from this pandemic. The idea that this will push other young, unwell people like me further down the treatment queue is incredibly upsetting. Could others be given the chance to continue treatment if they pushed like I did?
In two weeks’ time (six weeks later than originally planned, but six weeks earlier than the rescheduled date) I can, if I want to, return to chemo. It’s a strange thing to want to have something which makes you feel so awful. My wife Danielle and I were saying just this week that I look and feel better than I have in ages. Chemo floors you; it’s unlike any fatigue you’ve ever experienced. Some days, you can’t touch cold or hot things. But I wouldn’t be having it if it wasn’t doing something. How can I not take the chance to prolong my life?