This is my journey sharing my initial feelings, through surgery and later some wonderful discoveries.
It is nearly 6 years since the dreaded diagnosis of lung cancer. I still vividly remember my GP’s call confirming the ominous shadow. I was in denial – I hadn’t felt ill, had no pain, nor had I smoked for over 30 years. The period between numerous tests and surgery was terrifying. Waking in the middle of the night with sweats, anxious about possible chemo or radio therapy, whether I would breathe properly or if I would survive more than a few months. Part of this fear was due to my dear mother dying of lung cancer just weeks after diagnosis, but that was decades ago.
To my friends, family and work colleagues I put on a brave front, not wanting to openly admit my fears. I just wanted to get it all over and done with. After being fast tracked I was in the kind and caring hands of a wonderful team at Papworth Hospital. In the weeks up to surgery I started hearing positive stories about survivors and those who managed very well with less lung.
Surgery went well, 2 lobes were removed from my right lung and the surgeon confirmed it was successful and no chemo or radio therapy were needed. I was enormously relieved that I was so lucky about this despite having radical surgery. The next day I walked around the duck pond. 4 days after surgery I was sent home with an enormous pack of drugs and a book of exercises to carefully follow from the physiotherapist. Initially I could only walk to the end of the road, then built up strength with various arm and leg exercises. I had brilliant care and support from my partner which really helped. A small bank of friends also set up a weekly visit rota bringing naughty treats and we did a small walk together which was encouraging.
The surgeon hadn’t wanted me anywhere near horses for at least 2 months after surgery in case of infection. He wasn’t that keen about our cats or that a new Burmese kitten was on its way. In fact, the energetic bundle of fluff was a joyful arrival and helpful distraction during my recuperation.
Regaining more strength, I was back horse riding and driving within 2 months, working part time and full time within 4 months after surgery.
Weeks after moving to our new home in Herne Bay I started wondering why I was working so hard again. Driving around the country was tiring and uncomfortable too. I also felt survivor guilt at times having lost other family and good friends to cancer. I was constantly aware of having a second chance with life-saving surgery and not to delay my retirement so I could join my partner in our new life by the seaside. I was keen to improve my fitness levels, walking more and bike riding again. Initially, cycling back home from town up a gentle slope proved tough without getting off the bike. There were also 72 steps up from the beach to the Esplanade – another challenge. After steady, regular practice I managed both without stopping. I also did a 9-mile bike run from Hampton to Reculver although I walked up the steepest hills.
There are always niggles in the back of my mind that cancer could strike somewhere else and I stay vigilant, getting any oddities checked out early. I am learning to manage these concerns and enjoy all the many good things in my life.
As part of keeping my lungs healthy I decided to learn to play a wind instrument 2 years ago. I had musical training at school, play guitar and read music slowly. There was a slightly battered Hohner chromatic harmonica (one with a button so you can play in all keys) in a drawer. I’d barely used it since my teens and then was unable to manage single notes for a melody. I sent it to a professional restorer who told me about Harmonica UK, a fantastic, dedicated harmonica organisation with members in the UK and worldwide. They run 2 annual weekend events with workshops, jams, a concert and specialist sellers on site. Two months later found me at the Bristol Folk House surrounded by players of all ages and backgrounds. Professional musicians, long-time players and a few beginners like me all mixed together in a magic atmosphere. I learned a lot during the workshops and met a jazz musician who later became my mentor and teacher. I was hooked from that point, regularly practice learn all types of music and attended more festivals, now playing in the ensembles and going to local jams and play-alongs. My harmonica family has grown – different brands and types from Europe and the Far East.
Many harmonica experts cite the health benefits of playing harmonica. It is the only wind instrument that you both blow and draw into to play notes. In the US there is medical research proving benefits of the harmonica for lungs, COPD, asthma as well as lifting mood and anxiety. I found little information here, however my consultants agreed any regular breathing instrument would be helpful. During one of my final checks up at Papworth I had a lung function test. This compared my pre surgery functionality which had been above average. Five years on I was surprised but very pleased that, despite less lung, my function had reached the same levels.