Well it’s been a long time since I wrote a post for this blog, but now that the end of the year is nigh it seems like a good time to gather my thoughts and put something down on digital paper regarding what has honestly been the most challenging year of my life. I am still considering how I feel about everything that has happened, so most of this post is little more than a cathartic record of what I’ve been through, which I view not as a catalogue of disasters but more a series of unexpected and unwelcome challenges to overcome. I hope that it goes some way to explaining why it’s been so long since I last posted anything. I also hope that, after further reflection, I will be able to share some more personal thoughts and opinion that might help others who are going through similar experiences. So, if you wish to indulge me, do read on..
2017 didn’t get off to the best start for me. I was all geared up to train for my 3rd London Marathon when I noticed some strange symptoms – tiredness, shortness of breath, racing heart rate, dizziness etc. I waited a couple of days but it didn’t go away and when I went to the hospital to get checked out they told me that I had Atrial Fibrillation or AF (irregular heartbeat) and they kept me in for a couple of nights for monitoring. Although it didn’t go away, I was put on some anticoagulants (blood thinning medication) as they said that the condition I had put me at higher risk of a stroke and they didn’t want blood clots to form! Needless to say, this was all a bit of a shock and I was off work for a couple of weeks until my heart corrected itself and returned to normal duties. No one could tell me exactly what had caused this but the most likely culprits that I could identify were stress and over-indulgence on caffeine. Certainly, I had been experiencing a stressful time with work during much of 2016 and surviving on lots of strong coffee had become the norm, so I went cold turkey on the caffeinated drinks, especially the coffee, stopped using electrolytes containing caffeine and tried to relax a bit more. It seemed to do the trick and I was back running again within a few weeks, trying to get back on track with the marathon training for London. I was even taken off the anticoagulants after a couple of months as the risk of stroke had all but disappeared according to the experts.
I had been experiencing a few niggles in my left foot which of course I ignored, but once I was back on the training the pain got worse and I developed full blown plantar fasciitis or PF. I did manage to squeeze in the Stafford Half Marathon in March, at a nice easy pace due to the potential heart issues, but as the training ramped up again I just had too much pain. At one point, the day after a long run, it was so bad that I went back to hospital because I thought I’d caused a stress fracture somewhere on that foot, but it wasn’t broken, just the classic ‘too much too soon’ injury when returning to training after a break. Stupid I know, but that’s kind of how we often roll in the running community…!
However, it was serious enough for me to realise that I’d blown my chance of completing London. I’d simply run out of time to get the long runs in safely and without causing myself further injury. So instead I managed to defer my place to 2018 (thanks to the amazing charity Young Minds who I was running for), rested, stretched etc etc and tried to shake off the PF problem, knowing that I was also entered in the Birmingham Marathon later in the year, and that gave me some time. As it turned out, the PF didn’t go away, and remained throughout the Summer and into the Autumn, but this running injury soon paled into insignificance, as a far greater health problem was just around the corner; one that I had absolutely no idea was going to occur.
One morning at the start of June I noticed some pain in my right side. It was a nagging abdominal pain that I couldn’t get rid of by adjusting position or stretching, and it started getting worse… and worse..! 30 minutes later I was writhing in agony, sweating, and my wife had called an ambulance. I’ve got friends who have had kidney stones or gall stones and I thought that must be it. It wasn’t in the right area to be appendix so this must be kidney stones, right..? Wrong!
I got the distinct impression that this was serious when they wheeled me into the accident and emergency unit through the ‘other entrance’, i.e not the one where you walk in, register and then wait for hours to be seen, but the special one that you really want to avoid… I was already quite spaced out as they had me on gas and air in the ambulance, along with paracetamol via a drip and a dose of morphine, but I could tell what was going on and the pain hadn’t been controlled enough at all, so I passed out!
I came to in the resuscitation area, I think an x ray was taken, and staff decided that this was serious enough to get me transferred to another hospital, presumably because they suspected that surgery was going to be required and they wanted me to be in the right place for that to happen. They told us that they suspected I had internal bleeding.
An hour or so later, after undergoing an uncomfortable CT scan at the second hospital, we were told that I had a serious bleed to my right side renal artery and that they needed to operate to stop the bleeding. I wasn’t aware of everything that was said, due to the pain and painkillers, but my wife was told that I was in a life threatening situation. They also told her that the scan showed an unusual tissue mass which they suspected had caused the bleeding, and that this could be a malignant tumour. The medical team managed to control my pain and kept me monitored closely and then the surgery took place the following day; a highly skilled surgeon was able to thread wires up inside my vein in order to do what was needed to stop the arterial bleeding, and I was kept in hospital for 9 days before I was recovered enough to be allowed home. During my stay they undertook a further scan and reported that they couldn’t see enough of the tumour to ascertain what was going on, but we were told that it could be kidney cancer. I had experienced none of the classic symptoms of kidney cancer, so this was quite unexpected and a big shock to all of our family.
After being discharged from hospital I was off work for a considerable amount of time to recover, mostly because of the blood loss and very low blood count caused by the bleed, and I had two further scans over the following couple of months, neither of which could conclusively point to cancer being present. One scan did, however, show that I now had bilateral Pulminary Emboli, or PE, which are blood clots in the lungs. This caused yet another trip to hospital to be assessed and then put back on anticoagulant medication, although this time it wasn’t in tablet form – I would have to inject myself once a day to keep my blood thin and reduce the risk of the PE growing and causing more problems. (It’s now 6 months later and I am still having to do these injections every day, but I’m hoping I can come off them soon..)
As the scans remained inconclusive, it was only after a biopsy (another hospital visit, but only for a day this time) that finally, in September, we were called in to see the consultant again. Amazingly, in August, we were able to enjoy a family summer holiday during this crazy time which was so welcome for all of us, so were able to shelve our worries to a certain extent while we were away. However, at the September appointment we were finally told that it was definitely cancer and they would need to operate to remove my right kidney and the tumour in one go. I had wondered in the preceding weeks what it feels like to be told that you actually have cancer and, to be honest, it was all very matter-of-fact and quite a short appointment, leaving one of the nurses to discuss things in a bit more detail with us in another room afterwards; I didn’t really have time to consider what had been said, only to accept what the treatment would be. I’d been told back in June that the treatment, if cancer was found, was kidney removal and so this news didn’t seem quite so unexpected when it was eventually confirmed. I was told that it was a Stage 2 tumour, meaning that it was contained and had not spread, but was a large tumour. It felt a bit surreal for a while, but I had been told that it could all be removed and on the 5th October that is what happened when I had my ‘Radical Laparoscopic Nephrectomy’ (impressive term for complete removal of kidney using keyhole surgery). I was in hospital recovering for a few days and then allowed home for everything to heal up.
Even though they had used keyhole surgery, I still ended up with a very sore 12cm scar down the middle of my belly (the ‘exit’), and some smaller scars from where the surgical instruments had been inserted (the ‘keyholes’). It was very uncomfortable for the first couple of weeks and I had to take everything very slowly, but the pain was nothing compared what I had initially experienced back in June and I knew that I had to try to be patient and let my body heal up in it’s own time. I think my underlying fitness from running helped me in my recovery, as I was up and about more easily after 2 weeks and back working after a few weeks more, certainly sooner than I had been told to expect.
About 6 weeks after the surgery I had to visit the consultant again to receive the results of the tests that the lab done on the tumour. This ‘histology’ report confirmed that there had not been any spread to surrounding areas, that the tumour was 13.5 cm in size (actually larger than the kidney itself!) and that the cancer I had was Grade 3, Clear Cell, Renal Cell Carcinoma, or RCC. They told us that this meant that the cancer was aggressive I was now considered to be at high risk of recurrence elsewhere in my body, and that most likely that would be in my lungs sometime in the next 10 years. Not the best news to hear really, having been told that it could all be removed. but that is the nature of this cancer; it can re-appear or ‘metastasise’ elsewhere, and so in January I begin a 5 year schedule of regular scans to see if it can be caught early if it does make an unwelcome re-appearance.
Enough about the cancer already – what about the running..?
I am determined to get my running fitness back now, as I have really missed getting out for a run. The PF seems to have eased back now to some slight pain every morning, so I feel it’s time to get back out there. After the surgery I set up a road bike and turbo trainer, borrowed from friends, at home and was able to start some easy workouts for an hour at a time at a low heart rate, as I knew that my aerobic fitness would have suffered through 6 months of inactivity. I hope that this has helped me and I may look into getting my own bike now to vary the exercise that I do and relieve some of the impact on my feet that caused that problematic PF. We shall see..
I have been able to go out and do some easy short runs lately and it has been tougher than I expected it would be, but early indications are that I can get that fitness back if I take it steady. I have nothing on the horizon to aim for, race-wise, apart from the 2018 Stafford Half Marathon in the Spring, which I would hate to miss as it’s my local event. Back in the summer I had to give up my Birmingham marathon place due to injury, illness and lack of training and once I received my cancer diagnosis it was clear that I wasn’t going to be able to run London in 2018 either, so reluctantly I contacted the charity and declined their offer of a deferred London place. If I can complete Stafford then, who knows, I may be back to full marathon running as well sometime. For the time being though, I am happy to take each week at a time and am looking forward to getting back to the enjoyment of running, solo and with friends, and just take it in my (slightly slower than previous) stride.
And as for that possibility of the cancer returning…? Well, I shall just have to take that in my stride as well !