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Diary of a cancer patient

PET-scan machine at the German Oncology Centre

First-class medical care, friends, a positive outlook and ignoring her mother helped one woman defeat a recent bout of cancer.

By Penny Douglas

My mum was forever telling me to stop fiddling, but maybe I owe my life to the fact that I ignored her.

Touching my neck while on the phone one day in October 2017, I felt a pip-sized lump. I had previously visited my doctor for another such ‘find’ and was told it was supposed to be there, so I left the latest one until I happened to see her over something else.

But this time she sent me to an oncologist which led to an ultrasound and biopsy on the lymph node (the ‘pip’). Then the big misunderstanding – I was told that the lymph node wasn’t cancerous. Anxiety dropped to zero. But what was not made immediately clear was that there WAS cancer, somewhere. This only came out in a subsequent visit to the oncologist, when his credibility dropped to the floor.

Then two things happened on the same day. The oncologist was vilified by a friend, who had been a patient (calling him “a butcher” was the least of it). Then I was told about the new German Oncology Centre (GOC), just opened in Limassol.

There I met highly trained doctors and support staff, efficiency and state-of-the-art equipment — including the only PET scanner in Cyprus. Any queries are dealt with immediately and treatment is explained clearly and concisely. Oh, and there’s no canned music or TV screens anywhere.

GOC was set up by oncologist  Dr Zamboglou, a Limassolian, who worked for many years in Germany, running his own centre there. The centre in Limassol opened in October 2017, which couldn’t have been better timing for me.  The doctor’s personality permeates the place – gently humorous, deeply caring and dedicated.

In December 2017 the various tests began – an MRI scan (in a ‘tunnel’ for about 40 minutes, with my choice of music), then a PET scan (similar to MRI, bigger ’tunnel’ but preceded by an intravenous drip, which takes about an hour) and a gastroscopy (‘out’ for 10 mins, camera down throat and taking a sample, I didn’t even know it’d happened). They found I had cancer of my oesophagus and there were two more ‘suspicious’ areas.

The news was mind-numbing. I went around saying “I have cancer” but could not haul it in. I think, at that time, my daughters were more scared than I was.

German Oncology Centre

Planned were five weeks of daily radiation and two chemotherapy sessions, with chemotherapy tablets daily and regular blood tests to check blood cell levels. I was also pill-popping other meds for the first week of the chemo, to alleviate the side-effects.

For the radiation (five weeks from January 2018), a mask of light, but solid mesh was made of my torso and head. The mask was used every day – I arrived, stripped off top, donned a very unfetching overall, lay down under the machine and the mask was then clamped down on my sides so I could not move my torso. Overhead the radiation was targeted from something that looked like a huge camera lens. The machine whizzed and whirred for about 10 minutes. I visualised the cancer cells going grey and disintegrating. All over for the day.

The first chemotherapy sessions, starting in January 2018, were in a big room with eight deluxe dentist-type chairs facing huge plate-glass windows, giving a breathtaking view over the Mediterranean. They involved just sitting for about two hours, with a drip in the back of my hand, the friendly and caring staff occasionally changing the drip bags and bringing tea.

I wanted to supplement the conventional procedures with natural treatments? So I got together a collection of teas, with the help of a herbalist, some bought, some gathered from the wild. My kitchen looked like an old-fashioned pharmacy! I changed my diet (not drastically, it was already healthily vegetarian) to include kefir, lemon juice, flax and chia seeds. No coffee. OK, I know it sounds whacky, but all these have been mentioned as beneficial and ARE good.  And, most important, no tumour-feeding sugars.

Vit C is often talked about as both a preventative and helpful during treatment for cancer. High dose is needed. Normal Vit C can result in diarrhoea so Liposomal Vit C is the answer as the way Liposomal Vit C is delivered to the body avoids that and is far more effective.

The thing with cancer treatment is the long wait. After three weeks of radiation, I talked to one of the doctors and he went over all the treatment. I was very disappointed that they wouldn’t know the effect of the radiation for three months.

It shocked me to see the ‘suspicious’ areas on my spine and middle still on the screen. These areas were not being targeted with radiation at that time, as it would be too much for me although the chemo would have affected them, if they were cancerous.

In February it was time for another chemo session. Friends came with me to offer support. Now, as before, three days of various tablets at various times to help with side effects, plus daily chemo ones. I was given a timetable, otherwise I wouldn’t have kept track.

Another chemo session was planned for three weeks’ time, then a gastroscopy (camera down throat) to see how the primary tumour was responding.

At the end of the five-week daily, planned radiation sessions and after that second chemo session life got back to a bit more like normal.

It was a ‘limbo’ time, how had the tumour responded? Were the other ‘suspicious’ areas cancer or not? It was unnerving, these ‘things’ inside me, what were they doing? Time for a good worry! Answers would come at the gastroscopy and CT-PET scan stage in six weeks, a long time to wait.

The name of the game was distraction for the long weeks ahead.

That proved difficult. After suffering few side effects from the treatment, they then hit me. Felt nauseous for about a week. Apparently, this was due to the ending of the radiation. They ‘upped’ the anti-nausea tablets, but to little effect. The day would start OK, but then got worse. Finally, it stopped to the extent that several friends had said how well I was looking, commenting especially on my “glowing” skin.

It was March and springtime meant the third chemotherapy session. I had a dear friend with me and we mulled over life, family etc. It’s a huge help to have someone there. I had felt a bit down over the previous few days, after hearing a reputable report regarding cancer of the oesophagus, saying it was “one of the deadliest” because of the difficulty in diagnosing it. Was my diagnosis early enough?

Now into the final run, the blood cells were reproducing well, so ready for the gastroscopy and the PET scan two weeks later with a nail-biting three-day wait for the results, which would show the effect of all this treatment on the primary cancer and if the two other ‘suspicious’ areas were cancer and, if so, how they had reacted. In my lighter moods, as I didn’t feel ill, I was fine, but when I got to thinking about the tests to come….  A gripping DVD series kept my mind off night-time thoughts.

Three months after the start of the treatment, it was time for the oesophagogastroduodenoscopy (try saying that after a glass of wine! And what a word for Scrabble but would it fit on the board?). It was a doddle. As last time, I was ‘out’ for about 15 minutes, while a miniature camera went down to take a peep. The plan was also to take a piece of the tumour for a biopsy.

It couldn’t be done because there was no primary tumour! It had gone, I even saw the photos. I was in shock. I never expected that result. Of course, there were still the two ‘suspicious’ areas but this was such good news.

I then had a meeting with Dr Zamboglou, whose opening greeting was “What are you doing here? This is for patients!” My oesophagus was clear and he was “very optimistic” which, for a doctor, was going out on a limb.

At the beginning of April there was another PET scan, followed by a meeting with Dr Zamboglou and the news that the ‘suspicious’ areas have gone too (they had been cancerous).

Hugs for all the staff and a huge smile on my face.

Follow-up treatment includes another two to three chemotherapy sessions to “mop-up”, a PET scan in six months and regular check-ups, of course.

When I asked Dr Zamboglou what my life expectancy is, he said: “Ask him up there” pointing to the sky! It seems that mine is as good as anyone’s now.

To think that all this has happened (from the first ‘sighting’ of the small ‘pip’) in six months. Even the GOC is surprised at the rapid progress!

From the beginning, I have surprised myself by how positive I have been. “Cancer-cells, it’s you or me and I am winning” was printed on my overall.

But I am sure it’s largely to do with the GOC and of course the support of my friends. I hadn’t gone down the ‘what are the odds’ route, because I wanted to keep positive. It helped that I hardly felt ill at all.

I feel I am so lucky. The GOC opened a month before I needed it, The wonderful staff, the stupendous views, the clinic is just 20 mins from where I live, I have the insurance to cover treatment while the government pays for the medications.

I know there are more GOC visits to come but I now have a sign beside my bed saying: “I am cancer-free”. So be it.

And of course there is a moral to this story: don’t take any notice of your mum, fiddle!

Side effects

I think one of the dreads are the side effects. I had images of nausea, vomiting, fatigue from the chemo and dried/peeling skin from the radiation. All these (except the fatigue) are now controllable with medication, and good old olive oil recommended to rub on my chest to prevent dryness (it worked very well).  I did have nausea for a few days and my nails are dreadful. No hair loss – quite the contrary! But these are minor inconveniences in the overall scheme of things.

 

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