Phil: 'I thought I had a bad back'

Rugby player Phil Jackson thought he’d got injured in the scrum. It turned out to be bowel cancer.

Looking back, I think I’d had bowel symptoms for a few years. I’d always been very regular as regards visits to the bathroom but suddenly that was gone. I put it down to turning 50 and a little bit of irritable bowel syndrome.

I was going more often but I adapted. I didn’t really have blood in my stools or anything which might have made me act sooner. The turning point was a holiday in Tenerife with my wife. For the first time for ages, it was just the two of us with the chance to do whatever we wanted to do. But I just couldn’t go anywhere. We had to stay near the hotel toilet. I think my wife was shocked by how often I was going to the bathroom and I realised just how bad things had got.

I went to the GP as soon as I got back and within three weeks, I was having chemotherapy. In that short time, I had two colonoscopies, blood tests, a CT and a CAT scan. I’ve nothing but praise for the NHS – the efficiency and speed, the quality, the nurses are great. 

‘Shrink it and make it go to sleep’

The consultant told me the prognosis wasn’t good: the cancer had spread from my bowel to the liver and lungs which meant surgery wasn’t possible. He said they’d ‘shrink it and make it go to sleep’. 

He prescribed three types of chemotherapy drugs. Two were standard. The third, in people with a certain DNA profile, helps one of the other two drugs work more effectively. I was DNA-tested and fortunately they discovered that this third drug would work on me.

I had six sessions of chemo followed by a CT scan. The consultant seemed very pleased. The cancers had shrunk. I’ve found I’m now taking less morphine which I also put down to the fact that the tumours have shrunk. 

I have an interview the day before each chemo treatment to assess whether I’m fit enough to take it. So far, I have been. I have a dose in the hospital and then a diffuser which continues to administer the drugs at home. The worst days are a couple of days after that. The chemo clinic is very friendly, lots of laughing and joking, which really helps.

Like that scene in Blazing Saddles

And there is a funny side. After the colonoscopy, I had to have a blood test. Now one of the side-effects of a colonoscopy is excessive flatulence and in the clinic at that time there were half a dozen men, all older than me. They were farting like there was no tomorrow. It was like that scene in Blazing Saddles. Me and the nurse were in the cubicle laughing so much she couldn’t take the blood.

Nothing prepares you for a cancer diagnosis. It’s a bombshell. But I’ve learned I’m more adaptable than maybe I thought. If you had told me I wouldn’t have a drink from September to January I’d have thought you were mad. But here I am with a completely different lifestyle. I have beer in the fridge but I don’t touch it.

I sleep, do a little work (I’m a teacher so there’s always admin to do), keep on top of my emails, read. I record everything I eat. I go out a bit: fill up the car, go to the shops, pick up my daughter. Jigsaws might come into it soon. I try to avoid too much TV as I think it can take over and become the God in the corner.

You need to assess your priorities. Mine are eating and keeping up my weight. Your weight determines your chemo dose so it’s doubly important to keep your strength up. 

Nasty thoughts compartment

I have a nasty thoughts compartment where I just dump anything negative. I can’t do anything about what’s going to happen so there’s no point worrying about it. I just do as the doctors suggest. It sounds like a platitude but I take one day at a time. They say the treatment can make you more emotional and you do find yourself welling up watching something daft on TV. But I’m a northern male so I’m not supposed to show my emotions.

Macmillan have been excellent with practical support, especially early on with my meds. They provide information, ring for a chat. They’re always there even if you don’t use them, a reassuring backstop.

My wife is coping incredibly well. I don’t know how she does it. She’s working full-time yet has come with me to all my treatments except one. My son, who’s 21, came to that one. My 17 year-old daughter has also seen me getting treatment. It’s important I think. Words like cancer and chemotherapy conjure up things but seeing me getting treatment has demystified it. I do think it’s brought us closer as a family. We don’t take each other for granted.

It was difficult telling the extended family. We wanted to tell people face to face but we live a long way away from both my family and my wife’s so it wasn’t easy, talking on the phone or social media without saying anything. Other people’s reactions can be awkward. They don’t always know how much cancer treatment has improved.

But both me and my wife have had brilliant support from colleagues at work with regular cards, texts and visits. I’ve heard from people I haven’t seen for over a decade. I’ve had mass said for me in Leeds Cathedral and candles lit all over the world including Rome and St Patrick's in New York. Considering I'm not a Catholic, that seems quite special.

The message: just go to your bloody GP

I’m continuing with the fortnightly chemo and I suppose we’ll do a few more sessions and then have another scan. I think we’re all playing suck it and see really, me and the doctors. But the treatment is in my hands. If I want a break or want to go on holiday I can.

A cancer diagnosis is life-changing but it’s not life-ending. If nothing else, I want to get across the message: just go to your bloody GP. I ignored it but now I’m undergoing difficult treatment for a painful condition that costs thousands – all of which might have been avoided had I gone to the GP sooner. 

I delayed it because I thought I knew what the problem was. I’d had a bad back for a while which everyone had told me was probably a slipped disc. I was still playing rugby, hooker, at the age of 56 and I didn’t want to stop playing. I knew I’d miss my rugby. And I was right.

UPDATE:

Site editor Jim Pollard writesmy mate Phil died at the end of April 2016. He leaves the lives of many, many people poorer – family, friends, pupils, colleagues, his rugby club and many more. His death, less than three months after writing this article, underlines Phil’s message as firmly as it can possibly be underlined: go and see your bloody GP

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This article reflects the experience of the individual. It is not health information from the MHF under the terms of the NHS England Information Standard. It was last updated in 2016.

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