Tommie Gorman: ‘I get on with the business of trying to stay alive’
Twenty years on from a diagnosis of carcinoid cancer of the liver, the veteran RTÉ reporter reckons he’s lucky to be alive
Tommie Gorman on assignment in Mauritius last year. Photograph: Paul Faith, Press Association
Twenty years ago next January, out of the blue, I was diagnosed with cancer. It hasn’t gone away – a dodgy liver remains home to over 20 secondary tumours and I’m lucky as a black cat to be still alive.
The condition is carcinoid cancer – neuroendocrine tumours (Nets). We make up 2-3 per cent of the cancer population and 2,000-3,000 people in Ireland have the disease in some shape or form.
The tumours secrete hormones, like serotonin, which can play havoc with the system. Often the tumours spread, in secondary form, to the liver and gather there like dead leaves around a drain.
It can be a difficult disease for a GP to spot because of its relative rarity and the general nature of the symptoms – stomach pain, loss of appetite, diarrhoea and (in some cases) flushing.
Many cancers have a set path – diagnosis, treatment and either the “all clear” or death. But carcinoids tend to follow a different pattern – the trick is to control the spread of the disease and the impact of its symptoms. It is a chronic condition and often the mental challenge of coping with that reality is as significant as the physical battle. Sometimes the disease is relentless.
Jim Mitchell, the former Fine Gael minister, fought bravely but lost his battle. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, had a carcinoid primary in his pancreas and he also died from the disease.
Over the years I’ve had lots of bits taken out of me. But for the expertise available at a centre of excellence in the Endocrine Oncology Unit of the University Hospital, Uppsala in Sweden, I would have been dead long ago.
The Swedes have an international reputation for dealing with the disease; at different times, through surgery they removed a hard-to-get-at tumour from my mesentery area and took out a substantial section of my gut. In another phase they treated my liver with four belts of a radioactive isotope called Lutetium.
More recently they scoured my liver, in a process called radio embolisation. And in a further episode, one awkward liver tumour, refusing to behave, was burned off, using a process called radio-frequency ablation. Once a month I require an injection of a product called Sandostatin to counteract the worst of the disease symptoms. I try to avoid painkillers.
Treatment in Sweden
Dozens of Irish patients have, like me, availed of our rights as EU citizens to access treatment in Sweden under the E112 system.
One is entitled to access cost-effective, useful services, not available within one’s own country in a public hospital of another EU member state, provided one has the prior authorisation of the health authorities (HSE) and the recommendation of an appropriate consultant.