My phone buzzed with some of the best news I’m ever likely to get
Having survived a rare bone cancer put me in a priority group for the Covid-19 vaccine
Covid jab: a passing doctor kindly photographed me being vaccinated in central London
On February 9th my phone buzzed with one of the greatest texts I’m likely to receive. It was a message from my GP, in Covent Garden in central London, asking me to call to book my vaccination slot. All going well, I’d be getting a jab in two days. I rang the surgery to accept and was told the vaccination centre would get back to me with an appointment.
When no call came, I rang the surgery again the next day, on my lunch break, to remind them. Ten minutes later, while I was in the shower, I heard my phone ringing, so I grabbed a towel and ran out for it. I was not going to miss that call.
By the time I received my jab the UK had given a staggering 13.5m doses, in one of the fastest vaccination programmes in the world. It was an emotional moment for my mother
I listened intently to the nurse on the line, waiting for the moment of final confirmation. And there it was: I could have the Pfizer jab the following day, February 11th, at the Royal Horticultural Halls, near Westminster Abbey. I messaged a team leader at Macmillan Cancer Support, where I work, and he gave me the time off I needed to go and get my vaccine.
V-Day came, and I took a bus to the centre of London from my flat in Peckham, seven or eight kilometres away, south of the River Thames, on a cold, bright day. I was early, so I walked slowly over Lambeth Bridge, taking in the views of the Houses of Parliament in the distance. I arrived at the vaccination centre and got in a long queue outside the building. People stood apart from each other, and everyone was masked. I assumed that, like me, they were enthusiastic to get this jab, more so than any other jab in their lives.
“Oh, Conor: my son’s name is Conor,” said a nurse named Jacqui, once I’d been allowed inside the centre. She discussed some minor side effects I might experience, and I mentioned that I had read up on the subject and had been getting the flu shot for several years.
The jab was done in seconds. A passing junior doctor kindly took my photo. I stood up and thanked Jacqui, who gave me a small NHS vaccination card to keep, and I walked to the observation area to wait for 15 minutes. Except for a bit of soreness around the vaccination site, I felt great, so I got up, left the building and rang my mother, in Co Mayo, with the good news.
We talked about what an enviable achievement the UK vaccine rollout had been. By the time I received my jab a staggering 13.5 million doses had been given, in one of the fastest vaccination programmes in the world. It was an emotional moment for my mother.
The Covid-19 pandemic was not my first life-threatening situation. I was a veteran of another medical crisis, having been treated for a rare cancer, called Ewing’s sarcoma, by a specialist NHS team at University College Hospital Macmillan Cancer Centre in 2016 and 2017. The UK sees only about 60 cases a year.
When I was 24 years old, a 15cm tumour was discovered in my chest, and after chemotherapy, six weeks of radiotherapy and major surgery my right lung had already been through the wars. I wrote about all this in a five-part series for The Irish Times, which raised more than £10,000 for Macmillan.
Since then I’d made an excellent recovery, but in this new pandemic my right lung, and the treatment it had received, were a cause of consternation. People with pre-existing conditions had yet another thing to worry about.
In December 2016 I had just finished six weeks of radiotherapy. The hope was that the treatment would help melt the tumour in my chest, “like snow”, as one nurse specialist put it. I flew through the early sessions, but as time went on the side effects were punishing, as I’d been warned. I developed a severe cough that lasted several months. The fatigue was acute. My lung was clearly not happy with what had been done to it.
My parents had flown from Ireland and were staying in Russell Square, to be close to me. My mother had booked Christmas dinner for us at a nearby hotel. But between the fatigue and the cough I wasn’t in good shape, and I could barely get through the meal placed before me.
Despite intense pain after surgery, I was overjoyed to be declared cancer-free – but I didn’t quite realise that my difficulties with my right lung were going to continue
It transpired that I had severe pneumonitis, or inflammation, which forced the NHS team to cancel my surgery at Royal Brompton Hospital, the UK’s largest specialist heart and lung medical centre, on February 1st, 2017, even though I was in the building, prepped and ready to go. The day that surgery was cancelled was a dark and uncertain time, but my consultant thoracic surgeon, Simon Jordan, proceeded a month later, and achieved a brilliant outcome. Despite intense pain after surgery, I was overjoyed to be declared cancer-free – but I didn’t quite realise that my difficulties with my right lung were going to continue.
In September 2017, Jordan, who chairs the cancer team at Brompton, told my mother on a follow-up visit that I’d had the worst pneumonitis he had ever seen. This shocked us. I’d felt well during the summer following surgery and was happy to be alive and finished with treatment, but by that autumn I was going downhill again.
“You have pneumonia,” said Dr Jeremy Brown, professor of respiratory infection at University College London Hospital, a short time later. He had been focusing on his computer screen, with his back to me, as I walked in, and he had turned to me after I sat down. He spoke quietly, then prescribed a course of antibiotics and told me to rest.
This was my second bout of pneumonia in less than a year, and my reduced immunity meant I was still more susceptible to this happening. This time the fatigue lasted more than eight weeks. Having so many respiratory infections made me wary of people. I shuddered – and moved away, when I heard someone cough near me. As time passed my immunity improved, and I began to get sick like the average person would, without it developing into something serious.
Then along came Covid-19, and I found myself in London, in my late 20s, with the world grinding to a halt, three years cancer-free but with a radiated right lung that may make me more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.
I didn’t know how concerned I should be by this new virus as it tore through families, tragically killing people at an alarming rate. In those early months of the pandemic my surveillance scans – and whether they would be delayed – were a concern. And having been through an onslaught of treatment for Ewing’s, I was keen not to suffer further with this virus.
If I got Covid and my lungs were to become inflamed, given my treatment history, I was more likely to suffer with it. But I had been training to run in the London Marathon, and my fitness and strengthened immunity stood in my favour
In the meantime my UCLH Macmillan team were debating what to do about Covid and me. In April 2020, Anne McTiernan, a senior nurse specialising in sarcoma, phoned me for a checkup. She said they had debated whether to send a letter that would have placed me in the high-risk group, recommending that I live in total isolation for 12 weeks. Anne explained that there were reasons for and against it. On the one hand, if I got Covid and my lungs were to become inflamed, given my treatment history, I was more likely to suffer with it, she said. On the other hand, I had been training to run in the London Marathon, and my fitness and strengthened immunity stood in my favour.
It felt like a coin toss. We decided not to put me formally in the high-risk category, as I was already observing strict protocols. Summer arrived, social-distancing and mask-wearing belatedly became the norm in the UK, and I spent most of my days working from home for Macmillan as a cancer information and support adviser. Much like everyone else, I spent my free time going to parks with my girlfriend, Helena, and running or walking with her family’s dog, Barney.
I worked on Christmas Day and Zoomed my mother in Ireland. In line with lockdown rules, I spent most of the holiday period alone, hoping that it would all be worth it once that jab was in my arm.
Then, on January 29th this year, I had my six-monthly chest X-ray. Less than an hour after the scan, while walking through Leicester Square, Anne rang to tell me it was all clear. Always great news to receive. With vaccines rolling out in earnest, I seized the chance to ask where I stood in the queue.
“I can see where you’re going with this: say no more. I’ll get my PA to write up a letter putting you in the vulnerable group,” Anne said. Excitement and relief fell over me. Thirteen days later I had my shot in the arm.
I’ll likely get my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine within 12 weeks – and will continue masking up and following the rules to protect myself and others. While I’m very grateful to be vaccinated, there is still work to do, and I’ll be happier when everyone has had their offer, too.
Conor Lane will be running the London Marathon on October 3rd for Shine Cancer Support UK. You can help him meet his £3,000 target here