We chatted alien movies, then he showed how he’d cut me open

I was frightened by my diagnosis of oesophageal cancer: my elder brother died of it

John Eagle, about to get chemotherapy for the first time

John Eagle, about to get chemotherapy for the first time

 

I am a survivor. It scared the living beejeepers out of me a year ago when I was told I had cancer of the oesophagus, a rush of cold sweat flowing down my body. I asked the consultant if I should cancel my lighthouse tours in June, 2017, and he waved a hand down at me: “Nah, the treatment will be over by then.”

Tim Goulding (the artist of bog fires) had driven me to the hospital and we laughed all the way there and back. He told me he had been in Bantry the day before to have a bottom plate fitted, I asked how did he stop it from breaking under his arse as he drove. He told me he might have to pull in to the side of the road the tears of laughter were streaming from his eyes so much.

Tim went to hell and back with liver trouble, but he only had a five-hour operation, whereas I had a 12-hour one in front of me.

Fast-forward

I guess I’m out of the woods now. The cancer has been removed and the treatment has ceased. I had a CAT scan a few weeks ago – no cats inside me and no cancer either.

It is going to take a while to get my strength back, I am very tired most of the time. But, unlike my eldest brother, I have had cancer of the oesophagus and lived to tell the tale.

A lot of more deserving people have died.

You hear so much about the poor health service in this country. It is far from poor. It is a fantastic health service. I wish I could go back to ICU and be mollycoddled again. The nurses and doctors were fabulous, and the after-care simply brilliant.

Cancer Connect drove me to hospital – a wonderful service. I did an oil painting which I had raffled. It raised €615 for them.

I yearn to climb the mountains again, but at the moment walking a few yards uphill is about as much as I can do.

I have changed a great deal in the past year how I view things. Having cancer does that to you. Less stress, more positivity.

That last word I initially spelt wrong.

A year ago I would have sworn at myself, because I am the son of Dorothy Eagle, the editor of the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary.

I should know how to spell.

"Gathering the Flock" painted by John was sold by raffle ticket at the Beara Arts Festival, raising €615 for Cancer Connect. John has exhibited paintings in Ireland the US.
"Gathering the Flock" painted by John was sold by raffle ticket at the Beara Arts Festival, raising €615 for Cancer Connect. John has exhibited paintings in Ireland the US.

I’ve been on tour and forgotten to book ferries – screaming blue murder at myself for not thinking ahead. That is putting a spin on a problem, which does nothing to solve it. Now I say, “I f***ed that up, next time I will get it better” and move on. I think I am a much calmer person than I was before. I haven’t smoked since Halloween 1992, so it might be the stress that I was putting myself through that generated the cancer. I don’t know.

I conduct my life differently, like I go to sleep when my body tells me to. I put my body first all the time.

Story rewind

A year ago I threw up a chicken wrap. I sent a text to my doctor and she told me to try another. I ate a carrot and lettuce one and was violently sick. I was due for blood tests and, while I was having them done, Jacqui (my GP) called me in for a throat inspection. She seemed very concerned and told me I needed to go to Bantry to see a consultant.

I had an endoscopy (using a tube, a way for a doctor to view the digestive tract), CAT scan (uses X-rays from many different angles to give a detailed view), and some other scan, which should have told me there was something very wrong. The consultant told me I had a polyp (an abnormal, benign growth of tissue). My brother Martin, who had taken me to Bantry Hospital, said polyps were nothing to worry about.

However, the consultant asked me to return to him a week later and Tim drove me this time.

I wasn’t the least bit worried.

There to here

I was frightened by the diagnosis. My elder brother Roger died of cancer of the oesophagus in 1999. A couple of days after being told the bad news, Louise Buckley rang from the Mercy University Hospital in Cork and arranged for me to meet surgeon Tom Murphy. Louise has been fabulous to me, watching out for me, always there for a chat.

I met with Mr Murphy and he did his own endoscopy and told me straight – he could cure me; and my chances of survival were 50/50.

So I put my faith in my doctors, and got on with everything they told me to do.

I had many scans, such as a PET scan (which shows how organs and tissues are working) and more endoscopes. When I went for the PET scan I stayed overnight in Kinsale and went back up the next day for an endoscopy and a nurse asked me if I had had any treatment recently. I told her I had had a PET scan the day before and she hurried away and returned with a Geiger Counter. I found that very amusing, and was bothered I hadn’t glowed in the dark the night before. You see they made me radioactive for the PET scan and I was on strict instructions not to come into contact with pregnant women. I was more concerned that people in Kinsale would be worried about a glowing green man in the neighbourhood.

I had a port fitted in my chest, and the wonderful CUH staff put me up in the Lancaster Hotel in Cork City for the night to save me going back to Eyeries (where I live on the Beara Peninsula). I was picked up the following morning and taken to the Dunmanway Clinic at CUH for my first injection of chemo.

"The chemo ward gave me a scarf to wear to protect me from germs as my immune system was low due to the chemotherapy. I suggested to my collie Suzie that we should go off and do a bank job, but as you can see she was a bit alarmed. I did actually go into the bank looking like this and the clerk said, ‘hi John'."
"The chemo ward gave me a scarf to wear to protect me from germs as my immune system was low due to the chemotherapy. I suggested to my collie Suzie that we should go off and do a bank job, but as you can see she was a bit alarmed. I did actually go into the bank looking like this and the clerk said, ‘hi John'."

I did 9 weeks of chemo – three injections. EOX – the O stands for Oxaliplatin, the X for Xeloda, damned if I can remember what the E is for, I know it was a red liquid. The Xeloda is a tablet and I took four in the morning and four in the evening at home for three weeks, then went back to hospital for more injections, which took all day.

It’s not easy.

Operation day

The operation was on March 21st. Mr Murphy had seen me at the start of March to explain what needed to be done. I said to him that maybe it was like Alien and it would jump out of my stomach and race across the floor – and so ensued a chat about Ridley Scott movies.

Then he told me we needed to be serious and he drew a sketch of my stomach and showed how he needed to cut my tumour out and pull my stomach up and join it to my throat.

I have come to realise why they call him The Magician. You can hardly see the scars on my right side where the surgery took place.

John had to wear this mask for the first couple of days after waking from the 12-hour operation. He had been asleep for 16 hours.
John had to wear this mask for the first couple of days after waking from the 12-hour operation. He had been asleep for 16 hours.

The consultant oncologist at Cork University Hospital, Derek Power, has been wonderful, and his trials nurse Sarah Thompson has been there for me through thick and thin. I think it was her who arranged for me to stay at the hotel overnight for free.

I was back at CUH recently to have the port removed.

Just check-ups from now on.

To the future

I wasn’t the first on Xeloda (a chemotherapy medication), but they told me I was the first patient on a comparison trial. I was asked if I would do the trial and I felt I had nothing to lose. I got more attention from the nurses. Sadly, as I get better, not so much attention.

These days I’m weak, but in good spirits and if I can give inspiration and help to anyone else going through cancer then I would like to.

Which is also what ARC did for me.

They provide free counselling and reflexology to cancer sufferers and Bantry ARC have been helping me a lot.

My advice to you is, if you have swallowing difficulties, see your doctor asap. The sooner you get looked at, the greater the chances you have of surviving.

FACT FILE:
Cancer of the Oesophagus

The oesophagus is a muscular tube that connects the mouth to the stomach.

The cancer can sometimes narrow the tube, making it difficult to swallow. Other symptoms include heartburn, weight loss or a persistent cough.

There are two main types of oesophageal cancer – both treated in a similar fashion. Adenocarcinoma of the oesophagus – usually found in the lower part of the oesophagus. Squamous cell carcinoma of the oesophagus – usually found in the upper part of the oesophagus.

When oesophageal cancer occurs, it starts in the inner layers of the oesophagus and grows outward. An oesophagectomy, surgery to move all or part of the oesophagus, is a common treatment for the cancer.

In Ireland, there are approximately 450 new diagnoses of oesophageal cancer each year.

Fewer than 20% of people diagnosed with the condition are still alive five years later.

Ireland has one of the highest rates of oesophageal cancer in Europe. It is a difficult cancer to cure, in part because it often presents at an incurable stage, and in part because the inherent natural behaviour (biology) of the cancer may be aggressive and resistant to our standard approaches with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.

The National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP) has designated four Irish hospitals as specialist centres in the treatment of oesophageal cancer – St James’s Hospital (National Centre), Dublin; Beaumont Hospital, Dublin; Cork University Hospital and University Hospital Galway.

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