“My Voice” by Alistair Shaw

Alistair Shaw - 'Survivor'

I guess a lot of people would say I was always a bit eccentric and weird. I liked to be different and thought being normal was boring. I quite often preferred my own company to that of others which is probably why I became so obsessed with long-distance running where I could just get away from everyone and everything. By the time I returned to Planet Earth I was ready to face the world once again.

Testicular Cancer is a disease which affects mainly younger men and accounts for only one percent of all male cancers. I had it – a rare cancer to go with a rare personality! I had spent my entire life wanting to be different but after being diagnosed with Testicular Cancer in January 2010 all I wanted, more than anything in the world, was simply to be like everyone else – cancer free.

I write this with the hope of helping those who are about to embark on the road which I’ve just been on and I’m still on. I hope my experiences will allow you to learn from my mistakes. With a little luck someone reading this can make the changes in their life, which I didn’t, and that’ll allow them to get through this with more ease. I had some pretty amazing people around me during this life-changing event and unfortunately I’m only starting to realise this now. This article will help me come to terms with what I have been through, and I hope it’ll allow those people around me that I took for granted to gain some understanding of what it was like.

My name is Alistair Shaw; I’m a cancer survivor and a very proud it.

The first stage was of the whole process was to go to the doctor, who in turn made an appointment for me to see a radiologist. One week later the radiologist did an ultrasound scan and instantly sent me to see an oncology nurse because he believed he had found something of concern. After meeting the nurse I then met a surgeon who, within twelve hours, removed the tumourous testicle, leaving me with a little scar below my stomach (which I still think is pretty cool actually!).

Strangely enough, all I could think about was how I’d just started my dream job and that they were going to sack me. It may appear strange that when faced with a life-threatening illness all you can think about is your job, though the more people I talk to, the more common that thought is. This was the very same thought that went through the head of one of my heroes, Lance Armstrong, so it would appear none of us are immune to thinking that way. I think this says more about the world around us than about the individual.

I called my family and my girlfriend. Needless to say they were more shocked and upset than I was. I was on a very different planet at this stage and my mind was in a very different place, but I’m forever grateful to my girlfriend at the time and to my family around me.

I was given the news some weeks later, after receiving the results of a few scans, the cancer had spread! That news about the cancer spreading hit home hard and the whole thing got me down emotionally. I had a sick feeling in pit of my stomach and all I could think about was if I managed to get to sleep was cancer flowing around and around in my body. I was bombarded with phone calls, emails and texts from well-wishers and I never realised so many people actually cared.

The fact that the cancer had spread so quickly was a clear sign that it was quite aggressive. The original tumour was around 1cm in width which is relatively small in comparison with the majority of cases that get to hospital. The reason for this is that most men hold back on going to the doctor until the lump has increased considerably. I was told the type of tumour I had was a Teratoma* and they are pretty aggressive and spread quickly so chemotherapy was unfortunately the only solution, but I didn’t care because I was the toughest guy on this planet as far as I was concerned. Radiotherapy wasn’t an option when faced with a Teratoma.

I went into hospital for the first of three cycles of chemotherapy; the gloves were off and I was in fighting spirit. I went in there bouncing like an eager boxer expecting an easy win, and after the first week I crawled out, near enough on my hands and knees. I wasn’t expecting that severe punishment and the whole thing knocked me. I could instantly feel that I had started to change physically and, looking back now, my personality also changed drastically. I was always a difficult character to get on with and I know now I was even more so. I must note though, for those reading this, that this feeling of punishment didn’t last forever and I recovered very quickly. We should always remember that we suffer only for a relatively short period of time and it is this suffering that motivates us later in life. People will tell you all types of stories but the one I used to hear the most often was that each cycle gets worse, but in my case the first cycle was the worst.

During the second cycle my relationships with everyone were beginning to break down and I was becoming impossible to be around. I had all but built up a wall because I could feel that everyone around me was finding this as difficult as, or even more difficult, than I was. I didn’t have the mental energy to take on the problems of those around me, and although people still came to visit me, I kept my distance and just wanted to get through this on my own.

I was warned at the start of this process that relationships can be extremely difficult and the ones you hold with your partners can be the hardest to keep together during such an ordeal. Even the strongest of marriages have broken down and after what I’ve been through I’m not the slightest bit surprised. Chemotherapy changes a person in the way you look, feel and act. I was never the easiest person to get on with before cancer and chemotherapy only made an extreme version of the original me. No surprises then when I tell you that the relationship with my partner broke down. I know she was finding it difficult but I couldn’t possibly try and help her as I had enough problems and emotions of my own to deal with. The least I could have done was acknowledge the difficulty in which she had found herself, but, regrettably, I couldn’t even manage to bring myself to do that. The key is, I guess, to try and understand what each other is going through so by making this effort to put yourself in their shoes will hopefully allow them to do the same. Instead we entered the ‘blame game’ and in the end you begin to realise that the emotions and difficulties you are all feeling is no-one’s fault. Unfortunately life happens to throw these things at you when you least expect it that this isn’t anyone’s fault and these difficult times are short-lived. Remember this. If it wasn’t for unconditional love I think my family would have washed their hands of me as well, and I wouldn’t have blamed them.

The second cycle was emotionally very difficult as I’d started to feel very alone which I may add was never the case. There were always people around me who tried their hardest to keep me in touch with reality.

Please learn from my mistakes and embrace the ones around you rather than cut them off. They can never understand how you are feeling unless they’ve been through it themselves though they will try their damned hardest and that is the beauty of loved ones.

My hair falling out was something that I thought wouldn’t bother me, but during my second cycle in hospital my hair completely fell out I felt pretty low. Losing your hair through chemotherapy should never be looked as of a sign of weakness or a sign of sickness rather more as a sign of positivity and the fact you are now getting better. Unfortunately I didn’t do this and this new look brought me more down than ever. I didn’t recognise this very pale bald guy looking back at me. Who was he?

The third cycle was pretty unpleasant but didn’t compare to the first. Chemotherapy will change you as a person and you may become difficult, emotional and you’ll simply not feel yourself. I think being selfish is something people will need to understand because your journey through cancer is the beginning of the fight for your life and in this fight you are the most important person. I must note that even though you are the most important person in the world you are not the only person in this story. Those around you who truly love you will understand and your relationships with these people will come through the other side bigger and stronger.  Different people will tell you different things about chemo as chemotherapy effects different people in different ways so if you’re embarking on chemotherapy just remember one thing; you’re probably not going to enjoy yourself but when you burst through to the other side, the end product is well worth the pain.

Cancer is something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy but at the same time I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. A paradoxical statement – but let me explain my reason for saying this. I’ve met some truly inspirational people, made some good friends, I’m closer to my family than I’ve ever been and the stories I have heard have changed my life and me as a person forever. I became amazing friends with a guy who had also been through Testicular Cancer and this bloke has more understanding and inspiration in his little finger than I have in my whole body. Throughout my journey he was an unbelievable friend and if I can give back to others what he has given to me then I’ll live happy. To have someone to talk with who has been through the same as you is truly inspirational. I hope I can some day express my gratitude to everyone involved in this and hopefully make amends for the mistakes I have made.

I’ll tell no lies and let you know I’ve struggled emotionally post cancer. I returned to my old life of living for the weekend and big nights-out only to find that I no longer belong, or want to belong, in this world of madness I used to be part of. This has put a strain on the people I once knew as I’m no longer interested in that old life. The whole thing has been pretty tough on me and instead of facing up to this new way of thinking of mine I continued with my old attitudes simply cutting myself off from the people who care about me the most. I spent so much time volunteering and working, listening to the problems of others because I didn’t want to look at my own.

I prefer my new life to my old, though in true fashion old habits die hard and I sometimes feel it would be easier to slip back in to my old life and forget this ever happened to me. Nowadays I prefer hiking across the green hills of this beautiful country, Ireland, than I did sitting at the bar and drinking until I got drunk, as I once did. I always enjoyed that feeling of getting out into the country and feeling free but only now does it mean so much more to me. With a new lifestyle come new decisions and it has been more difficult than cancer itself trying to readjust.

When I wake up in the morning with the sun shining in the window onto my face I’m just so appreciative to be alive. As people we feel so detached from the world around us and we often can’t see the common bond all human beings share while we float along in our busy little worlds not thinking about what the next day may bring. We are endlessly obsessed about careers, jobs, money, and more often than not, what the weekend may bring, but none of these things matter at all. There is so much more to life and I feel the overwhelming need to tell people this. I hate cancer for the misery and suffering that it brings upon peoples lives and I have joined the fight against it. We all live, we all die and we all get only one chance at this life. Together, I truly hope, we can all smash cancer.

Nobody seems to ever speak with confidence about a cure for cancer these days. Why is this? It’s sad to say, but if I’m honest I hear the words cure and cancer mentioned in the same sentence less and less these days. These days it seems to be more about catching the cancer earlier or simply prolonging someone’s life. Unfortunately money, not people, rules the world; and our progress as a society is dictated by money rather than trying to improve the human experience. The majority of us feel that it’s simply an ‘unfortunate part of life’ that someone should die because there wasn’t enough money to save them. The question should always be, do we have the resources, and not, do we have the money. This is the sick and unfortunate ‘cancer’ that eats away at us all. This attitude, that anything we can do in the battle against cancer has its limits, is absurd. Our abilities as human beings are limitless and a cure for cancer is simply around the corner if we push for it. As survivors of this horrible disease, we owe it to people who lost their own fight and those about to embark on a fight against cancer, to make sure we have a cure in our generation for every type of cancer out there.

* In the UK,  Teratoma is synonymous with Non-seminoma.