David Ross was a young dad with a great job when he got the news. He had cancer. He shares a piece he wrote when he was going through chemotherapy. And then looks back at the experience and explains why he felt he had to give something back.
I have testicular cancer.
I write this from ward B4 in the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre, which has been my home for more than two weeks.
I am reaching the end of the first of three-week cycles of chemotherapy, ahead of it all starting again in just over one week’s time. My stay was due to last five nights, but my inability to eat food, stop being sick, stabilise my diabetes, or generally remain in any sort of decent health, means I’ve almost been in this hospital longer than I’ve been in our lovely new Stepps home.
The overall prognosis seems to be positive, with my consultant expecting a full recovery following chemotherapy. It’s just that chemotherapy is brutal. In my naivety, I thought I would be a little tired but feel fine overall.
I brought three books, two phones, and a laptop, so hopeful was I that I would have hours to read and watch films. It didn’t quite work out that way. Who knew five nights of intravenous chemotherapy wouldn’t be conducive to a lovely, book-filled break?
The impact of my predicament on my family has undoubtedly been the most difficult part of this whole mess. Telling my wife, Paula, my parents, and my siblings that I had cancer was hauntingly traumatic.
The past few weeks have been exhausting for them all, as they rush around looking after our children, working, and visiting me (although only Paula is allowed due to COVID restrictions). I’ll never be able to repay the debt.
I joked with my consultant, who leads a team of magnificent and dedicated NHS staff, that five nights of chemotherapy would be a nice respite from my daughters, who can be a handful and aren’t overly keen on sleep.
But I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve cried at the end of a video call with Paula and the girls, Emily, three, and Sophie, one. Without doubt the worst call was when Emily asked me when I was coming to see her and would I be able to give her a hug.
I have a difficult-to-dislodge lump in my throat thinking about it. Sophie misses me and shouts on me constantly, but she is too young really to understand anything bad is happening. Emily is a different matter.
She has always been a timid and slightly nervous girl, but these past few weeks have made her more anxious than ever. Repeated questions about where I am, what’s wrong with me, and when I will return home are peppered at Paula. She wakes in the middle of the night worried about me.
At first, we told her I was away working. She wasn’t convinced. Next, we tried a version of the truth — daddy was in hospital getting his side fixed (after I had the offending testicle removed we told her I had hurt my side).
This started off well, because she likes hospitals and knows her mummy works in one as a nurse. Slowly but surely, though, this plan has unravelled, as she asks more and more questions about when I will be better and if I am OK. We’ll need a new plan for cycle two.
I miss an awful lot about my pre-cancer life. Seeing Paula for more than an hour a day and not behind a mask. Hugging my girls. Spending time with my family. Not feeling dreadful. Working with my wonderful team at ScotRail, where I head up the communications team (between that and my previous roles in politics, I am impervious to abuse).
One curious feature of my time with cancer has been my Faith. I am a practising Catholic, the kind who watched Mass on YouTube during lockdown. I’ve neither had a crisis of Faith due to my cancer nor an overwhelming spiritual experience.
In fact, there has been almost no impact at all. I pray each day, confident in the tender loving mercy of God. But no more so than normal. And while I’ve questioned why God hasn’t stepped in directly to ease my pain, the experience hasn’t led me to question His existence.
Maybe when I am through the other end of this nonsense something will change, in either direction. Or maybe I am just too boring to have such extreme thoughts.
I’ve always prided myself on having good mental health. I am one of those really annoying people who usually fall asleep within minutes of lying down. ‘You’ve just got to get on with it’ was my post-diagnosis refrain.
Chemotherapy has changed that. For the first time in my life, I have experienced genuine anxiety. I don’t know if it was a full-scale panic attack or not, but on the third night of chemotherapy (when my dose increased) I felt a wave of anxiety across my entire body.
That process repeated itself in subsequent nights and again during those brief few hours at home. I now take a tablet to guarantee I will fall asleep in hospital. I can’t pinpoint exactly what causes this.
I am confident I’ll make a full recovery and don’t really think about dying. But it’s clear the process — from diagnosis to operation to chemotherapy to recovery, be- fore the next cycle starts all over again — has had a damaging impact on my mental health. I pray that this isn’t a long-term challenge.
It’s now almost a year since the chemotherapy ended. While I wouldn’t say I am fully back to normal, I am on the mend and feeling much better. Looking back at what I wrote from the Beatson, I got two things wrong.
First, the impact on our youngest daughter Sophie, who is now two but was one at the time. It wasn’t until I was home after all the treatment was finished that it was clear my being away affected her more than I realised.
It wasn’t so much that she was worried or understood what was happening, but she had gotten so used to my not being around — either because I was in the hospital or upstairs in bed, the Daddy who used to run around with her and put her to sleep most nights was now a weak and distant figure who barely had enough energy to give her a hug and who definitely couldn’t pick her up and dance and play.
The second thing I got wrong was about my Faith. I clung to it more and more as the treatment wore on. I took Rosary beads to the Beatson with me for cycles two and three. My nightly routine became reciting the Rosary until my sleeping tablet kicked in, because I couldn’t face lying in bed worrying about what the next day would bring. That all eased off a few months after the treatment stopped.
Although as my wife has just reminded me, I was out my face on sleeping tablets and anti-anxiety medication for quite a while. It was a horrendous experience. But now I am through the worst of it thanks to the Good Lord and the life-saving work of the Beatson, led by Dr Jeff White.
That’s why I am now undertaking a cycling challenge for the month of August to raise money for the Beatson. What started out as 10km per day during August has morphed into the distance I cycle matching the day of the month.
For example, on August 24 I cycled 24km. Day 31 can’t come quick enough. But this will help to fund life-saving treatment and support the expert care provided by the team of doctors, nurses, and support staff. I want to help the Beatson to keep saving lives just like it saved mine.
Finally, I need to thank my wife. She is a very shy and private person, so I decided not to write too much about her but I could dedicate an entire book to what she means to me.
You can support David’s fundraising efforts at: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/david-ross57