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A gut punch: Living with stage-four bowel cancer

IQ’s former news editor, Jon Chapple, writes on his journey since leaving for pastures new, and how things didn’t quite go to plan…

02 May 2023

In January 2022, I was diagnosed with stage-four bowel cancer. The news, delivered in the glamorous surroundings of Queen’s Hospital in Romford, east London, by a dispassionate, if broadly sympathetic, oncologist was nevertheless a punch to the gut (pun intended) the likes of which I’d never before experienced.

Nor had I expected to at 32 – an age where I had finally ceased to care what people thought of me, where I was happy in work, (relatively) materially successful, and starting to think about family life and home ownership beyond a pokey one-bedroom flat. Attempting to stifle tears following the appointment (where I was joined by a motley crew of my wife, mother, stepdad, sister in law and mother-in-law), one thought persisted in my mind above all others, despite my family’s protestations to the contrary: my life is over and I’d better make the best of what’s left.

Looking back on 2022 and the start of 2023, I can’t pretend it’s been an easy journey. As I write this, I’ve had five rounds of radiotherapy, 14 rounds of chemotherapy and one major surgery which removed half of my liver – and I’m still no nearer to being cured (they call it “remission” in cancer speak). I feel terrible more than half the time – tired and nauseous from the chemo, and in pain from the cancer itself. But I also don’t feel like I have no life left to live and nothing more to offer, and I hope the story of my journey since then – and the lessons below – can offer some help to those who (or whose family) are going through something similar.

I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to still feel ‘useful’, earning a steady wage even as your body is letting you down

Keep working – when you can
When I received my diagnosis, I was three months into a new job, having moved into tech/live events PR as an account manager after a decade as a journalist. This, as you can imagine, was not ideal timing – trying to learn a new set of skills and get a handle on a new industry is challenging even when you’re not being pumped full of toxic chemicals, and I suspect there have been plenty of times when my current boss (shout-out to the amazing Alexis Lipoff of 3WM Communications) regretted taking me on.

With the exception of a few solid weeks off after the liver op, however, I’ve done my best to carry on working as normal – from my desk, my bed, hooked up to a drip in the chemo ward – and nearly 18 months later I’m still in a job. I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to still feel ‘useful’, earning a steady wage even as your body is letting you down, and I’ll be eternally grateful to Alexis for allowing me to continue working at my own pace (slowly) and still feeling an important part of the team as we navigate this period together.

Accept help
As my sister is fond of telling me, “It takes a village”, and – whether you like it or not – this becomes your new reality when living with cancer. Even for the most independent of people, friends and family take on a new importance when you find yourself struggling to cook dinner, wash yourself or get around. I found it difficult at first, but if people offer to help, let them – even if it’s just a lift to the shops, or to wash your clothes. When you have cancer, you simply can’t do all the things you used to do, and it’s a lot less stressful to simply accept people’s offers of assistance rather than trying to resist them.

One of the hospital nurses told me to keep doing the things I love: “Don’t just be a person who has cancer.”

Be sure also to see if you’re entitled to any kind of benefits from the government – in my case, I now have a disabled badge for my car which allows me to park anywhere when I don’t feel up to walking. In the UK, there are also cash benefits and carers available for cancer patients who need them.

Be patient
Everyone reacts differently to finding out you are ill, particularly at a young age. Before judging people’s responses – some, I’m afraid, will be completely over the top and others will barely register – try and remember the shock you felt when you first heard the news. There is no ‘standard’ way to react, so be patient with others; in general, they will only want the best for you.

Live your life
One of the hospital nurses told me soon after my diagnosis to keep doing the things I love: “Don’t just be a person who has cancer.” This isn’t always easy, but it is great advice – it would be only too easy to curl up and give up on the things you used to enjoy in the face of such life-changing news. So I still go to gigs, eat in restaurants, drink nice wine (that is, now my liver has grown back, that is), play video games and slog away at the book I started back in UK lockdown #3.

Every day is a challenge, but with the support of those around me – and what I believe they call a ‘positive mental attitude’ (ie the blind faith that I’m going to get better, no matter what) – I’m doing my best to live my life as normally (and for as long) as possible. Wish me luck.

If you want to talk about anything I’ve raised in this piece, or simply get in touch, you can email me anytime at [email protected].


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