Grant Baker, Chairman of GICI
About seven years ago, I was feeling very comfortable in my position as Executive Chairman of 42 Below Ltd, a vodka and gin producer that had just been recognised by Deloitte as New Zealand’s fastest growing business.
Family life was good and I had regularly been fuelling my passion for motor racing. My only problem was that I had started to experience some pretty bad stomach cramps which were usually accompanied by bouts of nausea.
Being a guy, I chose to ignore them for as long as possible, but the cramps kept getting stronger and came more regularly. It finally got to the stage where I had to visit my GP to find out what was wrong and stop the pain. He gave me a physical examination which didn’t show any problems, and organised a blood test as a further precautionary check. At my follow up appointment, he told me that my CEA markers (indicators of cancer) were normal but my red blood count was slightly low. He then said he would get me to go for a colonoscopy to check further as to what was causing my problems. I wasn’t too keen on that idea and resisted, but he insisted.
I had the colonoscopy a few days later and had the instant diagnosis of bowel cancer. That same day, I was introduced to a surgeon who said I would have to have surgery immediately, as a cancerous tumour was almost totally blocking my colon.
At this stage I was in shock and pretty much incapable of doing anything to help myself. Fortunately I have a great wife who stepped into the breach and booked me into hospital and arranged for surgery through our health insurance.
The surgery went smoothly but I had to wait a few days for the histology to come back. It turned out that the surgeon had removed about a third of my colon and 45 lymph nodes. Unfortunately, the cancer had spread to three lymph nodes which meant a six month course of chemotherapy was needed. The chemo was administered through pills taken daily and a once every three weeks intravenous drip.
“As has been well documented, chemo makes one feel pretty bad, but seven years later I’m still here with a clean bill of health.
The only long term side effect with the chemo is that it has some impact on the nerves in a patient’s fingertips and feet. So in my case and many others, a lot of feeing and sensation in those areas is missing.”
Jan Robinson's story
Jan was diagnosed with rectal cancer and shares her story and support of the LoveYerGuts campaign. To watch Jan Robinson’s story click here
She also talked to people with gastro-intestinal cancers. Her tips are below.
After going through what I call, “my adventure,” these are my takeaways:
- When I look back, I knew something was wrong before I was diagnosed. Trust your instincts, and listen to your body. If you were driving a BMW and you heard a strange noise as you drove down the road, you would take it to a mechanic. And you would make sure they took you seriously.
- Importance of putting faith in your specialist. It’s so important to respect them and be able to be open and honest. Because I trusted by specialists, I was able to put all of my concern over my treatment into a little box, tie it up, and hand it over to them. All I had to do was listen to their advice, and be.
- Understand side effects, educate yourself as a patient or a caregiver. Save your energy. Don’t set yourself up for failure by overexerting yourself. Day by day, hour by hour.
- You must recognise the importance of managing the mental aspect of the cancer experience
- I didn’t block out the “what ifs”, but I didn’t dwell on them. I chose to be optimistic, yet realistic. I considered the “just in case” but again, I didn’t let myself dwell.
I never thought of myself as a victim. Don’t analyse what’s happened, focus on what’s next and what you need to do to keep going.
- Balance of perspective—you see the big picture, but break it up day by day. What do you need to get through the day.
- Decide for yourself what will make you feel good. And go with it. Do you have a mantra? Figure out what you need to do to give you strength. If you like music, listen to music. If you like to read, buy a book. If you don’t know, just try something.
- Cancer never affects just one person.
- When you’re going through something difficult, surround yourself with positive people who will make you feel strong. You will need to lean on them, and use their strength and energy. Choose people who want to be there and are strong enough to help you.
- To the people who are supporting someone who’s going through this, you need to realise when your bucket is empty too.
- One of the best ways to fill your bucket is to be kind to other people. When I was in the hospital, I had a friend take pictures of every bouquet of flowers sent to me. I turned each picture into a post card and sent it to the person who sent me the flowers with a message of thanks.
- Humour is key. Nemo, the ileostomy.
- Mind stamina, Cameron Brown
- My mother has a saying, life will give you rain drops, then it will give you hail, then it will give you bricks. Cancer was bricks for me. And when you get given bricks, you have to throw them back.
- When I refer to my experience with cancer, I call it my adventure. It was a second chance at life. It was an opportunity to extend my life, and I wasn’t going to let this beat me. I thought to myself, if I get to live until I’m 80, what do I need to do make my life more fun, more positive.
- Celebrate each day because life is worth fighting for.
Laura and Jeremy Robson
Laura is one of our gutsiest LoveYerGuts’ fundraisers. At the age of 26 years, Laura was diagnosed with stage 4 terminal bowel cancer. Having had a gastroscopy and colonoscopy which were both normal, she presented for a second time at the hospital emergency department with severe pain. The hospital then performed a laparoscopy and by chance the surgeon felt a mass just before completing the procedure.
Click on Laura and Jeremy to watch Laura talk about the diagnosis. Obviously this totally changed her life as she was given just two years to live. After marrying her long term partner Jeremy in November last year, Laura felt she needed to put her feelings and the reality of her situation into words. Her blog describes the paucity of resources for people with gastro-intestinal cancers let alone those who are diagnosed at a young age. To access her blog ‘Terminally Optimistic’ click here.
Paul Hargreaves, ONZM, Auckland
“In May 2006 I was diagnosed with a cancer in the tail of the pancreas. A distal pancreatectomy was attempted together with splenectomy on 1 June 2006 by Professor John Windsor, Professor of Surgery at the University of Auckland Medical School, who found that the cancer was too advanced to carry this out successfully. I was given a terminal outlook.
My cancer was considered too extensive for radiotherapy and I was referred to Professor Michael Findlay, Professor of Oncology, who placed me on a chemotherapy treatment which was the result of a recent Italian clinical trial which had reported very good outcomes. It involved a 4 drug schedule using the drugs epirubicin, cisplatin, gemcitabine and capecitabine.
The treatments were planned to be in 3 cycles of 8 weeks administered 2 weekly with the exception of the capecitabine which was taken orally twice-daily every day. A CT scan was taken at the end of each cycle. In the event we completed 11 treatments by early December. The CT scans had showed up progressively very good results to the point where I was able to be presented back to the surgeon in December who agreed to operate, subject to another scan. This was done and showed ongoing response to the chemotherapy.
A distal pancreatectomy and splenectomy was undertaken on 22 February 2007 by Professor Windsor, entirely successfully this time, together with removal of a lymph node. The subsequent pathology was very encouraging, showing histologically that there was no cancer left in the pancreas.
I had idiopathic neutropenia which exposed my immune system but this was managed successfully during the chemo (4 days of injecting Neupogen after each fortnightly treatment.)
I felt well throughout and used acupuncture as an aid to counter the chemotherapy effects and transcendental meditation which I have practised for many years. My wife ensured that we were careful with diet.
“Throughout this time I went about my normal business. I find that people have all sorts of different ways of coping with this. The support of my wife throughout was of huge importance. I even managed a visit to Antarctica and the South Pole in January 2007 as chairman of Antarctica New Zealand for the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Scott Base, prior to the final surgery in the following month.
At the time I was the only patient on whom this drug combination had been tried in New Zealand.”
Strangely, when my dad – known to his friends as Mike – told me that the doctors had to run some tests, and that there was a chance it could be cancer, I wasn’t that worried. Dad had been sick for a long time, in one way or another. He’d had multiple surgeries, and complications from multiple surgeries resulting in even more surgeries, and it seemed to me that if he had cancer they would have found it during one of them. In the few days we spent waiting for the results, I managed to thoroughly convince myself that my father definitely, absolutely did not have cancer.
On February 15, 2013, my brother told me the bad news and I walked out of work in tears. The words ‘pancreatic cancer’ didn’t mean much to me, except that I knew Steve Jobs had died of it after a long battle. But those of you reading this who know about pancreatic cancer won’t be surprised when I say that my father died about six weeks after his diagnosis, on March 26, at the age of 61.
My dad was awesome. He taught me how to read and he taught me how to drive. He was always encouraging and supportive, and I knew he had my back. The pain and grief that I felt during his final days, and in the year since, was and is unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I suddenly understood that there was a massive gulf in the emotional understanding of people who had lost someone very close to them, and people who hadn’t.
In the 14 months since I said goodbye to Dad, my life has changed. I am still suffering – writing this down still makes me very emotional – but I have learned a lot and am in a good place. I would unlearn these lessons and take my dad back in a heartbeat if I could, but since I can’t, I’m grateful for them.
These are the things I’ve learned: You really, seriously aren’t going to live forever. You will have lots of houses, but your body is your only real home. You should put as much energy into your relationships as you do into your work. Finally, grief eases, but it doesn’t ever really go away.
Shortly after Dad’s death I started to run as a means of managing my grief, and when I signed up for Round the Bays, I saw that GICI was one of the charities I could raise money for and set up a fundraiser page with a goal of $500.
Round the Bays wasn’t easy. I ran very slowly, but I ran, and crossed the finish line motivated by the fact that my friends, family and even some strangers had raised $870 to help fight GI cancers. If I, through helping out GICI, can help prevent the suffering of a family like mine, then I think my dad would be proud.