The support that I was given the whole way through was just amazing
When East Antrim MLA, Stewart Dickson, was having difficulty getting food down, he had never heard of oesophageal cancer, yet within a few short weeks he was on a journey that saw chemotherapy, surgery and a roller coaster ride of emotions.
That journey began in July 11, 2019.
“For a few months I’d been having some difficulty, not really in swallowing, but finding it difficult to get food down,” Stewart explained. “It wasn’t all the time, but there were occasions when something just didn’t feel that it was going the whole way down.”
Finally going to his GP the story became clearer.
“Many GPs in the first instance will simply prescribe antacids, which mine did, but, and this is the important bit, he said he was going to have me examined further, and said that he was going to get me signed up for a camera test in Antrim Area Hospital. I didn’t think much more about it.”
He believed it was just an ulcer but just on the basis of the conversation with Stewart the doctor red flagged his case.
On July 11 he had a camera test, and soon learned that it wasn’t an ulcer.
“I was wide awake and after the initial bit of them putting the camera down, I could hear the doctor saying ‘take a pic of this’, ‘take a pic of that’. I was thinking, ‘this isn’t good’,” Stewart said. “There was about a half an hour recovery period after the procedure and the doctor came and spoke to me and my wife and she said ‘I’ve seen something. It looks very like a tumour’.”
Speaking as the charity OGCancerNI continues its Catch It Early campaign to alert everyone to the symptoms of oesophageal and stomach cancer, Stewart explained that as well as its campaigning and support awareness goes beyond informing the public.
“OGCancerNI provides high-level, technical advice and assistance to GPs and other clinicians across NI,” he explained. “If you’re a GP that has just met one of the specialist nurses, or has had info provided to you by our charity, then the next time a patient comes in with a bit of difficulty swallowing and wants Gaviscon, the GP will know that that’s not the answer.”
Within a week of his first camera test Stewart was back at Antrim Area Hospital to be told it was a tumour, and he was being referred to the care of the multi-disciplinary team at the Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital.
Having been invited to a meeting at Whiteabbey Hospital, the team Stewart, now 70, and his wife arrived, unsure what to expect.
“We went along to Whiteabbey Hospital at about 12’o’clock and the consultant there told me that I had oesophageal cancer and that it was going to be a very difficult journey,” said Stewart. “However, what he said was that the team at the City Hospital had decided that, on the basis of what they’d seen, that they were going to be able to treat it and he was very kind and told me that the surgery was brutal and that I would have chemo as well, and that the City Hospital would be in touch with me.
“We left there in a state of shock but at least knowing that something could be done and was going to be done. Then got into the car in a state of trauma. I hadn’t even got my seatbelt on when my mobile went and it was a nurse from the City Hospital saying ‘can you be here on Monday morning?’ Of course I said yes I could.”
Before the surgery Stewart was to receive several rounds of chemotherapy. During one of his visits to the cancer centre he met the volunteers of OGCancerNI.
“They had an information stand at the Tuesday clinic in the City Hospital,” he said. “The upper Gastrointestinal and stomach cancer clinic is every Tuesday so there was an opportunity for families and patients as they’re passing through to have a chat with the volunteers.
“The help and advice and leaflets that they were giving out was very reassuring to myself, my wife and others.”
And, given the stories of the volunteers Stewart was inspired.
“The first lady I met at the OG stand told me she’d had her op 18 years ago, another said eleven, another three years, and I’m thinking that’s pretty good,” he said. “That was very encouraging – to see people who’d not only been through it but had survived and were looking well and were able to say how well they were able to manage afterwards.”
For further information go to ogcancerni.com, follow #OGCancerNI, call 07568 157450 or make an appointment to see your local GP today.