Life doesn’t always go as planned.
November 5th – January 15th 2016.
The Medical Post
After he was called back to see our GP due to some abnormalities in his blood tests, we naturally assumed it would be high cholesterol or the like. Something that a change in diet would fix and that would be the end of it. After all young Liam was feeling as fit as a mallee bull, a little on the porky side maybe, but fit and happy. Not in our wildest dreams did we ever suspect a prostate problem. His PSA, (prostate specific antigen), had come back abnormal so another test was ordered. A few days later that too was returned with the same result.
He was referred to specialist urologist Dr Andrew Vass who, upon a manual examination, finger up the date in man-speak, detected a lump. Our hearts sank and our world stood very still hearing that six letter word that you never want to hear while sitting across a desk from a specialist. After picking up our jaws from the floor Andrew explained in plain terms where we would go from here. Dialing various numbers he hastily wrote down dates. Within minutes Liam was booked in for biopsy a few days later. This had all happened so fast. To say that we were shell-shocked is an understatement.
The biopsy, which Liam reports was not up there as far as good experiences go, came back positive with results showing that cancer was present in 70% of his prostate. He was given a Gleeson score of 7 out of 10. The high value of his score indicated that treatment should commence asap and definitely within 4-6 months, no longer. And so began a long line of scans, MRI’s, CT’s and more blood tests than you could poke a stick at. For a while there Liam’s arms took on the appearance of a drug addict as every man and his dog wanted a part of the action.
We went from being unemployed for the last 10 years and rarely having to be anywhere at any particular time to feeling like we had a full time jobs as we bounced back and forth between Royal North Shore Public, North Shore Private and the Mater Hospitals. These three hospitals are part of the Northern Sydney Cancer Center and each one played a different role in Liam’s diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Driving in Sydney’s peak hour traffic is definitely for the birds but that’s what we did every couple of days in order to attend various appointments, the majority of which were scheduled for an 8am start or earlier. The to and froing started to wear thin after a while.
During his many visits with the oncology team Liam was given options as to which form of treatments were available. His specialists came in the form of the dynamic duo of Professor Andrew Kneebone and Dr Thomas Eade, both of whom we highly recommend and both whom work with both public and private patients. There was pretty much only three ways to tackle the cancer. Surgical removal of the prostate, low dose radiation every day for two months or a relatively new procedure with high dose radiation given in five blasts over a fourteen day program.
The first option was a definite no go as his nibs doesn’t like anesthetics or knives, well scalpels in this case. The next two got weighed up and mulled over and over and we were told that each had it’s merits and side effects. Then there was the cost factor. The low dose therapy would be covered in its entirety by Australia’s Medicare system while the newer high dose treatment, available only through a private hospital, would be completely at the patients expense.
The lead time for either of the radiation treatments was two months. Given our cruising lifestyle of course we do have medical insurance for the countries that we sail to but the company does not cover any expenses in our home country. As he’d decided to go with the radiation treatment rather than surgery he was advised to have three fudical markers or gold seeds the size of a grain of rice inserted as well as hydrogel,a liquid foam type substance, to move the lower part of his bowel out of harms way so that the radiation beams could be more accurately directed once his treatment began.
Our dilemma continued as we attempted to factor in our 2016 cruising season which was to take us through the Panama canal and into the South Pacific. We could fly back to GWTW in Georgia, go cruise the Bahamas for a few months then fly back to Sydney for the low dose long haul treatment. Or rob a bank, stay put in Sydney for a few more months and have the five big hits. Given that robbing a bank was out of the question, if Liam put his hand up for the quick no-beating-around-the-bush option we’d be out of pocket a considerable amount but then at least we could get back on with our lives.
After pouring over every publication put out by the Australian Cancer Council on the subject and believe me there is a truckload of it, spending hours trawling the internet for more information and speaking to friends who had undergone both types of radiation treatment for this type of cancer, the decision was made. Liam chose to go for it boots and all. The quick but costly treatment got the trump card. And so began more lead up work with his first dose of treatment scheduled at the Mater Private Hospital for December 2nd, still some weeks away.
Annie’s story ….
Back when we both saw our GP not long after arriving in Sydney yours truly also had a few blood tests done, one of which indicated that my body contained a specific type of antigen that was stopping me from absorbing B12. After a few shots to the arm over a couple of weeks my B12 levels were back up to speed. However just to be sure our family doctor recommended that I be scheduled for an Endoscopy to investigate why my B12 had been so low. I must say that I’d certainly had a little less lust for life of late, feeling a bit tired and at times quite out of breath. Most of which I put down to being overweight and seriously unfit.
Then one day while walking up the hill at the hospital where Liam was having some lengthy tests done, I had a terrible tight feeling in my chest. It only lasted less than a minute but I didn’t like what I felt. An hour later it happened again, twice, but my commonsense was obviously taking a break at the time. In hindsight I should have told someone right there and then, after all we were at a hospital!! But I didn’t. Next day I signed up at the local pool and started swimming laps to get fit again. I swam my little heart out for about a week or more, and started to feel great, but that didn’t last long. Just walking up the staircase and driveway at Pete's house, where we were now having a very extended stay, started to feel like I was hiking Mt Everest, but I was determined to overcome it.
Then one day it happened. I had a knawing pain that started in my neck and radiated into my jaw, it made me feel quite nauseas…but stupid here still didn’t connect the dots. I didn’t do so well in the pool that day, coming home and laying down on the bed for an hour or so. Two days later was my scheduled endoscopy at Manly hospital and I made a mental note to tell someone about what had happened. Well I never got the chance.
While the nurse was prepping me for theatre and checking my vitals she asked if I was a very fit person…I laughed at that one. She told me my pulse was only just nudging 40 beats a minute (normal rate is 60 – 100 bpm) and my BP wasn’t real great either. I said that it was probably all the fasting and disgusting prep solution I had been drinking for the last 48 hrs. She didn’t buy that and trotted off to get a more expert opinion in the form of an ECG machine and connected me up. The monitor and paper trace didn’t lie.There it was as plain as day, I had severe Bradycardia, (a very slow heart rate) and she wasn’t real cheery about what she was seeing on the trace either.
So by now I’m getting the vibe that this is not turning into a a good afternoon for me. I seemed to be the focus of attention and not for the right reasons. A few minutes later the nursing staff decided that the cardiac registrar needed to be called down for her opinion on the ECG trace. She had a quick look, excused herself and came back with the anesthetist in tow. With a look of concern and after some simple explaining they shook their heads, telling me I was scratched from the theatre list. My race would not be running today.
After a short pow-wow the theatre team jointly informed me that they couldn’t risk me arresting on the theatre table. Yep, I concurred ..I didn’t want that either. For a brief moment I thought I would be going home, not so. In the blink of an eye I was wheeled into the Intensive Care Unit, hooked up to more monitors and told that this would be home for the next little while.
Next up my cardiologist made his appearance. I didn’t even know I had one of those, but just like when you don’t have a lawyer in court, one was appointed for me. Dr Lau, a man not to mince his words, told me straight up that I had compete and utter 3rd degree heart block. The electrical system in my heart had had a catastrophic failure and the firing nodes in both the upper and lower chambers were kaput, given up the ghost and just plain worn out. The good thing was that the heart has a failsafe, a backup mechanism that kick’s in to do the job for a while but for how long? He told me that I’d be enjoying the hospitality of the ICU for an undefined period. That is until I could be transferred to Royal North Shore Hospital and be fitted with a permanent pacemaker. What the F*%#!
I rang Liam who thought that I was calling for him to pick me up after my little non-life threatening procedure, but instead told him about my new digs and to bring some toiletries in for me, along with life’s essential, my I pad and computer.Well heck, I might as well turn my forced holiday into a productive one. Poor Liam was in as much shock as me when he arrived. Had we run over a chinaman lately??
Mental note … no more going to family doctors for routine checkups. The wheels fall off the wagon when you do that!
I had a lovely ten day stay in the ICU at Manly hospital compliments of Medicare, and as all the staff kept telling me, I was the healthiest person they’d ever had in the unit. I got twice daily visits from my ever growing cardiac team as well as from a few ring – in doctors who were just plain curious as to why I was there when I looked so healthy.
On December 2nd, the day of Liam's first radiation treatment,I got transferred to the cardiac unit at Royal North Shore Hospital and was again appointed a new team of cardiac experts including my sight unseen surgeon, Dr Michael Harden. He was the man who would have my life in his hands, put the bounce back in my step and who would cut me open and implant my newest best friend ..a Boson Scientific state of the art pacemaker with all the bells and whistles. I met him the following afternoon just before the anesthetist put me to sleep and he seemed like he knew what he was doing, that was very reassuring.
I woke up a few hours later in recovery with my heart pumping away at 60 beats a minute and a warranty card claiming 14 years of non stop hard work. Just kidding about the warranty card.. but not the 14 years. That’s when the battery runs out and I go back for surgery for a replacement.
Discharged the following morning with strict instructions regarding what I could and couldn’t do for the next six weeks,which included driving, I took up my place next to Liam supporting him through his remaining sessions of radiation treatment. The staff at the Mater hospital where he was having his treatment were wonderful and extremely competent. Each session took around 2 hours with the actual radiation taking only 20 mins and the rest of the time was taken up with preparation tests and positioning under the huge Varian machine which had to be absolutely accurate.
Two weeks later he was all done and dusted with no evidence of any major side effects apart from tiredness, which we knew would continue for a few months.
Although both our treatments were finished by December 18th we still couldn’t leave as I had follow up appointments scheduled for January 14th.
We spent pre Christmas celebrations in Sydney with family and the actual day back up on the Gold Coast with friends and then it was back to Sydney to see in the new year. We both decided that 2016 had better be a great year for us ‘cause neither of us reckon it could be any worse.
Two months and ten days after our original November 5th departure date and with clean bills of health from our respective medical teams, we boarded that mighty silver bird and headed out across the Pacific to the USA and home to GWTW. It had been a bloody hard and stressful few months but we are determined to not let life's unscheduled speed bumps get in our way.
A big thank you to all our friends and family for their support during those months. You know who you are and your kind words, prayers and generosity we will not forget.
Also to our family doctor Elian Goulas, all our oncology and cardiac teams, specialist doctors and nursing staff who looked after both of us at Royal North Shore Public Hospital, North Shore Private, The Mater and Manly Hospitals . Thank You all.
Now that we have both had a wake up call we can honestly say …Don’t dream the dream, get out there and live it. You never know what is lurking around the corner. Time waits for no one.