"Cancer wasn't meant to happen to us"

steve lees & fam (cropped)
04-02-2020

In 2014, I was working as a chartered valuation surveyor and enjoying life as a 38-year-old happily married man with a 10-year-old daughter, still playing football, running and socialising. I was busy, feeling stressed and anxious in work, but just about coping.

One morning, getting ready for another day of surveying, I noticed a small lump on the side of my neck. Nothing to worry about, I told myself - glands get inflamed and come and go, don’t they?

That evening my mother in-law and sister in-law (both nurses) were looking after my daughter and I asked them to take a look. They both said it could be a multitude of things - probably nothing, but best to get it checked out.

Fortunately, I managed to get a cancellation at the GP and I was able to be seen very quickly. I was relieved when he said it wasn’t really a concern and most likely to be an infection that had caused some glands to inflame. When it was still there after a couple of weeks it was decided that further tests should be undertaken, just as a precaution.

I then got an appointment through to see the consultant - still oblivious to the news that was about to be delivered.  

I was the last to be seen in that clinic and, while I was waiting, remember thinking, ‘Just tell me what tablets I need to take and how long it’ll be till this gland goes back to normal,’ as I had some valuations to sign off that day. I didn’t see what was coming, but my wife did, as in the room it wasn’t just the consultant but a student nurse and a specialist nurse, Kim.

"It looks like you have cancer"

I remember sitting in front of the consultant as he opened my file, read a few notes and then said: “It looks like you have cancer”.

For a second it was like everything stopped but I felt my heart racing and when my wife, Helen, held my hand I just started to cry and said “sorry” to the student nurse, as I didn’t want her to be upset.

I don’t remember much else apart from asking what my chances were. The one thing I really remember with clarity is Kim saying “you won’t die from this” and that was all I needed to hear.

The next hurdle was telling my friends, family and work. I think this was hard as I didn’t want people to worry and telling the story was upsetting every time.

Most difficult, however, was telling our daughter - something that my wife and I did together soon after we had understood what the next few days and months would look like.

"It just wasn't meant to happen to us"

Cancer just wasn’t meant to happen to us… how were we supposed to tell our 10-year-old when we weren’t ready to accept this ourselves? We took advice on how best to tell her as we knew it would change her little world forever.

The treatment plan was clear: the cancer was a tumour in my throat and the lump in the gland was a secondary. The cancer was a result of a mutation of the HPV virus, probably caused by the anxiety as I was feeling low in the weeks leading up to the lump appearing.

I was lucky as cancer research has now advanced and HPV related cancers react well to radio and chemotherapy (previously, disfiguring surgery would have been required). I would need a feeding PEG inserted into my stomach as the intensive treatment would damage my throat and make normal feeding impossible. Thereafter it was a matter of trusting the process, taking the meds and anti-sickness tablets, and resting.

The first three or four weeks of treatment weren’t too bad, the NHS staff were brilliant and although the morning routine of mouth washes and tablets wasn’t overly pleasant, I was still active and eating what I wanted - the more fattening food and drink the better as weight loss was inevitable (bonus!)

Then, over the space of one weekend, the reality hit as food didn’t taste like it should, and swallowing became a little harder. Not being able to eat a meal was undoubtably the lowest point and eventually I had to admit that I needed to feed via the PEG.

My wife took charge - doing everything at home, speaking to friends and family about how things were going, making sure our daughter was having a normal routine and supporting me. I never knew when she was feeling low; she kept this from me as we just wanted to be positive.

This was the main support I needed and, during the long hours once a week having chemo, I found that some friends really came to the fore too. It’s true that some other friends found it hard to comprehend or know what to say, and I understand that.

"A cancer diagnosis isn't necessarily the life-ending news it once was"

I also found social media was an escape as well as reading about the experience of others who had managed to get through it. Helen and I disliked the term ‘beating it’ as nobody sets out to let cancer win, but we did everything to give myself the best chance.

Advances in treatment now mean that a cancer diagnosis isn’t necessarily the life ending news it once was. However, every cancer patient will tell you that diagnosis is life changing. I’m certain that the experience has changed me: the anxiety I was feeling before my diagnosis hasn’t come to the fore since, I value the good things life has to offer and try to keep in reasonable shape.

A few friends helped me, about eight months after treatment, to run a 10k race to raise money for the local hospital. I even managed to run the fastest time of my life and raised over £1,500 for equipment to help others. This was the distraction I needed during my recovery and gave me focus.

On a professional basis my employer at the time could not have done any more for me. During my recovery, and in order to give me some structure, I worked from home, checking reports, looking at negligence claims, and this is something I found I loved to do. Soon after I gained two internal promotions.

The experience made me really understand that everyone needs support. I got involved with LionHeart and encouraged my employer at the time, Countrywide, to become a partner firm. This link is a strong one and I know they are making a difference to lots of surveyors, so I’m proud to be making a small contribution too.

After routine checks for the last five years, I’ve just had confirmation that my treatment is considered curative and my risk levels are back to that of ‘normal’ people.

I’m hoping that I can help to support others with a similar diagnosis to help them along the way and show them that life can move on after having cancer.

Steve Lees MRICS is a LionHeart ambassador, working with us to raise awareness of mental health, wellbeing and cancer. He now works as a senior surveying quality manager for e.surv Chartered Surveyors. He is pictured above post treatment with his wife and daughter.

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