My journey through cancer treatment

Norman McDonald / 05 Aug, 2019

Icon Gosford patient Norman McDonald shares his story

This is the story of Norman McDonald who was diagnosed with prostate cancer and went on to receive radiation therapy treatment at Icon…

During my radiation therapy treatment at Icon Cancer Centre Gosford, I greatly appreciated the gift of treatment, the wonderful staff, and the companions with whom I shared the journey. Over the course of this experience I wrote three ‘essays’ for my family, encapsulating my journey. I would like to share these with others that might be going through a similar situation.

Day one of my treatment

I’ve just arrived home from day one of my radiation journey and I feel the need to share some of the day. The prompting to do this came to me as I drove to Gosford, with the realisation that I was making this journey physically alone.

Icon Cancer Centre is a most welcoming environment. The staff are all very focussed, friendly and professional. Immediately I felt it would be good experience sharing this journey with these people over the coming weeks. In the comfortable waiting area, I felt younger than most of the other people appeared to be. And I was the only one alone.

But differently from the experience in most medical waiting rooms, conversation flowed freely among patients; not constantly, but caring and friendly, with a shared sense of journey. I mostly listened but will probably become part of the interaction as familiarity develops.

From a technical point of view, everything went well in the radiation process which will become familiar and regular over the coming days. There is much that I can do in preparation and I am committed to doing this to the best of my ability; a resolve which has been reinforced by my experience with the centre and its staff today.

Half way through my journey

Today I had my 19th session of targeted radiation therapy, the mid-point of my 37 sessions. It is going well; I am well. Side effects are minimal and it seems timely to tell something of the experience to date…

I do not need or propose to detail the preparation surrounding the mantra “empty rectum, full bladder”, which ensures the prostate is located at exactly the same place for every session. My timing of meals and drinking large volumes of water have resulted in (mostly) ‘spot-on’ results.

Perceptively, the therapist remarked one day, “you are an organised person, aren’t you?” No argument there. It is one contribution I can make to seek a good outcome from the gift that has been granted to me.

The procedure is less than 15 minutes, including calibration time with the hum of the treatment machine blotting out other sounds. Some music is played and after a few days the therapist suggested I might prefer classical music to the usual selection. I agreed.

I had to remain still, but I nearly erupted in laughter as piano chords rung in my ear – the familiar opening of the dramatic, not quiet and restful, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, a favourite of mine. Very rousing!

Each Wednesday, the radiation schedule is supplemented by an appointment with a nurse and, occasionally, the oncologist who reviews the reports of each procedure and keeps in touch with side effects and other health issues. They are happy with progress to date, so I am happy with the progress too.

The welcoming environment and the friendliness of staff has been confirmed daily in a variety of ways. During my first weeks I noticed a number of posters on display for World Cancer Day. They were a great encouragement, and I am happy to quote some of them.

These posters say so much about the experience, the journey being undertaken together by patients and their carers, therapists, doctors, nurses and staff toward the very best outcomes for each patient. They have been a source of inspiration and I found myself pondering how I might have completed the sentence “I will . . . .” if I had been attending the centre at that time.

From a carer – “I will support my mum to the best of my abilities and rejoice at seeing her ring the bell.”

From a nurse – “I will, together with you, your family and the Icon team ensure that the care that you receive is complete and delivered with compassion.”

From a radiation therapist – “I will provide the best care possible.”

And from three of many patients – “I will kick the cancer to the kerb. It will not define me. I will receive my letter @ 100 from King Willie.”… “I will fight this cancer, enjoy life to the full, giving special thanks to my husband and nurses and doctors and friends and family.”… “I will always be thankful for the treatment given me.”

It is evident that some patients are having a hard journey, but there can be no doubt that not one of us is on this journey alone.

Ringing the bell

It is eight weeks since I wrote of the lonely journey to Gosford for my first treatment, and my first experience of the focused, friendly and professional environment.

In many respects, the second half of the journey was no different from the first – the daily discipline of preparation, travelling to and from Gosford, quiet conversation, reading or Sudoku in the waiting room, the absolute ‘lying still’ during the radiation and awaiting news of being on target and, of course, the welcome coffee or chocolate afterwards.

But there were differences too. I began to experience “the tiredness that is not relieved by normal rest”, and I enjoyed the companionship of friends who drove me on several occasions. I experienced very little side effects, but appreciated the wisdom and experience of the nurses who seemed to have a very simple, straightforward approach to every symptom.

The last weekend in March was the lowest point for me, feeling very down, but aware that there was but one more week, five more days, five more sessions until completion.

The final week was perhaps the most significant of all. Due to an issue with the radiation machine, treatment was conveniently arranged at a sister clinic, Icon Cancer Centre Wahroonga. Five men having similar treatment met each day at Gosford, were comfortably transported to Wahroonga, approximately one hour each way through some heavy traffic and heavy weather.

Yet, for all the inconvenience, that last week presented some of the highlights of the radiation journey. Foremost was the absolute commitment of all at Icon Gosford to maintaining the very best of treatment for all their patients through uncertain and challenging circumstances. This was matched by the welcome and care received at Icon Wahroonga where we were something of a curiosity, a quintet of men arriving at the same time for our similar treatments.

What was even more remarkable was a new level of conversation which emerged amongst the five as we travelled to Wahroonga and waited together for our turn. Five very different people, a couple having a tough time, others going well; one only fifty years of age with over twenty years of cancer treatments behind him; one being treated for several cancers and considered ‘terminal’. These conversations differed from the normal waiting room conversations.

My final treatment was a day similar to those of the previous week. The three of us who were now on our last day rang the bell at Wahroonga, before completing our return journey in silence – for me, in quiet contemplation.

The welcome back at Gosford was a joyous celebration. Several staff were still on hand, as well as partners and a father who had arrived to collect other patients; delicious cupcakes were produced. Again, three rang the Gosford bell – “I’ve conquered this moment”. I spoke a few words and there were many hugs all round.

Some folk have asked has the treatment been successful. That question can be asked on many levels. It will be several weeks before energy levels are restored, and blood tests and/or scans reveal whether the cancer has been fully destroyed. But I’m hopeful and grateful for the journey I have had surrounded by supportive people and some surprising laughs along the way.

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