Jonty Este is a 48-year-old journalist living in Sydney. He was born in the UK and has been in Australia since 1988, spending most of that time as a writer and editor with The Australian newspaper. He is director of communications with the Media Alliance, the journalists’ union, where he specialises in researching and writing about the way the news media is changing.
This is the first in an irregular Croakey series about his experiences with cancer.
A pain in the arse: A diary about living with cancer
Jonty Este writes:
I’ve just come from a final meeting with my surgeon to discuss the details of the operation he’ll perform on me in 11 days’ time. It’s been probably the most gruelling half hour of my adult life as he has had to detail all the risks and warn me of the likely pain to come and the possibility of side effects of surgery to remove a large malignant tumour from my rectum.
Walking out of his room (my bum still hurts a bit from having a scope pushed inside me), I’m confronted by an elderly gent who is the picture of health: sound of limb and wind, as they say. He grabs my hand: “That man there saved my life,” he said. “13 years ago, he saved my life. You’ll be fine.”
For the first time since I was diagnosed with cancer, I want to cry. I haven’t let myself be scared, but now I am.
So I’ve decided to write this. I’m a journalist and writing is how I make my living so the mechanics of sitting down in front of a screen and marshalling my thoughts is the best way for me to feel normal.
One of the great British journalists, whose work I have admired and whose genius with words I have always rather envied, was James Cameron, who worked as a TV foreign correspondent for many years before writing a regular column in The Guardian newspaper until his death in 1985.
His last column, which was headlined “A pain in the neck”, talked of how our lives are punctuated – he wrote of being told that he had an inoperable tumour, as “a semi-colon” in a sentence that began when he was born and would have it full stop when he died. A semi-colon before the final clause of his life which was heading towards that full stop.
I’ve often thought about that elegant description, which was published, I think, two days after he died and how brave it had been for him to come up with such a dispassionate, yet somehow personal analysis of his likely fate.
As cancer patients go, I’m one of the lucky ones. The odds are vastly in my favour. I’ve had my own first semi-colon, but I’m looking forward to many more sub-ordinate clauses before my full stop hoves into view.
But for all my positive mental attitude, I can’t help being a bit frightened of what’s to come.
It’s been three months since I came swimming out of the fog of anaesthesia to be told I had bowel cancer and would need surgery. I was lucky that my wife Maxine was with me, so we repaired to our local pub to digest the news, which took several beers and some tears from Max (emotionally she’s far more mature than I am, but then I gather that’s par for the course, women having a far better developed emotional intelligence than us men).
As far as I am concerned, Max has had the rough side of things, emotionally, these past few months. When you are diagnosed with a serious disease, you go into a sort of machine. You are handed from specialist to specialist, told where to go, and when, and what to expect.
You do your treatment as and when you are told. It’s not as bad as you expect – or at least it wasn’t for me – and you try to make sure it doesn’t affect your day-to-day life. The person who loves you the most has to deal with all the worries and “what-ifs”. For me, “what-if” doesn’t exist. If “what-if” happens, I’ll deal with it then.
For me, the most emotionally taxing thing has been telling the people I have had to tell. My family, my boss, my close friends. I feel guilty about the people I haven’t told. I have a beloved 80-something aunt living in Lane Cove who I have resolved to phone as soon as I finish writing this. I have a group of beloved friends, close since university days, who I should tell. Shouldn’t I?
Part of me thinks: why worry them unnecessarily – I’ll call them when I get out of hospital and tell them it’s all been sorted. For all I know they’ve had the same level of crisis in their lives and haven’t felt the need to burden me with the details. Either that or I have the most extraordinarily healthy set of friends, all of us reaching our late 40s without suffering a major health crisis.
The most extraordinary – and buoying thing – is that many of the people I have confided in have told me of a brother or a mother or a close friend who had bowel cancer treated, some of them 20 years or more ago, and haven’t looked back since. That’ll be me.
So telling people can be very therapeutic. Not always. My close mate of 20-plus years who was my best man several years ago was knocked sideways. “Jesus Christ,” he repeated several times over the phone when I told him. “Oh Jesus Christ.” In cases like that you can find yourself being the comforter: “No, it’s all good… blah, blah, good prognosis … positive … blah.”
So you’ll indulge me, I hope, if I write about myself for the next few weeks and months. Journalists are supposed to write about other people and the word “I” ought to be anathema for any self-respecting hack, but this is a part of my treatment that I can control. It’s cathartic for me – and if anyone reading this finds something they can identify with or provides them with a little comfort (or gives them a giggle – the urge for a bit of black humour has never been far away these past months), then I’ll have done a good job.
When I found out I had cancer I called my sister in England, a nurse, to tell her. Her first words were: “Thank Christ you got it checked out.” And if there’s one clear message my personal ramblings can convey to any 40-something men reading it is this: Get yourself checked out.
If you haven’t already, make an appointment now and don’t wait for the symptoms, like I did.
But thank Christ I got it checked out.
• Readers may also be interested in these recent, relevant articles on bowel cancer screening
• Update, 15 July: It has belatedly occurred to Croakey that Jonty’s series should run with a disclaimer. Please note that Jonty is telling his own personal story; if it raises issues for you or yours, please talk to a relevant health professional about it. Please do not make any health decisions on the basis of what you read, either in Jonty’s series or in the comments that readers post, without seeking professional advice. I will also ask someone from the cancer field to keep an eye on the posts and readers’ comments, in case any further or qualifying information is needed.