John Barrett: Cancer fight is campaign I must win

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Being diagnosed with cancer came as a complete shock to John Barrett, but now he is looking forward to a full recovery

Most people think that being told they have cancer is the worst thing that could happen to them. They are wrong. Much worse than that is not knowing you have cancer and for it to be growing steadily inside you, when you could have found out it was there, when it could still be at a relatively early stage, when it could be operated on, or when other treatment could have made all the difference.

For many, the alternative to knowing cancer is there and to receiving effective treatment, is to sail on in blissful ignorance, only discovering it too late, when often painful symptoms appear. Sadly this is what has happened to too many people in the past and continues to happen today.

Being told recently that I had cancer was a complete shock to me, as I had no symptoms and felt great. In fact, my good health was one of the reasons I decided to stand down from parliament last year. Although at the time many people were surprised at my decision to end my time as an MP, I wanted to be able to take advantage of my good health and after 30 years of political campaigning to do other things and work on a range of interests outside the House of Commons.

Since standing down I have been able to see more of my grandchildren, do work for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, training parliamentarians in emerging democracies such as Iraq, and closer to home I am involved with a number of business interests and charities.

When the home test kit for bowel screening arrived through the door, as it does for everyone over 50 in Scotland, like many others, I considered not completing it. After all, I had no reason to think anything was wrong with me and I did not like the thought of anything to do with cancer, especially in that area of my body. I also did not smoke, was not overweight, had a balanced diet, was fairly fit and drank only a moderate amount of alcohol – many of the factors which are directly linked to the high incidence of cancers here in Scotland.

The odds were strongly against me having any problem at all, but to be on the safe side I completed the test and returned it – confident that I would get the all-clear, as had happened a few years earlier. It was a real surprise when I received the letter saying that the results raised some concerns and I was asked to do a similar test again. Following this second test, I was asked to go into the Western General Hospital for an examination, and I was then told I had a malignant tumour. I was in complete shock. “Why me?”, I wondered. Would this be history repeating itself? Had it spread to my liver as it had with my mother? She had been given 18 months to live at around my age because of her untreatable liver cancer. I normally never panic, but almost did this time as my mind raced through all the possible outcomes. The thought of it gave me the creeps.

At the Western General, all the staff were great and the next thing they arranged for the following week was a CT scan, to see if the cancer had spread beyond the identified tumour, and a meeting with the surgeon.

As I had planned a visit to London over the next few days and to stay with a former colleague, I phoned to cancel my visit. As we chatted about the reason, she recalled how her husband had a similar cancer diagnosed and when they met up with the surgeon they were told that it was inoperable and that he had six months to live. It was then I discovered that the mass screening in England does not start until aged 60, which might well have been too late for me.

The next week was the longest of my life. Fortunately, at the meeting with the surgeon I was told that the tumour could be removed by surgery and following the CT scan it was a great relief to discover it had not spread to my liver, lungs or any other major organ. Surgery would be arranged and, depending on laboratory results following that, chemotherapy might follow to hopefully wipe out any remaining traces of the disease that had tried to see me off. Things were now starting to look much brighter and I would just have to look at it as another campaign, one that I had to win.

I was surprised to be referred to as “young and fit” by one doctor. He said this was because others in their 60s, 70s, 80s and older were also in a similar position, amongst the thousands of people in Scotland fighting the dreaded disease. Because of my good general health much of the surgery would be “keyhole” and this would reduce the damage and recovery time from the operation. Following my surgery on November 21 I was discharged on the Friday of that same week on the enhanced recovery programme for those who should make a speedy recovery.

The next stage in the process is six months of chemotherapy, starting this month, and I am now looking forward to a full recovery by next summer.

Three things have stuck in my mind from this experience. The first is that I am lucky to have had cancer detected and to be undergoing treatment with every reason to believe that the outlook is good and that I will have a long life in front of me, which will allow me to watch my grandchildren grow up. The second is that I have nothing to complain about, as most of the other men in the wards I shared had much tougher experiences than me, longer periods of more difficult treatment and sometimes with little or no prospect of a full recovery. Thirdly, the staff in the NHS, here in Edinburgh, are people we should treasure and the expertise on our doorstep is something for which I will be thankful for the rest of my life.

Two ways we could help them would be, firstly, to participate in the mass screening, as it only takes five minutes. Also, to look after ourselves more. It is estimated that around 134,000 people in the UK could be spared a cancer diagnosis if they took more care of themselves. With more than 40 per cent of all cancers being related to lifestyle choices, we should all do our best to avoid smoking, reduce our alcohol intake, take regular exercise and eat a more healthy diet, to avoid obesity and to reduce the odds of falling victim to this scourge. Because even if you do everything right, it can still get you.

* John Barrett was Lib Dem MP for Edinburgh West from 2001 to 2010