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Blog Posts by Matthew Biggin

About Matthew Biggin

Matthew Biggin is the boyfriend of Kerry Harvey. At just 23, Kerry was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. In this blog, Matthew shares his experiences of being the loved one of a pancreatic cancer sufferer. Matthew has been a freelance writer since 2005, and has written several website and magazine articles including Suite 101, Demand Studios, Pure Content, Helium, Constant Content and the football (soccer) website Caught Offside. In addition to this, he has written several screenplays, two of which have been optioned by studios and production companies.

Gift Givers and Well Wishers

I think ‘cancer’ must be the most powerful word in the English language. Forget ‘love’; forget the other C-word. Say ‘cancer’ to even the most cold-hearted person and it will no doubt stop them mid-sentence. It’s amazing that a single word can have that much power.

It’s funny that when tragedy strikes, people who seemingly had no interest in your life previously are now phoning frequently, popping round to offer their services and generally couldn’t be nicer or more helpful. I never know how to take this. Part of me is annoyed and thinks ‘well you were never bothered about my life before, so why should you now?’ But to be honest, that’s just the anger, frustration and bloody-mindedness in me talking. If I’m being truthful I am truly touched and humbled by the support both Kerry and I have received during this difficult time. Whether it’s people offering advice, gifts, money or just a friendly ear, we are forever grateful that we are in your thoughts.

We have received cards and gifts aplenty – not least from the people at my work, who I want to take the opportunity to thank in spades for their encouragement, support and thoughtfulness – thank you guys, your support means more than you will ever know .

I am going to fast forward a couple of months from Kerry’s diagnosis in April. After several consultations, blood tests, transfusions, sleepless nights and chemo sessions, Kerry had finished her third cycle of chemotherapy. She started to lose her hair as a result so took the bold decision to shave it off. I realize that this is a huge deal for a woman; hair is like a second skin to them so it must have been really hard for her. But she took it in her stride, as she has with everything so far. And y’know what? It really suits her. You know how Gail Porter looked when she shaved her head? She looks the exact opposite of that.

DSC_0096She’s also been supplied with two wigs through the hospital trusts, which look awesome and would have been very pricey to buy. She has also bought two online, a curly red one and a bright pink one (why not). She loves her wigs and is having a lot of fun chopping and changing between them. We also have a plethora of head scarves in the house now – seriously, she’s got about 30. They are an array of styles, patterns, shapes and designs, and she’s really happy with them which is awesome. I tried to convince her to buy a Superman one, but as of yet I’ve had no success.

Kerry has regular scans, the results of which will tell us what effect, if any, the chemo is having. Preliminary examinations appear to indicate that the tumours on Kerry’s liver have shrunk. When the consultant originally felt her liver it was so swollen that he could feel it at her belly button. However, during one consultation the consultant couldn’t even feel her liver. Now I’m no doctor, but to me this is encouraging. The medical staff can’t/won’t officially commit to giving us an outcome until the results come, but they are suggesting that things look positive.

We’re trying to remain positive, whilst simultaneously not getting our hopes up too much. It’s been a whirlwind few months, but we’re starting to settle into the chemo routine. It consists of a day of intense chemotherapy on drip in the hospital, followed by a discharge and a continuation of the chemo in tablet form for 4 days. I swear we’ve gone through so many drugs since April that we could comfortably put Pablo Escobar out of business, keep an entire police force on our payroll and have enough money left over to buy the entire Beatles back catalogue. But anyway, yeah I’ve learnt a lot about pharmaceuticals this year and am becoming very proficient at organising drug times etc.

Keeping busy in these sorts of times is paramount, though when one is off work this can prove to be more difficult than it seems. I suppose I would prefer to not “keep busy”. I always think “keeping busy” is just a euphemism for ‘get on with it’. It’s easier said than done. I know for a fact that I would much rather do what I’m doing, be off work and be here spending time with Kerry and accompanying her to appointments, blood transfusions and chemotherapy, than staying at work and trying to keep busy. Keeping my mind off something like this would be an exercise in futility. I am lucky that I have been afforded the opportunity to be here and be involved in every element of Kerry’s treatment. Some days have been really good and positive. Some days have been horrible. But I’m glad I’ve been here for all of it.

Kerry is being treated at the Young Persons Unit (YPU), a speciality, new-build cancer ward at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. I have to say, the YPU have been absolutely phenomenal since Kerry started her treatment. They have really gone all out on the ward, kitting it out to cater for young people, the machines and treatment plans are first class. But what really makes the YPU so great –cliché alert – is the staff. The nurses, consultants and receptionists are professional, kind, understanding, accommodating and friendly. They make you feel like YOU are their only patient, and to me that is the sign of a good doctor/nurse – making you feel comfortable.

As well as providing great bedside services and answering all questions thrown their way, they also have facilities and personnel in place to help tackle every eventuality that we would/will encounter. These eventualities range anything from questions, financial issues and prescriptions, to wig appointments and counselling. There are a team of social workers in place to speak with patients and deal with issues we might have. Our main worry was/is money. Kerry and I have both been off work, and whilst I am on full (sick) pay, Kerry is only on SSP and when her contract runs out she will not have a job. There are potential benefits we are eligible for, including Employment Support Allowance and Disability Living Allowance – though the application process can be pretty overwhelming and was obviously not a priority.

Luckily we had Helen – social worker and all round ball-buster. We told her we had issues applying for these benefits and were told we couldn’t apply for both. She said ‘Leave it with me.’ And within a week it was sorted. She also sorted us out with a Macmillan grant to cover transport costs, which has proven very beneficial. Helen you are my hero.

Overall it’s been a crazy few months, we had highs and lows, but we’ve all tried to stay positive through the whole thing and Kerry has been a trooper. She seems in much better physical condition than she ever was before her treatment started and this can only be a good thing. I guess we just have to cross every digit, offer prayers to a higher power and wait for the results.

 

The club that no-one wants to join

Kerry and boyfriend Matt 2It was April 2013. I don’t remember the exact day. But that was the day my life changed. I was one of 5 people sat in a consultation room of St Richards Hospital, Chichester, where less than 60 seconds prior my girlfriend Kerry had just been diagnosed with cancer. Pancreatic Neuroendocrine to be precise, but at that moment the minutiae hardly mattered.  She had cancer. That was where it stopped for me.

The other people present in the room with me were Kerry, her mum and dad and the consultant, Mr Bowyer. He riffed a list of why’s and where-fore’s designed to cushion the blow, which though I was listening to them, my sub-conscious barely seemed to absorb.

Apparently Pancreatic Neuroendocrine (or PNET’s as medical bods refer to it) is a rare form of pancreatic cancer. It is particularly rare for Kerry’s age, she’s 24. Reputedly only around 2% of all people in the world diagnosed with this type of cancer are under 40. The cancer is very aggressive, it’s at Stage IV and we’re told it’s non-curable. Well, you know what?   I am not going to let these statistics dictate how we see the outcome of Kerry’s battle with this illness.  Every case is different, of course it is. This is generally an old-person cancer, yeah yeah I know, so surely the fact that Kerry is young and (otherwise) healthy is on our side. I suppose I should feel lucky that she has the exuberance of youth on her side as well as a fighting spirit. I suppose I should feel lucky. But I don’t. All I could think about was the fact that someone I love had just been diagnosed with one of the deadliest diseases in the modern world.

A quick check on Google – I’m a glutton for punishment – tells me that in 2007 alone cancer killed 7.9 million human beings worldwide. To put that in perspective, that’s more people than were killed by the holocaust, cholera and Jack Bauer (the field agent who fights terrorism in the programme 24) combined. That’s a terrifying statistic for anyone. If cancer was an assassin for hire it would doubtless be the best in the world. The silent, ruthless killer.

It’s hard to describe exactly how I felt/feel. It’s different for everyone. It’s always different. My entire life was stripped away in the blink of an eye. Things that had previously seemed important to me – what movies are out this month? Did I set Luis Suarez as my captain on fantasy football? – suddenly slipped into staggering insignificance. All that mattered now was her.

I was too broken to cry, too crushed to be angry, too distraught to speak, too numb to feel, too naked to hide, too concerned to panic, too scared to be positive, too sceptical to hope and too positive to doubt. I felt all these things at once. You never think it’ll happen to you, even when it does. I wanted to tear my hair out, trash the room, punch the consultant, renounce God and all his works, scream, cry, yell, hide. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Most of all I didn’t know if I could do this.

I would never and will never presume to know how difficult it was for Kerry. She’s the strongest person I know, the strongest I’ve ever known. Much stronger than me. And she took it better than any of us. ‘I’m going to beat this,’ she said. And that was that. Game face on. From then on I had to be there for her. She had resolved to beat this illness and so I had to do the same, despite my fears, of which there were many.

Because I am not Kerry and I do not have an open-all-hours invite to her thoughts, I cannot tell you what she thought or felt. As such, this blog will document MY own personal journey through this. Not that I’m trying to imply that I have/had the roughest ride here, not by a long shot. But I am me. And I can only tell you how ‘me’ has been affected by this. I can’t speak for anyone else, nor would I wish to. The thoughts and feelings I detail here will be my own. I don’t wish to sound like a self-aggrandising person who thinks the weight of the world is on his shoulders, but I can only give you my perspective. If you can’t deal with that then feel free to stop reading.

The thing is, not to sound like a moaning, self-centred idiot, but no-one ever tells you how difficult it is for those close to a sufferer. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way attempting to postulate that my suffering could even reach the same vicinity as Kerry’s. Lord knows it never could. And I could never imagine what she must have been going through, despite the front she showed. It must have been hell for her. The thing is though, there are all these books and articles and movies about battling through cancer, which I think are great, don’t get me wrong. But there is so little literature about how to deal with life as the “care giver”. Perhaps that’s because it’s different for everyone. But let me tell you, life on the periphery is unimaginably horrific. Being the loved one of a cancer patient is truly one of the worst things you will ever go through in your life, save perhaps being a sufferer yourself. And anyone who says otherwise has never experienced it. Or is just completely ignorant.

I can tell you the layout of every A&E, ICU, treatment centre and chemotherapy ward from here to Scafell Pike; I can tell you the name and effect of every pain killing agent in the medical world; I can tell you the exact cost of a cup of coffee in a hotel restaurant; I can tell you the difference between an EKG, a CT scan, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, stem cell treatment and blood transfusions; I can tell you the prognosis and treatment plans for half a dozen form of cancer. But I can’t tell you how to do this. And that’s because I don’t know. Neither does Kerry. Nor her parents. Nor our friends. We are all now members of the club that no-one wants to join…