Lancashire dad Richard Clark tells AASMA DAY about how he and his young family were rocked when he was suddenly diagnosed with stomach cancer and why they are determined to stay positive and beat the disease together.
Sitting down with their two young boys, Richard and Leonie Clark gently explained that Daddy had a poorly tummy and would need medicine to make him feel better but that it might make him feel ill before it started working.
Looking at his parents unblinkingly, their three-year-old son Sidney asked solemnly: “Can I still carry on punching you on the shoulders then?”
Smiling ruefully at the innocence of children, Richard, 33, admits telling his sons and family and friends about his shock cancer diagnosis was the hardest part of the ordeal.
Richard, who is married to Leonie, 32 and lives in Penwortham, near Preston, with her and sons Oscar, five, and Sidney, three, explains: “You don’t expect to be told you have cancer when you are a 33-year-old man, especially one who runs marathons. But it just goes to show that these things can happen to anybody at any time.
“Just because you are young and exercise regularly, it doesn’t protect you against bad things happening to you.
“The hardest part for us was telling people, especially family who were devastated.
“We have not used the word cancer in front of the boys as they are too young to understand.
“However, we sat them down and told them that I was going to be ill. That was quite emotional.”
Richard, who is a human resources information services team leader at BAE Systems, reveals that he only found out he had cancer by fluke as he had not experienced any ill health or symptoms of the disease.
He explains: “I am quite an active person and do a lot of long distance running and marathons.
“Last year, I decided to try and push myself a bit further and do a triathlon.
“So I trained all year in preparation. The event was in September and the open water swim part of the triathlon took place in Ullswater in the Lake District.”
Richard confesses: “I am not a very strong swimmer and this was the part of the triathlon that I was least looking forward to.
“It was a bit embarrassing as I passed out in the water and had to be rescued and got hypothermia.”
After being rescued from the lake, Richard was treated at the scene by an ambulance and went home to recover.
However, after that, Richard did not feel right and although he could not quite put his finger on it, he knew there was something wrong.
He recalls: “I just felt really under the weather and poorly and kept waking up during the night. I had an upset stomach and was losing weight.”
After suffering for about a month, Richard went to see his GP, who after hearing his symptoms suspected coaeliac disease, which is an intolerance to wheat and is a condition that Richard’s mother also has.
Richard was referred to hospital for blood tests and to have an endoscope inserted to look inside his body.
The tests confirmed that Richard did indeed have coeliac disease, but the endoscope also revealed a tumour in the stomach wall.
At first, doctors weren’t sure if the tumour was cancerous or not, so Richard had to undergo further investigations and, in January this year, tests showed the tumour was malignant.
Remembering that moment when doctors broke the news, Richard says: “It was like an out of body experience. I just felt totally numb and as though it wasn’t really happening to me.
“But even then, I appreciated how lucky I was in having the cancer diagnosed at such an early stage.
“Doctors say that me getting hypothermia kick-started the symptoms of coeliac disease.
“Getting hypothermia actually ended up being a blessing in disguise as it led to the symptoms of coeliac disease, which in turn led to the discovery of the tumour.
“Before the hypothermia, I was healthy and well and had no symptoms that anything was wrong.
“I am so lucky the cancer was picked up almost by coincidence.
“Having hypothermia may end up saving my life.”
Specialists told Richard and Leonie that he would need nine weeks of chemotherapy followed by surgery to remove his entire stomach, and then another nine weeks of chemotherapy.
When removing a stomach, surgeons join part of the small intestine directly to the stomach. Ordinarily, the stomach has the job of storing and mixing food until it progresses into the intestine where digestion continues.
When the stomach is removed, the body adapts and people can manage without a stomach, thanks to the body’s survival mechanisms.
However, people who have their stomach removed generally have a smaller capacity for food and have to make compromises to their lifestyle. Richard says: “I will still be able to eat normally, but will have to eat little and often rather than proper meals.
“I will still be coeliac as well, so will have to follow a gluten-free diet too.
“At the moment, to try and get me fit and healthy, doctors have prescribed iron, vitamin D and calcium to get my body into tip-top condition for the chemotherapy.”
Stomach cancer is a relatively uncommon cancer and usually affects people over the age of 55.
It is unusual for it to affect younger people like Richard.
Only around five per cent of stomach cancer sufferers are under the age of 55.
However, instead of complaining or feeling sorry for themselves, Richard and Leonie are facing the battle head on and are determined to beat the disease.
Richard explains: “I just want to stay positive and not let it spoil my life.
“I am just approaching it like another challenge as I would a marathon.
“I am still going running a couple of times a week and keeping myself fit and healthy in preparation for the chemotherapy.”
Wife Leonie, who works for Wallis in Debenhams as a part-time supervisor and has been married to Richard for seven years, says: “We are both quite practical and matter-of-fact people so, rather than letting our emotions get the better of us, we looked at what we could do to make things better and fight this all the way.
“Friends and family have been amazing and so supportive, and friends from all over the country have been coming to visit us.”
Richard has just started chemotherapy and will be taking part in a trial of a drug called Avastin to see how it performs in treating stomach cancer.
Richard says: “Avastin has been trialled on other cancers, but now they want to see if it works on stomach cancer.
“It is hoped it will stop the growth of the tumour.
“The doctors and nurses and everyone at the hospital has been so wonderful and we cannot thank them enough.
“They are so inspirational.”
To help him cope with his ordeal, Richard began writing a blog as an outlet for his emotions.
His honest musings about life with cancer have attracted messages of support on social networking sites and Richard has now agreed to write a weekly online blog and newspaper column about his cancer journey for the Lancashire Evening Post.
Richard says: “I have had so many messages from people who have been through similar ordeals themselves and many have told me about having cancer and beating it.
“This has made me even more determined to fight the disease and beat it.
“People who know me are convinced I will get through this too.
“They keep telling me: ‘The cancer doesn’t know the type of person it has chosen!’”