Mark Blackwell has beaten cancer twice after having his world turned upside down by the disease.
He tells AASMA DAY his story and how the support of friends, family and his dog got him through the difficult times and why he now wants to inspire and encourage others that there is life after cancer
Mark Blackwell confesses to a fear of hospitals ever since he was a youngster and had his favourite yogurt stolen by a nurse.
Smiling wryly as he remembers the incident, Mark, now 47, explains: “I’m scared of hospitals and hate anything to do with them.
“It stems back to when I was five and went into hospital to have my adenoids out, and my mum bought me a Ski yogurt.
“It was put in the fridge for me to have later. But one of the nurses on the night shift ate it.
“I’ve never forgotten it and have had a phobia of hospitals ever since.”
Little did Mark realise that in years to come, he would have to spend long periods of time in hospital undergoing gruelling cancer treatment – and that lightning would strike twice, meaning a bone marrow transplant and weeks in isolation.
Mark’s battle began around five years ago, when he developed a lump on his neck which he initially dismissed as innocuous. However, his mum urged him to get it checked out.
Mark’s parents Ken and Heather live in Garstang and his father is a pastor and used to be a head of year and RE teacher at Balshaw’s CE High School before retiring.
Mark, who grew up in Leyland and now lives in Hesketh Bank, near Preston, recalls: “I was having dinner at my parents’ house and my mum pointed out the lump on my neck and asked if I’d had it checked out.
“The lump was the size of a cricket ball, so I was aware of it. But because I suffered with tonsillitis a lot, I thought it was just an extremely swollen gland which would go away.
“I never thought it was anything serious. You hear about other people having cancer, but you never think it will happen to you.”
“I didn’t ignore the lump and went to an NHS walk-in centre. However, they told me it was an abscess and to go to the dentist.
“But when I went to the dentist, they told me to go to the doctors and vice versa and this went on for six months.”
Mark, who has been with wife Andie for 11 years and married to her for five, was living in Manchester at the time. In April 2011, the couple moved to Hesketh Bank and days after they moved in, Mark went to see the doctor there with his lump.
Mark was referred to Ormskirk Hospital for blood tests and had procedures including X-rays, ultrasounds, CT scans and MRI scans.
He then had to undergo a biopsy and was awake while the procedure was carried out.
Mark recalls: “I was awake while they did the biopsy.
“At one point, there was smoke coming up because the nurses had cauterised the lump. I joked around and said: ‘Who’s been smoking in this room?!’
“I managed to find some humour in the grimmest of situations. That is me. That’s who I am.”
Mark, who has done a variety of jobs in his life, including mechanic, butcher and farmer before going travelling, describes himself as always having been a “laidback and chilled person who took life as it came”.
However, his life was thrown into disarray when test results on the lump came back and he was told he had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in May 2011.
Mark says: “We were newly married and had just moved to our beautiful home in the country. Life was perfect right up until that day.
“I sat in front of the consultant, along with a student nurse and a few others in the room. The next moments changed our lives forever.
“The words “You have cancer” are all I heard that day.
“I asked the doctors how I could get rid of it and they told me it would be dealt with through chemotherapy.
“I asked what would happen if I didn’t have chemotherapy and they said: ‘You will die.’
“Later on down the road, one of my consultants told me if I had not had the diagnosis when I did, I would only have had a matter of weeks, maybe months, to live. I definitely 100 per cent should not be here today and know how lucky I am.”
Mark was told his lymphoma was at Stage 4a, which means the tumour is attached to an organ or part of the body.
He had to have chemotherapy for six months and found the treatment gruelling. He explains: “Chemotherapy makes you feel sick, tired and ill.
“Cancer itself is not painful. It is the treatment that is painful. But it is a necessary evil.
“I managed to get through the six months of chemotherapy and it was successful in shrinking the tumour.”
Mark, a former pupil of Wellfield High School in Leyland, was told he was in remission.
However, deep down, Mark suspected it was not the end of his journey.
He explains: “I heard the words: ‘You are in remission’ but I didn’t feel elation and joy.
“I did not think the cancer had gone. I believed it was still inside me. I thought if I went five years in remission, I would then believe it. But until then, I would not believe it had gone.
“You know your own body better than anyone else.”
Mark tried to live as normal a life as possible, but experienced difficulties as he suffered neuropathic pain in his legs and hands, one of the side effects of the chemotherapy. He describes the pain like “walking on glass”.
After being told he was in remission, Mark told his wife he wanted a dog. They got a Labrador and named her Faith.
Mark says: “I named her Faith because that’s what I needed to believe the cancer was gone and get through the horrendous process.
“I had to have faith to believe I would win and survive. I needed to have faith in myself and those around me for support and faith in God that I would be made whole again.
“You find yourself in a lonely barren place. It’s like stepping into darkness without a torch. You need people around you, but you can’t cry out because you’re in the darkness.
“You quite literally lose your mind, your focus and your life for a time.
“Having Faith the dog really helped me. I love animals and when you have a pet, they are an extreme comfort.
“I was looking after Faith and caring for her and she became a good friend and is now like a family member.”
Mark was in remission for two-and-a-half years. But in October last year, he discovered a lump in his neck in the same place as before.
Mark explains: “Every day, I check my neck by feeling around in a circle. On this particular day, I felt a small lump.
“It was barely visible, but I went straight to the doctors and was sent for a scan.”
The scan revealed the lump was suspicious and on Christmas Eve, Mark faced going into hospital to have it removed under general anaesthetic for a biopsy.
It emerged the cancer had returned and this time, Mark faced far stronger chemotherapy, followed by a bone marrow transplant using his own stem cells.
Mark says: “As soon as the chemotherapy hit my body, I was violently sick. It was horrific.
“I had to go into hospital at 9am and then come home at 5pm knowing I would have to do it all again the next day.
“It wasn’t easy. But you have to get through it.”
Before his transplant, Mark had to have eight teeth removed. He explains: “I have a phobia of dentists as well as hospitals.
“But if you have rotten teeth, the cell stems will try to replicate them. So I had to have eight teeth taken out before the stem cell transplant.”
Mark then faced being put into isolation and having BEAM chemotherapy, which was around 1,500 times stronger than any chemotherapy he’d had before. It left his body with no white blood cells to fight infection. Mark underwent his transplant in May at Royal Liverpool Hospital followed by three weeks in isolation.
He says: “It is very difficult to remember that time.
“It was so horrendous, my brain has shut it off and won’t let me remember how bad it was.
“No member of my family was allowed to come and visit me. Just my wife Andie came to visit me every day.
“Andie is my world and was my strength when I had none. She was my light in the darkness.
“If she hadn’t been there, what I went through would have been 100 times worse.
“Andie has faced everything with me, even holding my hand when I have been on the brink of losing my life.”
Mark returned home in June and has since been recovering from the transplant.
He says: “Cancer fatigue is not just like feeling tired.
“It means you can’t pick a pen up and even walking to the toilet is an extreme effort.
“It is like that last moment before you fall asleep – only you feel like that all the time.
“Only someone who has had cancer will fully understand what I mean.”
Mark and his wife Andie and their family and friends are now celebrating as a scan has revealed that Mark is free of cancer and in remission.
He says: “As someone who has had cancer and beaten it twice, I am one of the few people on the planet that knows what it takes to beat it.
“All the drugs leave you with kidney pain, chest pain, leg pain and nerve pain.
“But none of that seems to matter. What matters is that the battle is now won.
“During the whole journey, I have concentrated on feeling the freedom of being cancer free and sharing it with those that have been spurring me on. I am so thankful, grateful and blessed to have this life.”
Mark’s ‘Cancer Stories’
Just before his second cancer diagnosis, Mark set up a Facebook page called: “Cancer Stories (a support group).”
It allows people going through a cancer journey to talk to others who know what they are going through, rather than just doctors and medical professionals.
Mark also began writing a blog just before his transplant.
He explains: “It was a way of expressing myself and including my friends and family in my journey.
“I have committed myself to writing a blog entry every single day for a year, to give other people encouragement.
“I am not doing the blog for me, but there have been times when I have read it back and it has benefited me.
“I am happy to be alive so want to encourage others with the life that I have.
“I only hope that the people that have read my journey have been able to relate it to their own situation, struggles and challenges while fighting to beat cancer.
“The aim of Cancer Stories is to encourage people, and show them that they’re not alone. It lets them know help is out there and there are people who have been through similar things who can empathise with them.”
l Join Mark’s Facebook page “Cancer Stories (a support group) and read his blog at: www.fonzandcancer.com