'˜I have incurable cancer - but hospice has given me a new lease of life'
A Lancashire retired teacher diagnosed with a rare and incurable cancer that began in his appendix thought his days were numbered when he went into St Catherine's Hospice.Instead, he was given a new lease of life as hospice staff tried a different treatment which has given him back his quality of life. He tells AASMA DAY his story.
Like many people, David Firth wrongly assumed that hospices were places people went to die and he feared he was approaching his final days.
Instead, his life was transformed and he is now able to enjoy life and have the confidence to enjoy days out after a year of being too scared to leave the house because of a problematic side-effect of the cancer.
David, 60, who is married to Kathryn and lives in Euxton, near Chorley, was diagnosed with a rare form of appendix cancer in Easter 2015 after suffering from stomach pains which were initially thought to be gallstones.
However scans revealed it was cancer and David underwent an operation to remove the tumour.
Further tests showed the cancer had spread to his stomach and David was given the news that he may only have six months to live.
David, who worked as a chef for 37 years at many places including The Crofters at Garstang before teaching English and maths to apprentices at Preston’s College, recalls: “I was diagnosed 18 months ago and so far I am proving them wrong and am doing my best to carry on doing so.
“I am realistic that there is no way the cancer is not going to get me but I am going to keep dodging the bullet for as long as I can.”
After surgery to remove the tumour from his appendix, surgeons had to create a stoma for David. He was unable to venture too far from home because of reoccurring problems keeping it under control and issues with it leaking and his self-confidence plummeted.
David says: “My attitude is that it doesn’t matter how long you’ve got left, as long as you have a good quality of life.
“My bag was leaking dozens of times a day and I had to spend hours changing it.
“I lost the confidence to leave the house and I spent the most part of 15 months indoors. I was really struggling to cope.”
David, who loves visiting the Lake District, feared he’d never get the chance to do it again.
However, his life took a turn for the better following a stay at St Catherine’s Hospice in Lostock Hall over the summer when the specialist team decided to try a different course of treatment for him and David has now vowed to make the most of the time he has left fighting the disease.
David admits: “Part of me thought I was going to St Catherine’s to spend my final days there, because that’s what you hear about hospices.
“But it’s the complete opposite: it’s given me my life back.”
Following the operation, David underwent chemotherapy at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester in an attempt to slow down the spreading of the cancer cells.
He also tried acupuncture to control his shaking hands - a side effect of the chemotherapy and was even prepared to try an experimental ‘hot chemo’ treatment (hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy) used to kill cancer cells in the abdomen although it was later discovered that he wasn’t eligible for the treatment as the cancer spread.
David says: “I got to the point where I was willing to try anything. I was prepared to try any drugs or treatment to help.”
David was eventually given hope when he spoke with a specialist nurse from St Catherine’s Hospice this year. He was initially referred from hospital to attend weekly day therapy sessions in November 2015 following his cancer diagnosis.
David says: “St Catherine’s kept in touch with me after my day therapy sessions concluded calling me every few months to see how I was getting on.
“Earlier this year I started seeing the charity’s clinical nurse specialists who visited me at home.
“One of the nurses Simon Walker spoke to me about staying at the hospice to try a drug which he hoped would get the stoma under control.
“I stayed in the hospice’s inpatient unit for two weeks in June and the results were incredible.”
The hospice team spoke with David’s oncologist at The Christie who arranged for a nurse to visit him every 28 days at his home to administer a drug similar to that which was initiated by St Catherine’s.
It means he is now able to spend more time out and about without the constant worry of having problems with the stoma.
David, who has been married to Kathryn for 33 years, says: “Kathryn and I have been to the Lakes and Yorkshire for breaks away - I never dreamt I would be able to do that again.
“Before I went to St Catherine’s, my biggest trip out was to the local shop.
“It was a very stressful time for my wife too so our lives have been completely transformed.
“My cancer isn’t curable, but I can now make the best of the time I have. My last scan in November showed the cancer was being kept at bay and I have another scan in February.
“I think people sometimes have the wrong impression of hospices.
“It’s not doom and gloom and there’s no need to be frightened; they’re very special, uplifting places.
“The people at St Catherine’s are just wonderful and really lifted mine and Kathryn’s spirits.
“It was just what we needed: it gave us tremendous peace of mind and reassurance for the future.
“The emotional support offered to Kathryn was so heart-warming for me as well.
“From the welcome you get on reception, to the cleaning staff in your room and the doctors and nurses – the consideration and care shown by everyone is remarkable.
“I really felt I could open up and speak honestly with Simon and he broached subjects with me in a really sensitive and positive way.
“When you experience something like I have, it makes you realise how many wonderful people there are in the world.
“They have gone on this journey with me, and they’ve changed my life.
“St Catherine’s has some incredible people. I have never met so many kindhearted and lovely people in my life. Nothing is too much trouble for them.”
Simon Walker at St Catherine’s Hospice says it is wonderful to see the difference in David since beginning the treatment.
He says: “The change in David since I first met him is remarkable. The drug we suggested he try at the hospice, octreotide, was very effective in David’s case and has enabled him to enjoy doing ‘normal’ everyday things with his family again, like going for walks, which most of us take for granted.
“Our team of experienced, specialist doctors and nurses work collaboratively with other health care professionals both locally and across the region to share best practice in supporting patients and their families.
“Thanks to our relationship with The Christie, we were able to measure the effects of the octreotide injections here at the hospice and help initiate the ongoing course of treatment which David is now receiving at home on a monthly basis. “It’s wonderful to hear that we were able to help in such a meaningful way and help improve David’s quality of life.”
David Firth has been given a new lease of life by St Catherine’s Hospice
• St Catherine’s Hospice is the only adult hospice serving the communities of Preston, Chorley, Longridge and South Ribble. Patients are looked after at home, in the community and at the hospice through a broad range of services
• While many patients have cancer, St Catherine’s cares for people with all kinds of life-shortening illnesses including heart failure, Motor Neurone Disease and Parkinson’s disease
• St Catherine’s also provide treatment, care and support to patients and families over an extended period. Around 50 per cent of people admitted to the in-patient unit return home again once their condition is better managed
• As well as an inpatient unit, St Catherine’s has a day therapy unit, outpatient clinics and a lymphoedema service and clinical nurse specialists who work in the community
• It costs around £5.2m to run the hospice each year. It receives around £1.7m from the NHS meaning they rely on charitable support to raise a £3.5m each year
• St Catherine’s employs around 170 staff and has a dedicated army of more than 600 volunteers without who they could not survive
• For more information visit www.stcatherines.co.uk or call: 01772 629171