Banal Cancer

  • In this first post I talk openly about my cancer diagnosis and some of the effects this diagnosis has had on my life. It is a personal account that I share in the hope that friends, family and interested strangers might better understand what I have gone through and how I have tried to fight the good fight against the behemoth that is cancer.

Following your inevitable death you may find something like this under your head flesh.

Let’s talk about death, baby. Life expectancy in most parts of the world is now higher than it has ever been. Even so, and despite tremendous advances in medical science over the last few hundred years, the chances of you dying at some point in your life still sits at around 100%. Yes, like it or not, you are going to die (although see here). What is uncertain for most of us is how that death will come. Will it be sudden and unexpected, like a surprise encounter with a NATO bomb while you are going about your business? Or will it take the form of a disease that slowly takes your health away from you?  One such disease is cancer.

This week marks one year since I was diagnosed with cancer. If you had told me that one day I was going to be diagnosed with cancer I would tell you that is not a bad prediction. According to Cancer Research UK people living in Britain have a lifetime risk of being diagnosed with cancer of around 40%. In other words, 4 out of every 10 people will have the misfortune of  encountering cancer first-hand at some stage in their lives. What I never expected, however, was that at the age of 34 and being otherwise very fit and healthy, I would develop a very rare and little understood cancer (anal adenocarcinoma) and that the diagnosis would be delivered over the phone while I was eating a cheese scone at Britain’s best motorway service station. Up until that moment (and on numerous occasions by numerous doctors) I had been told that I was simply suffering from an acute case of haemorrhoids, so I had nothing to worry about. This news changed that.

A Cheese Scone

One of the first challenges for me was to try and make some sense out of this news. When I asked the consultant why I might have developed the cancer, he had no response; other than to say that I did not fit into any of the risk groups (no history of disease or tomfoolery in the region) and so the cause is entirely unknown. The shit had just happened.

But why me? To paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchens who died recently of esophageal cancer, rather than ask “Why me?”, a better question is “Why not?’. Why not indeed! Bad things happen to people all the time. The question then becomes what are you going to do about your situation?

It is reported that seven times Tour de France winner and intelligent rule bender Lance Armstrong said “Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me”. While it is too early in my cancer journey for me to be able to echo this sentiment, the positivity he emanates is very important. There is clear evidence showing that a positive mental attitude is consistent with better health outcomes. In other words, positive thinking is not only mentally good for you, but physically good for you too.

This man has not been ill in 15 years

When I was first diagnosed my attitude was that it was not going to affect my life. I knew that if the medical professionals could fully remove the cancer then I could expect to live a long time. So, I left it in the hands of the surgeons and continued working, thinking of the cancer as little more than a nuisance. Following further tests, however, it became apparent that in order to try and stem the spread of the disease I would need to have an abdominoperineal resection. I am not afraid to admit that this brought a tear or two to my eyes.

This example illustrates the difficulty inherent in keeping a positive mental attitude at such a time. By it’s very nature, a surgical intervention of this type is a pretty traumatic experience and when you have this looming over you it could be easy to let it dominate your thoughts. Sometimes it is close to impossible to be simply, ‘positive’ about everything. What you can do, however, is distract yourself, take charge of your own attitude, and direct your attention elsewhere.  By coincidence it was at about the same time that I was invited to try stand-up comedy for the first time through an organisation called Bright Club. I reasoned that my desire to not completely flop in front of a live audience would act as a distraction to all the arrangements for the surgery going on in the background. So, a week before I was due to have my innards rewired, I got up and had a go (see here for video evidence).

Comedy organised by Bright Club

As it turned out, my attitude of just ignoring the cancer and assuming that it would go away couldn’t last for very long. The surgery and accompanying pathology reports showed that the cancer had invaded my body more dramatically than first feared. One of the ways that cancer can spread around the body is through the lymphatic system. Once the cancer gets into the lymphatic system it can, from there, make it’s merry way to various major organs. My pathology report showed that of the 22 lymph nodes removed as a pre-emptive strike, cancer was already in 17 of them. Again, a shock. On the positive side, at least these were now out of my body!

In the meantime,  I started developing lumps on the skin around my groin. Three independent doctors told me that these were ingrowing hairs and therefore nothing to worry about. They turned out to be wrong. So in my case, the cancer spread from the end of my digestive tract both internally (through the lymph nodes) and externally (onto the surface of my skin). As a result of this spread I have now had two episodes of laser surgery (the cancer is vaporised with a laser), electron therapy (electrons are fired at the cancer in a procedure that is a relative of radiotherapy) and last week I started chemotherapy.

Day One of Chemotherapy

In the meantime I try and keep myself happy and entertained as best as possible. Having dedicated the best part of my life to academia, free time has been a rarity, so it is nice to have a little bit for a change. But how much? Due to the rare nature of my cancer, questions concerning my prognosis are difficult. When you ask your doctor “how much time do I have left?” the answer is based on data concerning what normally happens in such cases. In my case there is no such thing as what normally happens because the disorder is so rare. So all I know is something about the best and worst case scenarios. The best case scenario is that the treatments I am having (all of which have been selected on a ‘best guess’ basis) will stop the steady progression of the cancer.  This will mean remission and many years of life. The worst case scenario, and I quote my oncologist, is that “we hope to keep you alive for years rather than months”. It is into this massive void, this uncertainty, into which a positive attitude has to be injected.  One piece of good news was that my most recent CT scan showed no evidence of further spread. In the context of everything else, I’ll take that. Cancer is fought in the mind as much as it is in the body. And so, and until further notice, I intend to remain unremittingly, and unapologetically positive.

I have not been doing all of this alone. In this regard I want to thank my loving wife Miriam for helping me get through each day, as well as my family and friends for all their support. I also want to thank all the staff who have helped care for me in various hospital wards and clinics. Finally, in terms of trying to stay positive throughout this experience one of the most helpful organisations has been Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centre. It is brilliant.


31 thoughts on “Banal Cancer

  1. hi Robbie, I just found out about this from Fraser’s twitter… very concerned for you, but you seem to be bearing up well – just wanted to say all the best, really, I know you can beat this.

  2. Hello Robbie,
    Just wanted to send my good vibes to help with the possitive mental atitude. I do believe you should manage possitivley mental just fine!
    All the best,
    Scott Coutts.

  3. Hi Robbie I have been thinking about you and how you are. Reading your post as updated me , So Positive thoughts and healing thoughts from Sunny Brazil Robbie. Warmest Wish and love
    Peter Burns the Wandering Sailor

  4. Dear Robbie
    You continue to be the amazing guy that I first met way back when in Dundee. Keep doing what you’re doing – I am so proud of you and glad to know that you have such good support around you.
    Thinking about you and sending you positive waves from across the Irish Sea.
    Best wishes Cat (who still colours in her roots with a black felt tip pen) XX

  5. Dear Robbie, Just to let you know we are thinking and praying for you. Lots of love, Carrie and Farhad, in China

  6. Wow! Robbie I read your blog via your Jody’s facebook link. Your positive attitude amazes and moves me, and as you say has undoubtedly helped your fight. I will remember you in the healing circle I am part of and send you love healing and white light. Keep doing what you’re doing. Xx

  7. It’s lovely to hear from you Robbie, LOVING the stand up outfit!! 1 question though… Who told you you were funny?!

    Ps- I admire your positivity, honesty and bravery in writing this, all the best 🙂 xxx

  8. How can someone have so much humour in their very bones and sneer in the face of adversity. You are an amazing chap, with tremendous courage and fortitude. I just don’t know what to say.


  9. Thank you very much for sharing your experience with us. The first thing that came to my mind reading what you wrote is ways in which I might be able to help. Volunteering at Maggie’s centre is certainly something worth doing. However, if you’d like to spend sometime with me, like going for a walk (or a kebab), I will always have time for you.

    Your life and actions are a constant inspiration.


  10. I want to add my good vibes and hugs to those already given. It’s good to see you’re still the lovely, funny guy I met all those years ago in Nottingham. Bad things happen to good people too often, and I’m so sad you’re in that group now. Positivity all the way though, keep singing Babooska and everyone will laugh until they cry and their sides hurt!

    Love to you and Miriam. Xx

  11. it’s great that you’re putting your story out here. i know someone in a similar situation will stumble on this and benefit from your positivity. really admirable.
    all the best,

  12. Just read through this and it made me both happy and sad. Sad that you are going through this but happy that you are going through it as you. If you need anything other than good wishes give me a shout. The good wishes are free and plentiful.

  13. Dear Robbie, it has been incredibly refreshing to read your blog. I can’t imagine a better attitude to have, than you one you present in this post. Am thinking of you and Miriam and wish you the best of luck with all the treatments you have to come. Oh, and mum showed me some of your stand-up – it’s really good!!

  14. Hi Robbie,

    Just a quick note to wish you well and to let you know just how much I admire you for sharing what you have done here on your blog. I’ve often wondered how you were since leaving Stirling back in 2006 and caught wind of this via Chris’ Facebook. I look forward to reading future updates as you beat this. If you’re on Facebook, I’m listed on Chris, Rich and Pete’s contact lists.


  15. Hi Robbie, Thanks for starting this blog. I saw it through Martin’s FB page and it was nice to read and share. I imagine it can’t be easy to be upbeat and hilarious all of the time, but it looks like you’re doing your darndest. Love and hugs to you and Miriam. And Happy belated Thanksgiving! xx

  16. Like many of Robbie’s friends I find it really difficult to express my emotions towards Robbie’s health issues and help Robbie in a meaningful way though as a step to proactively and pragmatically assist I’ve set up (with Robbie’s gracious consent) a fundraising site to assist this great man’s progress.

    Friends, family, and colleagues please take a moment to consider your own situation in life, then imagine yourself in Robbie’s situation, then give generously.

    Many thanks, much love, respect,


  17. Hey Robbie, Jody and Ollie cane to stay a few weeks ago and told us about your good self and the humongous test you are going through. My Mum has secondary breast cancer and is undergoing various treatments- currently on Chemo. She seems to be doing well so far. My family and I are all remembering you in our prayers and are so sorry that you and Miriam have to go through this. I remember us hanging out as kids and being pen-pals – how much fun we had. I loved your blog post – your writing style is amazing and your attitude just as stellar. Much love and big hugs to you, old friend, Fleur xxx

  18. Pingback: "Human Is Not Alone" Campaign - In Support Of Sufferers With Cancer

  19. Hi Robbie,
    So saddened to hear about the fight you have been having…..but what a fighter! You taught at an OU summer school I attended a couple of years ago. Sending you all the positive thought I can muster. You are a shiny star!


  20. Robbie,

    King Robbie as I knew him when we first met. Robbie was a live wire. Up for it all and with the most incredible sense of humour. It is good that has not deserted him. We have both had our tough journeys to follow. Different paths, same story. I just wanted to wish you well and tell you I was thinking of you. A class act, Johnny Top Banana, a wizzard wheeze, take care and ALL the very best!

  21. Wishing you all the very best in your fight against cancer. You certainly seem to be winning and a positive attitude I am certain has helped with the fight. Take care.of yourself.

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