I battled cancer - I hope my story can help somebody else

A Togher father-of-three who survived oesophageal cancer is sharing his story ahead of Lollipop Day. CHRIS DUNNE spoke to him about his diagnosis, his mighty battle with the disease and the support of family and friends
I battled cancer - I hope my story can help somebody else
Pat Barrett pictured outside his home at Lehenaghmore, Togher. Picture: Howard Crowdy

WHEN Togher man, Pat Barrett suffered from severe heartburn, he thought it was the result of a combination of very cold weather and eating very hot chips.

“It wasn’t like the usual bout of heartburn that I’d normally get,” recalls the 62-year-old taxi driver. “I was in a state of collapse with it.”

Pat’s journey with oesophageal cancer, in March 2010, took him down a difficult road.

“I’d like to forget all about it,” says Pat, who has three grown-up children. “But my intention is to share my experience with other people who may be on the same journey. There is help out there.”

When Pat came to the end of the road, he didn’t know which way to turn.

“After surgery and when I came out of hospital I was at a kind of a dead end,” says Pat.

“I was a bit despondent and I had been through a very scary ordeal. I survived and I realised that I was one of the lucky ones. You definitely need all the support that you can get. ”

Pat got in touch with the Oesophageal Cancer Fund, the national voice that represents oesophageal cancer sufferers in Ireland.

“They put me in touch with somebody that I could talk to,” says Pat.

“Jim Street and myself had been down the same road. We both shared what we had been through when we got cancer of the oesophagus. Jim is from Inishboffin and he gave me good advice and we chatted a lot together about our experience.”

Pat got back into the driving seat.

“I began to help myself little by little,” says Pat.

“I sourced a Mind Body and Spirit teacher who helped me come to terms with what happened to me and who helped me move forward. The sessions really helped me back on the road to recovery.”

That took a bit of doing?

“It sure did,” says Jim. “I thought I was done for. I prayed like hell!”

What’s the worst part of being diagnosed with oesophageal cancer?

“The shock,” says Jim. ”The shock is the worst. For yourself and of course for your family.”

Jim’s life as he knew it ground to an abrupt halt when he was diagnosed.

A big, strong man — six feet 1 inch tall — he was never ill in his life.

“I was in the building trade before,” says Jim. “I often put down a floor in one day.”

He felt invincible.

Oesophageal cancer is one of the rarest cancers in Western countries, more prevalent in men over 60, though it affects people as young as 20 to 35.

Three times more men than women get this type of cancer. Pat was one of those men.

“I was told my cancer was not smoking-related,” says Pat, who used to smoke 20 cigarettes a day.

“My problem was nearer to the throat, not down lower.”

His gut feeling, though, was to get the horrific heart-burn checked out.

“I can still remember the night and the place when I got the awful attack of heart-burn,” recalls Pat.

“It was a freezing cold Saturday night. I was in between fares, parked on the Grand Parade. I got chips from the chipper on the corner.

“After eating them, I nearly collapsed from the heart-burn. I went to see the doctor the very next day.”

Pat had the scope to examine his oesophagus.

“I got tablets to ease the symptoms.” says Pat. “I got a bit of relief from them.”

Until the next time.

“The next bout of heart-burn was very bad,” says Pat.

“I was thinking I must have an ulcer. Now I was losing weight. It was noticeable. And I was tired for no reason. I had to have further tests in the hospital.”

Pat was knocked for six when a tumour was discovered. He felt like he was embarking on an endless roller-coaster ride.

“It was an awful shock,” says Pat. “When I found out it was cancer, I felt done for,” says Pat.

“How was I going to tell the family? There was a bigger shock in store for them.”

And how was he going to go through the rounds of chemotherapy treatments, followed by radiation treatment?

Apart from his physical condition, Pat’s mental condition had to go into over-drive to maintain 

some semblance of strength.

“The notion of having cancer was massive,” says Pat.

“I had a CT scan to check out my other organs; to make sure that they were not affected. Thank God they weren’t.

“Then I started a very aggressive form of chemotherapy treatment on a regular basis. The sessions lasted for hours.”

Pat was rattled.

“It was like living a life through a window,” says Pat. “I admit; I thought of ending it all. The whole thing was a terrible ordeal. My wife brought me to the hospital for the chemotherapy sessions.”

He still wanted a bit of independence.

“I drove myself when I was getting the radiation.”

But a bit of light came in through the window.

“Professor Seamus O’Reilly was happy with my progress,” says Pat. “He said after the radiation treatment, it should be fine.”

Nobody wanted the cancer to ever come back.

“My surgeon, Mr Whooly, suggested that I go for surgery,” says Pat.

“He decided that the chances of re-occurrence would be considerably lessened. The idea of going through surgery was another shock to the system. I weighed around 14 and a half stone before the surgery,” say Pat.

His agitation changed to resignation.

“Afterwards, I lost two stone. I was tube fed for six weeks and I had a port inserted to administer the medications. They had a job to find the vein to insert the port every time. It was all a nightmare. “I just wanted to be done with it.”

Pat knew that his best chance of survival was to have the operation to remove what was left of the tumour in his oesophagus.

“It was my choice,” he says. “It was the best way to go.”

After the surgery, he wasn’t so sure.

“As bad as I was before the operation: I was worse afterwards,” says Pat.

“It was major surgery. My chest was cut open across the front and up one shoulder blade. I was literally cut in half.”

Pat pales visibly at the memory.

“I was so weak. And there wasn’t a tack of me there. I remember a young doctor coming onto the ward and he said I should do the gym to build up some muscle! Honestly, I felt so bad; I didn’t think I’d survive.

“I was ten hours on the table. I never felt so bad,” says Pat. “Before, after and during.”

He was fortunate that none of his other organs were affected.

“My oncologist said that the rest of my organs were in good order,” says Pat. “I had a third of my stomach left.

“The recovery process was tough. I ate very little. I had an odd spoon of food here and there. I slept a lot. I slept for 18 hours after the operation. I was on a load of painkillers.”

Now that Pat had gathered the mental strength to get through his ordeal, his mood needed a boost.

“I was prescribed mild anti-depressants,” says Pat. “I had several relapses and I got an itch, which was a nuisance.”

Little by little, inch by inch, Pat got a fraction stronger.

“It was slow,” recalls Pat. “Very slow. I hadn’t the strength of a mouse.

“After six months, there was a slight improvement. After another six months, when I went for another check-up, there was another slight improvement. Sometimes I would be freezing cold, shaking and shivering. Then my body would be damp with the sweats.”

The treatment and the surgery had got rid of the tumour in Pat’s oesophagus. That was past tense. Now he needed new direction.

“I didn’t know who I could talk to,” says Pat.

“The days seemed all the same and they seemed endless. I had a lot of support while I was in hospital, but I had none afterwards.

“Somebody mentioned Lollipop Day to me and said I should contact the organisation. I was put in touch with other survivors who had come out the other end from oesophageal cancer.

“I found talking to them was a great help, and they gave me encouragement.”

Pat found his feet again.

“My legs were the best part of me,” he says. “So I used them. I was like a car with a dead battery that had shuddered to a halt.”

Pat had a diversion.

“Yes, I got a pony. He had to be fed and looked after. I think he helped me to survive. I really wanted to get back on the taxi, but the fatigue was something else. It really got to me. And I couldn’t hack the cold.”

Pat takes it handy now.

“I feed my pony in the morning. Then I do the chores around the house,” he says. “I have a pint in my local with my friends and watch a match at the weekend. I can’t gauge when I’m full, but I listen to my body now.

“I eat what’s good for me. I do a health check on my body first thing in the morning. ”

What else does he do?

“I can still put down a floor,” says Pat with a laugh. “At least in my head I can!”

Old habits die hard.

“I have the odd cigarette,” admits Pat.

He has come a long way.

“Maybe my story will help someone else who is going down the same road,” he says.

“I’ve been there. I’m here now.”

Lollipop Day runs March 3 to 4, volunteers will be selling lollies for €2 around the city and county for the Oesophageal Cancer Fund.

See www.lollipopday.ie, email info@lollipopday.ie or call 01-2897457.

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