Retired teacher David Firth never dreamt he would visit the Lake District again, after a problematic side effect of his cancer treatment forced him to stay close to his Euxton home for more than a year.
Sixty-year-old David hardly left his house last year, after intensive surgery to remove a tumour from his appendix meant surgeons had to create a stoma. He was unable to venture too far from home because of reoccurring problems keeping it under control, and his self-confidence plummeted.
But he’s found a new lease of life following a stay at St Catherine’s Hospice in the summer, when the specialist team decided to try a different course of treatment for him. His life has been transformed and he has vowed to make the most of the time he has left as he lives with a rare form of the disease.
“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,” David admits. “But it’s the complete opposite; it’s given me my life back.”
David was diagnosed with a rare form of appendix cancer in Easter 2015, after suffering from stomach pains which were initially thought to be gallstones. Following a CT scan at Royal Preston Hospital, he underwent an operation to remove the tumour.
But the cancer had spread to his stomach, and he was dealt the devastating news that he may only have six months to live.
“My attitude is that it doesn’t matter how long you’ve got left, as long as you have a good quality of life,” he says. “But 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.”
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.
“I got to the point where I was willing to try anything” he said. “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 had initially been referred by Royal Preston Hospital to attend weekly Day Therapy sessions at the Lostock Hall hospice in November 2015, following his cancer diagnosis.
David, who lives in Euxton with his wife Kathryn, explains: “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’s able to spend more time out and about, without the constant worry of having problems with the stoma.
He 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. I’m really looking forward to Christmas; spending time with my nieces and nephews and making special memories.”
David, who worked as a chef for 37 years before teaching English and maths to apprentices at Preston’s College, adds: “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.”
Simon said it was wonderful to see the difference in David since beginning the treatment.
“The change in David since I first met him is remarkable,” he says. “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.”