I have a new girlfriend. She’s everything James Blunt has ever sung about; she’s beautiful, curvy, she’s got a mind of her own. She’s hooked on me, she sets my heart on fire, she follows me everywhere I go. Her name is IVy, and she has enough bite to drop a 400lb gorilla (which is lucky, because I'm such a beefcake, oof...). IVy is, of course, the sprawling mass of polycarbonates and metallic alloys that is directly linked into my heart, pumping a tongue-tingling concoction of chemicals (sadly no gin - NHS cuts…), rat poison and de-icer into my bloodstream faster than the extras on Trainspotting could ever dream of.
I have been, rather unfortunately, a member of the Cancer Collective for the past two years, an exclusive, members-only club that serves in death and destruction and very little else.
But before this wild, wild romance, and before I got my membership card, this story started somewhere else…
Back in the autumn of 2014, I had finished my MA at King's College London, and was preparing to take up my place at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, with an eventual commission into the Parachute Regiment, as an officer of the British Army. Even at the ripe old age of 23, the lure of playing toy soldiers and dressing in lavish regalia to hide probable latent homosexuality was just too irresistible. Having noticed a soreness in my right forefoot, accompanied by swelling the size of a small African country, I decided that scans and the like were in order to allow me to be fully fit in time for the January start at Sandhurst.
“Mr Dunn, the good news is there’s no fracture to be seen, but the bad news is that there is a massive f*cking tumour there”. Naturally, these were not the considered words of highly-regarded orthopaedic consultant Mr Nick Harris of Spire Hospital Leeds, but my own poetic embellishment, for – failed – comedic effect. They did, however, feel as though that was how the news was delivered, considering the impact. I would have to postpone my Army career, training would have to be put on hold, and I would be left in a state of limbo that would do no favours to my mental wellbeing. A man obsessed with training, activity, and general proactivity does not function on such uncertainty. But it wasn’t cancer. Yet. Why couldn’t it be benign?
The usual Christmas festivities of family feuds, racist uncles and compulsive daytime TV were replaced by a certain degree of anxiousness, as I, we, awaited my scan results and biopsy, amplified by the first biopsy being a medical cock-up on the part of the doctor, who decided to take a sample of my nerve, rather than my tumour. Helpful.
No doubt blinded by my positivity and nonchalance, truly believing that I was just going to have Terry Tumour scooped out like an avocado stone, and would restart Sandhurst in the Spring, I sprang into Mr Ian Smith (my tumour specialist)’s office, protein shaker in hand, as if I was the most spectacular Billy Big-Bollocks the world had ever seen up until that point. The news came as blunt as was humanly possible; “It’s malignant, and we’re going to advise amputation”, which, naturally, didn’t compute. That, of course, meant the end of my Army officer career, the day I officially started my Army career. That, of course, meant the end of my rugby. That, of course, meant the end of me walking in a straight line. How does one take that sort of news? The news that you have a cancer of the odds of 1:1,000,000, and an impending amputation? Does one go off the rails, fighting the world with mountains of cocaine and amphetamine? Does one curl into a ball and find the nearest stone to hide under? For me, I was just fairly numb, and realistic. The situation meant that I was going to go through an extremely challenging and painful rehabilitation period, learning to walk again with the aid of a prosthesis, magnified by the fact that my life revolved around fitness and the ability to move at a lick. It also meant that I was probably going to go through a long cycle of chemotherapy to polish off the remaining cancer cells, which would be oh-so wild.
The rescinding of the most pivotal and meaningful things in my life was an incredibly bitter pill to swallow. Not only do you have to reassess what you want to do with your life, but rectify the fact that all the things that made you, more or less, who you are, were now gone. Travelling, too, my major pastime, would take a great deal of readjustment, and would mean that certain places and activities were now off-limits. Your entire identity needed re-evaluating. No wonder the psychological toll these moments in life take are, to say the least, substantial. The natural question of ‘Why me?’ reared its ugly head time and time again. Was it because I played too much Cards Against Humanity? Was it because I laughed at the comedy of Anthony Jeselnik and Frankie Boyle? Was it because I lied to my parents that my brother had punched me when I was six (just to get him in the sh*t), and karma was now manifest? The answer, obviously, to all of these questions was a resounding ‘yes’, because I am indeed an absolute bastard, but we’ll get on to that.
On the other hand, there were bonuses. As my leg was hacked off with a rusty saw on 21st January 2015, a whole new world opened up to me. I was now in an elite group of people who were able to drink alcohol out of their legs. I was now fully entitled to make ‘best foot forward’ and ‘put your foot in it’ gags with impunity. I could pretend I was a robot to kids, and that I saved said ten kids from a shark to impressionable women. A Hallowe’en Oscar Pistorius outfit was also in the offing (I said I was a bastard, didn’t I?!).
Just shy of two years had gone by and much had happened. Rehabilitation had come and gone at the fastest pace anyone had completed it at my prosthetics centre, I had taken up work in London, in international affairs consultancy, and gained squad places with ParalympicsGB in cycling, Paracanoe and athletics – the ego boost provided by now being a professional athlete was sky-high. I had been diving in Bali, walked Spanish colonial walls in Colombia, and road tripped the Wild West. As 2017 came about, I had secured a place with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, my intended destination post-Army. But much of these successes and joys were undercut by the psychological challenge of accepting who I now was; to look in the mirror and see yourself as only half a man was a battle, not least because of the sizeable portion of my identity being linked to physical wellbeing. The daily pain caused by my prosthesis was wearing me down, and the general donning and removing of said prosthesis was equally infuriating.
These problems were soon to pale into insignificance. My regular check-up, every two months, had shown one tumour the shape and size of Madagascar on the inside of my left lung, glued to my heart like shoes to the floor of a club at 2am. My right lung had shown multiple smaller tumours, underneath and on the surface of the lung, like a sad, lonely packet of Skittles, partially devoured and discarded by a gluttonous, remorseless man-child. This, of course, was not good news. Nein nein nein.
“There isn’t curative treatment for this presentation”. For all the jokes of the past two years, and for all the fortitude summoned to deal with this rather dire hand I had been dealt, I would be a stone-faced liar to say that these words didn’t cut me to the core. I did not, nor do I, want to die. I want to pay taxes, I want to scream at my kids for flinging their rugby kit on the kitchen table, I want to let my beer gut go when I’m 60. I particularly want to see what The Donald will do next, and what’s going to happen on Game of Thrones (and in one fell swoop, I have reclaimed my virginity). There is far more that I want to do with my life, than the time I have left. The bucket list that I had been curating for the past six years was now to be severely curtailed. But with such a brutal meeting with your own mortality, there is a strange concentration with your mind that occurs. Now having an expiry date like a pack of condoms, a bizarre sense of clear, narrowed purpose overcomes you. I’m desperate to start a book I’ve been planning for the past five years; I’d love to start a humanitarian charity regarding war photography; I want to share my experiences of living with a terminal diagnosis, so that it might help others and raise money along the way; I want to visit a handful of new places I’ve never got round to visiting, and walk on ground already tread in those places around the world that have previously, and will again, hold a dear place in my heart.
As I sit in my hospital bed, bald and ugly (there’s a certain luxury in already being bald and ugly before chemotherapy) cuddling IVy, and occasionally sitting in the common room stuffing my fellow terminals on FIFA (no mercy), the urgency of the situation is not lost on me. There is much to do, with so little time. The simultaneous burden and release of a diagnosis like this is a sensation unlike all others, and one I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But nevertheless, it does provide that mortal emancipation that accelerates life’s purpose. I have been far luckier than the vast majority of people on earth; a loving family that offer unconditional love at every juncture; travels around the world – that became my true joy in life – that have given me an appreciation of what surrounds us that goes unmatched; a first-class education and the experiences that go hand-in-hand with that. I have been spoiled and blessed at every turn, and while I am destined to snuff it earlier than I would have liked or expected, I will always appreciate and value the gifts I have been given in this life.
Cures for various cancers truly are on the horizon. Whilst they won’t come in time for me, they will for others, but only with a combination of political will and individual action. This blog, however narcissistic (those who know me well will know how much I despise Facebook, Instagram and anything that encourages validation, which makes me a hypocrite and a general bastard), is built for the sole purpose of extorting your money like the mob and a Sicilian pizzeria. You’ll find links to my JustGiving page all across this blog and the posts to come. The heavier the funding, the quicker the process. Please do give generously if you're at all able to do so, and tell all your amigos.
I’ll be blogging over the coming months on a variety of topics, not to mention treatment progress. I’ll discuss life, death and spirituality as a consequence of my impending doom, as well as health and fitness, finding purpose in life, and social support and treatment more generally – the next person to utter the words ‘cannabis oil’ will join me and my ashes in the Caribbean Sea. More thoughts and musings will come to life as I make my way along the Yellow Brick Road, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, as well.