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Life after surgery for oesophageal cancer

Grandparents and children sharing tips and stories

In February 2008, David Williams, a 46 year old married police officer from North Wales, was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer (cancer of the gullet). This is his story of how his cancer was found, the treatment he had and life since finishing treatment.

Well the good news is that it’s not a hiatus hernia

From 2006 I had been experiencing intermittent pain right in the centre of my chest. I assumed it was indigestion and just ignored it. But late last year I started to get excruciating pain after I had eaten certain foods like rice and jacket potatoes. Then during Christmas 2007, I just went off my food. This was very unlike me I have always had a good appetite and never left food on my plate.

By the end of January I decided I had to see the GP. Although she was very calm when she examined me, I think she suspected that I could have cancer. I had an endoscopy 10 days after I saw my GP- where they put a camera down your throat. I had assumed, because of my symptoms that I had a hiatus hernia. But after my endoscopy the doctor who had done the examination broke the news that I had a cancer in my oesophagus. I found it hard to take in all the information because I was still woozy from the sedation, but I remember being reassured by the doctor.

When people asked me how the test had gone, I would say well the good news is that it is not a hiatus hernia! I knew from the beginning that I had to deal with my situation with my own brand of humour. But I also knew I was engaged in a battle - me against the cancer.

Having treatment

In the following weeks I had a number of scans to try and ascertain how big the cancer was and whether it had spread anywhere else. They found the cancer had also spread to some lymph nodes round my stomach. The decision was made that I would have chemotherapy followed by surgery. I had 2 rounds of chemotherapy, then 6 weeks off before my surgery. The chemotherapy was not pleasant. But I was determined to live my life as normally as possible so continued to take my dog out for her daily 5 mile walks. After the chemotherapy finished I deliberately put on weight in preparation for the time ahead when I knew that eating and drinking would be difficult.

I had 85% of my oesophagus removed and the majority of my stomach. The surgeons did this by keyhole surgery and amazingly all I have is a few marks on my front and back. In hospital, the night before my surgery I knew I had to face the cancer on my own as ultimately it was my fight against the cancer. So I asked my wife if she would go home. Both my wife and the medical staff had been, and still are, incredibly supportive. But I knew I wanted to face this alone. Later one of the nurses told me that as I was wheeled in for my operation I said to the surgeon ‘Give it hell doc’.

After my operation I was in the high dependency unit. This period of time was pretty awful. I had so many pipes coming out of me (drips and drains), I felt like a gas boiler. But the worst aspect was the pain. Despite all this within hours of my operation I was sitting up. In just a few days I was able to sip water. A week after my operation I was moved back to the general surgical ward and the following day I went home.

My diet after surgery

Before I went home, I saw a dietician who gave me lots of advice. Essentially she said to eat little and often, eat high fat foods and make sure I eat my 2000 calories a day. I have made sure that I have done this. I also went home with several boxes of supplement drinks, but have only had a couple of those.

I have experienced a number of problems since the surgery. Initially I had problems swallowing and would choke very easily. I found that I had to avoid certain foods like meat. This has improved as time has gone on but even now I am careful about eating certain foods like doughy bread or scones. I recently had my throat stretched to help with the swallowing and this has made a difference.

My throat is always quite sore, and I have quite a husky voice. The doctors have told me that this will be a long term effect. I am getting used to sounding a bit like Sean Connery now! I try and drink a full bodied beer like Guiness every night. I find that this helps to soothe my throat and I know that it has the calories I need.

Most of the problems I have encountered since my surgery I have dealt with by trial and error. I know now that I mustn’t eat too much or too late (after 7o’clock) or I’ll have pain in my chest. I have also had problems with ‘dumping syndrome’, feeling faint and dizzy if I eat too much or too little. In the weeks after my surgery I never felt hungry and had no interest in food. Now I recognise when my energy levels are dropping and I need to eat.

Apart from my diet problems, I am doing well. I still see my cancer specialist, but only when I need to. I am back singing in my local choir and I have started a degree in Health and Safety management. I have had my battles with my cancer, as I knew I would, but I like to think that I am definitely winning the war.

Factfile

  • In 2005, 7,823 people in the UK were diagnosed with oesophageal cancer
  • It is the 9th commonest cancer in adults in the UK
  • There are 2 main types of oesophageal cancer, squamous cell and adenocarcinoma
  • The treatment you have depends on the type of oesophageal cancer you have
  • Chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery are all used to treat oesophageal cancer

More information

On Cancer Help UK there is more information about

Sharing your story

The 'Your stories' section of CancerHelp UK provides tips and support for people currently coping with cancer and treatment. You can use the Your Stories contribution form to tell us how you coped, so that other people with cancer, or their families, can gain help and support from your stories.

Some people help Cancer Research UK by sharing their stories in other ways - talking to the media, appearing in a Cancer Research UK advert, speaking to volunteers or being featured on our website. Read more about sharing your story for Cancer Research UK.

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Updated: 28 September 2009