The first blog for a few months comes at the end of bowel cancer awareness month and along with my 18 month post operative check. Our blogs so far haven’t touched much on bowel cancer, so it seemed appropriate to give it a mention this month.
Since our last blog we have managed to bring several generous sponsors on board the Men of Oar campaign. Fuller’s have come on board as a Silver Partner, Joe and Mike of ECHP Services Limited and Connor Construction South West have committed as Bronze Partners, whilst Sub Sports have been generous in donating some much needed clothing. There is also some fabulous fundraising activity happening, not least thanks to the Friends of Men of Oar and Sue Bell in Micheldever who is organising monthly walks around the Hampshire countryside. Together, we have raised almost £15,000 for our charities so far and almost £10,000 towards our campaign. Thank you to all of you who have donated and helped, the challenge wouldn’t be possible without you.
In January we committed to having a boat built as well. Rossiters are preparing an Ocean 3 for us which means we’ll be able to have three rowers at any one time, and will get us safely across the Atlantic even faster! The training has been focused on doing long periods of time sat on a rowing machine (we call them ergos), to get us into shape for the 24 hour rowing challenge we organised, with more help from Fuller’s. Aiming to row some 500km on an ergo and raise over £2000 on the banks of the Thames before the annual Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race started, we were kindly supported by the staff from the Blue Boat in Hammersmith whilst we adjusted to the routine we will adopt when crossing the Atlantic - 2 hours of rowing, eat, then 2 hours of sleep, then repeat. I think we can all safely say that we found it harder than we expected. The most we had done prior to that weekend was one 2 hour stint in a day. Getting back on the ergo after two hours of rest certainly proved to be a challenge.
The chafage started early at around about hour 3 and after 4 hours of sitting on an ergo, our bums needed a cushion to ease the deep ache that had developed. And then the hands started to blister at about 10 hours in; just when the rain started and the crowds left the pub to go to bed. After 8 hours of rowing, as the sun was coming up, our joints were aching, blisters and chafage burning and our bums were in bits. Fortunately, our families and friends started to arrive with sudacrem, ibuprofen, bacon sandwiches (Thanks Nell) to keep our morale up, and some great sales technique to raise funds for our charities. Knowing how one day of rowing feels, the challenge left me reflecting on how we will get across the Atlantic, a journey that will take more than 40 times as long without the support of all those who came to help us.
The best part of sitting uncomfortably in the rain with someone who is going through the same thing is that you get to know each other pretty well, something soldiers find out early on in their career. I found out that Will’s favourite film is Lone Survivor. It’s a film about Marcus Luttrell, a US Navy SEAL whose team is ambushed in Afghanistan. As the title suggests, everyone but our main protagonist is killed and he manages to survive fire fights and being blown down a cliff by an explosion before crawling into an Afghan village with various wounds and injuries. He takes refuge in a family’s home, and hoping they will adhere to the Pashtunwali code of offering hospitality and protection to whoever crosses your threshold. Throughout the film, Marcus Luttrell recalls advice from his instructors during his training and selection as a US Navy Seal - “Whatever you have to do, just find an excuse to win, keep going”.
At 2 o’clock in the morning when I had to get back on the ergo in the rain, these words rang in my ears. We were raising money for two fantastic charities that day, and we came home with £2,500 towards the charities and our campaign! Excuse enough, but the sentiment also helps to focus the mind on the greater goal of rowing across the Atlantic, and why we are doing that. There are many hard times ahead, not just the rowing, but also everything leading up to the endeavour. Whether it’s coming home from work and having to send letters out to potential sponsors, or pushing that little harder in an evening gym session when I’d rather be at home with Steph. We need something to motivate us to keep going.
Men of Oar are aiming to raise £250,000 for two charities which are very close to our hearts– Bowel Cancer UK and Combat Stress; and also to raise a whole lot of awareness about bowel cancer and mental health and the importance of early diagnosis in both conditions. My particular hope is to highlight what can be achieved when bowel cancer is caught and the symptoms aren’t ignored – rowing the Atlantic!
I was diagnosed with Bowel Cancer in August 2016 at the age of 33. It was a fluke; I had a pretty graphic episode on the loo and despite NHS Direct’s suggestion that I should be fine, I decided to go to the 24 hour non-emergency doctor. She suggested it was likely to be haemorrhoids. Within four weeks, I had been diagnosed with Stage 2 or 3 Bowel Cancer. They couldn’t be sure. Due to deploy abroad with the Army, my diagnosis was accelerated – I was lucky.
When I had gone to the hospital that morning, I had expected to be told that maybe I had a stomach ulcer, or maybe it was a reaction to something I ate. Bowel cancer was so far outside of my expectations I had no idea what the symptoms even were. The nurses reassured me that it was common to make a full recovery, very common to survive, and that because of the position of the tumour, it would be unlikely that I would need a stoma. I had no idea how the disease would affect me when I left the hospital that afternoon. I was a 33 year old who had just landed his dream job in the Army and whose dreams of adventures and a family with his girlfriend of two years were yet to be realised. It was terrifying to think that these dreams could be snuffed out by something I had no control over.
Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in the UK. It is typically a slow growing disease and is easy to treat if it is identified early. The first sign are polyps growing on the inside of the bowel, which can be easily identified and removed during a colonoscopy. By the time it starts to interfere with bowel habits, it will require an operation to remove part or all of the bowel. If this is identified at stage 2 then it is still possible to remove the whole tumour and not require chemotherapy. Once the tumour metastesises, it becomes more difficult to treat because it spreads typically to the liver and lungs. Multiple operations and rounds of chemo can still provide a successful outcome.
Diagnosis is difficult, it is not like testicular or breast cancer that can be identified as a lump, it can only be identified through invasive procedures and scans or by noticing the signs. A persistent change in bowel habits, pain in the abdomen, blood in your poo, unexplained weight loss and tiredness for no reason. Even then, the symptoms are often passed off as haemorrhoids, as they were in my case, or an intolerance and by the time they are identified as cancer it is too late.
Looking back, I had been to the doctors about at least three of the five symptoms before I identified blood in my poo (I’m not talking about a bit of blood on the toilet paper when I wiped up, I’m talking about what looked like the contents of a bottle of port emptied into the toilet) and became convinced that something wasn’t right. I realise that isn’t the easiest sentence to read in the world, but that’s kind of the point. I managed to have a complication free operation to remove my colon and was followed up with chemotherapy that lasted for six months.
“Whatever you have to do, just find an excuse to win, keep going”. Marcus Luttrell’s words are worth heeding whatever the situation, but become all the more real when you are facing the daily battle of chemo, blood tests, and more operations. Just feeding yourself those little pills can become so difficult. Although they have no taste, they begin to taste foul, like your body is rejecting the poison you are feeding it, but you must. The dread of going back to the hospital for another infusion and the agonizing pins and needles you will feel for days or weeks afterwards. “Keep going”.
Like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones, but it shouldn’t be down to luck. In South Korea no one dies from bowel cancer, and Bowel Cancer UK’s aim is that the same should be true in the UK by 2050. Sad stories like George Alegiah’s highlight the issues people face when the cancer is discovered too late. I hope my case offers some hope that actually, that all important diagnosis is a lifeline rather than a death sentence. And I know with the money we raise for Bowel Cancer UK and Combat Stress, a huge amount of research and support will be paid for that will help many people.
“Find an excuse…keep going”. I know what my excuse is.
MEN OF OAR
The Men of Oar Blog has been written to keep you, our supporters, up to speed with our progress through our challenge and inform you about some of the more complex aspects of Ocean Rowing. Although it is based on true events, the blog is written to entertain. We hope you enjoy-if so please share!