Life after cancer
In January 2009, John Maguire was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus. After months of three-drug chemotherapy, he underwent a 10-hour operation and nearly died from a massive lung infection, but he survived, and is now cancer-free. Here, he talks about the powerful ways in which the cancer has changed him.
Focusing primarily on the positive, how has the cancer changed you? What do you now do differently, and in which ways do you see life differently?
I live for the moment, in the moment. The past is past, the future doesn’t exist. Nothing makes me anxious any more and the annoyances of life are simply and only just that. All things pass, so I focus on the good and the positive and I try to exclude the bad things according to my power over them. Those that I have no control over I either ignore or accept without being resigned about them. I’m not afraid or frightened anymore. I’ve had a near-death experience so death is not a mystery and, as we know, the unknown is what causes problems.
Have your priorities changed?
I have become much more self-focused and self-oriented. Having almost lost myself, I love myself immeasurably more. Physical and material comfort are top priorities. I wasn’t born to suffer; I realised it wasn’t for me.
Have your relationships with other people changed?
I know what and who I like and show it even more than before. If people don’t like how I am, well, too bad. I will fight to the end for my values and my friends who share them. I’m not looking for the ideal anybody, Mr or Ms Right don’t exist. I want quality AND quantity in relationships and all of them are open.
Has your image of yourself changed?
Yes, I’m much better, stronger, confident, and attractive.
Do other people treat you differently now, as compared with before you had cancer?
Yes, those who are aware of what I went through respect and admire me, and also tend to fear for themselves. But they also take comfort and hope from my experience, which I am always ready to share.
What has helped you most in getting through the cancer and its aftermath?
My inner strength and tenacity and the amazing love from other people who really wanted me to live just because I’m me and they’re cool with that.
What would you say to help someone who has cancer now?
Get over it. It’s a long, hard fight, but you have to drop everything else and take it on full frontal. It’s your body and mind that are dealing with the cancer so you can put it right. Avail of ALL treatments: medical, scientific, holistic, spiritual, and religious. Don’t be sectarian or closed. People who practice religion contribute to your healing by prayer and ritual even if you are an atheist. The most important thing is to be open and receptive to all the positive things that people want to give you, and close off everything and everybody negative. Be kind to your body. When it’s worn down and out, give it a sensual experience like some comforting scents and perfumes and incenses. You have to believe that you will fight the rebellion in your body. Don’t think in terms of life or death. Think in terms of fighting an enemy that is fundamentally weaker than you are.
John Maguire is an Irish journalist, based in Paris. He is 55.
The Ivor-Lewis procedure
The surgical procedure John underwent in May, 2009, was an Ivor-Lewis oesophagectomy. It is an extremely radical operation. Firstly, the patient is opened up from sternum to navel to release the stomach and oesophagus from their moorings. The wound is then sewn up and the right side of the back is then cut open, the right ribcage prised apart, the right lung deflated, and the stomach remodelled to replace the diseased oesophagus.
Cancer is not a death sentence
An article written by John in 2009, “Cancer is not a death sentence”, is available in the Irish Times archive (subscription only). He writes about the fear that cut through him when he discovered he had cancer, the horror of waiting for results, the effects of the chemotherapy, the Ivor-Lewis procedure and its aftermath (a lung infection and a leak in his newly remodelled stomach), and the suffering of his loved-ones as they watched him fight for his life.
“Cancer is a wily enemy. It reduces the victim to using cliché. It keeps moving the goalposts. It is the ultimate game of cat and mouse.”
“One in three of us get cancer. The majority survive”
“There’s nothing worse than the fear of the unknown. My anticipation of every stage of the cancer treatment was far worse than the actual, concrete experience.”
“All the members of my medical team were nothing short of wonderful, for their technical skills, for their honesty and compassion.”
“The surgeon had warned me that, having been a cigarette smoker for 30 years until 2004, I had a 100 percent chance of some form of lung infection after the operation. Had seven years gone by since stopping, my lungs would have been clear.”
“The pain control was total and I suffered very little and the news that my cancer had been stopped in its tracks kept me buoyed up. My carers suffered far more.”
“The stress on my loved-ones, friends, and family was immeasurable throughout. I am eternally grateful to each and every one of them who stood by me lovingly and faithfully through this life-changing ordeal.”
Support group to help raise awareness of oesophageal cancer and its symptoms: