It’s not often we get GOOD NEWS about cancer. It’s also rare to hear about health issues from men, because generally speaking, the male species tend to be less vocal about personal matters. So I was delighted when I asked a friend of ours, helicopter pilot Ian McKeown, if he’d mind sharing his story and (with a bit of arm-twisting) he agreed.
Ian’s been through the wringer and back after being diagnosed with lymphoma. Only a matter of weeks ago, he was officially declared to be in remission. Woo Hoo – pop the champers, I say!! And while Ian can’t drink grog just yet, he’s celebrating in his own way.
Most importantly, he wants to thank the wonderful staff at Melbourne’s Peter MacCallum Institute, his wife, Inge, family and friends for their support. Plus he’s got some great advice, which we can all learn from.
This interview is in Q & A form because Ian explains his story far better than I could.
Jen: When did you first realise something was wrong health-wise?
Ian: Probably about 18 months before I was diagnosed. I went to a couple of GPs who put me on antibiotics and the general consensus was that it was a mosquito-born virus, a bit similar to Denghi fever. They told me not to worry – that it would go away. I also saw a hematologist, who was also convinced it was a mosquito-born virus and told me not to worry.
Jen: Did you have a gut feeling they were wrong?
Ian: No, I believed them but I was getting frustrated because I wasn’t getting better. But I soldiered on and continued to work two jobs.
Jen: What symptoms did you have?
Ian: Just a general feeling of un-wellness, which is hard to explain because I was still eating and exercising, but getting out of bed was becoming harder. I was feeling tired and I had a rash on my belly and chest that would come and go. My glands were also up a bit but not always, up, which is probably why the haematologist didn’t think it was cancer, because generally they come up, and stay up. But I did have a feeling something wasn’t right. I just couldn’t pinpoint it.
One day I’d just had enough. So I went to a GP that I’d never been to before. Just completely out of the blue. I went in and said, ‘Look, there’s a medical imaging place across the road. I want you to write me out a referral so I can go over there and get every scan possible so I can satisfy myself that is just a virus. To make sure it isn’t anything else.’ I did this off my own bat. A simple ultra-sound showed on screen, clear as day, that it was lymphoma. That was evident from the large tumours in my abdomen. While the technician tried to hide it, I could see it. And that was how we got the ball rolling.
Jen: Have you lost your faith in the medical profession because of their inability to find out what was wrong?
Ian: No. But I have urged all my family and friends to get second opinions and to keep pressing on if you think something is wrong health-wise. I’m very surprised I wasn’t sent in for an ultra-sound at the beginning. It’s a simple step and it may have made my treatment easier because it wouldn’t have been so advanced.
Jen: Did you ever ask what might have happened if you hadn’t taken the initiative?
Ian: No, but I know. I wouldn’t have survived. I would have been too far gone. As it was, I only just got it in time.
Jen: How did you react when you found out it was lymphoma?
Ian: I was so relieved. A lot of people think it must have been the worst day of my life. No. The worst days were not knowing what it was. It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. And I knew I wasn’t being a hypochondriac.
Jen: What was the next step?
Ian: My sole focus was telling my friends and family, but not alarming them. That was made easier because most people know that if you get cancer, lymphoma is probably one of the better ones to get because it is treatable.
Jen: But there are many types of lymphoma, aren’t there?
Ian: There are, and I still don’t know all of them. And I’ll say right here and now, ignorance is the best friend you can have if you’re going through cancer. Don’t ever Google anything, don’t try and find out. DON’T DO IT! If my doctor wanted to explain anything, I’d say, ‘Don’t tell me. Just tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it.’ I didn’t want to even THINK that I might not get through it. So if friends or family tried to tell me about my illness, I’d stop them in their tracks. And I still don’t know or want to know much about it.
Jen: Is that because you believe in a positive attitude being necessary to battle cancer?
Ian: It’s the MOST important thing. It’s a tough thing to get through, but you need to try to stay positive throughout. The doctors gave me HUGE piles of paperwork to read. Seriously, it must have been about five kilos. And I told them I wasn’t going to read it. I have never read it and I will never read it and that’s just how it is.
Jen: What helped get you through?
Ian: I wanted to read books about adventure and inspiration. Not depressing stuff. I wanted uplifting. I drew strength from reading that book of Lance Armstrong’s, even though it’s a tragedy he’s fallen from grace, because I knew I wasn’t as sick as Lance. So every day, going through the chemo, I’d think, ‘Well, I’m still not as sick as Lance.’ I’ve also never watched so much football in my entire life. I got right into the 2012 season.
Jen: How did Inge help?
Ian: She was the most wonderful rock. Her work colleagues were very supportive. She gave up a lot of work to spend time with me when I was really sick. I was lucky that for the first four rounds of chemo, I wasn’t nearly as sick as I was expecting to get. However, the final round, when I had a stem-cell transplant, it did catch up with me and made me very, very sick for months. In the end, being nauseous became the new normal. Inge was there for me through all that.
Jen: How long did the chemo treatments take?
Ian: I was told my lymphoma was the ‘more difficult’ one, but I didn’t want to know any more than that. I just wanted to get on with the treatments. I’m sure I had quite possibly the best treatment available in Australia at the Peter MacCallum Institute. I took the attitude that my new full-time job was getting better. So I started my first chemo on the eighth of March last year. It was quite daunting, being on a drip with bags of chemicals and tablets to take in over that time. They’d wake you up at four in the morning to take in a different type of chemical.
There’s sleep deprivation and being with other people in a shared ward who are sicker than you. Even going to the toilet was really difficult. I had to go in for four days every three weeks. Some of the drugs I had must have been incredibly toxic because there were spill sheets on the floor and curtains had to be drawn. They had a special trainer wearing goggles plus a stand-by nurse in goggles and gloves and gumboots. They’d put this chemical in and I could feel in tracking up my arm and going into my body. A bit like battery-acid infusion!
Jen: Did you ever have days when you thought it was all too much?
Ian: No, I don’t think so. I just wanted to get on with it and get it over with so I could get better. I always tried to plan things to look forward to in the future. Like getting to northern Australia and getting out on the Great Barrier Reef, going snorkelling and diving and spear-fishing. I always said, six weeks after my treatment’s finished, I’m going snorkelling! It didn’t happen, but that didn’t matter. It’s what got me through.
Jen: Is there anyone in particular you’d like to thank for helping you get through it all?
Ian: Having visitors – friends and family come in was wonderful. I also liked to try and cheer up other patients who were down in the dumps. I made that a personal challenge. I’m so, SO grateful to all the wonderful people at Peter Mac who helped me. And I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for blood transfusions. I needed LOTS of blood transfusions. so I’m grateful to the donors. I was honoured to be asked recently by Peter Mac, to speak with another patient who was diagnosed with the same rare type of lymphoma I have. He wanted to speak to someone who’d been through it. I was just so honoured. I just want to show him that I’m living proof you CAN beat this. To tell him to stay positive and that I’ll be there for him anytime if he needs me. I’d like to volunteer to help if I can to pay back my debt to the community. I feel like there’s a big debt there.
Jen: How long after treatments could you return to work?
Ian: I went back in early December, part-time. I wasn’t one hundred per cent but I was fit enough to fly and put myself through a Class One Commercial Pilot’s medical and I passed that no worries. Work’s been great because I was getting bored, so it’s helped with the recovery.
Jen: How did it feel to be ‘officially’ told that you’re in remission?
Ian: Before my professor even uttered the words, I could tell by the way he was beaming and his body language. It was so wonderful to hear those word, ‘Well, Ian, you are now officially in remission.’ I had no doubt, but I was still ‘Yee Ha!’ I couldn’t wait to tell my friends and family.
Congratulations to Ian on his great news. He’s an inspiration to us all and isn’t it wonderful to hear some good news about cancer? I reckon he’s earned that trip to the Barrier Reef now, don’t you?