Hello, my name is Mike Dornan and I have lived in the Mojácar area of Spain for the past 12 years. We had a holiday house here, but moved permanently in 1995 when my wife took early retirement from her teaching job. Before that we had lived for many years in Bristol. I have been involved with cancer in many ways in both countries over the past 40 years.
My mum died of cancer in 1977 at the age of 65. She had her first operation in 1967, and it tells you how secretive people were about the disease in those days that none of her three sons were told this, although we were all mature adults by then. I only realized after her death that she had had 10 good years in remission, thanks to a brand new drug with which she was the first person in Northern Ireland to be treated. But I still don’t even know what kind of cancer she had – it was just enough at that time that someone simply had the dreaded “big C.”
It left me alone for a while, until I started to do some work with Macmillan Nursing and the Hospice Movement in the early 1990s. Filming in three different hospices, cancer was everywhere. There were people suffering from many different illnesses, but cancer was much the most prevalent. This work culminated in making a television documentary 1995 for HTV called In the Midst of Life.
It was a simple story of the last 6 months in the life of a 40-year-old women from Bridgwater, a mother of three children called Jenny Painter who developed a brain tumour. With extraordinary generosity, Jenny gave me complete access to her life and family and took me as a companion on her final journey. She knew that sharing the problems she encountered and the insights she gained could be of some help to other cancer sufferers, and equally to the friends and families who would survive them. Jenny’s gift was to show me that the only way to deal with something like cancer was not to hide from the reality but to embrace it – and live life to the full despite it.
Shortly after arriving to live in Mojácar the wife of a close friend who had lung cancer invited me on the same journey, minus the cameras. Then one of our neighbours went down with prostate cancer. He lived on his own, so my wife looked after him for most of the last year. When another, younger, neighbour contracted a malignant melanoma (skin cancer) which eventually spread to other areas, they decided to go back to England after fighting it for a year. It was only then that it dawned on me how little practical or emotional support there was for an English-speaking community of cancer sufferers.
And then Elaine Brown called me out of the blue. She wanted to start a self-help group for cancer patients and survivors, and knew I had had experience of starting a similar group for another illness. We met over coffee and talked for a couple of hours. I was tremendously struck by Elaine’s bravery and a total absence of self-pity. She had just finished a very tough course of chemotherapy, and — even in July! — was wearing a little wooly bobble hat to protect her head. I shared what experience I had, and promised to be in touch again when I returned from a forthcoming trip to England at the end of August.
I didn’t know then that it would be almost the end of October before I was back. I had been dogged for a month by a persistent bronchial hoarseness, which refused to shift in the face of all kinds of ordinary remedies, so I went to my former GP in Bristol, thinking I would get a course of antibiotics.
Instead, I got a referral on the fast-track system to an ENT consultant at Southmead Hospital. An X-ray revealed that my lungs were all clear, but an examination discovered a lump on my vocal chord. A biopsy revealed that it was a malignant tumour. I had cancer of the larynx. A second operation – a laser resection — removed all traces of the cancer, and this was confirmed a fortnight later after the tissue had been reconstructed and analysed in a laboratory.
I don’t have adequate words to say how lucky I have been. Because the tumour grew on my vocal chord it was apparent absolutely straight away, so the cancer was in its early stages. I was in the right place at the right time for it to be discovered. The treatment I received was both swift and superb. The surgical procedure is still very new (in both England and Spain) and I found myself in the care of the UK’s leading exponent of it. I hadn’t seen a doctor professionally in 25 years, and – being August – I got only a temporary locum. But she spotted the potential problems straight away. Some years previously I had a researcher working for me who went through three consecutive courses of antibiotics and months of discomfort mounting to agony before she was referred to a consultant. He discovered she had cervical cancer.
By the end of October I had been given the “all clear,” as much as any cancer patient can ever be free from the disease. I was free to go back to Spain and get on with life – subject to six-weekly check-ups for the next year. Family and friends, for whom the whole process had been fraught with anxiety, were all delighted. I, too, should have been bouncing off the ceiling with delight.
I wasn’t. I was flat and depressed. I was physically still sore, permanently tired and thrown into despair by the smallest thing. Nobody around me could understand, or explain, the depth of my despair. I certainly couldn’t.
I rang Elaine to tell her that I was no longer a helpful consultant in her venture but a fully paid-up participant! Many years ago I had battled problems with alcohol and drugs by simply getting together with others who had been down the same road, and who were willing to share their experience, strength and hope with me. I know at first hand that any group of people who share a common condition can help each other in ways that no amount of skillful professional help can provide. The collective strength is always much more than the sum of the individual parts.
The support needed is both emotional and practical. In the Mojácar area we expats rarely speak more than basic Spanish because we’ve never needed to – we can get by in English. Translators and interpreters are essential, but someone has to find them, vet them and make them available. We don’t have a lifetime’s experience of how things are done in Spain – someone needs to collect and collate a database of advice and guidance.
A diagnosis of cancer can be both numbing and terrifying. In Bristol, I had a friend who is a doctor (his wife and mine both taught in the same primary school). Titch offered to accompany me to every appointment, if necessary to explain anything I didn’t understand and to ask the questions which I might be too fuddled to ask. As it happened, I had a surgeon whose manner and communication skills were as good as his surgery – but it was a wonderful moral support to have someone like that with me. I was lucky – not everyone is. That is where, if we have the courage and confidence, we can support each other.
We may have collective strength, but it always takes a single individual to stand up, make the first move and invite others to join in. Elaine did that. There are no adequate words with which to thank her.