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Mark’s Oesophageal Cancer Story

55-year-old Mark Maloney from Auckland was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in May 2019 and is now cancer-free. He is sharing his story to help raise awareness and to give hope to others who are facing a similar diagnosis.

I’m a pretty average bloke – married with 2 boys. When I was younger, I was very active and fit but from my mid 30’s onwards, gained far too much weight. For a period of time, before I was diagnosed, I became more active, started walking regularly, and went on the Keto diet to lose some of my 150kg weight. In hindsight, I found it far too easy to drop 30kg, and no doubt the cancer had something to do with the weight loss. This focus on my health came after experiencing severe stomach pains after eating but after I changed my diet and stopped eating bread, things improved. This was in January 2018.

By June 2018, I was experiencing dizzy spells and feeling pretty awful. I went to the doctor who did a variety of tests and other than finding my iron levels were a bit low, couldn’t find anything further wrong. I knew that something wasn’t right, but I felt like a hypochondriac so didn’t push further. I thought I was going mad. I even had a scan to make sure it wasn’t a brain tumour. When you reach your 50’s, you tend to dismiss your symptoms as ‘getting old’ but going to bed at 8pm completely exhausted is not normal. With iron tablets, things settled. Then by the end of 2018, my iron levels and potassium levels were very low and I was put on the waitlist for a gastroscopy. I was still waiting for that procedure when I finally got diagnosed.

I woke up one morning in May 2019 and couldn’t get out of bed. I was taken to hospital by ambulance where they found I had internal bleeding. My oxygen levels in my blood cells were dangerously low – to the point where it was getting close to organs starting to close down, Four blood transfusions, an iron transfusion and an endoscopy later, I was diagnosed with stage 2 oesophageal cancer. After the initial shock of the diagnosis, (and it is completely shocking) I felt a sense of relief that I wasn’t going mad and now knew what was causing the symptoms.

I made a decision early on I was going to beat this by staying positive and focussing only on those things I could control. Anything else was wasted energy.

I am extremely grateful for the support of my wife who has been my complete rock. The hospital system is bewildering with so much information coming at you from all directions and endless appointments to face. My wife was in my corner from the beginning helping me navigate a way through. The shock when you are first diagnosed means that you don’t take everything in with a lot of the information going over my head.

The treatment plan was four two-week cycles of chemotherapy, to reduce the size of the tumour for surgery. After surgery there is another 4 cycles of mop-up surgery – to remove any invisible cancer cells. It’s an aggressive chemotherapy regime. The surgery is a big deal – the Ivor Lewis operation is one of the most gruelling you can have. The operation lasted 12 hours.

With an underlying heart condition, I had to jump through hoops to get the approval to go ahead with the necessary surgery for me to have any chance of survival. I failed the bike test twice (done to make sure my heart would stand up to the operation) Again, my wife stepped in and fought for me to have the surgery. Without surgery, I wasn’t going to survive.

I had a change of surgeon before surgery – the new surgeon was brilliant – he focussed on getting me fit for surgery (walking daily and diet) – that got me through the surgery and helped me handle the remaining chemo. Eventually, the operation went ahead on the 13th November 2019. Following the surgery, I had a change of oncologist who didn’t think I needed to have chemo post-surgery (despite my surgeon telling me I absolutely needed it). But I just had one shot of beating this cancer and I wanted to make sure I did everything possible to survive. So I went ahead with more chemo through January and February 2020. At the end of treatment, I was given the all-clear. I have had 6 monthly check-ups since then and as of my last appointment in December 2021, have been moved to annual check-ups. I’ve kept up the exercise and healthy eating since then – looking after myself is all about not letting the cancer come back. Ironically, I’ve never been healthier!

What I would say to others experiencing the same diagnosis is to stay positive. Focus on what you can control and don’t worry about what you can’t. Staying positive is really important. Exercise and good diet is really important to help you get through the chemo and surgery. Focus on the next appointment or treatment session and not beyond. You will have bad days but put them behind you and start each day anew. Don’t forget how your diagnosis is impacting your family. It is very easy to become selfish with you being the focus of everything, but it can be hard on your family. My wife joined a few online support groups but found that there were a lot of sad stories which got her down so she withdrew from them. She was aware of the poor survival statistics but hid them from me – which in hindsight was a very good thing.

The one thing I have learned from this is cancer doesn’t discriminate – anyone can get this awful disease. Sitting in chemo with me were all ages, races, and creeds – people who had led healthy lives and those who the stats tell us are at higher risk – so never be complacent and think it only happens to others.

I would finish by saying that when you know something is wrong, go with your gut feeling (literally!) and keep pushing to get answers. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. Know what is normal for you and what isn’t and don’t be tempted to put it down to your age If you don’t feel right get it checked out.