Part 1 - A Survivor
I received my Drivers License renewal form this morning when I checked the mail. I was on the way to the hospital for my specialist appointment. There were options to renew it for one, two, three, four or five years. I threw it on the passenger seat. The appointment was at 9.50am. Veronica hadn’t told me about it until this morning when I was getting ready for work.
My name is George Hillen, I am 43 years old and I live and work in Katherine in the Northern Territory as a Police Officer; this Police district covers one of the largest geographical Policing areas in the world – hard to believe, I know. I have private health insurance.
I came to Australia from Ireland in February 1996 on a working holiday. As soon as I landed in Sydney, I immediately fell in love with the place. I worked in Sydney for a few months in a warehouse and in June I traveled up the east coast and over to Darwin where I worked for a short time in a mine, moving trays of core samples from one place to another. In August that year I started work in a Pub. I had a fantastic time. Darwin is renowned for its characters, and I loved working on the door with two of them Big Gav and Big Steve. I suppose I would have loved to have been Big George.
Time passed quickly in Darwin and In June 2004 I went back to Ireland for eight months. At this time I was considering moving home, but soon realized I missed my life in Darwin and headed back in January 2005. I stepped straight back into my old job. In March 2006 I went home because my father was very ill. I stayed there until after he died. I looked after him from when he was released from hospital in late July until he died from heart failure at 6.15am on the 19th August. Looking after him was the most worthwhile thing I have ever done. I was close to my Dad.
I went back to Darwin and again worked in Pubs until I applied to join the Northern Territory Police. In the previous couple of years I had stopped smoking, dramatically reduced the amount I drank and started to take exercise seriously. I was accepted and started at the Police College in June 2007. When training was finished I moved to Katherine with my partner Veronica. I had first met Veronica when she worked in one of the Pubs in Darwin. She was a backpacker and I kept in contact with her when she returned home to Sweden when her working Visa expired. She moved back to Australia while I was a Police Recruit.
I started General Duties in Katherine on Boxing Day 2007, and I spent much of my early Police career relieving in Lajamanu, Daly River and Maranboy. I had a ball. I was keeping on top of my fitness and tried to train at the RAAF gym at the base close to Katherine at least three times a week. For most of my time in General Duties I was partnered with Luke. We have become really good friends. He’s going to be my best man next year. (Sorry, I forgot to mention I’m getting married to Veronica next year.)
In January 2010 I joined the Substance Abuse Intelligence Desk, targeting the trafficking of drugs to Remote communities. I loved my job and I stayed fit. I was proud when I was designated as a Detective in November 2011.
2012 ended up being the most intense, difficult, horrible year of my life. It kicked off with my sister having a baby on New Years Eve. The baby was due on the 17th March, so as you can imagine, this time was not without its complications. I came close to getting on a plane and going home. Over the next couple of months I lost about 15 kilos. I had been 105kg. I thought that the weight loss was due to training harder and my improved diet, cutting out carbs and fat as much as I could (just the occasional Freddo Frog was allowed). In February, I flew from Darwin to Sydney with Big Gav for a performance of “The Wall” by Roger Waters. It was fantastic. I flew back to Darwin on the 24th February and landed in Darwin at about 6pm.
It had started to get dark at about 6.30pm, but I decided to travel anyway. I was driving my 2002 SS Commodore, which was great for the 320km journey I regularly made between Katherine and Darwin. It was wet season, and about 120km south of Darwin it suddenly started to rain very heavily. I was traveling at about 120kmh, and the car started to aquaplane. It traveled for about 60 meters sideways before leaving the road, and crashing into a tree. I can remember bracing for the impact and saying out loud, “Here we go!” I got out of the car without a scratch and with the help of the Adelaide River Police, made it back to Katherine. The car was written off. I remember joking with my colleague, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I would have no luck”. I didn’t mean it.
At the end of February, Veronica and I decided to start to plan moving back to Darwin. We looked for the perfect place to live and settled on an outer suburb where we put a deposit on a house and land package. It was for a four bedroom house with room for the dogs to chase balls. Veronica was very happy.
March 2012 was an interesting month. I was the Officer in charge of a matter that was listed for Trial in the Supreme Court in Darwin. It went for ten days and at the end of The Defendant (the bad guy) was found guilty by a Jury of supplying drugs in remote communities. His six co offenders had already pleaded guilty. He was to be sentenced on the 3rd May.
May 2nd, 2012, was a Tuesday. I awoke at 2am with some severe stomach cramps. I weathered them and went back to bed. I felt tired the next day but thought nothing more of it. I went to Darwin with my boss for the sentencing. I had McDonald’s on the way home from Darwin. Two nights later, the same thing happened, but this time I woke Veronica and we went up to the local Accident and Emergency department. They gave me pain relief and a very nice young doctor told me he thought it might be gall stones. I had an ultrasound and made arrangements to go to Darwin the next morning. I stayed in hospital there for a day or two and was released. Pancreatitis was mentioned.
That weekend I called my mum and told her I had been a bit sick but I was ok. I told a lot of lies to her after that. I am close to my mum.
Over the next while I learnt a lot about my digestive system, about how the stomach, liver and pancreas work, and what happens when they don’t.
The following week I had an appointment with the surgeon in Darwin, he suggested that I have an endoscopy, and put a camera down my throat to see what was causing the problem. They also mentioned putting in a stent in to allow bile to drain. Before the procedure he told me that there was a chance that a gall stone was lodged somewhere, he also told me that there was a risk of cancer. That was the first time I heard the “C” word. I was dismissive.
After the endoscopy, I can vaguely remember being brought back to consciousness, but I can remember the expression on the doctor’s face as he told me there were no gall stones. But there was something, and that something could possibly be cancer.
I only told a couple of people at that time. I continued to go to the gym with Luke, it was usually about five in the morning. I had asked Luke to ask his Mum, Ann a few things. Luke's Mum is an experienced Nurse. One thing sticks out in my mind, “Pancreatic Cancer is the cancer you don’t want to get”, I can remember saying, “Bugger that, I’d rather not get cancer”. I didn't do much at the gym that morning.
The next few weeks all blended into each other. I knew I had a pancreas, I knew it produced insulin, but that was it. I made a conscious decision at this time not to look at the internet, but to just listen to what the doctors told me. I also I had to make a will. That was simple, I got one of those cheap will kits and left everything to Veronica. I also became a little more religious and said a Novena to Saint Jude, the Patron Saint of Lost Causes. Seemed appropriate to me.
I also made the decision not to tell my family, this turned out to be a lot harder than I ever could have imagined. My mum had been ill, and if she had have found out she would have been on the first plane out. I was also worried about the toll that it could have taken on her health. I couldn’t have traveled home if it had affected her health.
Keeping the news of Pancreatic Cancer from your family in Ireland is not easy. First of all I had to ask my colleagues who knew not to tell anyone. Then I asked my bosses not to tell anyone. Then I asked my friends who already knew not to tell anyone. It’s a small world and news travels fast, especially news about cancer. There are a lot of people in Australia from Ireland, and there are quite a few even from my home town.
I had an appointment with the surgeon in Darwin. I listened to him explain the “Whipples Procedure”. I listened to him explain that a tumor the size of an olive had interrupted the function of my liver and that’s why I was jaundice. I heard him explain that I would have to travel to Adelaide to have surgery. I saw Veronica sitting next to me……
We pulled out of the house and land package. We lost about $3500. We didn’t care about the money.
Veronica and I traveled to Adelaide in June where I had a biopsy. The “Whipples” was scheduled for the 29th June 2012 after speaking to the surgeon. He explained how the pancreas was attached to a blood vessel, that the plumbing between the liver and the stomach was very complicated. He told me lots of other things too like they would have to remove a large portion of my stomach, a section of the bowel and part of the pancreas itself.
A couple of days later I received a telephone call from the Surgeon. The biopsy had come back negative. This was messing with my head. I decided to put off the operation and I had another biopsy. This was a bit of an emotional roller coaster, and the second biopsy came back negative. For a short time I thought it was all a big mistake. I was waiting for the Doctors to walk in and say, “Sorry George, we stuffed up! You’re fine!”
I spoke to the surgeon, and we decided to continue with the Operation two weeks after the original date. Although the biopsies came back negative, there was still something there. It wasn’t until I left the Surgeons office that Veronica and I realized that the Operation was scheduled for Friday the 13th. I have become very superstitious.
Veronica and I flew back to Darwin and drove the 320km to Katherine, to spend a week at home with our two dogs, Mac and Scent. I’m glad we did. I can’t remember the exact date but it was around this time that I found out that my brother was having heart problems. He had a stent put in. Not only that I got word that my mum had a check up, and they had kept her in hospital, she had an elevated heart rate because of a thyroid problem. I definitely wasn’t going to say anything. I never would have forgiven myself if I had made things worse. I can remember getting really angry, it felt like I was being punished, it felt like my family was being punished.
We flew down again to Adelaide from Darwin on Thursday 12th July. I went to the hospital on the Friday morning where I was prepped and brought to the theatre.
I think I awoke on the Sunday. I was intubated. I had been anaesthetised with pethidine, I had an epidural and I had ketamine. The epidural didn’t work.
I had a drain tube into my left side, a drain tube in my right side, I had a catheter going into my bladder (the bladder tube had been was what I had feared the most. (Naïve much?). My stomach was stapled across; I can remember thinking it looked like I was attacked by a shark. I have vague memories from the Intensive Care unit. I have a few more vivid memories from the high dependency unit, including a visit form the Surgeon, when he told me that it had been Cancer. He also told me that the margins were clear.
I spent a few more days in the High dependency unit and then was moved to a ward. As soon as I could I called my Mum and lied. I told her I was on a bush trip with work and I mightn’t be contactable, but I would call her when I got back. I told her I was keeping great.
Veronica would come in the morning and stay until the evening. I could really see the toll this was taking on Veronica. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my decision to keep everything a secret was taking a toll on the people I confided in. They couldn’t vent. Especially Veronica.
I had a few complications after the surgery, and the remainder of the stomach (they called it the remnant, awesome name, I didn’t think) refused to start working. They said it would, they just didn’t know when. Until it did I had to keep eating, and my stomach would then be drained through a tube going in through my nose and into my stomach. It started working mid August. I don’t care if I never have jelly again. I used to love it when Veronica would get me a small tub of mash and gravy from the KFC across the road. It was tasty and came back up easy.
Maybe a week after the surgery, I met the oncologist. I ended up looking forward to his visits, because of his personality. But here’s a tip, they’re not the most optimistic of people. Surgeons are! The plan for my chemotherapy was six months treatment with an infusion every Friday, with every fourth Friday off. I wanted to get the chemo started as soon as possible. I think the oncologist did too.
It was also the time I started looking at the internet. Pancreatic cancer is the deadliest form of cancer. The survival rate is the lowest of all cancer-types. Even after surgery only 12% make it to five years.
It was around the time Peter Harvey had become ill. I think I can remember reading about how he was in Venice when it happened. I was looking for survivor stories. I didn’t find any for a long time, because their stories were swamped by the stories of those who didn’t. Patrick Swayze, Steve Jobs didn’t survive either. Chris Rea did. I found a bit of comfort in that. I swore that if I survived I would try to tell some of my story.
On the 23rd July, Sally Ride died of Pancreatic Cancer; she was the first female astronaut.
The cancer councilor was fantastic. I think Veronica needed her more than I did. Not because I’m a big tough guy, but I felt Veronica deserved her time more. We spoke about fighting Cancer. What do you do? Stand out in the street and shake your fists at the sky? We also spoke about choosing songs for my funeral. I like “The Hands of Time” by Groove Armada and the acoustic version of “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters. Don’t get me wrong, I think “Sally Maclenane” by the Pogues would have been more apt but thinking about the people there, it would have been inappropriate.
I left the hospital in Adelaide and flew to Darwin with the tube still in my nose. I had dropped to 74 kgs. I was 105kg six months before the operation. I watched two movies on the Qantas flight. The first one was about Eddie Mabo, the second was about Steve Jobs. Not exactly the survivor stories I was looking for.
When we arrived in Darwin, Veronica immediately drove to Katherine. She spent the night there and drove back the next morning with Mac and Scent. I spent a night in hospital in Darwin, and was allowed out for a few hours. I went straight to Luke’s house to see Mac and Scent. The welcome from the dogs was uplifting. The nasal gastric tube was removed the next day. And I was allowed to move home.
I had an appointment with the Oncologist in Darwin at the Alan Walker Cancer Centre. I got the whole chemo induction. The nurses there are gold. I would love to go back and say hello and thank you but I’m a chemo coward. I don’t want to set foot in there again. One of the procedures before I started chemo is a test for Tuberculosis. Guess what? I have latent TB. I can remember the day and minute when I came into contact with a patient who had absconded from Katherine Hospital. I was on duty with Luke and we had a short conversation with him before he slowly reached up and put his mask back over his mouth, the one designed to protect everyone else.
I didn’t receive any treatment for the latent TB because of my already reduced liver function. For some reason I found this humorous. When Big Steve was having a few beers he would laugh and say, “The liver is evil. It must be punished”.
Every Friday for the next six months, I drove the three and a half hours up to Darwin, had my chemotherapy and traveled the 320km home. It usually took longer to get home because of the danger of hitting wallabies at dusk.
A few weeks into the chemo, I was sitting in the waiting room. I saw a familiar face coming out of the chemo suite. It was Big Steve. He said hello and smiled. He told me he was there with his mother. He asked me who I was with. His face changed when he seen the wristband and I told him it was me. Good idea keeping it a secret. I felt like a dickhead.
Chemo is what it is. I won’t expand. Thank god I had my dogs as company when Veronica was at work or I would have gone crazy.
The Chemo finished at the beginning of March. I had my scan and it was all clear.
I went back to Ireland in March for five weeks. I told my mum. She wasn’t happy that I didn’t tell her.
One thing I realized when I was talking to her was how I fought the cancer. I realized I had to go to Ireland to see my family as soon as I could. I had to look as fit and healthy as I possibly could. I tried to put on weight; I tried to walk the dogs when I could. I wanted my family to only realize I had cancer when I told them. Not when they looked at me.
I’m back at work, it’s thirteen months since my surgery and I’m 92kg. I got the results of my latest scan this morning. Still clear. Next scan in 6 months……after I get married. I could easily write another thousand words thanking Veronica, Luke and Ann and all the Doctors and Nurses. By the way, I renewed my license for five years. Somebody has to be in the five percent.
Lord Smith of Marlow (Royal College of Surgeons address. London, 1978): “Although the average long term results of pancreaticoduodenectomy for cancer are poor, no man is an average and resection does provide the only chance of cure”