You need to prepare to die," Andy Goode was told in May 2010. And so that's what he did. Having been diagnosed as being in the late stages of pancreatic cancer – one of the fastest-killing cancers – he expected a few months at best. After that, he knew that his wife and nine-year-old daughter would have to face a future without him. He felt angry, shocked and, at times, desperate.
But he didn't die. And he didn't have cancer. In short, they got it wrong. To say he's as fit as a fiddle would be a bit of an exaggeration, but he is back at work, leads a busy social life and was healthy enough to cycle 320 miles for charity recently. So what it's like to be handed the gift of life on a plate after six months of believing you're a dead man walking? Not as terrific as you might think, according to Andy.
In fact, the consultant who told him the good news stared at him in disbelief and said: "You must be the unhappiest-looking person that I've ever told is going to live."
Andy, now 49, says: "It was coming up to Christmas and Kate, my wife, was elated – absolutely ecstatic. But I just felt numb. I don't think it was a trust thing or even a belief thing – I just couldn't get my head round the transition from focusing on dying to living."
Things didn't improve. That is to say, while he went from strength to strength physically, Andy's emotional state got only worse. He started to suffer from both depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), regularly shouting at his family that he wished he had died.
"It sounds awful," he says. "It was awful. But I meant it. The whole experience messed with my head. I came through it and now have an entirely new attitude towards life, but it took quite some time."
Andy's tale begins one afternoon around Easter 2010, when he'd just finished redecorating his daughter Rachel's bedroom.
"I was just rewarding myself with a can of Guinness when I got this awful pain in my chest," he says. "I assumed I'd pulled a muscle from moving furniture. I went to my GP, who said I probably had a straightforward chest injury that would take six weeks to heal, but the pain just got worse. Even when I had to take a week off work, the doctors kept dismissing me." When Andy returned to work, one of his colleagues said: "A week off sick, eh? You look tanned."
It turned out he was jaundiced – even his eyes were yellow. Finally, the doctors started investigating. The consultant radiologist was the one to break the news that he had a large tumour on his pancreas.
"I ran out and broke down in the car park," Andy says. "I was in bits, thinking about how I'd never see a cloud or tree again. Meanwhile, the radiologist warned Kate that she'd have to be stronger than ever over the next few months."
It was the doctor whom Andy saw later that day who told him he should prepare to die. "That's when Kate broke down."
But it was Rachel, then aged eight, about whom Andy was most worried. "We are so close. We share the same humour – quick and dry," he says. "It's part of our bond and I guess you could say she brings the child out in me. We high-five quite a lot as we wind mummy up. What on earth would she do without me?"
Andy remembers what he said to Rachel almost word for word. "It's not the kind of conversation you forget. It's the worst conversation anyone can possibly have. We called her downstairs, sat on the sofa and I asked her if she knew what cancer was. She asked me if I was going to die. There were lots of tears."
Andy's health deteriorated fast. "I lost weight rapidly and the jaundice caused unbearable itching. I was awake 22 hours a day doing nothing but scratching. I had to cut my nails right down so I didn't bleed, but I had calluses on the end of every finger. Rachel stayed with friends because home wasn't a good place to be and Kate, who is a nurse, just focused on making me as comfortable as possible."
There was one hope – a major surgical operation called the Whipple procedure. "But even that carried huge risks and they wouldn't do it while I was still jaundiced. I stayed focused on staying around for Rachel's birthday, at the end of July. If I died after that, so be it."
He did make it. "But I was in and out of hospital and to be honest, that time is a complete blur," he says. "At times, I just wanted to get on with dying, and other times, I wanted to fight back."
That autumn, he and his wife were given some hope. "First, I was told the cancer looked atypical – as in, the wrong shape. Next, my weight stabilised. I looked and felt better and various tests indicated I was becoming increasingly healthy. Then, shortly before Christmas, I got the news there was never any cancer and I wasn't going to die."
By January, Andy was back at work and everyone who knew him was overjoyed, none more so than Rachel and Kate. "I, however, was a misery," Andy says. "Maybe I finally processed the enormity of what I'd been through or maybe I needed a reason to understand why other people I'd met had died but I hadn't. Either way, my temper was so short that even if my porridge was too hot, it could tip me over the edge. I would regularly shout that I wished I was dead, including in front of Rachel, who, not surprisingly, wound up needing counselling."
It was counselling that was to save Andy, too. "I was only offered phone counselling by the NHS, even when I got a diagnosis of PTSD and severe depression. Ridiculous when you think of it. But fortunately for me, there was something about it that brought me to my senses and slowly but surely, I began to appreciate life."
A year on, Andy says he could not appreciate life more if he tried. "I truly understand how short life can be, so now if I want to do something, I just do it. Whereas I used to sit at home a lot, I think we do something every weekend – concerts, see friends, go surfing, go to comedy shows, you name it. I'm more honest with people, too. My friends are dear to me but conversely, if someone doesn't get on with me, I tend to think, 'If you don't want to be around me, then don't be.'"
While Andy says he hasn't "found God" exactly, he is more open to the idea of religion now. He's also experienced a new-found empathy for the terminally ill, especially those with pancreatic cancer. "I was lucky but pancreatic cancer remains the fifth-biggest killer in the UK, yet it has the lowest survival rates of all the cancers," he says. "So earlier this year, I got fit and cycled from London to Paris to raise money for the charity Pancreatic Cancer UK and Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund. It was a tremendous experience and I've already signed up to do another one."
Andy still has no conclusive diagnosis. "I am being treated for inflammation of the pancreas, otherwise known as pancreatitis, and it seems to work. That's all I know. I've given up the cigarettes and hardly drink, and I'm on a diet. All I can hope is that I'll remain healthy."
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