A series of unfortunate events

Just four years ago, Chris Nichols had an easy life. But only now, after two near-death experiences, does he really understand the joy of being alive

Tuesday 26 June 2012 11:05 BST
Chris Nichols: Dicing with death
Chris Nichols: Dicing with death

Up until my 24th birthday I had a straightforward and easy life. If asked, I probably would have said that I was enjoying life. However, a week after my 24th birthday, a chain of events began that rendered the gentle contentment that I had been accustomed to completely untenable. These events have made me appreciate how it actually feels to be genuinely excited to be alive.

On 20 February 2008 my partner, Emma, and I were house-sitting my grandparents' flat when the unserviced boiler gave way in an unrelenting spray of carbon monoxide. Apparently my only wish before passing out was to get naked and head to the loo one last time and, but for the resilience of Emma (in calling 999 before she passed out) and the bravery of the emergency services (in entering an unsafe building without proper breathing equipment), I would have died naked on the loo. Emma and I would have joined the 21 people in Britain who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in 2007/08. They reckon that another five minutes could have made the difference.

I'm told that while I was in hospital I was happiness personified but, to this day, I can't remember the events of that morning or much of what happened in hospital. I suffered from short-term memory loss for four weeks, which wreaked havoc with my confidence. This wasn't helped by a newfound awkwardness with social situations; I was reluctant to admit to myself what had happened to me so that conversation was off limits, but I found it almost as hard to talk about other issues.

Long after the physical effects of my poisoning had abated, I was finding it hard to remember who "Chris" was before the incident. Far from feeling the gratitude for life that everyone seemed to expect me to feel, I was living with the feeling that I wasn't as happy to be alive as I should be. This, coupled with my desperation to avoid thinking about how close I had come to death, led to my emotions slowly dulling down. In hindsight, I think I was probably depressed.

But this wasn't to be the end of my close encounters with mortality. On 27 July 2011, a small, solemn consultant at St Mary's Hospital in London informed me that the swollen saliva gland that he had removed five days earlier was cancerous (the kind, but chilling offer of a cup of tea on arrival – at an NHS hospital – had made the imminent news sickeningly obvious).

Receiving the news was like looking through someone else's eyes. It left me feeling completely numb. It wasn't until Emma and I were in the safety of our flat that I finally felt the force of what I had been told and sobbed so violently that my stomach ached. This powerful intrusion marked the reintroduction of emotion into my life and, just like that, I realised what I had to lose.

I had to wait 24 hours before I was given any details about my cancer and I was fully expecting to be told how much longer I could expect to live. Luckily, it was time for some good news – I had a slow-growing cancer that the doctors were hopeful of taming with their arsenal of modern medicine.

There was still a terrifying seven-day wait for confirmation that the cancer had not metastasised elsewhere, which was made bearable by my friends and family, who encircled me and made it clear the cancer would have to beat its way through all of them if it wanted to hurt me. While I had allowed the carbon monoxide to put distance between my friends, family and I, the cancer had brought me back closer to them. But even with support, it was clear that I would need to find the strength and will to fight for my own life.

I had six weeks of radiotherapy, involving a daily pilgrimage to a pair of ancient whirring machines, which burnt my face and mouth and sucked all my energy. I couldn't do much on my own and it was an incredibly humbling feeling to be a 27-year-old man so dependent upon others for support. But the ease with which everyone (and particularly Emma, who took three months off work to care for me) gave up their time to help meant it was an incredibly rich experience.

Equally overwhelming were the acts of love from people I had never met; half of Ireland was ablaze with candles lit by Emma's more distant family and I even got wind of some Buddhist chanting being devoted to me in Birmingham. Without the daily doses of love and kindness, I'm not sure how I would have dealt with the last week or two of treatment when the radiotherapy got serious (I couldn't talk, sleep, go to the toilet or eat without extreme pain) and the consistent hits of morphine left me convinced that I had a pair of Sky Sports presenters in my head providing running commentary on my life.

The world seems like a much more precious place when viewed through my cancer goggles. They have helped me to realise how much people are willing to give if you let them. I have found a level of emotional engagement with the world that I didn't think possible before – I was recently the only person in the cinema to cry my way through almost the whole of The Help. This is not to say that I haven't found the whole experience quite harrowing; even after confirmation that no more tumours could be found. I have received a lot of sympathy for having to deal with weighty issues of mortality at such a young age but I'm not sure it would be any easier to deal with if I had been older. I've never been a particularly spiritual chap and the thought of comprehensively leaving the world is terrifying.

It has taken a lot of counselling to be able to make sense of what has happened to me and to start to understand how I feel about it. In my enthusiasm to tackle the issue head on I joined a Young Men's Group at the Maggie's Cancer Centre, Charing Cross Hospital. It is incredible how extreme the circumstances need to be to get a group of men together to talk about their feelings, but perhaps even more remarkable is how much can be gained from such openness.

Overall, the last four years have robbed me of the feeling of safety and security that I had previously taken for granted. The cancer has been beaten, for now, but I know I will have to learn to live with the anxiety of regular scans, probing and check-ups. However much I would like to put it behind me, I know it is still possible that cancer could shorten my life (the same could be said for one in four of us). What I am grateful for is the reminder of why that would be a bad thing.

These days I bounce between periods of genuine happiness, sadness and even anger. But underlying this is a genuine excitement to be living that I don't think I had even pre-monoxide. I just hope that most people don't need the intervention of a dodgy boiler, a solemn consultant, six weeks of radiotherapy and some brummy Buddhists chanting their name to be truly happy to be alive.

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