Sitting in his car at a service station, unable to move, Mike Cotton thought he was about to die.
He was in excruciating pain and all the colour had gone from his vision. Feebly, he tried to explain to the 999 operator where he was.
Mike recalls: ‘I said “I’m dying”. After that I don’t remember a thing.’
His heart stopped twice on the way to hospital.
Mike’s children, who live in Canada, were asked to fly home immediately.
’My wife was terribly upset,’ says Mike. ‘They told her they didn’t think I would survive the evening.
‘My children thought they were coming home for my funeral.’
That was just three months ago. Mike 71, from Rowlands Castle, is now a picture of health following the burst diaphragm.
But the story starts much earlier than that – because he ignored signs that would eventually lead to oesophageal cancers.
‘Throughout my life I’d always had problems with acid reflux, indigestion and heartburn,’ says Mike.
‘But I’d ignored it. Then, four years ago, I experienced great difficulty swallowing. One night, in the pub, I couldn’t swallow at all.’
In a lot of discomfort, Mike eventually went to the doctors but was sent away with tablets.
It didn’t improve so he went back and was sent for an endoscopy – and a tumour was spotted on his gullet.
He says: ‘From that point on my feet never touched the ground. The NHS was simply fantastic.
‘Being told you have a tumour is a traumatic experience. It’s mind-blowing. But fortunately my consultant said “I can tell you it’s operable”. And those are the words you want to hear.’
Because the cancer had not spread further than the gullet, Mike was eligible for a rare operation called an Ivor Lewis.
It is so complex, and risky, that patients have to spend months getting in shape.
After several rounds of chemotherapy, six months of walking two miles a day and piling on the pounds, Mike was ready for the operation.
He says: ‘That time marching towards an operation like that is quite something.
‘I had to keep myself physically fit. The operation is extremely intense and weakens you terribly.
‘They made an incision through my tummy using keyhole surgery and disconnected the tummy from the bowel. They also went in through my right shoulder and broke a rib to get into the gullet.
‘It is a very difficult operation because it’s so near to the major organs. They cut a margin around the gullet to be safe and bring the stomach up into your chest. They then reconnect it to your gullet and reduce the stomach size.’
Mike spent an entire day in surgery and eight days in hospital
‘I was very, very weak. It really takes it out of you. I could not even stand up to shave. But I was so pleased to have survived. Some don’t.
‘It was a tremendous, traumatic operation. I went from 16st to 11st.’
Over the next few months, with the help of wife Mary, Mike got back to full health.
But, although the operation was a success, it had weakened his diaphragm and that is what caused the rupture in July this year.
He began to feel unwell while driving and managed to pull over at Rownhams service station on the M27.
Mike says, ‘I was in considerable discomfort and feeling very nauseous. I couldn’t breathe – I knew I was dying.
‘My eyesight went and I could only see in negative, no colours. I could hardly see my phone and at first I dialled 888 instead of 999.
‘I was so disorientated that I couldn’t tell them where I was at first. All I knew was I was dying.
‘The operator was saying, “stay with us” but I was in so much pain it was unbelievable. I knew if they didn’t get there very quickly I would die. It felt like they were taking an age.
‘And suddenly the door was wrenched open by the ambulance crew. A very nice paramedic said to me, “what’s the matter mate?”.’
Mike was put in an induced coma and an operation was performed to bring his bowels down to the correct area. They took one third of it away.
His family played his favourite Spanish music to him while he was unconscious.
He says: ‘The first thing I saw when I woke up was my daughter and son walking towards me, but I couldn’t talk to them because I had a breathing tube in my throat.
‘The emotion was incredible. I thought, “where am I?” and burst into tears.’
Mike has now fully recovered and is working hard to encourage people to visit their GP at the first signs of oesophageal cancer.
Wife Mary says: ‘On the way to hospital I was praying that I would get there in time, thinking “please don’t let him die like this after all he has been through”.
‘So ladies, if your husband or son complains of heartburn and buys antacids from the chemists frequently, it is important he gets checked out by the doctor and gets a referral for an endoscopy before it’s too late.’
Mike Cotton is the chairman of an oesophageal cancer support group for Queen Alexandra Hospital, Cosham.
He works tirelessly to raise awareness of the disease with surgeons Stuart Mercer and Simon Toh and GI nurse Lorraine Upper.
Mike is also part of the Oesophageal Cancer Westminster Campaign and recently visited the Houses of Parliament to discuss the launch of a government awareness campaign in January 2015 to highlight awareness of Barretts Oesophagus – one of the precursors to oesophageal cancer.
- There are more than 8,000 cases every year and incidence is rising.
- The survival rate is poor when compared to other cancers with only 30 per cent surviving longer than 12 months and eight per cent surviving longer than five years.
- It is the sixth most common cancer death in the UK.
- Seventy per cent of oesophageal cancer cases are heavily associated with a condition called Barretts Oesophagus which occurs around the junction of the stomach.
- Public awareness of the causes of oesophageal cancer is low. Few know that acid reflux leading to heartburn could predispose to Barrett’s Oesophagus and cancer.
- Consequently, awareness of GPs is also comparably low, leading to under-diagnosis.
For more information go to opa.org.uk