It started with nothing more sinister than a cough – but unknown to Pete Brewer, this was the warning sign he couldn’t afford to ignore.
For the first few months after his well-earned retirement, Pete did what a lot of people his age do.
He vowed to get fit and healthy, lose a bit of weight and make the most of the time he now had to spend with family and friends.
At first he put his aching back and tiredness down to his new exercise regime.
But within six months of turning 65 he was still suffering and had also developed other symptoms including that troublesome cough and a persistently itchy back.
‘We went on a family holiday and it should have been a really good holiday but I was just so tired and the cough started to develop while we were out there,’ remembers Pete.
‘I just thought it must have been a virus or something. When we got back it just got progressively worse.’
Although he’d never even heard of lymphoma, Pete was already showing some of the symptoms associated with the UK’s fifth most common kind of cancer.
Despite its prevalence, many people are unaware of the disease or the warning signs, and that’s something Pete is now hoping to change during Lymphoma Awareness Week.
Despite seeing a doctor three times to complain about the cough, it took an X-ray to reveal that the cause was fluid building up on his chest.
Pete’s GP prescribed antibiotics immediately but once the X-ray had been passed on to Portsmouth’s Queen Alexandra Hospital, an emergency appointment was made for him to see a consultant.
However before he could get there a bad coughing fit left him unable to breathe and Pete’s wife Julie found herself dialling 999 for an ambulance.
Admitted to a ward, Pete didn’t know why large amounts of fluid were building up on his chest.
‘No-one could tell me what was wrong,’ says Pete. ‘You’re lying there thinking “What is it?” It was quite a time and I realised there had to be something more serious going on.
‘Several days later they moved me up to oncology and that was the first clue that something wasn’t quite right.’
Cancer specialist Dr Ann O’Callaghan broke the news to Pete that she suspected he had lymphoma – a common variety of the disease but often hard to diagnose due to the number of symptoms that could indicate a less serious problem.
Sufferers are either diagnosed with non-Hodgkin or Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Pete was sent for tests to establish which sort he had.
In the meantime he was told that chemotherapy would start immediately.
And with a grandson Joseph, four, to keep his spirits up and another grandchild on the way, Pete knew he had plenty of reasons to keep going.
‘Because I’d worked in the building industry I thought the cough might be something to do with asbestos but the last thing I’d thought it could be was cancer,’ he adds.
‘My family were upset but I knew I wasn’t going to roll over on this. To be quite frank, people used to laugh at me because as soon as one chemotherapy session was over I’d want the next one.
‘I was determined to fight this. I have always been a positive person, which I think helped in this situation.
‘After all, I had many things to do in life. I had reached my retirement and my family were all worth fighting for.’
Pete kept a photo of Joseph by his hospital bed at all times and his smiling face helped pull him through the dark days.
After the fifth session of chemo, Pete had a new reason to stay cheerful when his granddaughter Molly was born.
Sadly, Pete only got to hold Molly once before he was rushed back to hospital with MRSA. But after 15 days in isolation – and with a total of 50 litres of fluid drained from his chest – he was finally able to return home and family life could resume.
Ten treatments of radiotherapy were waiting for him. But more than a year after Pete first noticed that cough, the lymphoma seems to be under control.
At the moment he’s being monitored every three months and it will take 10 years before he can be given the all-clear, but he’s feeling good about the future.
‘Early diagnosis and treatment can make a real difference,’ adds Pete. ‘My GPs and doctors have all been brilliant but the one thing I could have done with that’s not available on the NHS was someone to talk to who’d gone through a similar experience.
‘Someone who could say “I went through a similar thing and came out the other side”.’
Pete and Julie have since helped set up the Friends of Lymphoma support group and through that they’ve organised a programme of activities to coincide with the awareness week which began on Monday and ties in with World Lymphoma Day on Saturday (see panel).
‘Lymphoma isn’t that well-known,’ explains Pete. ‘Somehow or other we’ve got to try and get the message out there.
‘It’s been a long fight back, but if one person can read what I’ve been through and think “I’ve got that same thing, I need to get checked out” then for me, it will have been worth it.’
Although lymphoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK, many people will admit they’ve never even heard of it.
The disease can occur in both men and women at any age but is most common in people over 55.
However, it is also the most frequently diagnosed cancer in the under-30s.
Lymphoma is an umbrella term used to describe more than 50 related cancers of the lymphatic system, part of the body’s immune system.
Split into two strains – non-Hodgkin and Hodgkin – the causes of lymphoma are still unknown.
There is no one symptom that is unique to lymphoma – just potential symptoms that can be all too common in other illnesses as well.
Many people who have it will feel perfectly well but if any of the following symptoms persist, you should contact your doctor.
· A painful lump or swelling in the neck, armpit or groin
· Excessive sweating, especially at night
· Unexplained weight loss
· Unusual tiredness
· Persistent itching
· Persistent flu-like symptoms
· A cough or breathlessness
· Abdominal pain
· Difficulty shaking off infections
· To find out more contact the Lymphoma Association via the freephone helpline on 0808 808 5555 or by logging on to lymphomas.org. uk
EVENTS WILL MARK AWARENESS WEEK
On Saturday, Portsmouth’s iconic Spinnaker Tower will be lit up in purple to mark World Lymphoma Day.
It’s just one of the things due to happen this week to raise awareness about the disease in a bid to encourage people to look out for the symptoms.
The national Lymphoma Awareness Week began on Monday and Pete Brewer hopes to spend it telling others about the disease.
Pete, whose family run Portsmouth’s Brewers Estate Agents, has organised a week of activities designed to raise awareness about lymphoma.
He and other volunteers from the Friends of Lymphoma support group will man Brewers’ office in Winter Road, Southsea, between 10am and 4pm each day.
Armed with leaflets and fun activities for children – including face painting, mask making and guess the number of pennies in a jar – they’ll spread the word about the symptoms to look out for and where to find help.
· Anyone interested in finding out more about the support group can e-mail Pete at email@example.com