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It’s Not a Tumour! Oh, Wait… Yes It Is

By Dan Hutton on June 23, 2018 in News

Dan waking up from his median sternotomy at St Vincent’s Private Hospital, by James Hutton.

I’ve been planning on writing this article for a while now but I’ve been having trouble putting the words together. I still don’t really know where to start or how to conclude this piece. Fitting the best part of a year of relative hell into The Beast’s word count is also a dilemma, so this piece will span multiple editions.
Let’s just begin by saying that the last ten months or so have been anything but normal. In mid-2017 I started getting some pain in my neck and shoulders that referred around to my chest. The chest pain led to some trouble getting a ‘full’ breath (dyspnea), and I was waking regularly in the middle of the night saturated in sweat (night sweats).
The first instance of this occurred in late April. I went to the physio regarding the neck, shoulder and chest pain (I’m a regular trapezius pain sufferer, thanks to 13 years hunched over a laptop editing The Beast, so this was nothing out of the ordinary), and the symptoms subsided in a couple of days, before I felt it necessary to visit my GP. I simply put it down to some sort of mystery virus.
A month later I ran the SMH Half Marathon and don’t recall noticing any problems with my breathing or unexpected pain. I knocked it over relatively easily given that I’d only done a handful of training runs in the three or four weeks leading up to the event, and left my running companion, a ‘healthy’ fellow named Grug, more than half an hour in my wake.
Some time in June the same symptoms I’d experienced in April arose again but dissipated before I felt the need to see a doctor. At this point I declared to my missus that if it came back again I’d be straight in for blood tests and a chest X-ray.
Sure enough, in mid to late July the symptoms returned. At this stage I still expected it to be a virus. My blood tests were relatively normal, but a white blur on my chest x-ray meant that I’d need to get an MRI scan. The doctor assured me that the blur may just be the remnants of a virus, but he was keen to rule out anything more serious.
On July 26, while on set shooting the immensely talented Vera Blue for The Beast’s September cover, I received a phone call from my GP. I could tell from the tone of his voice that it was serious; he wanted to see me that afternoon. I hung up and went back to the shoot, pretending nothing had happened, trying to put what I knew I was about to hear to the back of my mind.
When I finally got to the GP’s office in Bronte later that afternoon, the expression on his face was grave. He sat me down and confirmed that I had a large unidentified mass on my anterior mediastinum (the area of the chest that separates the lungs) and that I’d need to see an oncologist, ASAP.
Harder than hearing this news was conveying it on to my beautiful partner, Georgie. With two young children, this was a battle that we were going to have to fight together.
Thankfully Georgie’s father and both her siblings are doctors, so as soon as I had finished my call with her I was updating them on my results and seeking their opinion.
Within 24 hours Georgie’s father, Terry, had arranged for me to see a thoracic medicine professor at St Vincent’s Private Hospital, who immediately arranged a CT-guided needle biopsy to attempt to diagnose the mediastinal mass that was causing me grief. I was advised then and there that there was a strong possibility I’d need a median sternotomy (essentially the process involved in heart transplants and serious cardiac surgery – cutting through the sternum, opening up the chest cavity, etc.) to remove the mass. I should probably have figured it sooner, but this is when I realised I was in some serious shit.
The biopsy proved inconclusive and I was soon booked in to see a cardiothoracic surgeon by the name of Philip Spratt. As it turns out, Associate Professor Spratt is probably the most accomplished surgeon in his field in the country, and was by Dr Victor Chang’s side when he successfully completed Australia’s first heart transplant some 30-plus years ago. I tried to convince myself that removing a tumourous lump from my chest would be child’s play for a bloke of his calibre.
A week later I was due to front for surgery, but two days out from the big day a gastro bug ripped through my family and I was forced to postpone it by a week.
On August 15, 2017 I checked into Vinnies Private and tried to prepare myself psychologically for what at the time was without doubt the scariest 48 hours or so of my life. While I was extremely nervous about the procedure (my first operation ever), I was keen to get the mass removed from my chest and hoped that it would prove to be relatively innocuous.
While I can’t recall the surgery (thank Christ!), it all went well and Dr Spratt was able to remove most of the offending mass (about 97%, I was told), as well as some lung tissue and pericardium (the membrane enclosing the heart) that the mass was intruding upon (an 18cm x 11cm x 7cm lump in total), before sewing me back up and sticky taping me together.
The reason the entire mass was not removed was because a sample taken early in the procedure and sent off for testing returned with a diagnosis of lymphoma, which meant I was going to require further treatment anyway to completely rid myself of cancerous cells. As such, Dr Spratt decided to save the scalpel in some of the trickier sections of the excision so as to avoid causing any nerve or arterial damage.
I spent a week in Vinnies Private recovering from the surgery, sharing a room with a lovely butcher from Dulwich Hill named Bob, who had undergone a multiple bypass. Never have I feared coughing, sneezing – or even laughing – as much as I did during that week and the month that followed. Thankfully the morphine and endone kept the pain to a manageable level early on, and I quickly learnt techniques to stave off a potential sneeze when I could feel one brewing.
While I was still in hospital recovering, I was visited on numerous occasions by medical personnel who informed me that the tumour was a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (the ‘good one’ to get, or so they say), but when the haematologist came to see me for the first time he assured me that, unfortunately, this was not the case, and what I was dealing with was a T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma (one of the ‘shit ones’) and that treatment of this particular disease would be long, hard, and potentially lethal, but it was curable nonetheless. I took this as good news. I’m not sure that all around me shared my positivity, but they put on brave faces regardless.
I needed a few more tests to see how far the lymphoma had spread and whether or not it was in my bone marrow or central nervous system before beginning chemotherapy. Thankfully, my bone marrow biopsy was clear of disease, as was my spinal fluid, but a PET scan showed that the lymphoma was active in a number of regions throughout my body – in my groin, through my midsection and even up into my neck.
An intensive French trial chemotherapy protocol, very similar to paediatric leukaemia regimens, was agreed upon as the best way to stave off this bastard cancer for good. The whole process, I was told, would take nearly three years. I had less than a month to recover from the sternotomy before I’d be back in hospital to begin chemotherapy on September 16.
I was scared beyond belief, but somehow convinced myself that all would be okay and that I would be among the 30-70 per cent of sufferers (depending on the presence of a particular gene) who made it through to the three-year survival mark, whereby if disease free I would be considered cured. While the surgery to remove my tumour was quite an ordeal, it was a drop in the ocean compared to what still lay ahead of me.
To be continued in the next edition of The Beast…

This is part one of a short essay titled ‘A Long Holiday In Hotel Chernobyl’. Tune in next month for part two of what will most likely be a three-part series.