Damian was performing well at school, with university in his sights and career aspirations in chemical engineering. January 1986, this all changed for Damian following a diagnosis of osteosarcoma at just 17 years old after being given the all clear by doctors after a biopsy was taken from the wrong side of his knee.
I was just an everyday teenager in 1985, had just finished my O Levels and had done well, was really fit active and healthy, lots of friends and just embarking on the cusp of adulthood, full of dreams, hope and excited for the new adult adventure that lay within touching distance. Little did I know what fate had in store for me in just a few short months
I had been bothered by a slight dull ache in my left leg that was starting to cause me to limp. Thinking back, I probably had this for a good 6 months before I really became aware of it, I never really paid it much attention at first, just put it down to growing pain. In the last year of school, I grew about 12 inches taller in a single year, I even had stretch marks on my back, where the skin couldn't stretch fast enough as I grew.
I started my lower 6th form year studying chemistry, physics and maths. I had dreams of becoming a chemical engineer. Just before Christmas 1985 the pain in my leg was becoming increasingly painful, I couldn't run due to the pain and if I stood for any period it ached quite badly.
In the January of 1986 I noticed a small lump had developed just above my left knee, which never bothered me particularly, but my mother was getting concerned, so she dragged me to the local AED to have it checked out. 28th January 1986, I'll never forget the date as it was the same day the space shuttle, Challenger, exploded just after take-off, so it was all over the news.
I had never heard of bone cancer let alone think that’s what I had.
After a routine exam the doctor thought I may have strained ligaments or it was growing pains but sent me for an X-ray just to be on the safe side.
It was then that all hell seemed to break loose. I thought it was a little odd that the radiologist repeated the X-ray and then came back with us from X-ray and went to speak to the doctor. I was admitted to hospital, there and then, do not pass go and do not collect £200. At this stage no one had even mentioned to me what the problem was.
I was operated on the Friday to take a bone biopsy and was put on strict bed rest. The results wouldn’t be available for at least 2 weeks as they had to decalcify the bone before they could process it for examination. The next 2 weeks were a nightmare as even I, in my blissful ignorance, was starting to get worried, so I started asking questions. I had a doctor come to speak to me and started banding words about like, sarcoma, aggressive, and chemotherapy. The first 2 words meant nothing but hearing the word chemotherapy rang alarm bells, so I said, "hang on, don't they use that to treat cancer, you mean I've got cancer?", one word response "Yes", don't really remember much after that, the doctor promptly scurried off and I was left alone.
17 years old, alone, on a ward and just been told that I had cancer.
To say I was devastated would be an understatement, kids didn't get cancer, I was fit and healthy, I was doing my A levels, only old people get cancer, everyone who gets cancer dies don't they?
The wait for the biopsy results was like a lifetime, I was stuck in hospital waiting for confirmation of my worst fears, just looking at 4 walls watching the clock tick.
The day finally arrived, and they called my parents in to deliver the bad news. My consultant came to give us the news, let’s call him Mr. Dick. So, in a very laconic fashion he stated that all the results had come back negative, they had checked and double checked, and they could only find normal Osteoblasts (funny the things you remember) so off you go with a splint for a hairline fracture and have a good life.
The elation was overwhelming, from being told you have a 99% chance you have a malignant bone tumour to nope kid, you're ok, off you go!
So, I was discharged with no follow up. Not wanting to argue the point I scarpered pronto, went home and went back to school.
Sadly, the tale obviously doesn't end there…
I went home for about 2 months, during which time the size of my knee reached the size of a basketball, turned purple and caused me intense pain, so around Easter time, I went back to AED. I kept reassuring myself and others saying, well at least we know what it can't be.
Got to see a different on call orthopaedic surgeon, he took 1 look at my X-ray and the state of my knee and said, you have cancer, I'm 100% certain. Don't mince your words doc, that's how the news was broken.
Admitted straight away again, the whole process started again, I don’t really recall much of what happened during this second stage, I was in so much pain that I was almost permanently sedated.
This time the results confirmed that I did have indeed Osteosarcoma, it was a High grade, highly aggressive form, not only that, as it had been given an escape route it had obligingly grown out of the biopsy site and shot up the femur, so much so that you could literally see it growing up my thigh, it increased in size and spread every day.
I had every type of radiological scan going, CT, MRI, Gamma, venogram, the lot. Amazingly they didn’t find any metastases anywhere, which, knowing what I know now about its propensity to set up camp in the lungs, is still something I can’t explain to this day.
Then started my summer of fun, with my chemo cocktail of Cisplatin and a cheeky little red Doxyrubicin chaser washed down with Corsodyl mouthwash. They told me that my treatment plan was a 6 month course of this, removal of the diseased bone and replaced with a endo prosthetic knee joint. Job done.
Having read and being told how bad chemotherapy was from everyone I knew, who suddenly became leading experts on the side effects of Chemotherapy, it was with more than a little trepidation, that I started my chemotherapy regime.
In 1986, things were pretty basic in terms of tailored care. I was dumped on an adult cancer ward, G13, where anyone with any form of cancer was lumped. It was a pre- war converted building, it was old and decrepit ward even back then, it was truly awful and just had a feeling of death about it. The ward was like God’s waiting room, averaged between 1 to 2 deaths a night, I think the hospital porters even had their own tea room there as they were called so often. It felt like it wasn’t a case of IF I was going to die it was matter of WHEN, utterly depressing.
The day came for my first course of chemotherapy, they at least put me in a side room, it was May and hot, being in hospital is never great but when its sweltering it’s even worse, the nearest we had to air conditioning was leaving the fridge door open.
My mother had been almost force feeding me oranges as she had read/been told that these were good for treating cancer, this was before the internet had been invented or mobile phones so the nearest source of information was gossiping with the neighbour over the garden fence, who’s sisters’ husbands’ daughter in law’s nieces’ boyfriends’ mate once knew someone who had bone cancer and cured it by eating oranges.
So, with a stomach fully loaded with fresh oranges and another dozen in my bedside cabinet, my first course started. The statutory fluid loading commenced 3 litres of saline shoved in, then came my first bag of Cisplatin. Doesn’t bode well when the doctor comes into hang the chemotherapy, fully gowned, including face protection gloves with a bag containing the sinister bile is about to shove into your body, it was like a scene from a HAZMAT clean up zone. Nothing like putting one at ease.
The care pathway for Osteosarcoma at that time was to have 3 bouts of chemotherapy and then travel to Selly Oak Hospital to have the diseased part of the bone removed and replaced by a metal endoprosthesis, then a further 3 to 4 bouts of chemotherapy. After the first 2 cycles of chemotherapy, the pain had never lessened and was gradually getting worse. I was sent home for 3 weeks after the second cycle to recover in preparation for the next cycle.
I was just waking up one morning soon after and half asleep I rolled onto my side as I turned my body went onto its side but my left leg stayed in the same position and I heard a sickening crack, my left foot was now at 90 degrees to the rest of my body, the leg had completely fractured just above the knee.
I was immediately transferred back to the hospital to have an X ray, where the fracture was confirmed, so had a full-length leg plaster cast. After a couple of days I was sent to Selly Oak for, what I thought, assessment and measurement to replace the diseased bone.
I was transferred with my parent in tow to Birmingham for a biopsy and more scans.
After a few days, there was the usual ward round, the doctors were gathered at the end of my bed pouring over my notes and discussing various things about me. The charge nurse who was with them casually stated that “This is Damian, he is going back to Liverpool today for amputation”
I just collapsed on the bed! I asked what was happening and I was told I needed an amputation. This was a complete and total shock to me, amputation had never been mentioned let alone discussed.
We travelled back to Whiston Hospital near Liverpool later that day, I just lay in the back of the ambulance and never said a word, total silence for the whole journey, I think in hindsight I was probably in shock.
I thought it would be mid-thigh amputation but when the consultant saw me in Whiston the following morning he said it was a hindquarter amputation, I didn’t know what that meant, the consultant drew a picture to show me. I was in shock and on my own, I was handed consent forms and told to sign them!
The rest of the story is history now, I had the amputation and the remaining chemotherapy cycles, thankfully I never had any metastases
I’ve just had to learn to adapt, I was only 17 at the time and I’m 49 now, so all my adult life I’ve been an amputee.
It’s not an automatic death sentence, it’s a very difficult journey but there is an end to it, despite having life changing treatment and operations, there is still a good life to be had after this. I've travelled over the world, seen amazing things, Killer whales breaching in Canada, Flying over the Grand Canyon.
I went on to achieve a degree in Bio Medical Science. It was difficult going through my treatment and seeing my friends moving on, I felt alone and isolated and that I had missed out on the opportunities they had. However, I this was my aim and I was proud to pass my degree and my advice to others would be…
Live life, don't let the disease dictate who you are or what you do
The fact that so many of my friends died who had the same condition, when things start to get to me, I remind myself that I was one of the lucky ones, those departed friends would give anything to live the life I have been given a second chance at.
I was 17 when I presented with symptoms of bone cancer, never entered my head that I had cancer, I'd never even heard about bone cancer, they are quite none descript symptoms aching limbs, limping, weakness in a limb. But because of the propensity of Osteosarcoma to spread, especially to the lungs it is vitally important to get as early a diagnosis as possible.
I ended up having radical amputation of my leg at the hip level. This could have been prevented if I had had an earlier diagnosis, thankfully I survived others were not so lucky.
Main image photo: RANKIN