A man who discovered he had incurable blood cancer after a child fell on top of him during a climbing mishap has described how the accident saved his life.
Dave Green, a retired climbing instructor from Golcar, was running a climbing taster session for local schoolchildren in late 2011, when one of them unexpectedly let go of the bouldering wall and “flopped” on top of him, breaking his back.
The break proved a blessing in disguise.
Scans later revealed his bones had been hollowed out by myeloma, an incurable blood cancer which can cause holes in the bones, broken spines and kills 3,000 people in the UK each year.
Had the accident not occurred, Dave believes his cancer may not have been picked up in time. Eleven years and four rounds of treatment later, the 70-year-old is still going strong.
“Fortunately for me, in the long term this fall exposed a weakness in my bones. They had been honeycombed out by the myeloma but I had practically no symptoms until that point,” said Dave.
“I maybe didn’t have the energy I once had but I put that down to the fact that I was no longer a young man. In a way I was lucky I was diagnosed before any more damage was done. Perhaps everyone in their late 50s should be stress-tested by a child falling down on them!”
Myeloma occurs in the bone marrow and tends to affect people over 65. Around 24,000 people are living with myeloma in the UK.
While it is incurable, myeloma is treatable in the majority of cases. Treatment is aimed at controlling the disease, relieving the complications and symptoms it causes, and extending and improving patients’ quality of life.
Despite being the third most common type of blood cancer, it is especially difficult to detect as symptoms, including back pain, easily broken bones, fatigue and recurring infection, are often linked to general ageing or minor conditions.
Some 34% of myeloma patients visit their GP at least three times before getting a diagnosis. Yet, a simple blood test can pick up signs of myeloma.
Like with so many myeloma patients, getting a diagnosis proved an uphill battle for Dave.
His severe back pain was quickly dismissed by his doctor as a run-of-the-mill muscle injury and put down to the accident.
Finally, after two weeks of back and forth to the GP, Dave finally convinced him to order an X-ray.
“I knew my body fairly well – I knew this wasn’t just muscular,” he said. “I wasn’t going to leave until I got a referral for an X-ray.”
Seven weeks after the accident, in November 2011, he was diagnosed with myeloma.
“Once it started to sink in, my reaction was: ‘How long have I got and how do I increase that time?’” recalled Dave, who has two stepchildren.
“They said that the median life expectancy was five to eight years. My question was: ‘How do I get eight rather than five years?’ I seem to have done that plus some more.”
He initially wore a brace to help support his back and allow his vertebrae to heal. But the damage was too severe and he ended up undergoing back surgery.
Dave has since received two stem-cell transplants and signed up to two clinical trials.
He’s now on his fourth round of treatment.
“There have been many ups and down both in terms of response to treatment and the emotional and physical rollercoaster it’s caused,” he said. “But I’m still going strong.”
Dave no longer climbs but he’s taken up canoeing since his diagnosis. He’s now looking forward to getting back in his canoe after having knee-replacement surgery.
As blood cancer charity Myeloma UK prepares to launch its Spring Appeal, Dave is keen to raise awareness of the symptoms of myeloma, make sure this hidden cancer is caught early and that patients are spared avoidable complications like broken bones.
Dave hopes that sharing his story will encourage others to listen to their body, trust their instincts and stand their ground if they suspect something is wrong.
“I know now that people wait a long time to get diagnosed and get fobbed off by their GP,” he said. “You know your body and you need to insist and be prepared to challenge your GP.”
On a mission to help others navigate life after an incurable diagnosis, Dave signed up to Myeloma UK’s Peer Buddy service and now gives up his time to support and offer a listening ear to recently diagnosed patients.
“When you’re first diagnosed, all the treatments sound very scary, there is this new language we all have to learn,” he said.
“You first encounter medical professionals in all their grades. Friends and family are absolutely supportive but you can feel a bit like you’re in the centre of this circle being pointed at. People don’t know what it feels like.
“The first time I went to a support group meeting and just had these chats to people about it, they knew what it felt like. There was an immediate connection and, talking to them, it made it all sound much more doable. Hearing someone saying, ‘Well, I felt sick for a few days but then you get over it’, makes it less daunting.
“People have done everything they can to support me and I want to do that in my turn. When it comes down to it, I think that ordinary people help each other when we can. It’s what we do. And if all the knowledge, experience, and hopefully, bit of wisdom that I’ve picked up can be of use to others, it would be foolish not to pass it on.”
Along the way, he’s found that sharing his own experience of the disease has helped give meaning to his own struggles.
He added: “In a way it’s given some validation to what I’ve gone through in the last eleven years. Treatments can come with some horrible and weird side-effects, and it gives some kind of meaning to it. It gives it some worth if it can be of value to others.”
To support Myeloma UK’s Spring Appeal and help fund support services for patients and their families, go to myeloma.org.uk/services-appeal/
For more information about myeloma or to get in touch with Myeloma UK go to www.myeloma.org.uk. Myeloma UK runs an Infoline on 0800 980 3332.