Driven to awareness
Difficulty swallowing was the first clue that golf professional Chris Hogg had cancer, says Joy Orpen. After a painful recovery he found himself reassessing his life priorities
A one-time golf fanatic who lived and breathed the sport has started a whole new journey after being diagnosed with cancer. Chris Hogg, 30, found that after his diagnosis and treatment his priorties shifted, and he came to the realisation that while his wife and baby daughter are important to him, competitive sport no longer is.
Chris, who lives in Dublin, was given his first set of golf clubs when he was a nine-year-old living in Bangor, Co Down.
His father and grandfather encouraged him to join them on the links; Chris didn't need much nudging.
When he finished school, he started a degree at Queen's University, but, halfway through, the birdie, the long drive, and the putt edged the books off the fairway.
Nine years ago, Chris moved to Dublin and fell in love with Kirsten, his future wife. He also enrolled to become a golf professional. He worked under the tutelage of a club professional for three years, and he did the academic component through distance learning. He sat examinations at The Belfry in the UK where the PGA's headquarters are located; it is also the spiritual home of the Ryder Cup.
When Kirsten was offered the opportunity to do her Masters in Paediatric Dentistry in Dallas in the US, the couple crossed the Atlantic. "It was the best three years of our lives," says Chris. "We had a ball." While Kirsten studied, Chris worked for Long Drivers of America, a company that hosts competitions to see who can hit the ball the farthest.
"We had a great time," Chris reiterates, "but eventually we decided that raising children would be better in Ireland."
Once back, Chris got a position in Dun Laoghaire Golf Club, and in May 2008, their daughter, Olivia, was born.
Then, last year, things started to fall apart when Chris noticed dry food often stuck in his throat.
"Sometimes people experience difficulty swallowing for a moment but mine would go on for 10 or 15 seconds. And I couldn't burp -- it's amazing how uncomfortable that can be," he says.
Chris turned to cyberspace for information. One day, while he was surfing the net, Kirsten walked into the room. "I was so embarrassed she caught me worrying about myself," admits Chris.
However, Kirsten encouraged him to see their doctor. Chris was then referred to a gastroenterologist who said, given Chris's youth, oesophageal cancer was unlikely. Nonetheless, he sent Chris for an endoscopy at St James's Hospital, when a tube with a small camera attached was threaded down his throat and into his stomach -- which had been artificially inflated -- to see what was going on. "When they put it down, I sensed the energy in the room changing," recalls Chris.
Next, he had an endoscopic ultrasound: again, a tube went down his throat, but this time the ultrasound provided pictures of the different internal layers. While he lay in bed waiting for the sedation to wear off, Kirsten picked up his chart and got all the proof they needed that Chris was in trouble. On the chart was the code for cancer.
They were later told the cancer was at the base of the oesophagus and the upper part of the stomach.
A Cat scan was done the following day to see if the malignancy had spread to other parts of the body -- it hadn't.
The first step was to try to halt the progress of the disease. Chris was given one week of chemotherapy, three of radiation therapy, and then a four-week break, followed by another week of chemotherapy. The treatment floored him. "I felt so unbelievably tired -- like every cell in my body was 150 years old," he recalls.
Next, Chris had a two-stage oesophagectomy. "They went in from the front of the stomach and they went in from under the armpit -- like a big shark bite," he explains. "People think the oesophagus runs down the front -- it doesn't, it goes down the back. They took half my oesophagus and a third of my stomach."
That was in September 2009, and the memory of his major surgery is still very vivid for Chris. He was given an epidural, which blocks the transmission of pain, combined with a patient-controlled analgesia pump.
"The pump has morphine, and, to be honest, it makes you feel on top of the world. But the problems began when they took the pump away," says Chris.
"I had two days of very bad withdrawal symptoms. Now I can really sympathise with heroin addicts. The agitation was appalling -- your skin literally crawls. It was absolutely terrible."
He says the hospital staff were just marvellous, and did everything they could to help him: "I've lived in Northern Ireland and the US, and I would say there was nowhere else I would rather have been than St James's. I got the very best treatment possible for my particular condition."
He says everyone reacts differently to medication and, while he had an extreme response, another patient in similar circumstances was absolutely fine.
Chris spent three weeks in hospital following surgery. After 11 days he was able to eat jelly and ice cream, but he also required a feeding tube for proper nourishment. He admits he found his recovery so excruciatingly slow that it affected him mentally -- it took outsiders to notice any improvements.
But just three months later, Chris couldn't deny the positive developments when he plunged into the icy waters of James Joyce's Forty Foot on Christmas Day along with hundreds of other festive revellers. "That was really positive for me, and I was even able to have a small meal and a couple of beers afterwards," he recalls with a broad smile. These days, Chris goes to the gym almost every day as it helps him deal with the difficult mental and emotional aspects of his illness. "It is still early days," he says.
He is planning to resume his studies in marine biology, as he has little interest in golf anymore, particularly the competitive aspects of the sport. However, he concedes that over time his interest may be reignited. But, for now, he is concentrating on himself and his family.
"I read somewhere that cancer takes away the innocence of life," he says. "It gives you the realisation that things that were important, are not. I now know there are only two important things in my life: my wife and my daughter."
In conclusion, Chris cautions people to see a doctor if they experience difficulty swallowing, or if they notice unexplained weight loss or a poor appetite, pain behind the breastbone or between the shoulder blades, discomfort in the throat or back, frequent bouts of acid indigestion, frequent hiccoughs or belching.
The Oesophageal Cancer Fund, tel: (01) 289-7457, or see www.lollipopday.ie