Too much to stomach
Robbie Lunn was in his mid 20s when he was told he had a malignant tumour. After a long, gruelling battle, the young survivor tells Joy Orpen about the grim reality of bowel cancer and how his family's support got him through it
Though Robbie Lunn is only 25 years old, he has stared death in the face and lived to tell the tale. And, because his journey wasn't easy, he wants to help others, so that they may be spared unnecessary anguish along their own personal road to recovery.
Robbie is one of those young men that every mother would love their daughter to end up marrying. He exudes confidence, but without being arrogant, and he also has lovely manners and a smile to match.
He grew up in Co Kildare and, after school, studied law at UCD. This was followed by a Masters at the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School.
Then, in November 2010, while busy with his postgraduate degree, he began to notice blood in his stools. He'd suffered from piles in the past and thought the problem had returned.
"I was really busy at college and so I didn't give it much thought," he says.
By Christmas, he was starting to feel nauseous and was experiencing bouts of pain – this time, he blamed overeating and drinking.
But, as time moved on, the sporadic pain got worse.
It took a conversation with a friend at a party for Robbie to finally square up to his fears. "I told him I hadn't been feeling well, and he said, 'Oh, I'm sure you'll be fine', and I said, 'No, I think this is serious.'"
Then, in January 2011, the pain became so intense that Robbie got his father to take him to Naas General Hospital. He was admitted when a swelling in his stomach was detected.
A virus was suspected initially, but when Robbie failed to improve, a colonoscopy was performed.
"The specialist said there was a tumour," says Robbie, "so I presumed that meant cancer."
The next day, bowel cancer was, indeed, confirmed.
"When the head oncologist, the surgeon, the chief oncology nurse and your parents come into the room, you guess it is cancer. Nonetheless, it was a complete shock," Robbie recalls.
"I wanted to know what it was going to take to beat this thing. What ops would I need and how long would it all take? The basic question was this – was I going to live? The doctors were all very positive. They told me what I needed to know without sugar-coating it."
Robbie had surgery a few days later. He made sure he was informed about all the stages of his treatment, and learned that he would need a colostomy.
This would allow the part of his colon that had been operated on to heal and it would also facilitate the removal of waste products.
"My biggest worry was that I would be pooping into a bag for the rest of my life," he says. "I really couldn't relate to the chemo – but having a bag was something I could relate to."
The surgery took about five hours and, when he woke up, Robbie was attached to a number of tubes and was in a lot of pain. But help was, quite literally, at hand. "I had a small morphine pump and, when you click it, it puts you in a nice dreamy state. My dad says that's when I was at my funniest," he says.
He explains that the first two weeks following his surgery were the toughest weeks of his life, even though the care he received was first class.
"They [the nurses and doctors] were so professional and so sympathetic. They managed to get things done without being demanding or intrusive," he says.
Nonetheless, Robbie was struggling. "I was very weak and being fed through my nose as I still couldn't eat. Though I'm 5ft 10in tall, my weight dropped to eight stone," he says.
"And I lost all the strength in my legs. I was feeling helpless. I had no control. You lose all your dignity – you're pooping out of your stomach and peeing into a catheter.
"You want to be able to eat and to sleep when you want to – you want the comfort of your own home," he says. He remembers his first night in his own bed as pure bliss. "That was just the best sleep ever – a real godsend."
Robbie's next goal was to build up his strength in readiness for the rigours of chemotherapy.
Apart from a number of small complications resulting from the surgery, he had to deal with the very real emotional and psychological side effects of his ordeal.
"I had to come to terms with what had happened. What did this mean for my life moving forward?" he says. "It was very helpful having seen Mam go through a cancer experience. I knew she had come through it and was fine. She is a very strong woman."
Eventually, Robbie was well enough to begin chemo. A line was inserted in his chest so the drugs could be administered every two weeks. "Chemo does terrible things to your brain and your memory. But I got my Masters anyway. I didn't lose my hair, which was a big relief, but I did get big cheeks from the steroids," he says.
Following seven months of chemo, it took a full two years for him to recover. So he is immensely grateful for the insights he gleaned from his mother following her own cancer experience.
"Eighteen months later, when I still couldn't cut the grass, she would say, 'Relax. It's OK. Take your time,'" Robbie recalls. He is also grateful to the "unbelievable" support he got from his girlfriend, Dianne, and from his father, his sister, and from his close friends who came to watch soccer matches with him.
"Other people may not have the kind of support I got," he says.
Robbie has now been cancer-free for two years. In recognition of the terrific support he got, he has trained with Survivors Supporting Survivors – a volunteer peer support service provided by the Irish Cancer Society.
"The idea is to talk to people of a similar age going through similar problems," Robbie explains. "There's a lot of [physical] wear and tear in having cancer. But the mental aspect is even worse. You feel so vulnerable.
"You can go crazy when you go through something like this. There's a lot of mental scarring. You wonder, 'Is it just me or is this normal?' So it's really nice to know you're not crazy."
Robbie is finally in great shape again. His catheter has been removed and the colostomy was successfully reversed not too long after his surgery.
He's busy working as a consultant in risk and management, and, when he's not with the lovely Dianne, he plays sport and counts his many blessings.
If you're concerned about cancer, contact the Irish Cancer Society's National Cancer Helpline, tel: (1800) 200-700, or see www.cancer.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine