Posted on Thursday 21 May 2020

John’s Story – “Eight weeks after running a marathon I was on chemotherapy. It was a whirlwind of a time.”

John Sloan was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2012 at the age of 24, four weeks after running the Belfast marathon. After treatment, John quickly returned to work, got engaged, married and moved house. He wanted to make up for lost time. However, after 18 months, he started to suffer from panic attacks and the realisation of what had happened sunk in. He fell out of love with exercise but his CLIC Sargent social worker Simon helped to get him back on his feet.

After the Belfast Marathon, four weeks before diagnosis

I first noticed something wasn’t quite right literally the day before I ran Belfast marathon – the only thing I thought was wrong was lumps in my neck. I thought I got run down in the lead up to the marathon. That was the first time that I went ‘that’s odd’ but, at the same time, wasn’t super worried. I ran it the next day and finished it and was elated and felt completely fine. At the time I felt physically fine but the recovery following it was very slow and the lumps started to get bigger. I ran a half marathon two weeks later, I thought it was just tough recovery time.

I’d always done sport so knew what it was like to be tired and carry on. I went to the doctors at that point, was referred to ENT they took a biopsy. From the marathon to diagnosis was just under four weeks. It was pretty mad to then find out then it was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – they did a biopsy to determine staging, it was stage 2 it was in my chest as well as my neck.

I went on my own to the follow up meeting, which looking back was such a bad idea, but in my head I was healthy. The last thing on my mind was a cancer diagnosis at 24. When I was getting tested no one dropped that as a potential, they said I was probably run down, as it was lymph node related. I remember I went to lean on the desk and I nearly missed it, nearly hit my face on it. I think I forgot where I parked my car – I remember standing in the street crying on the phone to my Mum trying to find my car. A cancer diagnosis to me at 24 was ‘that was it’ and I don’t think I understood treatment so it was all a bit of a floodgate.

Eight weeks after running a marathon I was on chemotherapy. It was a whirlwind of a time. At the beginning I was told it would be chemotherapy followed by radio follow up, but for some amazing reason chemo was enough for me. Although, it was really quite intense for me physically I went from being able to run a marathon to not being able to have a shower or anything physically. I suffered from bad nausea and anxiety nausea. I realise how lucky I was getting through it so I always feel bad saying it was bad. It was fortnightly and I was always treated as an outpatient.

The first signs of my mental health issues were at that time, anxiety and nausea was the first indication and I was told that’s a normal sign of chemotherapy. My whole thought process was ‘I’m just going to fight this with all my might’, I’m never not going to go for chemo however bad I feel. The sheer terror of having it done again was terrifying for me – I just remember this fighting attitude of hopefully it will all be fine, in hindsight there was a rumble in there.

Simon and Lorraine were there throughout my whole treatment cycle. Because I was so ill they tried their best to put things in place for me – I had a massive gap after having blood tests so they got like aromatherapy sessions or relaxation – I couldn’t go home so they tried their best to make me as comfortable as I possibly could be. Without that support I think the experience would have been a whole lot worse, I would have been left alone feeling really unwell.

Treatment ended for me, it was a celebration in a way to get my life back on track and that’s exactly what I did and I hit it at 110%. I went back to my job very quickly, almost angry at the fact this had happened and put me back, so I threw myself into work, we went away to America and I proposed out there and then we planned the wedding and bought a house at the same time. I turned 25 so I wanted to get back on track.

Bubbling in the background was the unacceptance of what had happened to me. I was heading down this bad road. In the months leading up to the wedding I had these episodes, I didn’t know they were panic attacks I had felt a bit odd and oncologist said you could feel a bit strange but no one said it could be a panic attack. I was in work just having a sandwich just after the wedding and I thought I was having a heart attack it was the scariest thing I had ever experienced.

That was 2015, five years ago. I went on our honeymoon and I wasn’t the best company – I blamed myself and I would say I’m ill, but I didn’t know it was panic attacks. I was really scared I thought maybe I’m not better, came back I had a mental breakdown, that was probably coming. I had never slowed down and allowed myself to accept what had happened.

Eventually the doctors said you are suffering from panic attacks and anxiety. I was convinced to take medication to control the anxiety – I was having multiple panic attacks every day. I was very into my exercise and fitness and I stopped doing anything, every time I went to do a run I would have a panic attack, I couldn’t leave my house to go on a walk as I was convinced I’d be a heap on the floor, there was no convincing my brain.

I reconnected with Simon again and he said ‘hey want to try an exercise program?’ and I was like ‘no, not interested’. But at the beginning of that year I needed to take action, with support of people around you, you need to do positive things to get over it. So, Simon asked again and I made a decision to try and do something positive to get off the medication – so I said yes and can I tell you the single most important thing I have ever done was say yes to that exercise program.

Whilst I wasn’t consistent with going, that step into moving and exercising completely and utterly changed my life. That was 2017 and I’ve been part of that program ever since, to the point where I came on board as a trainer, did my qualifications for that last year – my life as far as I’m concerned, I’ve never felt better,.

I used to cycle for my country and I went from that to being afraid of exercising and that got my confidence back. One of the biggest things is I didn’t do it on my own, you need to have people there you can talk to.

For me, fitness and moving and exercise has been critical to changing my quality of life. I want to inspire young people to see you can survive and thrive after treatment, there is always that opportunity there, there is always the support for you there.


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