Messages on the ‘big c’

[Postscript: Nigel Charles passed away in Plymouth (Devon) on the 10th July 2018, aged 56. This site is a lasting tribute to him and the hundreds of moving – and often darkly humorous – messages he sent throughout his cancer journey.]

I have cancer. In fact, at the time of writing this – late May 2018 – I’ve been given just a few months left to live. This website tells the story of my cancer journey through the 46 text messages and (lately) several emails I’ve sent in the nearly two years since I was diagnosed. 

From the start, the texts have been a semi-public journal: a way of updating friends and family on what’s been happening – the downs, ups and downs since finding out I had Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. They have been terse and they have been mini-essays. They have discussed my many experiences in hospital, and my attempts to make the most of my time – from sculpting to driving down the motorway with the car top down.

Throughout I’ve wanted to put a light touch to these very dark issues – the best way of dealing with ‘Donald’ – the name I gave to the lymphoma early on. (No prizes for guessing where the name came from…).

Cancer scares some people. Many are cured of it, the Daily Mail seems obsessed by it as much as it is by house prices, and there are plenty of tiresome clichés about the disease – “so and so’s battle with cancer”, “the tragedy of [insert name of celebrity] fight with cancer”.

But cancer is not a battle or a fight. Battles and fights involve two sides – often with weapons of steel or word, with an expectation that both are in with a chance and an implication both sides have chosen to be there. Battles are attempts at annihilation or, at least control and domination, of one by the other.

A cancer patient does not have a choice to participate; they have no weapons beyond what their doctor chooses; the cancer patient cannot annihilate, control or dominate. That’s out of their hands and in the hands of surgeons, oncologists and haematologists. They’re spectators at someone else’s battle.

But how can you write about cancer without descending into tabloid cliché or feeding people’s natural fears about the disease – and what can you say that hasn’t already been said?

This website – and the texts captured within it – is an attempt to recount my cancer journey in full. It is a factual narrative of my diagnosis, treatment and prognosis journey as told by me to friends and family by using mobile phone texts. 

And as I wrote in a recent message (the first sent by email in fact), I don’t have a naff bucket list. My over-riding wish is to be creative and positive, and to be as sociable and solitary as I choose. I’d like to have these things without letting symptoms, medical complications and the stress of the prognosis get in the way too much. The biggest issues have been tiredness, pain that my routine analgesics don’t always manage, dealing with bad or disappointing medical news, and not always handling the prognosis with equanimity.

Other than to keep them informed about progress, I had no desire to reveal startling epiphanies about life’s meaning, or the paradoxical experience of good emerging from the dark.

But you might, just might, find that such stories emerge from the text. It is my hope that those affected by the disease can find something to relate to with my story or to have a better sense of what could happen to them next.

Anyway – I’ll let you start:

Thanks for reading,

Nige x

South Brent, May 2018


Chapter 1: Admission and diagnosis

“On 14 October 2016 my GP made an emergency admission for me to hospital with severe abdominal pain. During the first few days of being in hospital various tests and examinations were carried out which established that I had a cancerous tumour growing in my abdomen.

“Through phone calls, texts and word of mouth news of my admission and the initial diagnosis got out to my friends and family. The first update by text was sent to my friends on 17 October. In the early stages I mistook oncologiy for haemotologiy which was the branch of medicine that dealt with my type of cancer.”

17 October 2016

Dear friends

Apologies for texting more than one of you at the same time.

I spoke to the consultant this morning. It’s all a bigger deal than I thought. There was so much info to take in that it’s all a bit overwhelming.

My notes tell me:

  • There will be an op this week to remove as much as possible of the tumor, to find out exactly where it’s growing from and to take a sample to find out the type of cancer.
  • Some (a lot?) of bowel will also be removed. Biopsy is too risky as the tumor is wrapped around the bowel and there is a risk of piercing the bowel.
  • The surgery won’t be a cure as some cancer will be left behind.
  • Post surgery treatment will be chemo but these decisions won’t be made till I’ve recovered from surgery.
  • Chemo will start at a minimum of 6 weeks post surgery.
  • I’ll be off work for a minimum of 6 weeks and possibly longer.
  • The exact post-op treatment and prognosis is impossible to predict as so much depends on what the surgery reveals.

I think they’re the main points.

Nigel x

18 October 2016

Dear all.

Apologies for mass text.

I’ve just seen the surgeon and there is a change of plan as they will not now attempt to remove the tumor. This is because the proximity of a main artery makes it too risky and it might not be necessary anyway. The surgery will be to carry out a bowel bypass. This will rectify the obstruction caused by the tumor. They will also take a biopsy. This will identify the type of tumor. If it’s the good news they expect, it’ll be a lymphoma which is likely to be curable by chemo and so surgery will be unnecessary.

The op will be this afternoon (if there are no emergencies that they have to deal with) or tomorrow. So if planning to visit phone me to find out if I’m in surgery. Also, if you give the ward staff the password ‘Clifton’, they will tell you if I’m in surgery if you phone them . I’ll also try to send a text to you all before I’m taken down.



19 October 2016

Dear friends.

The surgeons did their job yesterday, so the next goal is to get up and about. I’m a tad sore, so this will be done slowly. Today will be visitor free while I get some energy back. Thanks for all your kind words and support.


Nige xx

20 October 2016

Dear friends

I’ll sum up what’s happened and is  happening…at least as far as I understand it.

There was one apple sized tumor causing two problems. It was pressing hard on the bowel, effectively blocking it and stopping it from working. And the tumor is a problem in its own right because it might be part of a spread of cancerous cells.

Because the tumor is too close to an artery, it was too dangerous to entirely remove it. But a large amount was removed to find out exactly what type of tumor it is. This will determine the treatment that comes next but we won’t know the results for another 10 days. If I’m lucky, there are no other cancerous cells, chemo will destroy the remaining part of the  tumor and I’m cured. A bit less lucky, is not cure but destruction/control of cancerous cells and extended life. (This last sentence might not be scientific but it’s the drift). I don’t want to think beyond these options.

The blocked bowel has been rectified by cutting the bowel either side of the blockage and joining the two good ends together. But the bowel isn’t functioning yet. So for the next week or so, I’m fed artificially through my neck, saline solution goes into my arm, I’m catheterised and my stomach is drained by a pipe running from it and out of my nose. Plus there’s pipe work for being fed drugs and anasthesia. I’ve got more bloody tubes going into me than the Underground. I’m only allowed to inbibe sips of water and the odd boiled sweet. A functioning bowel will be indicated when I start farting (I’m serious). I’m not sure how long after that I can eat proper food but I hope it’s not long. The consultant has advised patience. He’s Polish, so maybe that has something to do with the amount of plumbing that’s been installed into my body.

It could be worse. There’s an old man opposite me who has barely opened his eyes, sometimes is in distress and the rest of the time he looks barely conscious. I’ve got my lap top and phone for tv and radio and books to read.

I never really knew what nurses did. But they’re amazing. They have such high levels of technical skills in operating complicated machinery and kit, administering a vast amount of drugs, dealing with patients in trouble and, I’ve seen it happen, advising the doctors how to do their job. And the best ones really care.

That’s the long and the short of it for now.


Nigel xx

26 October 2016

Dear friends.

Apologies again for the mass text. Some of you have been asking today about progress, so I wanted to give you the good news. First, I’ve been discharged from hospital and I’m spending a couple of days at mums. Second, I was given the diagnosis today. I have the potentially curable form of lymphoma and chemo will start in 2/3 weeks. I had a bone marrow biopsy today (not a pleasant experience) which will establish whether the cancer is aggressive [ie has spread], so I’m not entirely out of the woods. First oncology appointment is next week.

With love

Nige xx