Thursday, 8 November 2012

Take all your chances while you can....2012

I am one of the very few people on earth who can say with 100% certainty that taking up extreme marathon swimming definitely saved their life.

'Take all your chances while you can, you never know when they'll pass you by....'

The opening lyrics to the song Chances off one of my favourite albums of all-time entitled Tourist by Athlete is left ringing loudly in my ears as I write this blog.......

The following blog might rock you upside down and inside out but if it's any consolation it helps me as part of the healing process. The story has an underlying script that I could never have dreamt up in some of my worst nightmares but feel obliged to make you aware of so you have regular health screening checks....I wouldn't want to inflict the following episode upon anyone....

So, as you might be aware, on 25th/26th August 2012, I became the 44th person in history to swim Loch Lomond in a pair of budgie-smugglers as part of the BLDSA organised swim. I felt I flew down the Loch in a respectable time of under 15 hours (for a non-swimmer) and finished with no shoulder pain or any pain anywhere other than inflamed eyes due to a goggle irritation.

With this supreme and massive confidence about my physical wellbeing, I decided to embark on a project to swim the 28 mile Manhattan Island Marathon Swim (MIMS) in June 2013 - as one does! Well,  that was the plan until I went for the medical on Friday 5th October 2012.....

Urine clear, bloods fine, blood pressure normal...
'Get up on the couch Mr Sheridan and let me feel your tummy.'

'Eh? That wasn't part of the medical sheet - just sign the form!'  I joked... 

Dr. Lianne De Maar at the Nomura (office) health centre had identified the beginnings of a one month nightmare. She had identified a mass in my left flank (abdomen).

'Are you constipated, Mr Sheridan?'
'No, absolutely not!' I said confidently
'Well, I want you to take Fibregel for a week and come and see me in a week's time - I'll send you a planner'.

To my mind, my tummy felt completely normal and I had even been doing 200 sit-ups in the gym for the previous 3 days in a row! (which was a first in itself). I felt as awesome as I had felt....ever...

To cut a very long story short, I took the Fibregel for a week and the mass hadn't gone away when the appointment took place on 11th October. She then immediately referred me to a colorectal cancer specialist called Mark George on Friday 12th October at the London Bridge Hospital much to my worry and disgust. She had quite a worried look on her beautifully sculpted face.

'Are you out of your mind? I've just swum Loch Lomond!; I'm in the shape of my life!!! Why in God's name am I having to see a cancer specialist??'

Mark George saw me straight away the very next day on Friday 12th October and admitted that there indeed was a rascal lurking beneath the surface in my left abdomen and thought it might be something underneath the organs but would only be found with the technology of a CT scan. He wasn't willing to speculate and present me with anything that resembled a diagnosis without the evidence presented to him by technology.....

So, armed ith a CT scan under my belt (on Wed 17th Oct), I went along the following Friday (Fri 19th October). I sat down thinking that this was all going to be a big mistake and mix up. Surely I was just constipated and just needed to do some squatting for England. Not so Shezza.....

The scanners had found something. They had found something ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE!! I was shown a scan very slowly of the slice by slice visual of my torso. Dr George said that the lungs were fine (phew!) and then scrolled down the body.  What they had found was almost too ridiculous to believe (I was almost laughing rather than crying) - it was clear in the black and white ink on the letter that he gave me to go home with that weekend:

'There is a soft tissue mass in the retroperitoneum which involves the left psoas muscle and extends onto the iliacus muscle. The mass extends superiorly up to the lower pole of the kidney but does not arise from it. The maximum diameter in the transverse plane measures 11cm x10cm. The mass measures a craniocaudal diameter of 11cm.
Opinion. The appearances are in keeping with a soft tissue tumour in the retroperitoneum which probably arises from the right psoas muscle. A sarcoma is the most likely diagnosis and a specialist referral is advised for further imaging/management.'

The world had gone mad. I was insistent to Dr George that I felt fine and had no symptoms relating to this stupid  mass and was boasting about my new ab-workouts. I said he could feel my tummy again and that I'd been to the bog loads. I was kidding myself.... He immediately  pointed out the rather terrifying news  that this was an area of expertise way beyond him - he was a seasoned expert he had never seen a tumour like this before. Oh my giddy aunt I thought.  Only 3 oncology surgeons in the country are evidently known to operate in the 'retroperitoneum' & might perhaps be able to help me now.....He suggested someone who he would want to see faced with my utterly dire predicament.  He had already referred me to Dr Meirion Thomas at the Royal Marsden as his first 9.15am patient on the following Monday the 22nd October. I was too scared to google 'Sarcoma' for fear of dragging up unwanted grief. I knew that would serve no constructive purpose whatsoever.

I got the train home from a rainy London Bridge with teary eyes, the heaviest heart known to man &  just trying my best not to break down on the train and to keep it together.........
So that's that then.....All that was left for me to do was to go home tell my wife, kids, parents and brother that I had a tumour and I was pretty much  buggered with a few months to live if that. 38 years on the earth packed with fun and laughter & never wasted  one second. I had taken ALL my chances..EVERY SODDING LAST ONE OF THEM. I didn't cry when I told them all in person face to face (they all deserved more respect than the findings over a phone call as I drove around to see everyone individually that Friday evening (30 min visits to my  parents and  my brother ). I never lost it once there OR at work (it took everything I had to hold it together everywhere I went). I felt proud of everything I had done in my life and if I had months to live then so be it.... If I could man up to Loch Lomond, then I could man up to this.

Fast forward. An inclement Monday 22nd Oct came, Professor Meirion Thomas fiddled around and was interested to hear that I was asymptomatic. I had no symptoms relating to this mass WHATSOEVER and that I felt absolutely 100% fine with recent perfect blood tests at Nomura from the previous fortnight. He was particularly enquiring about any quad pain I may have encountered. No Sir. I told him about my recent conquering of Loch Lomond and plans to swim Manhattan. Although he looked at me strangely and asked why anyone in their right mind would want to swim in the dirty waters of the Hudson, he keenly put forth that his son had completed the Arch to Arc as part of a 3 man relay that year. Funnily enough an event I know a reasonable amount about as I helped solo world record holder Mark Bayliss (Superman) on his way down to Dover with feeds for his run & as a training buddy during the year...

I felt myself involuntarily exhale massively and be slightly relieved as his initial view after prodding around was that it was benign (surely they aren't that forthcoming about this stuff and err on the side of caution?) but I then became aware of the consequences which were carefully dished out to me....

HE was visibly moved to tears with a shudder in his voice as he explained them.....

He said that if the scan was right and it was emanating from the Psoas muscle then the mass would likely involve damage to the femoral nerve upon removal. The femoral nerve, he said, was the most important nerve in the body as it governs ones stability (quad function). He said that I would almost CERTAINLY lose the quad function in my left leg as a result of ensuring complete removal of this ball the size of a grapefruit or a small child's plastic ball. For me, though, that felt like a small price to pay. After the despair of Friday and a thoroughly desperate weekend (even a Sunday emergency visit to the Vicarage for prayers with the vicar!) there might be a decent chance they could get this crazy thing out. I still didn't know if I had cancer or not.

Results from the biopsy that he took showed NO malignant cells BUT he only took blood (which seemed to bother him) and would have preferred to have taken tissue too. The Royal Marsden CT scan analysis was thorough but inconclusive as to the true nature (it had features of benign and malignant tumours...nothing like covering oneself and all the medical terminology seemed so foreign, complicated, bewildering and horrifying in equal measure).  He therefore booked me in for EMERGENCY surgery on Tuesday 30th October to try and get this rascal out . Still no diagnosis! Arrggghh...

Fast Forward again. This is hard to believe I know but Boy Sheridan had a two hour operation (they were relieved that the rascal tumour came out easily and they didn't have to damage the bowel or left kidney and therefore didn't have to induce me into a 24 hour coma). Oh the joy of small mercies... One night in Intensive care (picture above) complete with dramatic drop in blood pressure at one stage to panic everyone on a proper level (the effects of a massive hit of morphine on top of an epidural like a proper OD from a rockstar took my blood pressure down to 28 at one stage!).... 6 nights in a private room later, I was tearing around on crutches playing tricks on nurses Ana, Danielle et al and looking forward to heading home and saying good riddance to morphine on tap (which was making me irrational & highly paranoid). Picture of me in my own private room on the Fulham Road for 6 nights...the joys of private health insurance! (there wasn't a machine I wasn't connected to)!

Today, Wed 8th November 2012, I was called by Professor Thomas who said that results from the pathology were in. What they have removed is a BENIGN cellular Schwannoma that seems to have almost nothing much known about it at all in science - will need to do more sniffing around....( Relief tears, 2 mins of pulling myself together washed down with a pub Lunch with mum. There is a god and I can start to rebuild my life......

Due to the removal of the mass, they had to cut the femoral nerve. I have lost all of my quad function in my left leg and will need a knee brace & stick/crutches for the foreseeable future/life. I had left knee acl reconstruction in Oct 2007 so am familiar with all the moves on the crutches....I always was a limping gimp. Just more so now.

It's quite hard to stomach entering hospital reasonably able-bodied and leaving with a life-lasting disability. But if that is the price, then it is very much worth taking and getting on with.

At this stage, I have a sore tummy due to major abdominal surgery (the greatest scar in history from chest to pelvis (100 stitches?)) and with any luck that will subside in 2-3 weeks. I can barely walk 3 laps round our 1 acre garden at the moment without searing abdominal pain but I'm sure that will calm down. Quite a difference from a man who swam 21.6 miles! The main benefit is being put on tramadol which is a terrific opiate and great for a permanently elevated mood!!

This won't (with any luck) change my sport and love for open water swimming as I am often able to recite the story of my friend Rosalinda Hardimann who swam the channel as a polio sufferer having never been free from her wheelchair. She has long been an inspiration for me and will continue to be so. In my opinion, people like her are the true stars of this world, not politicians or celebrities.

Whatever you do, don't bloody feel sorry for me. Don't get upset as I really don't want any pity. I just want to make people aware to go for their regular health checks. Maybe that's why this has happened to me - I need to make more people realise.....I feel lucky that I have a life to rebuild given it wasn't long ago I thought I had a 12cm inoperable tumour.

I feel completely honoured to have experienced this and hope that I can be a benchmark for other physically-constrained athletes to realise that they can still float! I am very happy that over the last 2 years that I've lost 2 stone through open water swimming and when turning up for the pre-operation checks, it reminds you how important it is to stay fit and healthy. My daughters now really understand why I encourage them to do something physical - whether it be gymnastics or swim club.

I experienced an amazing experience through all of this nightmare. On the Tuesday of my hospital visit, I awoke at 1am feeling very positive and felt inspired. I knew if I could get back swimming in some way, I could create greatness that might motivate others. That would give me a huge purpose and drive.

This is rare. VERY rare. Something that I never knew about (didn't go into this in my GCSE Biology) but have been chosen  for some reason to part of. The medical teams don't know why it was there. All I can say is thank god for open water swimming and applying to swim Manhattan. If I hadn't gone down these roads that 2.5kg (!) mass would have become a greater problem further on as I heard about a female martial arts teacher who had one which was doesn't bear worth thinking about...Most of all, I owe a huge level of massive gratitude to the professionalism of GP Lianne De Maar, the acting GP at the Nomura Health centre who absolutely made sure I got on the couch to look at me properly (she didn't need to). I will be booking all my 2 year well-man checks with her going forward - strange to think that my last one was only April 2011......

This was a really terrific way for my adorable wife to spend her half term away from school in her first term as a newly-qualified teacher. What one has to sign up for in a marriage!

I think I need to have a chat with the BLDSA president Double L and race organiser Janet Wilson to try and have my time adjusted for Loch Lomond as I was towing along a 2kg, 12cm mass (bag of sugar). That should take at least 5 hours off the time and be close to a new world record!!

I am exploring whether I can represent the country as a Paralympian and will continue to do any ambassadorial work I can do for my mates at the Rainbow Trust and will immerse myself with renewed vigour into the BLDSA - looking forward to next year's calender - the 2swim4 life will almost certainly have a disabled entry!

The surgeon reckons I can be back in the pool in 3 weeks.

As I finish this blog I am super excited about what the future holds. Watch this space......just do me a favour? Can you beat anyone and everyone over the head who is avoiding taking exercise or opting out of a physical challenge - it could end up saving their life:

Take all your chances while you can, you never know when they'll pass you by......


  1. Thanks for sharing the story Mark, I hope your road to recovery continues smoothly and I look forward to seeing you at a lake or a bit of sea somewhere next year, Ollie.

  2. Hi Ollie, thanks for reaching out. Definitely see you somewhere on the circuit in 2013. Best, Mark

  3. Merry Christmas and hope in 2013 you will start to get ready for Rio2016! Very happy and proud of you, Still Scared Ana :D

  4. Thanks Ana for helping to nurse me back to health. Still laugh at escaping from my room at 4am turning up at the nurses desk to freak you out when you thought I wasn't able to walk! You all do a heroic job!