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Dromore youth worker with rare cancer had leg amputated yet wouldn’t change a thing

 

Ahead of a Cancer Focus Northern Ireland Big Bucket Collection this Friday, Dromore youth worker Peter Branker tells Marie Foy why he’s always happy to help with fundraising.

Dromore man Peter Branker has had a long and arduous battle with cancer. Over the years he has made his peace with the disease and now focuses on helping others who are going through their own personal cancer journey and raising funds for research. He does this by volunteering with charities such as Cancer Focus Northern Ireland.

Peter (47), a youth worker, is calling on everyone to give a few hours to Cancer Focus NI to help with their Big Bucket Collection in towns all over Northern Ireland this Friday. All the money raised stays in Northern Ireland to help local cancer patients and their families.

The charity is urgently looking for more volunteers so anyone who would like to help, particularly in Strabane, Banbridge, Downpatrick, Lurgan, Dungannon, Omagh, Coleraine, Magherafelt, Downpatrick, Lurgan, Newcastle, Newtownstewart or Ballymena, should email fundraising@ cancerfocusni.org or call 9066 3281.

Talking about his motivation to volunteer, Peter says:

Living life as a survivor reminds me how lucky I am to be alive. I’ve been able to overcome my illness and been given a second chance. My first personal experience with cancer really began in 1984 at the age of 13. I developed a cyst on my right upper eyelid which wasn’t sore but off to the doctor I went. The doctor referred me to the Royal Victoria Hospital and a date was set to remove it in Belfast.  

This all happened within a number of weeks. My family, friends, the kids at school and I thought nothing much of it. Things changed quickly and dramatically after that though. A biopsy revealed that I had a tumour behind my eye — Rhabdomyosarcoma — a rare form of cancer.  

My oncologist and my mum sheltered me from too much information and all that I really understood was that I had cancer and that I was going to receive radiotherapy every week day for six weeks and also chemotherapy. 

Preparing for radiotherapy was an experience in itself. My mum and I set off to Belvoir Park Hospital, also in Belfast, where I met a consultant radiologist and the next thing I knew I was in this room having a plaster of Paris cast made of my head.  

The cast was used to make a mask which was used on my subsequent visits to bolt my head to a table while having my radiotherapy. 

After the first week or so of treatment, I started to think a lot more about what it was doing to me. After all, this was a laser and it was essentially just burning through me. The smell really got to me, I was nauseous, and I still remember it. 

Chemotherapy was next and again I had no idea what to expect. I decided to have something to eat before I went for my first treatment, which turned out to be a mistake as I was violently sick. 

Everything went haywire from the moment I got the treatment. I could feel my whole body react. At first my arm went very cold with the injections, then my whole body went cold, I developed shivers, I vomited all my food up, then blood and bile, and I could feel my hair literally falling out from the first moment. I developed serious constipation and lost all my taste buds. 

My grandparents brought my mum and I to the hospital on this occasion. That was the last time my grandmother would go with us, it would just be my grandfather from then on.

I began to realise that my cancer was serious and treatment and hospital became my life. There were no school mates to spend my time with — school was finished for me for two and a half to three years, although I didn’t know this at the time.

Thankfully my next chemotherapy wasn’t for three weeks. Little did I know that it would take over two weeks each time for me to start to feel better again, and just when I did start to feel better I had to go back for more chemotherapy. My right eye became sore and uncomfortable. The radiotherapy was actually being administered right through it to get to my tumour.  

Radiotherapy lasted six weeks and for chemotherapy I went regularly to the hospital for 24 hours every three weeks. I didn’t eat at all before I went for treatment. The violent reactions didn’t improve and I was sick for days after.  

I started to punch the doctors and nurses and although I always made it to hospital I threatened to run away. I couldn’t understand why other children receiving treatment did not react the same way as I did. I assumed everyone was getting the same treatment.  

I still hadn’t understood how serious this was. I gradually started to lose my eyesight — my eye had started dying from the moment I received my treatment.  

I then had to go for surgery to have my eyelids turned out as the eyelashes were scratching along my eye which by now had turned completely pink. These operations were done while I was awake and they weren’t pleasant, I had to sing my way through them. The doctors and nurses quickly realised I was an Elvis fan.  

I started to think a lot about my appearance now, how other people would see me, how girls would see me. I worried about becoming completely blind.  

This was at a time I became very friendly with a local minister and I spent a lot of time with his family playing chess and on my BMX when I felt well enough. I started reading the Bible and praying a lot and throughout all my years this has never left me. I believe I gained a lot of strength from my faith as well as from my parents.  

Going for chemotherapy every three weeks was scary. I started having nightmares and thought a lot about death. I worried about heaven and hell. 

Fighting with the nurses and doctors got really bad and on different occasions I held on to pipes, locked myself into toilets, and generally screamed the place down. I really felt bad about behaving this way and I felt sorry for everyone, my mum, my dad, the doctors and nurses, the other patients and parents, but I was scared. Yet I also understood it was for my own good, it was to keep me alive.  

During the next couple of years the chemotherapy took its toll, I lost a lot of weight, I was very skinny, the backs of my hands would swell where the needles were inserted, and I would only really eat well after a couple of weeks before heading back on the third week for treatment. I also lost all my hair and wore a woollen hat.  

The radiotherapy also had an effect. My face thinned out, my eye was completely destroyed, I had numerous plastic surgery operations over the next few years to build out my socket.  

I get looks from adults and children alike, it’s something I’ve got used to and can tolerate, but it doesn’t mean I like it.    

Around late 1984, early 1985 I began to get pains in my left lower leg just around the top of my ankle. At first the pain was bearable but quite quickly it began to get very sore indeed. After X-rays I was told I had cysts on my bone and that once my bones stopped growing they would disappear. I was told that it wasn’t cancer.  

Over the next few years the pain got worse and eventually had lots of trouble with just walking. On occasion the pain would prevent me from walking at all. At the age of 16, I began working for a local company as a joiner and after a couple of years I could no longer wear boots because of the pain. I constantly went to the doctor about it and in 1989 I could bear it no longer.  

I was 18 years old and crying in bed every night because of the pain, while sharing a bedroom with two brothers. I was embarrassed and in extreme pain. I felt as though no one took me seriously, that somehow I was over-exaggerating my pain. On my next visit to the hospital I overheard the doctors talking about my X-rays and they said my bones had stopped growing.

I told them to try surgery and they decided to graft bone from my pelvis to my ankle in order to sort the issue out once and for all. I had the surgery a few weeks later and I woke up with a scar on my leg but no graft had been taken, I knew something was wrong. My fears were coming true. As soon as the surgeons started to operate they knew I had cancer.  

I was then summoned to a meeting and I knew in my heart what the news was going to be. I was told I had to have major surgery. The doctor couldn’t manage to tell me. I felt for him and my first reaction was to hide my leg under my chair, I couldn’t look at it. Strangely my main thought immediately once again was who would want to be with me, not only am I blind in my right eye but now I’m having my leg amputated.  

I had just started dating a girl one week before and now I had to break this news to her. It just so happened she already knew and was very understanding. I had my leg amputated on November 12, 1989.  

Up until this point in my life all my surgeries had been signed for by my mother, however on this occasion I was 18 and therefore this was the first one I had to sign for. I remember distinctly being asked to sign this and I had been reading the Book of Job from the Bible and I felt calm but somehow when I went to sign the permission I couldn’t manage this for a few moments and I had to compose myself.  

The operation went very well and strangely enough I was extremely calm going into surgery and after surgery I did not shed a tear. Some of my family were there at the hospital and this obviously helped a lot. Unfortunately my stay in hospital ended up being nine weeks as I took an infection in my leg which didn’t heal properly for months. 

Luckily enough, though, my stay was made easier by the patients that were there at the time because they were great craic and kept my spirits up; there was no way I would be allowed to feel sorry for myself even if I had wanted to.

My next major obstacle was now to get an artificial leg and to learn to walk with it. 

Thankfully the hospital had arranged for me to meet a fellow amputee before my surgery and he told me what to expect and we met on numerous occasions after my surgery. He helped me a lot and we became good friends.  

Learning to walk again was not too difficult for me though it does restrict your ability to do certain things. But I was very determined and got on with things as best I could. Walking any distance back in 1989 was very painful and I just did as much as I could.  

Thankfully over the years things have greatly improved and although I still do have times when I have to stay off my leg for periods of time this is not as often, although my right leg has taken the brunt of it and I now require physio quite a lot.  

An amputation is not so obvious to people especially if you are walking well and this has been an issue with meeting new people, particularly girls. My eye is obvious but I find myself having to explain to people about my leg on occasion if I feel they need to know.

All my experiences in hospital and returning home have always been made easier by the great friends and family I have had and still do. And they were always willing to take some of the sweets and chocolate off my hands when they thought I had too much! All for my benefit really ...

I have learned to be thankful for the smallest gifts in life, like family and friends — and indeed the fabulous scenery we have in this country no matter what the weather. Yes, my experiences with cancer have left me with physical scars — I have lost my right eye and my lower left leg. I have lost my father, my step-father and my grandfather all to cancer. I prefer not to dwell on what life would be like if I wasn’t left with the physical scars, I prefer to think of what my life has become because of my experiences.   

I remember those who are not here any longer with fondness and I cherish their memory and my time spent with them. Do I wish I never had cancer or would I change a thing? No. I have no doubt I’ve become a better person as a result of my experiences with cancer. I spend a lot of time fundraising for charities, volunteering, community work and I’m a youth worker. 

I wonder who I would be if I had never experienced cancer. I focus on how I can help others, I don’t hate cancer like some people understandably do. I do, though, want us to find a cure that means we can do away with all the suffering pain and death that cancer brings with it. I have no doubt one day that will happen.”

Cancer Focus NI supports local cancer patients and their families, carries out cancer prevention in workplaces, schools and communities, campaigns for better health policies for Northern Ireland and funds research at QUB. If you can help fundraise for an hour or two on this Friday, June 29, then tel: 028 9066 3281 or email fundraising@cancerfocusni.org.

If you have any concerns about cancer call the Cancer Focus NI free NurseLine and speak to a specialist cancer nurse, tel: 0800 783 3339, Mon-Fri, 9am-10pm

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