Monday 3 August 2020

The Diagnosis

An SMT board I designed and built at home
I think I was in third year of secondary school, what we now call year 9. It must have been as my form tutor and physics teacher was the same person.  He was a significant influence on bringing my academic abilities a bit closer to my potential and I shall remain eternally grateful for his contribution to my journey. I went to him with an interesting article I had found in some sort of electronics enthusiasts magazine. It was, for it's time, something of a wonder. A little mouse like contraption that had whiskers and light sensors, driven by two little motors to its wheels with a skid steer action. If one of the whiskers detected an obstacle the motor on the other side would drive in reverse to move away from the obstacle. It also had light sensors underneath so the device could follow a white line on the floor. The circuitry for the time, about 1978, was quite complex and contained both NPN and PNP silicon transistors.

I was fascinated by the circuitry and had gone to this teacher for an explanation of its workings and to see if there was a chance we could build a version. He told me to see Mr Harvey, who ran an after school electronics club. The rest, as they say, is history and Mr Harvey quickly pipped my form tutor to the accolade of best teacher ever, but only just.

Someone else's design, PCB professionally made, populated by me
We never built the mouse, but instead played around with BC108 transistors and light dependant resistors to create magic circuitry. Bistable multivibrators built from discrete components and even progressing to use things like 555 timer ICs1, which to my surprise are still in use today. Later I became familiar with operational amplifiers, or more often known as op amps. Halcyon days.

During this time I also became fascinated with radio. Superheterodyne receivers, antennas and even eventually transmitters.  Shortly after leaving school I passed my radio amateurs exam and became licensed, class B, to transmit on allocated frequencies above 144MHz with the call sign G6HEF. I never learnt morse code, but eventually the rules changed and I now hold a full licence and can transmit on any of the amateur frequencies.

When lockdown hit I took the opportunity to take my hobby seriously. Being an active person and raising a family, being distracted by beer and the hassles of running a business it had fallen into the category of retirement hobby. As lockdown prohibited going to the pub or walking the fells never mind rock climbing or alpine visits, effort increased significantly to look back at radio for my amusement. It was, after-all, self training for my career. I set up for SMT1 work at home and started to build various stuff for my hobby.

At first I was very enthusiastic, back in early April. I built various projects including a system to talk to people through a geostationary satellite. However, I became increasingly tired and in some pain. I lost 10kg, lost my appetite and generally felt really quite unwell. I thought I had caught covid, but this continued for some weeks until eventually I knew something else was wrong when abdominal pains became quite intolerable.

I phoned the GP who very quickly referred me to a specialist at the hospital.  Within days I had an appointment for a CT scan with "highlights". I would have been scoped4, but covid prohibited that. The scope department was not accepting any patients. I was to be spared that unpleasantness.
My 2.4GHz transmitting and 10GHz receiving satellite system

A few days later, the start of a series of really bad days, I got a surprise call from the scope department to make an appointment for a gastric scope. Unfortunately the poor secretary had beaten the consultant, who had only minutes before ordered the procedure without talking to me. I was upset and shocked and told the woman that there was a mistake, this wasn't what I was told would happen. She said she would go back and check.

Later the consultant phoned me. I had, it seemed, some thickening of my stomach walls and some irregularities to the lining of my abdomen. I really needed to have this scope so they could take some biopsies.

I then got a call from Claudia. The upper GI specialist nurse. By this time I knew that they were suspecting cancer. I told her I wanted full disclosure. She has not let me down in that respect. She warned me that the news was unlikely to be particularly fantastic, but that she would be there for me through thick and thin, whatever happened. She told me I needed a scan of my upper abdomen as anything further up would almost certainly rule out surgical solutions.

I had my gastric scope, twice actually. A word of advice if you ever have a scope. Take someone with you to drive you home and accept the magic diazepam, you will very probably not remember anything and this is the best thing to do. If they suggest not letting you have sedation tell them they are cruel and make a fuss if they even think of not giving you the maximum. Diazepam is wonderful stuff, just don't drive until the next day.

However, if they want you to have a scope, have one as soon as possible, it may save your life. It is quite possible I should have had one a few years ago but was too scared to go. The main reason I was scared was due to people telling me horror stories about the procedure without diazepam. Did I tell you to accept diazepam? Trust me, it really is an awesome drug.

A few days later I went for a CT scan of my chest. Later again Claudia phoned me to let me know that indeed they had found other things and that the biopsy had identified cancer. I needed to see Dr Fyfe urgently so the choices could be explained and statistics quoted. She warned me quite sombrely that things were not at all good.

They had found cancer cells in my oesophagus and my stomach. They identified the primary as being oesophageal but the primary was restricting the proper operation of my stomach as it had grown down over the top. Worse than that it appeared that there were secondaries in my lymph system. I had to admit it explained a lot of my symptoms.

I met Dr Fyfe and Claudia with Sarah my daughter. It was a very serious and earnest meeting. Without treatment I had months to live. The treatment on offer didn't work for 30% of patients, although if you included that 30% the median survival was 12 months as a national average, but 15 months for Furness General from diagnosis, but they were unable to offer any other statistics.

The chemotherapy might well be horrible, they told me. It was a gamble. It would attack my immune system and the nerves in my skin and larynx, might make me feel sick, or even be sick and my hands, feet and gums might develop sores.

Alternatively they could fit a stent and make me comfortable.

Bollocks to that I thought, and probably expressed something along those lines. Having already thought about it a lot it didn't take me long to opt for the chemotherapy.

"When do you want to start?" Dr Fyfe enquired.

"As soon as possible, with caveats" I replied, scared he might suggest today.

"Next week"

It was only Monday, gave me a week to mentally prepare.


He left the room and came back a few minutes later with an appointment for the following Tuesday.

I went home to write a will and start the process of moving pension money to a place I could get to it.

I had just turned 55, it was the end of May and I was now very scared about how many more birthdays I would get to see.

The next post will bring us right up to the present day. Will I turn out to be in the 30%? How will I afford to live? Will I be able to continue to work?

What exactly is it like living with cancer?

Once we have these very important questions out of the way we can then get on with more important business.


1IC = integrated circuit. A collection of transistors and resistors formed onto a single peice of silicone and encapsulated with connector legs known as pins. What most people know as silicone chips. They do make the job of an electronics engineer easier and is what has pushed the technology to the dizzying heights we know today.

2SMT = surface mount technology. When I first started in electronics almost everything was through hole components. PCBs (printed circuit boards) had all the components on one side and the leads of those components went through holes to be soldered onto the conductive tracks on the other side. Today the wise money, and to be honest even the stupid versions, all use SMT. This is where the tracks and the components are on the same side of the PCB. The components don't have wires, but instead have very short stubby connections that solder onto exposed pads on the PCB. Everything is smaller, more delicate and requires a much more steady hand, good eyesight and fine soldering iron bits. For complex ICs a hot air system is better. The technology lends itself very nicely to automated assembly, but not to ageing long-sighted people like me, especially as I found out after a night on the beers.

3a CT scan with highlights means hooking the patient up to a machine, via a cannula, to inject iodine whilst X-rays are used to image a three demential picture of the patients body. The iodine, being a relatively high atomic mass element but reasonably harmless biologically, helps to highlight structures that would not normally be visible with X-rays.

4They wanted to put a camera up my back passage. I've always been somewhat scared of scopes, not helped by some stories people have told me about their unpleasantness. They had assumed the problem was in my lower abdomen due to the precise symptoms I reported.


Bob said...

Really sorry to hear about your diagnosis Dave. Hope the treatment isn't taking too much of a toll on you.

HardknottDave said...

Thanks Bob,

It is probably worth issuing a small spoiler. One of my reasons to restart the blog, amongst other things, is to try and explain to people that living with cancer isn't all bad. At least the bad things are very much not the things you expect, not from my perspective anyway.

Unknown said...

Hi Dave Got well into the first half and was going to congratulate you anyway on a really interesting piece ... BC108 transistors I remember well. Then came the shift in gear/subject matter which leaves me wanting to congratulate you on your courage and honesty ... awful news but typical Dave response to demand data, tackle it head on and help others by explaining the whole process.
Really hoping for the best of outcomes ... wish you and your family all the best ... and keep up with the electronics and the writing please!
Rgrds Adrian

Judie F. said...

I will never ever know enough about the electronics and radio side of things (passing interest only as a once upon a time computerish geek), and sadly I know more than I wish about journeys with cancer, and am well aware each is a unique as the person who travels with it. Keep posting about both, I might just learn something useful, and if not I am sure you will have me howling with laughter and tears as always Xx Judie.

Sheffield Hatter said...

Glad they seem to be really on the ball with your cancer. And thanks for the advice about diazepam. Though hope I never need it.

Good luck and best wishes.

Behind Enemy Lines said...


Belated commiserations on a tough run of luck. I'm late in saying so, because your blog was foldered in my RSS reader under 'business' where there's been very little attention these last few months. Just wanted to say I've appreciated you sharing your story over the years, and am very hopeful that you make it through during these tough times.

All the best!