born out of humour – cancer on board

James McNaught, Founder of Cancer On Board

8th November 2018

Being a cancer patient is stressful enough, without having to worry about getting a seat on public transport

In 2014, I was diagnosed with stage 3 squamous cell carcinoma of the right tonsil. My oncologist told me that, at 44, I was relatively young to have my diagnosis. Marathon running and cycling 5,000km a year, had provided me with a useful amount of residual fitness, meaning she felt she could be “fairly aggressive” planning my treatment. I don’t think I could fully comprehend this understatement until I experienced it first-hand.

Chemotherapy came first, with two monthly rounds of cisplatin and 5-fluorouracil. The side effects were fewer than I had feared. A merry cocktail of pills kept the nausea to manageable levels. I held onto the little hair I naturally have, and learned to cope with the nosebleeds and mouth ulcers. Apart from the days I had to attend hospital appointments, I even managed to remain at work – although my colleagues now tell me that I looked greyer by the day with my treatment. I am a doorkeeper in the House of Lords, and I found there is a pocket in the back of my tailcoat which seems tailor-made for a fluorouracil pump!

Even doing everyday tasks seemed to take forever, and my taste buds had completely given up. Before radiotherapy started, I had the dubious pleasure of being fitted with a Percutaneous Endoscopic Gastrostomy (PEG) tube. I was told “some patients find this quite uncomfortable for a day or two” which was quite the understatement!

Radiotherapy combined with more chemo, started very easily. I had been warned it would really knock me out, and was already taking painkillers before the treatment started. Nothing happened for a week or so, then my voice began to crack, and eventually I lost the power of speech. A combination of chemo-brain and morphine made me sluggish and unsteady, but I still had to get myself to hospital every day, whether I felt like it or not.

On what felt like the hottest day of the year, after a nightmarish tube journey to Warren Street, I found myself sitting in a waiting room alongside a fellow head and neck patient. We had both experienced a terrible journey in. As neither of us could really speak, we found it impossible to ask people for a seat. We joked with each other, in whispers and croaks, that we should pretend to be pregnant, so that people would offer us seats on the tube. As we pondered this ridiculous thought, with my new friend swigging from a bottle of morphine he had in his pocket, a lightbulb sprang alight in my fuzzy brain. The Cancer On Board badge was born.

The badge gives patients the option of making themselves known to their fellow passengers on public transport. It can help make a terrible journey a more bearable one, with patients finding it a morale booster just to have one in their pocket. We send the badges out for free, to anyone who requests one, and also distribute them to hospitals, clinics and support groups all over the British Isles. Our ultimate goal is for every patient to receive a badge on the day of their diagnosis, so that they can keep it in a pocket or a handbag, just in case.