“‘How does it feel to be diagnosed with cancer the second time?,” she ventured.
“Twice as bad as the first time,” was his dry reply.
Donald, 65, has already faced prostate cancer, which was successfully treated with radiotherapy, but now he is preparing for surgery after routine screening uncovered that he has cancer of the colon, or large bowel.
Doctors say the tumour is unconnected to his previous cancer, it is simply a terrible case of bad luck that he has been affected twice.
In one sense, however, he has been lucky – on both occasions, the cancer was caught extremely early, before he even had any symptoms.
Donald, who lives in Clermiston with wife June, was offered the test for prostate cancer by his GP around five years ago. He gave a blood sample and went home to await the results.
He says: “They said ‘If you don’t hear from us in six weeks you’re all- clear’ and after six weeks I said to my wife ‘That’s it, I’ve got to be all-clear’. Two days later the letter came. I opened it right in the kitchen and my wife was standing next to me and I said ‘I’ve got to see the professor at the urology department in the Western General.’ I looked at her and said ‘I’ve got cancer’.
“She said ‘Don’t be ridiculous’. I said ‘You don’t get a letter to go and see a professor to be told you don’t have cancer’.”
Sadly, his prediction was right, but the treatment was relatively straightforward. He was given a radiation treatment known as brachytherapy, where 72 small radioactive pellets were inserted into the area around the cancer as he lay under general anaesthetic.
It was a fairly painless procedure, he said: “I just woke up with a block of ice on me and that was it. A guy came up to me that night and he had a Geiger counter with him. He said ‘I’ve got to make sure they’re working’, he just went down from my neck and as it got to my abdomen it went off, and he said ‘That’s it. They’re working’.”
Donald revisited the doctor for regular checks, and about a year later, receiving a set of particularly positive blood test results, asked the doctor if he was cured.
“He said: ‘You’re only cured of cancer in Hollywood movies. Remission is as good as you get’. I don’t know if it was just a phrase he used or if he was being cautious.”
It was to prove an eerily prescient comment. In the following years, Donald suffered many other health problems, but had no signs of cancer. He was diagnosed with intestinal disorder diverticulitis, and then suffered a heart attack while at work – on the Forth Bridge. He had to be taken to safety by boat and revived with adrenaline after his heart stopped.
But he recovered, and only retired at the end of last year.
Around the same time Donald read in the Evening News that former city MP John Barrett, for whom he used to deliver campaign leaflets, was fighting bowel cancer, and counted his lucky stars that he was apparently still unaffected after his own brush with cancer.
In December he received through the post his own routine testing kit for bowel cancer, the same as that which led to Mr Barrett’s early diagnosis. Donald sent his samples straight off and received a second kit in the post, saying that blood had been found, and asking him to repeat the test.
He says: “Two weeks later I got this huge envelope delivered by courier and it was an appointment to get a colonoscopy at the Western.”
He went along on December 7 last year and afterwards came out to the ward to recover, along with all the other patients who had undergone the same procedure.
He says: “You see the nurses come to the patients, say, ‘You’re all-clear, away you go’, and I was still sat there on my own. I saw my wife walking towards me, and she said ‘They told me you’re the last one here and just to come and sit with you’.
“The nurses came up to me and said ‘Mr Smith would like to see you now’. I happened to comment to my wife ‘There’s a room there and if you go there, you’re getting bad news’ and that’s the room they took me into.”
He was told the procedure had revealed a 6cm malignant tumour in his colon but remained stoical when the doctor broke the news. “He kept looking at me and he said ‘Are you all right, Mr Scott?’ I said ‘If you think I’m being macho, you’re wrong. This is going to hit me in two or three days.
“I said ‘Is it possible that the prostate cancer cells spread over?’, he said ‘No, it’s sheer bad luck’.”
On February 27 he will return to the Western for surgery to remove the tumour, either by keyhole surgery through his belly button, or through a full incision in his abdomen, depending on what the surgeon decides on the day will work best.
Pathologists will then examine the piece of bowel that is removed, and if there is any sign at all that the tumour may have spread, he will be given six months of chemotherapy, which he dreads, but is facing with bravery.
In the meantime, he has nothing but praise for staff there, and for those at the Macmillan Cancer Centre, who have helped him apply for benefits and urged him to spread the word about the importance of early detection – which is exactly what he’s doing.
He says: “From my colleagues at work you’d get either ‘I don’t want to know’ or ‘I’m not doing that disgusting test, no way’.
“I don’t know if you call it macho or sheer stupidity. There’s a whole lot of guys out there that say ‘I won’t do that’ but if you do it and they get it early, you get on with your life, but if you don’t and you get major symptoms, you’re in trouble.”
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A neW Scottish Government campaign will be launched later this month to improve cancer survival rates by increasing the number of Scots diagnosed early.
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in Scotland, and has symptoms including difficulty, pain or burning when passing urine, frequent trips to the toilet at night, a sudden, uncontrollable desire to pass water, or a sensation of never quite emptying the bladder.
Bowel cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in both men and women. Home-screening kits are sent out every two years to everyone aged between 50 and 74.
Dr Dermot Gorman, consultant in public health at NHS Lothian, said: “The earlier we find cancer, the easier it is to treat.”
• For more information, visit www.nhsinform.co.uk or call 0800 22 44 88.