10 February 2015
As a heavy smoker, Leslie Henshilwood was used to having a cough but when he started coughing up blood nine years ago he knew something was wrong.
At the age of 60, a lifetime of smoking had finally taken its toll on the self-employed salesman from St Andrews.
“I always lived a full and active life – playing sport, tennis, golf, rugby and swimming from an early age,” says Leslie. “However, as a boy living in a village where I was the youngest kid on the block, I followed the example of my pals who smoked and I was addicted by the age of 15. In the 60s, unlike today, smoking was the norm. Only in the later years listening to the news and reading the media did I ever think of the harmful side of smoking. But like everyone else, I never thought it would happen to me.
“In November 2005 I coughed up some blood in the morning. It was mixed with phlegm, not blood on its own. I was worried but waited to see if it would reoccur – which it did. I told my wife and two days later I was sitting in front of my GP.
“He asked me what I thought it was. I said cancer.”
After discussing the options, Leslie was sent for an x-ray following which he was told he had a shadow on his lung.
“I felt like I was being given the death sentence. I went into the car park and I was numb with the realisation of what I had just been told.”
It was at that point that Leslie, now 69, took the decision to stop smoking.
“I started smoking at the age of 12 or 13 and smoked 20 to 30 a day but when I found out I had cancer I stopped smoking there and then,” he says.
Leslie was sent to Ninewells Hospital in Dundee for visits with lung specialists and had a bronchoscopy. It was at this stage that he was also offered the support of a Macmillan nurse.
“I was resigned to the fact I was going to die and I asked the doctor how long,” says the father-of-four. “He said at least two years.”
But following a holiday to Portugal over the Christmas holidays, Leslie returned to some good news.
“I had a call from Lynn McAllister, my Macmillan support nurse, telling me the result of the latest scans and that my case was seen as being operable and curable.
“A meeting was arranged for me to see the doctors and prepare for surgery. I couldn’t believe it. I had a lot of questions and Lynn was fantastic. She explained what would be happening and what to expect.”
He had surgery at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary to remove the lower left part of his lung, followed by ‘belt and braces’ chemotherapy.
After five years he was given the all-clear and was discharged from the oncology clinic.
“I had come through the five years and I said to the oncologist ‘Is that me cured?’” he says. “She said: ‘When you’re 95 and have died of natural causes and are six feet under, you will know the cancer hasn’t come back.’”
Since then Leslie has had a few scares where he has coughed up blood.
“When you have had cancer, the immediate thought is it’s come back,” he says. “With the latest scare I went back to the same doctor at Ninewells. He asked if I would like a Macmillan nurse. I said ‘Yes’ and who should walk through the door but the same girl who had been there nine years before.
“This scare turned out to be nothing but yet again Macmillan was there. Lynn does tremendous work for people like me and all other cancer patients. I have always had positive results but she has to deal with so many who are less fortunate.
“It is the thought of knowing Macmillan is there that is so fantastic and these people deserve all the help they can get because they do so much to help all cancer patients.”
Leslie now works as a cancer buddy talking to people who have cancer or carers of people who have the disease.
“The message I try to give is that lung cancer is not what it used to be. If you have got a symptom that might lead you to think you have got a problem don’t keep it to yourself. Go and get help as soon as possible.
“Any treatments you have to go through are a means to an end to get you better even though they might not be the best thing you’ve ever experienced in your life. Looking back on it, it’s nothing compared to what it could have been.
“My case shows that being diagnosed with lung cancer is not necessarily a death sentence.”
Lynn McAllister, Macmillan Lung Cancer Clinical Nurse Specialist at Ninewells, said 119 people receive a diagnosis of lung cancer every day in the UK.
“Whilst the survival rates are poor, the important thing to remember is that if caught early enough it is treatable,” she says. “77% of lung cancer patients have said they are unaware of the signs and symptoms, and that means many are being diagnosed too late for curative treatment. It’s really vital that more people are educated – getting people to their GP when symptoms occur could mean earlier diagnosis and a better prognosis.”
For more information about how Macmillan Cancer Support can help you, visit:
If you need to talk to someone, you can call the Macmillan Support Line free on: 0808 808 0000
For more about Lynn and Leslie, watch this video: