Image: Graham Bonner and his granddaughter Cleagh. Credit: John Angerson
I had no idea what was coming – on the Sunday I’d gone for a 50-mile cycle ride with no problems at all. But by the Wednesday I was doubled up in pain and then rushed to A&E. I was told, ‘you have a tumour on your kidney, and it’s likely to be cancer.’
It rocked everything, I was a healthy and fit man – one of those people who was sailing through life. Things like this didn't happen to me.
That was in April 2020 and three months later I went for surgery to remove the tumour. But scans in early 2021 showed the cancer had spread to my lungs, lymph nodes and abdomen.
My wife Trish and I called in to see my parents to let them know what the situation was, and I couldn’t even tell them. I tried to, but the words just wouldn’t come out.
I knew it was bad. With a kidney, you can remove it, but you can’t take out your lungs.
I had everything to live for
I was going downhill very quickly, and doctors told me it was not curable, but that they hoped immunotherapy would slow the spread down and give me more time. I had everything to live for: my wife, my three wonderful children Michael, Laura and Eve - and our first grandchild was just about to be born.
But I was struggling. I couldn’t take my clothes on and off. I couldn’t climb stairs and it felt like I was trying to breathe through a straw the whole time. Work stopped, everything stopped apart from hospital visits. Getting from the car to the hospital treatment room was a journey I used to dread. It was like having a fire in your lungs that never went away.
I started my first round of immunotherapy in February 2021. It was the first of four doses of a combination of drugs called ipilimumab and nivolumab. But by then I was on oxygen 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the hospice team were involved.
The tumour basically disappeared
Trish and I knew I had to be well enough to complete all four doses of the initial immunotherapy, so we did everything possible to make me feel as good as I could, including complementary therapies - way before I was diagnosed Trish had trained to help patients at our local cancer centre. With her support, I was able to get through it.
I’d developed a lump in a lymph node on my neck. And as the cancer progressed, the lump had also progressed. It was a visual indicator for me of what was happening with the cancer that I couldn't see. And at its worst, it grew to the size of a golf ball. But as the immunotherapy started to take over, I could physically feel the lump starting to get smaller and smaller. As the treatment progressed, the lump that I had - the tumour - basically disappeared.
I remember waking up one day, and it was the first morning in months that I was actually able to take a good lungful of air without any pain and without any discomfort.
Then I didn’t need the oxygen and I just gradually started getting stronger with small incremental improvements.
Image: Graham Bonner and his wife Trish. Credit: John Angerson
Immunotherapy has been remarkable for me
I can remember the first time I got back on my bike again. It was the summer of 2021, around four months after starting immunotherapy. It was maybe two laps of the picnic table. But it was two laps that I thought I would never, ever do again.
Immunotherapy has been remarkable for me. During the initial treatment we were taking everything one step at a time, just getting through the next four-week round.
I don’t think we ever dreamt that I would be where I am now, working full-time and enjoying my life to the full. This was certainly not what the doctors had expected and in February 2023 my scan showed no evidence of disease.
I’m still going through treatment – I receive nivolumab once a month. But never in a million years did I think I’d be at this level of fitness. I’m back cycling most weekends, but family time is more important to me now more than ever, so I don’t need to get out on the bike - just knowing I can is enough.
Image: Graham Bonner rides his bike at Lough Neagh. Credit: John Angerson
I will be eternally grateful
I have been alive and well to see our first grandchild Brodie and then his younger sister Cleagh being born. Watching our son Michael and his wife Chantelle become parents was a proud moment.
I have also been able to walk our daughter Laura down the aisle when she married Christopher and now await the arrival of their first born. My youngest daughter Eve is studying for her A levels and learning to drive - helping her has given me such pride.
All of these are things I would just not have been here to do, and Trish and I will be eternally grateful that my consultant and team chose to give me a chance with immunotherapy as a first-line treatment.
Image: Graham, Trish and their family. Credit: John Angerson
The ICR's work is vital
The work that The Institute of Cancer Research is doing is vital to help more people survive cancer.
But even scientists don’t fully comprehend why immunotherapy is successful for some, and not for others.
They desperately need to better understand how it works, so more people can have the chance to regain their health in the way I have.
Help give more cancer patients the hope of a cure with immunotherapy. Our research plans are ambitious and need ongoing support. Please make a monthly donation to help patients live longer and to save many more lives.
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