I’m a medical professional and still missed the signs of my own cancer


John in scrubs

I ignored and excused the tell-tale symptoms (Picture: John Arnell)

The consultant looked at me seriously. ‘We found a tumour during your colonoscopy,’ she told me.  

Staring back at her, I could barely make sense of her words.  

Not only was it terrifying that I potentially had cancer but I just couldn’t understand.  

How could I, of all people – someone who supported so many hundreds of other people with their health as a NHS nurse – have missed the signs?  

Looking back, it seems obvious that something was wrong but for 11 months, I ignored and excused the tell-tale symptoms.  

In June 2020, I started to feel fatigued and experienced cramps in my right abdomen but I didn’t think too much about it.  

I was a senior nurse in a rehabilitation ward for patients with long Covid, and the pandemic meant it was a tough gig for everyone in healthcare. I put my discomfort down to being on my feet all day and working longer hours.  

However, over the following months, my symptoms began to evolve. My stools became looser and darker than normal. I knew something wasn’t quite right, but this time, I put it down to a poor diet. 

My busy schedule meant that I was snacking more than usual on fizzy drinks and junk food.   

John Arnell at work wearing PPE

I put my discomfort down to being on my feet all day and working longer hours (Picture: John Arnell)

On Christmas Eve that year, I was undergoing surgery to remove a benign lump between my ear and jaw.  

‘Your iron and haemoglobin levels are extremely low,’ the anaesthetist told me, concerned. ‘I’m surprised you’ve been able to work 12-hour shifts and cycle to work.’  

He was so worried, he referred me for further tests.  

In the new year, those additional tests found high levels of blood in my stools, which meant that I was fast-tracked for a colonoscopy, a CT scan on my abdomen and pelvis and a CT PET scan.  

John Arnell taking a selfie on a boat, sea in the background

I felt numb when the doctor told me I had cancer (Picture: John Arnell)

I underwent the procedure within two weeks and to my disbelief, I discovered that I had a tumour. Four weeks after the colonoscopy it was revealed that the tumour was cancerous. 

I felt numb when the doctor told me I had cancer. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but luckily my partner was there, taking notes.  

My family was devastated. I knew they would have to live through this with me.   

Following my diagnosis, I underwent robotic surgery to remove one side of my colon with the tumour. I also had 42 lymph nodes removed, which were thankfully all non-cancerous.  

John Arnell with his family

My family was devastated. I knew they would have to live through this with me (Picture: John Arnell)

John Arnell in the uniform of the Royal Marines

I was determined to lead an active life even while undergoing treatment (Picture: John Arnell)

After discussing treatment options with my oncologist, I opted for a six-month oral chemotherapy plan.   

Luckily, I didn’t have any hair on my head to lose, but I lost hair elsewhere. My bones ached, I felt extremely sick throughout, and I would get so hot, it was like living in a radiator. Sometimes, I felt restless; at other times, I was desperate for sleep.   

Still, I was determined to lead an active life even while undergoing treatment. I carried on working from home, as well as volunteering at the local Royal Marines cadet unit.  

I played hockey, umpired games, and coached a junior team, too – I felt so honoured when Portsmouth Hockey Club made me a life member in August 2021. It was a special moment, having played there since I was 12.  

John Arnell on a sports pitch in sports gear, smiling at the camera

I played hockey, umpired games, and coached a junior team (Picture: Katherine Duffy)

Along with incredible support from my family and friends, these welcome distractions helped me get through one of the most difficult times in my life.  

After chemo finished, a CT scan on my chest, abdomen and pelvis showed that no cancerous tumours remained. The news was exhilarating but left me with so many different emotions. 

I couldn’t shake the question:How could this have happened to me? Had I paid more attention to my symptoms and got checked earlier, my cancer would have been caught and treated more quickly and simply. I was frustrated with myself for delaying, and it still plays on my mind now.  

John Arnell wearing a life-jacket and helmet standing on a platform by a lake, next to steps descending into the water

I now get checked regularly, and don’t ignore anything (Picture: John Arnell)

I am thrilled to share that I am now cancer-free and extremely grateful for the local NHS staff, my family, friends, and work colleagues who supported me throughout my cancer journey – without them, I wouldn’t be here today.  

I feel privileged to live in a time where cancer can now be treated. I have yearly CTs and colonoscopies in case the cancer does return but the chances of successful treatment have improved drastically over the years.

Around 80% now survive commonly diagnosed cancers for 10 years or more if caught at the earliest stage.

John Arnell with his NHS colleagues at Christmas - John is wearing a turkey hat

If, as a health professional, I can miss signs of cancer, anyone can (Picture: John Arnell)

As a nurse, I’ve dedicated my life to supporting others with their health but the best way to continue doing so is to look after my own health first.  

I want to use my experience to raise awareness of the signs of symptoms of cancer and urge others to contact their GP practice immediately if something in their body doesn’t feel right. Signs and symptoms can differ hugely from person-to-person, but we should all try to know what is normal, or not normal, for us. 

You might have a cough, tummy troubles such as heartburn, or diarrhoea that lasts for three weeks or more; unexplained weight loss or fatigue, blood in your pee or poo, or frequent infections. These are common signs of all cancers that we should be mindful of.    

If, as a health professional, I can miss them, anyone can. And it is so important not to.   

I now get checked regularly, and don’t ignore anything. I couldn’t go through cancer again – or put my family through it. 

Remember you don’t need to carry the worry of cancer with you, if something in your body doesn’t feel right contact your GP practice right away.​ To rule out cancer, your GP may refer you for tests, but whatever the result your NHS is always here for you.  

For more information on cancer signs and symptoms go to nhs.uk/cancersymptoms 

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