Until three months ago Arlo McDiarmid’s life revolved around his growing young family, pregnant wife Isla and their beloved two-year-old daughter, Indigo.
Always active and on his feet, the security manager rushed from work to his home in Auckland, New Zealand, to play with his little girl every evening, eagerly diving into whatever mischief and fantasies had been imagined by the toddler he adores.
When the 37-year-old who had ‘never been ill’ a day in his life scratched the back of his neck and felt a hard, painless lump while driving one evening in May 2019, he saw a doctor to dispel a niggling doubt that something wasn’t right.
Tests showed he was suffering from strep throat, a usually harmless bacterial infection that inflames lymph nodes in the neck and causes fever and fatigue.
But after months passed and symptoms lingered, with intensifying exhaustion and swollen masses inexplicably rising and falling beneath his ears, he met with a specialist who referred him for scans and a procedure to remove a node for further analysis.
In January, eight months after leaving his GP with a certificate for a throat infection, Arlo received the devastating news that aggressive adenocarcinoma was growing in his glands, neck, armpit and chest – a sign his cancer had already advanced to stage four.
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Arlo McDiarmid and his beloved daughter Indigo, who has no idea of the battle her brave dad is fighting
When he answered the call that would change his life during a lunch break at work, Arlo’s thoughts immediately raced to wife Isla, then five months pregnant with their second child.
‘It was a little out of the blue. They asked if I was available to come in straight away. That’s when I knew it was cancer, and I knew it must be fairly serious,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.
‘I don’t think anything can prepare you for that kind of news. The world spun for a while as I digested it, but I knew for my wife’s sake I was going to have to hold it together a bit.’
Once the initial shock and disbelief subsided, Arlo’s over-riding emotion was ‘terrible fear’ for his young family.
‘There’s no good timing, but this was just the worst,’ he said.
Now eight months pregnant, Isla said she ‘still feels sick’ when she remembers that day.
Arlo, Isla and Indigo play in the park near their home in Auckland, New Zealand, an almost daily activity before the family’s world came crashing down in early January
Doctors are unsure where Arlo’s cancer began, but believe it likely started in his salivary glands – specifically the parotid glands in front of his ears – meaning his illness is classified as adenocarcinoma, a type of cancer that develops in glands anywhere in the body.
It most commonly occurs in the lungs, breasts, prostate and bowel, and less frequently in the head and neck as Arlo’s did.
Symptoms of salivary gland cancer
– A lump or swelling near the jaw, on the neck or in the mouth
– Numbness in part of the face
– Muscle weakness in the face
– Persistent pain around the neck or ears
– Difficulty swallowing
– Trouble opening the mouth wide
Source: Cancer Council Australia
The early symptoms most adenocarcinoma sufferers experience are vague and easily confused with everyday complaints, which often leads to a delayed diagnosis by which time cancer has spread to multiple organs.
Symptoms also vary wildly depending on which organ cancer is growing in.
Arlo’s only warning signs were alternately swollen but painless lymph nodes and exhaustion that deteriorated as months went by.
‘Looking back, I had been really fatigued for a long, long time, but I was working hard and I had a young kid – I didn’t really expect that I shouldn’t have been so tired,’ he said.
Salivary gland cancer is rare, with just one in 100,000 people diagnosed in the United States each year, the vast majority of whom are over the age of 64. No statistics are available for New Zealand.
A lack of domestic support systems has been one of the biggest struggles for both Arlo and Isla, who would take great comfort in sharing their experience with people who can relate to the unimaginable pain.
‘So far we haven’t found anyone. It’s been really stressful,’ Isla said.
Adenocarcinoma is a type of cancer that starts in mucus-producing glands, which are found in many organs.
Common types of adenocarcinoma include breast cancer, lung cancer, esophageal cancer, pancreatic cancer, bowel cancer and prostate cancer, with symptoms varying depending on the organ.
Adenocarcinoma accounts for almost all breast and prostate cancers, roughly 96 percent of bowel cancers, 95 percent of pancreatic cancers and 40 percent of non-small cell lung cancers.
It is most commonly diagnosed through a biopsy, the surgical removal of an abnormal mass and examination to determine if cancer is present.
Treatment for Arlo’s cancer is long, complicated and expensive.
He is currently three months into a six-month programme of chemotherapy and will soon progress to rounds of hormone therapy, with scans scheduled for September to determine whether the disease has been eradicated or persists.
There are no guarantees Arlo’s treatment will be successful, primarily because of confusion about where his cancer actually started as well as its rarity in New Zealand.
‘This isn’t a type of cancer often treated in Auckland, particularly in my age group,’ he said.
‘Because my primary site hasn’t been established, they can’t even tell me if this is likely to be terminal or chronic (lasting for many years). We don’t know know for certain, all we’ve been told is it’s aggressive, and obviously stage four.’
With uncertainty at every turn, Arlo’s main priority is spending time with the family and friends he adores, especially little Indigo.
‘Everything feels a little finite. You can’t help but feel when you do something that there’s only going to be a limited number of times you may be able to it again,’ he said.
‘It’s made time with my daughter extra special. It’s difficult because of the fatigue, but I’m trying to carry her around on my shoulders as much as I can, because I know if I have to undergo surgery that will be off the cards for a long time – perhaps forever.’
He worries about the future, most of all about the imminent arrival of his second child and what life might be like for his wife and children without him.
‘I’m scared that during treatment, I might be incapable of even simple things like changing or putting the baby in the car seat,’ he said.
‘I’d like to survive. I’d like to care for my family. I want to see my kids grow up and annoy them constantly with stupid Dad jokes. I want to be there for them.’
Arlo and Isla at a restaurant with friends, months before they received the devastating call that would change their lives forever
Isla’s delivery date is Saturday, May 30, but she plans to have a Caesarean section five days earlier in between Arlo’s chemo sessions to give him the chance to witness the birth of their bundle of joy.
Despite the agony of her husband’s diagnosis, Isla is brimming with gratitude for the support the family has received.
The couple’s friend Sam started a fundraising campaign to cover the cost of essential, non-funded treatment, an initiative which has already received generous donations of over $62,000.
‘I thought I had problems worth worrying about before, but now I see how much energy I wasted stressing about stupid things,’ Isla said.
‘I’ve also seen how compassionate people are. I think my faith in humans has been restored because we’ve had so much support from loved ones and strangers alike.’
The arrival of their second child will be a beacon of hope to the brave couple as Arlo continues his battle against cancer.
Source: Daily Mail New Zealand