Like most young men of 29, Nathan Bingham considered himself to be pretty invincible – he didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he had a steady job and plans to marry his fiancée Grace.
The future looked reassuringly secure.
That was until September last year when the Newtownards man started to feel a strange pressure in his head when he lifted heavy weights – something that was part and parcel of his job, working at a tiling warehouse in Bangor.
Each time it happened Nathan felt like he was going to pass out and then people started to notice his face was swelling, a symptom that got so bad his face expanded to twice its normal size.
Says Nathan: “One of my colleagues had said to me, ‘Your face is really swollen up, are you feeling all right’? I got worried thinking my face is all swelling up here and I can’t lift stuff so that’s when I first contacted my GP.”
Nathan could only get a telephone appointment and was told by his GP that he was likely to be suffering from chronic sinusitis, for which he was prescribed a steroid nasal spray and advised to use it for two weeks.
“Fast forward two weeks and it was the exact same, if not worse,” continued Nathan. “The swelling in the face got worse as well so I rang them back and had to beg to get a face-to-face appointment.
“I wanted her to see how bad the swelling was. I’m a very thin person and my face was twice the size it should be and everybody was pointing it out to me at this point, so it’s clear something isn’t right here.
“The doctor had a good feel round all my lymph-nodes and she was almost on the right track but then she said, ‘you’re too young for cancer anyway so we’ll rule that out’.
“Thinking back that should have been a bit of a red flag because how can you be too young for cancer when there’s children with cancer?”
However, at the time Nathan says he assumed the GP was right and he accepted her advice to stay on the nasal spray for another two weeks.
However his symptoms rapidly deteriorated within days. “It was only about two or three days after that I started to notice I couldn’t eat, drink or breathe properly.
“The glands on my neck were so swollen to the point where they had pushed my jaw out of alignment and I had actually eaten the inside of my cheek.”
He contacted his GP surgery again and this time spoke to a different doctor who, over the phone, told him that it sounded like he had acid reflux which had damaged and irritated his windpipe.
Nathan was given an antibiotic and an antacid which, again, were to be taken for another two weeks.
Within a week he was so ill that he passed out while throwing up in the toilet.
It was clear that there was something seriously wrong and Nathan’s fiancée Grace insisted that he go to the A&E department at the Ulster Hospital.
Within six hours doctors there had diagnosed Nathan with non-Hodgkins diffuse large B cell lymphoma.
Nathan will never forget that day – November 18, 2021 – because he was told that the cancer was so advanced he had only a couple of days left to live.
Naturally, it was a terrifying experience. “I went into A&E and explained everything that was going on and when I told the doctors they got pretty worried and got me a CT scan on my chest straight away, which is almost unheard of, you usually have to wait a few days for things like that to happen.
“What they found was very scary – it was a 12 1/2cm mass right in the centre of my chest. That doesn’t sound huge but when you put a ruler on your chest it is huge.
“It was stage four, so it was extremely aggressive and it had been growing for three months prior to the diagnosis. That’s how quick it happened.
“My whole upper body lit up like a Christmas tree under that X-ray. It was a massive tumour and that’s why I couldn’t eat or breathe because it had caused a massive blood clot near my heart.
“That’s why when I lifted something the pressure couldn’t get through and it all went into my head and I felt like I was going to pass out. It all makes sense now after being to the hospital.”
Smaller tumours were also found in Nathan’s pancreas and lung.
He continues: “The Ulster were really good with me and at this point I had had a biopsy to see what it was, but they didn’t have the time to wait on the biopsy results and put me straight onto chemotherapy because I would have been dead.
“Once I got up into the ward they gave me two or three days to live because of how aggressive it was. Every day it was pushing more and more onto the windpipe and I would have suffocated.
“One of the first things my consultant said to me was, ‘how have you even survived this’?”
He continues: “They started me on chemotherapy without any kind of diagnosis because they had to do something or I was going to go. Luckily enough my consultant had seen this kind of stuff before, so he had an idea what he was looking for and he said, ‘we’ll start you on this’.
Remarkably, within a week of starting chemotherapy all Nathan’s symptoms had disappeared.
Commenting that his body handled the treatment ‘quite well’, Nathan says he underwent six rounds of chemotherapy, each one lasting two weeks.
When the 12 weeks of chemo finished he then waited three weeks before beginning radiotherapy, finally finishing all treatment on March 23 this year.
In another remarkable twist to the story, Nathan’s fiancée Grace gave birth to their first child, 12-week-old Jaina, while Nathan was waiting to begin radiotherapy treatment.
“She came right in the middle of the whole thing, just between me changing from chemotherapy to radiotherapy, so it didn’t happen at the greatest time,” he says.
Between facing cancer and becoming a father Nathan says the last eight months have been life-changing for him.
“When you’re my age you almost think you’re invincible, that nothing can get me, so it knocked that on the head pretty quick.
“It has definitely made me a bit more precious about life because it can be taken away very quickly as I nearly found out,” he says.
Looking back, he says: “I just trusted the GP and never thought it could be anything like this. I’m never sick and I’m never at my GP but there was always something at the back of my head that this wasn’t right.
“My first question was, ‘why me, what have I done’? I don’t go out, I don’t drink, I just stay in with my family and go to work. They said lymphoma is literally a shot in the dark and you either get it or you don’t.”
Although the tumour in his chest could not be operated on, chemotherapy shrank it at an approximate rate of one centimetre a week, dissolving it into his bloodstream.
He explains: “I had to go on a lot of medication to stop it affecting my blood and then your body disposes of it like it would do any liquid.”
Nathan says he got through the worst of times with the help of family, particularly his parents Albert and Michelle and fiancée Grace who were, ‘always looking out for me’.
He also has nothing but praise for the Macmillan ward at the Ulster Hospital, describing staff as, ‘phenomenal through the whole thing’.
There was further support from lymphoma groups on Facebook.
Nathan admits that the experience was such a shock and so frightening that he didn’t sleep for days when he was admitted to hospital and his weight dropped to seven stone.
He adds: “You can just imagine being told that if you don’t do something now, you’ll be dead in 48 hours.
“It’s scary to think that something like that is growing inside you. I almost had no symptoms until it was almost too late.
“The consultant up there said the ages 18-30 are the most common for this kind of lymphoma and I’m thinking ‘how come my GP didn’t know that’ and instead told me I was too young for it.”
Saturday, May 21, marked Nathan’s first day back at work at Tiles Direct in Bangor, where his boss Aaron offered him vital support when he really needed it.
Says Nathan: “Aaron has been an absolute saint through this. I rang him the night I was diagnosed and told him that I would understand if he couldn’t keep the job open because I was going to be off for six months plus.
“He said, ‘don’t be silly, what do you need me to do’? It’s a small business but he said, ‘Don’t worry about your job, it’s here’. That helped a lot because if you’re not going to work for six months how do you pay a mortgage?”
Looking ahead, doctors have reassured Nathan that his cancer is in remission and he will have a scan every six months for the next five years to make sure it stays that way.
He is understandably reticent at this early stage to take anything for granted, however. “After experiencing that it’s hard to say what the future holds for me. Just take every day as it is and make sure my wee Jaina has the best life she can,” says Nathan.
He is eager that others should be aware of what to look out for with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma so that they don’t face the uncertainty he did.
He learned that his symptoms are ‘classic’ of the disease. “Facial swelling and night sweats plus lymph nodes swelling under your jaw, under your armpits and in the groin area. If any of those start to swell it doesn’t mean it is, but it’s a sign it could be Lymphoma.
“That’s what I had in my jaw. They were swelling up to the point where I was eating my face. My dentist thought maybe a wisdom tooth was growing at a strange angle and said I had nearly eaten through my face and asked what was going on. It was my wisdom tooth but that was because my jaw was out of alignment.
“It started off quite mild but it picked up so fast to the point where I’m lying in bed with tubes in me to help me breathe. It’s not a sight you want to see yourself in.
“It can happen to anybody. If a doctor says to you that you’re too young to have cancer I would be changing doctors immediately if I ever heard that statement again.”