Couple both struck down by bowel cancer saved by same surgeon using robot arms

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When Alan Jenkins, 58, had bowel cancer, neither he nor his wife Linda, 73, ever expected that she, too, would be diagnosed with the same disease just a year later (Image: Albanpix.com)
When Alan Jenkins, 58, had bowel cancer, neither he nor his wife Linda, 73, ever expected that she, too, would be diagnosed with the same disease just a year later (Image: Albanpix.com)

A devoted couple who both had bowel cancer have been given more time together after being operated on by the same surgeon using robot arms.

When a routine check up in February 2020 revealed that Alan Jenkins, 58, had bowel cancer, neither he nor his wife Linda, 73, ever expected that she, too, would be diagnosed with the same disease just a year later.

But the pair – who met 30 years ago at a taxi rank – are now looking forward to a bright future together.

They were both given the all-clear after their lives were saved by a skilled surgeon using robotic arms in a state-of-the-art da Vinci assisted surgical system.

Retired administration assistant Linda says: “The surgery saved our lives.

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“We’ve got more years together because of what the medical team did and that means everything.”

Couple both struck down by bowel cancer saved by same surgeon using robot armsSurgeon Irshad Shaikh used a robotic-assisted machine (Louise Lazell)

The couple met in August 1992, when Linda was on her way home after a night out with friends.

She says: “We met on the street corner at a cab office waiting for a taxi. He was a taxi driver then. He had just finished work and I had been out for my friend’s birthday and we started chatting.

“He asked where I had been and we realised we came from the same area.”

The pair were instantly attracted to each other, despite the 15-year age gap – Linda was 43 and Alan 28.

She says: “I’d been married before and divorced and I was very much that person who thinks once bitten, twice shy.

“But we hit it off straight away. It was that kismet moment and there was something special there.

“We shared numbers and spoke over the phone for a few weeks before we went out for a curry and that was that.

“Age was not a thing to us. I was young at heart and I had a life of my own and two children. People accepted us, because they could see we were happy together.

“We never got any untoward —comments – they were usually surprised to find out there was an age gap!”

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Alan remembers being instantly drawn to Linda.

He says: “She was all dressed up and looked lovely. I was single and irresponsible then but she was good for me.

“Age didn’t matter in the slightest – you either like ­people or you don’t.”

First they settled down together in London, before escaping to the Norfolk countryside in 2015 when Alan was relocated for work. They got married in 2016.

But their lives changed when Alan received a letter inviting over-55s for a bowel check-up in February 2020.

At first, he was reluctant to go. Linda says: “He was being a typical man and didn’t want to take the day off or lose a day’s pay. But I said, ‘What’s to lose?’

“It’s a little bit undignified – but if there’s nothing wrong you can skip down the road and say you’re fine. If not, you can be treated.”

Despite being symptom-free, Alan was told by doctors he had early stage bowel cancer.

Linda says: “When he came out of the appointment, he put a hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Come on, we’ve got to go down the not-so-happy route’. My world just fell apart.

“I thought, he’s so young, I can’t believe this has happened.”

Couple both struck down by bowel cancer saved by same surgeon using robot armsAlan and Linda met 30 years ago at a taxi rank (Albanpix.com)

Alan was quickly booked in for the da Vinci surgery in March 2020. Surgeon Irshad Shaikh took control of a robotic-assisted machine designed to perform delicate and complex yet minimally invasive operations through small incisions.

But the escalating pandemic meant Alan’s operation was cancelled.

Linda says: “It was awful. We knew we had caught it early but we were left in limbo. I was terrified it would get worse.”

In the end, Alan’s tumour was removed in May 2020 and he was given a temporary colostomy bag.

Covid restrictions meant Linda could not be with him for the procedure.

She recalls: “I had to abandon him at the hospital door because I wasn’t allowed in. With Covid too, I thought will I ever see him again?”

Alan’s surgery was a success, but as she cared for him at home in the village of Denton, Linda ignored her own symptoms. She admits: “I didn’t have time to worry about me because I was too busy worrying about him. I’d always had an irritable bowel and had a few stomach twinges and pain across my abdomen.

“I did a test around September for bowel cancer, but it came back fine. But then the pains became worse.

“So I went back to the doctor around February 2021 and that’s when they said I had bowel cancer.

“I looked at Alan and said, ‘You couldn’t write this as a script’.”

When Linda was assigned to Mr Shaikh for the same surgical procedure in April 2021 as Alan had had 11 months before, she knew she would be in safe hands.

She says: “I did think, ‘Oh God, I’m older, so I might not survive this,’ but I was resilient and it went really well.

“It meant so much to have a familiar face and someone I could trust.”

With stage three bowel cancer, Linda needed chemotherapy because of minor spreading to her lymph nodes.

The grandmother of two says: “I was really lucky. I handled it all really well and Alan was so supportive.

“Then we swapped places ­because he was back in hospital in November 2021 for his colostomy reversal.”

And in 2022, they both celebrated getting the all-clear.

Thrilled Linda says: “We went [on a trip] down to Herefordshire after we found out and had a glass or two of Champagne.

“I’m swimming every week now and we both play tennis together, so we are back in the swing of normal life.

“We go ballroom dancing and Latin dancing together every week.

“We feel so grateful to Mr Shaikh and the technology he used to save our lives.

“We will celebrate our 30th anniversary in 2023 and are hoping to go somewhere sunny with a villa and a pool of our own.”

Couple both struck down by bowel cancer saved by same surgeon using robot armsThe pair are urging people to get tested if they have any concerns (Albanpix.com)

Motivated by the late Dame Deborah James, who inspired millions when she made her bowel cancer experience at 40 public, Linda now wants to raise awareness of the devastating but curable disease.

She says: “Dame Debs was wonderful. My heart went out to her because she was so young. This cancer does no favours. What she did was so important. If just one person speaks to a doctor because of her, it could save a life.”

She is grateful that her husband agreed to go to the routine check-up in 2020. She adds: “If Alan hadn’t had that test, who knows how long he could have gone, because it is a silent killer. “He had no symptoms right up until he had surgery.

Years ago, we didn’t have these tests and ­people just died.”

She urged people to get tested if they have any worries, adding: “Don’t worry about it being undignified – the doctors won’t remember one ­bottom from the next and it could save your life.”

Alan, who now works helping to deliver portable toilets, says: “We are so happy to just be back to normal.

“It is so important for people to have their routine tests because they save lives.”

Mr Shaikh, based at Norfolk and Norwich hospital, says: “I think I may be unique to have treated both people in a couple, like Linda and Alan, for bowel cancer, but it means a lot to me to be able to help them both.”

Dr Lisa Wilde, director of research and external affairs at Bowel Cancer UK, adds: “It’s lovely that Linda and Alan benefited from new surgical treatment like robotic-assisted surgery.”

* For more information go to bowelcanceruk.org.uk.

Louise Lazell

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15.07.2024, 17:44 • Investigation