Looking well

7

If you have been following my endless saga through the looking glass and into the medical world you will be pleased to know I have passed through the latest checkpoint with flying colours and been pronounced still ok. My lymph nodes, and relief, are palpable.

If you thought I was looking well, you were quite right it seems.

Next checkpoint another 4 months down the track.

The Good Ship Watermelon sails on, colours streaming from the top of the mast.

On average

9

My reliable (mostly) water pump of 16 years seems to be knackered, and, having timed the knackering to the end of one of our driest ever Octobers, and the start of (probably) a very dry November, I need to go wrestle with it in a little while. Nothing dramatic, the knackering, I don’t think, no Honda equivalent of, say, a fall from a cliff, more like the gradual blocking of a cardiac artery with fatty deposits, or the gradual enlargement of lymph nodes. I’m sure it can be fixed by cleaning out carbon deposits, or unblocking a fuel line, but it will never run as well, or as reliably as it once did, I will never again be able to rely on it starting first time, every time, like clockwork. Mr Pump and I have, it seems, grown older together without noticing, and suddenly woke up one day to discover we are, astonishingly, old.

Which is a long-winded way of introducing my six month Oncology review that took place this morning. [Beware, spoiler follows] I’m ok – blood counts and chemistry as near as damnit returned to normal, no re-enlargement of glands, no nasty testing needed, next review not for another four months. Odd that I had so little reaction to that undeniably good news though, I thought, and considered the matter while driving home.

I guess the nub of my reaction is this. Good news (for me) might be “Hey you’ve won the billion dollar lottery” or “Hey you’ve been selected in the Australian cricket team” or “Hey you’ve won the Nobel Prize for Literature”, that sort of thing. While “Hey your cancer hasn’t returned as quickly as it did last time, yet” is certainly not bad news, it is not good news in that sense. Really all it is saying is that you are still perched on the little plateau of neutrality, not too hot, not too cold, just room temperature. So, no champagne toasts, I think, for still being sort of average, but certainly relief.

Anyway, better go work on the pump. See if I can get it functioning in an average sort of way again.

Cheers.

True Grit

6

Again I have been slack, and again I must crave your indulgence (well, let’s face it, you have been indulging my whims and foibles on this blog for many years). I have been suffering a little malaise, once more, and my writing finger has been out of action. Incidentally I was recently referred, by an old friend and fellow cancer sufferer, to a very interesting article on the mental, physical, emotional state of cancer sufferers after treatment is completed.
…Read more

Blockhead

16

I’ve been searching for a cure for Writer’s Block, but the only one that seems to work is to start writing. We shall see whether it is effective or not.

An update on me first, then perhaps some less important stuff about the rest of the universe. I’m doing ok, thank you. Half way through my three-month holiday from Oncology and so far so good on my mutated lymphocyte guerrilla army. But if I am temporarily playing hooky from the claws of Oncology, I am spending a lot of time trying to repair some of the ravages of two years of cancer treatment. Chemotherapy works on the old tested procedure of destroying villages in order to save them. Or, a more modern metaphor, on the IMF procedure of imposing austerity on countries in order to repair them
…Read more

Winter Holiday

11

Latest instalment in lymphoma’s two-year battle with me yesterday. A passing out parade with my Commanding Officer Oncologist. Apparently I am passed fit to return to the real world, not to see her again for three months, a winter holiday from hospitals and doctors. And, nice as she is, that suits me!

So there we are. The two extra serves of nastier chemical rations have done their thing. Physical examination confirms my last PET scan – nothing going on in my lymph system as far as it is humanly possible to tell (always remembering that you are never cured, just in remission). My blood and body however do reflect the ravages of chemotherapy, and it’s going to take some time to feel relatively normal again.

But good news, no doubt, been lucky when so many are not. Means I can stop thinking of myself as a cancer patient, and go back to thinking of myself as someone who happens to have cancer.

As you were – stand at ease.

Swanning around

4

So, you want to be brought up to date? Saw oncologist yesterday, and, as usual, every time I think there is going to be some definite answer about something it all slips through my fingers again. Back to chemo on Monday, yuk. Then a welcome month or so off. Then yet another PET scan (the most inappropriately named of all the tests, with its warm and cuddly connotation) to see what is going on for sure. Then see Oncologist again to decide whether to continue with the present cocktail of fillet of a fenny snake, eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog, adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting; or whether to try adding lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing for greater effectiveness. So another month of uncertainty.

Last week handed over the last of my deadline tasks, the local monthly magazine. Occurred to me as I gleefully handed over the last paperwork to the new editor that this was the first time in some 55 years that I was totally deadline free. We all go through life meeting deadline after deadline – essays due, exams to study for, sports to play, classes to teach, theses to write, publisher’s dates, payments to make, people to meet, events to attend, jobs to apply for, and on and on and on. By the time you reach my advanced years it’s nice to stop, swan around, do things in your own time, or not, as the case may be.

So, no deadlines on this blog, as you may have noticed, inspiration strikes, or not, to its own timetable. Nor in my efforts, once again, to read Proust. No deadlines for him either I think. Sentences have a life of their own, finishing in their own good time, when they are ready. Descriptions of flowers take forever. One small step for most of mankind can take Proust a page to describe. Anyway, I am trying, for once, to stick with it, for reasons much as discussed here. Obviously the man was a genius, and my failure to have read him is a sign of a misspent youth. As is my failure to have read Montaigne. By chance I have been reading both at the same time, and it has struck me, no doubt old news to Proustians, that the two authors are very similar. Both:
“see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower”
And both
“Hold infinity in the palm of [their] hand,
And eternity in an hour.”
(Certainly, in Proust’s case, an “eternity in an hour”!)

But here I am, deadline free. If I finish Proust in 2013, so be it. If not, then not, and Alain de Botton can’t make me, so there. And I’ll keep casually browsing through Montaigne, at my leisure.

But now, must rush. As I said, gotta go and get attached to my lifeline again Monday morning, and before that I must finish some more posts for you before the steroid fog descends once more, and the world seems as impenetrable as the way by Swann’s.

Au revoir.

Gunna go now

7

An update. After two cycles of this new round of chemotherapy I have lost all my hair (which didn’t happen last year) and am getting nasty side effects on bone and muscle. I feel like my status has subtly changed, from being an ordinary person who just happened to be having cancer treatment, to being a fully unfledged cancer patient. Apparently though I still “look well” so that’s ok then.

Anyway, while the sainthood (aka oncology doctors and nurses) were working away, saving lives, making people more comfortable, CARING (in both senses); elsewhere in the world, arseholes with guns were slaughtering health workers in Pakistan and schoolchildren in America. And uber-arsehole, Wayne LaPierre, president of the National Rifle Arseholes, was proposing ever more guns to stop the gun carnage. Tell you what Wayne, there are no guns in oncology wards.

As always the rest of the world watches the behaviour of the American and Pakistan branches of the Taliban in stunned incomprehension. I am currently, briefly, reading the latest Janet Evanovich [look, I know, I know right. It's the literary equivalent of fairy floss- sugary, sickly and all the same. I can't imagine anyone, anywhere, having a complete set of Evanovich. But, in my defence, it is something my brain can currently cope with, and, more importantly, it was only $3 in a book remainder shop]. Something that struck me once more, especially in the week of Newtown, is that in this fairy floss book of “fun”, guns are on almost every page. Lovingly described, carried as if it was most natural thing in world, a part of every household, every outfit. Nowhere else in the world could such a treatment of guns in such a context be written. And nowhere else except in Pakistan could people not only slaughter women health workers, working hard to inject children to save them from the scourge of Polio, but proudly boast about having done so.

Anyway. Those are my thoughts on a Saturday morning. Since it is Saturnalia time, my next post may be seasons greetings, or I may finish my substantive post on guns first. Who can foretell the future (as the Mayans might say)? Gunna go now. See you later.

Unforgettable

4

Some years ago the Cancer Council of Australia ran an advertising campaign based on the phrase “Cancer: It’s a word not a sentence”. Clever in a sort of pretty unsubtle way of course, it was used to mark a change from the days when the only possible response to cancer was a kind of surgical blitzkrieg, the chances of success low, to those where new chemical and radiation treatments began to be introduced and refined, either to improve the success of surgical intervention, or as stand-alone procedures. Remission periods grew longer, outright cures became possible, so the Cancer Council was right to tell people not to despair that they were doomed when the doctor uttered that doom-laden C-word, but to be optimistic, to have hope the treatment could be worthwhile.

But, leaving behind the intended meaning of the slogan, that cancer is no longer, necessarily, a [Death] Sentence, the phrase is completely wrong. Cancer isn’t a word, it is a sentence. Unlike getting an injury, or breaking a bone, or catching an infection, for all of which there is treatment and cure, quickly over, something barely remembered a few years later, cancer is ongoing, unforgettable, a long sentence, a life sentence. And here it is:

Cancer is: having a series of increasingly unpleasant tests, waiting anxiously for the results, then watching as the oncologist’s face goes grim as he reads them; spending a day every couple of weeks hooked up to a bag of nasty chemicals by a sharp needle in your hand or arm; never feeling well for months at a time while treatment proceeds, and constantly feeling anxious that you will suddenly feel worse and have to be rushed off to hospital; spending your life moving from one doctor’s waiting room to the next, one testing facility to the next; suffering from a series of debilitating after-effects, conditions and diseases that your depleted immune system no longer copes with; worrying that every symptom you get, once dismissed as some minor ailment, might be the cancer returning; knowing that there are cancer cells always lurking somewhere in your body waiting to burst out and start a cellular revolution at any time; never really feeling well, and so reluctant to do once-normal activities; dealing with the concerns of family and friends.

Some sentence, eh?

Note – I have previously written about other aspects of my cancer experience here, here and here.

Message in a bottle

13

News the other day of research showing that childhood allergies to foods (for example peanuts) has massively increased in last few years. Worrying not only because can result in death in severe untreated reactions, but because of the debilitating effect on the children themselves and the families (and schools) trying to cope with it. A medical researcher in Perth is trying to establish causes and look at treatments. She very wisely said that there is unlikely to be a simple reason, more likely to be a combination of reasons. But the rapid increase suggests to me two likely culprits.

Once upon a time (he says, revealing his age once more) foods were, well, foods. Lists of ingredients, if even bothered with, would be stuff like tomatoes, cereal, lean meat, and the like. Nowadays it seems every food item not in the fresh food section of a supermarket comes with a list of “ingredients” in their dozens, none of them seem to be actual food, and all of them are carefully disguised by having numbers not names. Oh you can look up the numbers, in secret code books, but the names are no more revealing than the numbers. What we do know is that many such ingredients are either known to be, or thought to be, damaging to health, especially children’s health. We are surely way past time when the known damaging chemicals are removed, and the merely suspect ones are clearly labelled and warned about in big letters on the front of the packets and jars. Manufacturers have been fighting against such labelling for years, but surely they would agree with me that the health of the community is a bit more important than a slight dip in their profits for a year or two?

Once upon a time foods came bottled in glass or wrapped in paper. Now such packaging is the stuff of museum displays where old fogeys like me can point and say “we used to have those”, and everything you buy is contained in some kind of plastic. Some plastics (eg BPA) are already known to cause problems by being leached into drinks. There are certain to be others in which health effects are difficult to recognise or slower to develop. It is one of those areas where we should not do things until they can be demonstrated safe, rather than keep using them until harm can be demonstrated. I am also concerned about the massive increase in chemicals in everyday life as a result of the use of plastics etc in building materials and furnishings and toys, but when it comes to food the threat is direct and obvious.

OK, those are two areas where there has been a massive change in food since I was a child, and I am willing to bet you a plastic bottle of red fizzy drink that both will be implicated in the assault on children’s immune systems that has been happening. What do you think?

Sleepy, Sneezy, Doc, Dopey, Grumpy

5

Grumpy today. On top of usual post-chemo-blues (Bob Dylan, you there? When you write the song I want royalties) I have bad-back-blues (again, royalties). What? You really want to know? Flat battery in farm truck which was needed. Lifted it out for recharging, totally underestimating its double normal battery weight. Staggered up the hill, then, like a delayed reaction after being shot, I heard a crack and clutched my back.

Oh it’ll be OK eventually – only hurts when I stand, sit, lie down, or succumb to the irresistible desire to laugh uproariously.

Some more thoughts on life and death, though I suppose you have heard more than enough of self-indulgence from me.

Looking around on Wednesday I once again thought how well/lucky I was compared to a number of those around me. They, in turn, I guess, were assessing their own medical status and thinking they weren’t as bad as some of their neighbours. All the way down to those so sick they were beyond medical status and concerned only with survival.

Which brings me to another of my pet media peeves (number 666 if I have kept count correctly) the cliché that someone is “fighting for their life” not infrequently accompanied by the oxymoron-making phrase “in a coma”.

I don’t see people “fighting for their lives”. I do see doctors and nurses fighting for them, but the patients are calm, cooperative, grateful, friendly, helpful. There are indeed battles going on, in near-well and near-death alike, but they are cellular battles, chemical battles, immune systems and cell repair systems battling away, medicines doing their jobs. Not people fighting for their bodies but the reverse.

Of course there are situations where people fight to save themselves – caught up in fires, floods, earthquakes, trapped by a rock and cutting their own arm off. And good on them. I don’t think I would be brave in a collapsed building, and I know I couldn’t chop an arm off.

So does the transfer of this kind of survival battle to hospitals matter? I think it does because it implies, where people (again to quote the media cliché) “lose their battle with cancer”, they have failed, not fought hard enough, not been strong enough, perhaps even not wanted to win enough. Not fair on patient, not fair on the family left behind.

Surviving a health crisis depends on all kinds of factors. What it doesn’t depend on is strength of character – the media should really stop branding people like that. Everyone dealing with serious illness – patients and medical professionals – is a giant trying to lift a heavy weight. Even giants can fail.