Sunday, 20 December 2020

Cry Baby

I have been precipitously close to tears for the past few weeks. It probably started, fairly unsurprisingly, with the Late Late Toy Show, and sort of snowballed from there. The intense emotional battering that has been bubbling away beneath the service of all our lives this year was bound to start spurting through the cracks once we got to the Year-In-Review end of the TV schedule. 

I am no stranger to the Chin Up and Shut Up school of psychological containment, preferring to barge along chirpily while all around me goes to shite. But there is always a leaky pipe somewhere along the way, a rogue lacrimal duct that decides to get all expressive and wussy, distilling the tight knots of anxiety fighting with each other in my muscles into a pure salty drop of liquid sadness, trickling inexorably down my hot cheek and into the corner of my mouth. And then another follows, and another, and then the other eye starts. And sure then it is simply time to submit, admit defeat, allow all the bloody floodgates to open and indulge in one of those shoulder-shuddering sobfests that make you feel so good.

But I seem to be a bit stuck. The knowledge that we are not done, that this is not yet over, that we may not even be half way through, is pushing on my chest and forbidding me from leaving it all go. Losing the plot now would be a disaster. Got. To. Keep. Going. 

I watched Black Panther again last week. The beautiful sweet power of the movie, the gorgeous accents, the subtle yet groundbreaking imagery of heroic black women in traditional hairstyles; all of this would usually be enough to get my heart soaring and the tears flowing. But I watched it on my 44th birthday, six years and a couple of weeks after I was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer. Chadwick Boseman would have turned 44 two weeks before me, if he hadn't died earlier this year from the same cancer. He was diagnosed after me (as far as I know), and made Black Panther while undergoing treatment. I looked at him and thought about  all the things I know that he knew, the experiences we had likely shared, and I was consumed by survivor's guilt. He struck me as being a kind, good person, and that is as good as it gets. I felt his loss in my heart. 

On Friday, at the end of a very busy week of patients, colleagues, assignments, presentations, deadlines, late deliveries, early mornings, painful scars, aching bones, lashing rain, muddy builders and strung-out children, I got into the car to drive to the sea and meet an old friend. The traffic was terrible; that mid-December grimness of foggy windows, squeaking wind-wipers, huddled pedestrians throwing themselves into the road and general ill-will (oh that wonderful Christmas spirit). My shoulders were up to my ears, my jaws jammed together, my heart pounding. The chirpy Christmas tunes on the radio were starting to grate. I changed the channel and heard the opening bars of Daft Punk's Get Lucky. I once named a blog post after that song, back in 2017, the day after the second Doctors' Disco where I had met and chatted and danced with oodles of friends, and I had written about the gratitude I had felt at being able to do all of that. I was grateful that my illness hadn't stopped me from being able to throw myself onto a dancefloor with dozens of people and natter away into the night about god knows what. Little did I know that three years later none of us would be able to do any of that, for weeks and months on end. No random lunches during the working day. No girlie weekends in elegant cities. No 5pm pints of stout looking out over North Harbour. No intense and exhilarating conference-running. No lingering in the restaurant, howling with laughter while the waiting staff pointedly stack the chairs and noisily load the dishwasher, hoping we'll get the hint and leave. No nights away just because, no nights in on purpose. 

So I thought about all that we had lost this year, all that we had missed. And I thought about how I could have missed this all too. And my brain melted a bit, and I cried big ploppy sloppy tears. 

But I couldn't fully let go. I couldn't sob. 

Got. To. Keep. Going. 

Friday, 13 November 2020


 The last line of my last blog was written purely for literary impact. 

I still sleep terribly. 

Saturday, 7 November 2020

Foetal Position

For six years I haven’t been able to sleep on my right side. I didn’t think it mattered that much. I have a whole left side and a back to lie on, so wanting a third option is just greedy, right? But now that I can, now that I have the choice again, I remember how important it is for me to be able to face the window, my intra-uterine muscle memory revelling in the curly cosy wonder of the perfect sleeping position. 

The reason for my restricted movements was my Portacath, the small firm hockey-puck device  which was implanted in the right side of my chest wall in December 2014. For three years or so, it allowed me to imbibe gallons of toxic and expensive drugs which shrivelled, shrank and shemozzled millions of cancer cells all over my body, for which I am eternally grateful. After it had done this tremendous work, it sat ready, like a ninja, waiting to facilitate the annihilation of any rogue cells who decided to make a new incursion. It waited, and waited, and waited. Over time, it became apparent that the rogue cells did not appear to be getting it together to launch much of an attack. It appeared, with every successive CT scan, that they were obediently staying in their quiet corners, possibly not even talking to each other, and maybe not even there at all.

How does the General know when to stand down the troops? When is the right time to withdraw from the conflict zone, disband the army, and decommission the tanks? What if the insurgents are simply lying in wait, lulling you into a false sense of security and waiting for the breach in your defences? 

[An aside: for a person who absolutely abhors the battle analogies which so often swirl around when the issue of cancer crops up, I seem to be flogging the backside out of them now.]

So for the past year or two, myself and my oncologist have been chatting periodically about whether the Port should stay or go. I had made up my mind last Christmas that I was happy to have it out, and then I chickened out and decided to wait for One More Scan. That scan was also NED (no evidence of disease) so I braced myself to accept the potential jinx effect and decided to pull the plug.

This meant going back to hospital again, back to the Old Ward, back to the sound of drip-stands being wheeled along bumpy marmoleum and infusion alarms chiming in futile symphonies. Identifying wrist bands strapped around the wrist, in case of a sudden incapacity to remember one’s own name. And the questions. Same questions, on a loop, over and over. Allergic to anything? Date of birth? Last meal? Allergic to anything? 

The question that irritates me the most, however, is the probing related to possible pregnancy. This tends to be approached in a number of different ways, giving you the feeling that they didn’t quite believe you the first time round and that they will catch you out with their cunning multi-faceted interrogation. Or that you, being female and all, might not be a “reliable historian” when it comes to knowing whether or not another human is growing inside you. So they ask “When was your last period?”, and I say “4 years ago”, and they write that down. Then they ask, “is there any chance you might be pregnant?” and I say “very little” (knowing from years of medical school that nothing is ever 0%). They scratch their heads, and wonder what they are going to write in the LMP box. I tell them I have two mirena coils. Their brains implode. I take the form from them and write NOT PREGNANT in the box, and sign it, and hand it back. Once they see the signature, they relax somewhat. They are no longer responsible for my womb or its contents. 

And then I move to the next room, and the next person with a form, and it starts all over again.

It is not unusual, when you present for any radiological procedure, to be asked about your pregnancy status at least 3 times. I get it. I understand the concerns. They are not in the business of foetus-frying. However, I do think that asking a woman once “are you pregnant?”, and then accepting her answer, is sufficient. Because, in general, women are not into foetus-frying either. If a woman is aware that xrays can harm babies, then they will be the first to call a halt to the process if they think they are pregnant. And I know that many pregnancies are undetected at an early stage, and I know some women can deliver full-term babies without having had an inkling they were pregnant, but to be honest the three-way interrogation in a day ward is actually unlikely to uncover those cases. For many women, being pregnant or not is a reasonably sensitive subject, even more so if they have undergone treatment for cancer. I think a one-off consent form that explains that the procedure would be bad for a foetus, and a Yes or No answer to “Could you be pregnant?” should suffice. And just ask once. 

Anyway, the Port came out, and I can now sleep like a baby. 

[This piece was first published in the Medical Independent]