THE NEW NORMAL #14 – THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN MONTH ITCH

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As I drove across the Tamar Bridge this morning under a blue sky and above a misty river, my mind did that remembering thing that minds do and gave me a little recap – “Previously on Roland has cancer”, that sort of thing. Now don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a highlights episode but it did get me thinking. A little over 7 months ago I received what was probably the worst phone call of my life (to date) and drove from Newport to Cornwall thinking only dark, morbid and upsetting thoughts about what the future would hold for me and my family. Today, 7 months on, I had a consultation which turns the tables on all of that and gives me and my family hope in at least the short to medium term if not slightly longer. After all the scans, the biopsies, the extraction of the groin fruit and the repeated exposure to radiation, I have today been told that the cancer is, for want of a better phrase, on the run. The lump on my lung is doing nothing, the nodule on my kidney is cystic if anything and my groin is not developing anything new so all seems to be quiet on the Western front. I will admit to shedding a tear or two of relief on the way home but some of that was just due to the fact that they’ve nearly completed the road works around Derriford Hospital.

We’re not out of the woods yet, though, not by a long stretch. To continue the woodland analogy, I’ve been holed up in my shack with my family and friends resisting the attacks of the angry and indiscriminate wolf at my door. Zapping the wolf with radiation and generally shouting obscenities at it through the letter box whilst poking it with a very long stick seemed desperate but, hey, it’s worked. The situation we are now in is that the wolf has gone away tired, hungry and wounded to regroup. There’s a chance, a very slim chance, that the wolf will go home and either die of its injuries or at least think better of ever coming back to my shack. However, there’s more chance that the Wolf will just go home, tend to his wounds, do some pull ups and come back another day for round 2. It’s my job to make sure my shack (i.e. body) is well fortified (i.e. immune) and I keep a watchful eye, day and night, in case the wolf ever does come back (i.e. lumps or marks on my skin that weren’t there before). Sure, it’s a fairly stretched analogy but it’s the best I can come up with OK? Jeez, you’re a demanding lot, get back in the shack.

The last few weeks following the Radiotherapy would have been described as a roller coaster by me a year ago but after the last 7 months this was nothing but a ride on the teacups. The healing process has very much been a case of 2 steps forwards, 1 step back as the end of treatment brought an easing of the stinging pain but also a breaking up of my skin and a loss of hair. No matter how much cream, moisturiser or ointment I applied to my groin I neither felt sexy nor could I stop my skin from ripping apart. ‘Itchy, flaky……balls?’ said no shampoo advert ever. Throw in my new found hairlessness ‘down there’ and I have a new found respect for male porn stars and the special kind of skin care regime they have to follow in order to avoid a sticky wicket situation disrupting your day. There was also an incident with a hair dryer which I’ve been banned from mentioning here but anyone who wants to give me a publishing deal to turn this sorry saga in to a book (and film) has my word that this would be included as it was bloody funny.

And then there was the issue of shoes. After a couple of months I felt it was probably time to stop wearing my one scabby pair of black trainers to work seeing as I have a proper grown up job in an office that commands respect and admiration (I’m just going to pause here to allow any colleagues reading this to have a good laugh)…..Anyway, I thought I should get some shoes that fit my newly swollen right foot as well as my normally sized left foot. Simple, right? Wrong, bloody wrong. I tried a number of shoe shops and discovered that putting new shoes on is incredibly painful when the top of your foot is swollen and the whole leg is 20% bigger than it used to be. Turns out I am not made for normal shoes anymore so home I went (in a foul mood, sorry other half) to look up ‘special’ shoes on the internet. And we found some, quite quickly. The cost was a bit startling for a bloke; £250 for one pair of shoes seems mental unless they’re vintage Converse or a pair of glow in the dark football boots. What was really astonishing, though, was the naming convention this particular shoe maker had used for its variety of styles. As if having to wear ‘special’ shoes wasn’t demeaning enough, having to slip your feet in to pair of Velcro shoes called ‘Alan’, ‘David’ or, wait for it, ‘Keith’ seemed like a kick in the hairless nuts. But then, miracle of miracles, I remembered I had a pair of shoes stashed under my desk at work and the leather was just soft enough for me to get my foot in. Result.

So, what now? Well, more skin care regimes, no more buying shoes online and I’ve still got a tonne of weight to lose (not literally, despite the rumours). Medically, I have to go to the hospital every 3 months for a check-up and a CT scan but that’s no biggie in the grand scheme of things. Work continues, life continues and every day I’m grateful to be alive and to be living where I live with wonderful people all around me. Sound corny? Well, yeah, maybe it is but the older you get and the closer to death you come the more you realise that being cool isn’t anything to worry about and most of life is just fluff so you’re best off seeking out the good stuff, the substance and concentrating on that.

For now, though, I’m due to start post-op physio in a couple of weeks (delayed due to the Radiotherapy) which is, I’m reliably informed, largely attended by the elderly. Therefore, you can expect an update in November about how I’m either feeling ace because I’m the fittest one in the group or about how depressed I am the not only does 90-year-old Keith kick my ass in squat thrusts but he also has a pair of shoes named after him. Bloody Keith.

THE NEW NORMAL #13 – WHOA, MY SEX IS ON FIRE…

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As a good friend of mine recently said, there are more entertaining ways to get a sore thigh and an itchy undercarriage but I opted for 20 doses of radiation – decision making has never been my strong point. Indeed, as a child, I would often develop an uncontrollable urge to go to the toilet if presented with more than one option; “salt and vinegar or cheese and onion….?”, my mum would say. “I need the toilet” would be my elusive response. Still, I’ve done it. Monday to Friday for four weeks I’ve gone to the Radiotherapy section of the Oncology department before work to take my medicine. In this instance, my medicine involved getting naked from the waist down and lying on a cold, plastic table with my feet in braces at one end and my head in a cradle at the other. Then a stranger in a white coat would apologise before hoiking my junk to one side and taping it to my left thigh to keep it out of the line of fire. So far, so undignified I hear you say. Damn right, I say back.

But, of course, it gets weird and more undignified. You see, the three tiny tattoos that I had been given prior to the treatment are then used to line up the green lasers shining out from the ceiling and walls which ensures exactly the right part of me was being treated with the radiation. I was tempted, for the last session, to go in covered in homemade marks to confuse the radiologists and then I remembered that they had lasers and radiation so I probably shouldn’t pick a fight with them or annoy them in any way. Now, to get me in to the millimetre specific position, the trained folks at the hospital essential treated me like a piece of meat or, more accurately, like a giant ball of dough. Imagine, if you will, a large, burly Italian pizza chef man handling a giant ball of dough on a floured work bench and that’s how I felt as they cajoled, kneaded and shunted my middle section in to position ready to be zapped. It doesn’t get any sexier does it?

Once the perfect position is achieved, my part in all this is to stay as still as possible while everyone else leaves the room and a buzzer goes off to let everyone know that the radiation is about to happen. At this point two things are particularly evident. Firstly, whoever designed these treatment rooms was kind enough to put six ceiling panels directly about the treatment table that are backlit and feature clear blue skies and the branches of different trees. This might seem a small thing but kidding your brain in to thinking you’re lying semi-naked under an autumnal oak tree or some cherry blossom makes you relax just enough to ignore what’s going on around you so a big thank you for that. Secondly, if you are not sufficiently distracted by the pictures of trees, you will probably notice that you don’t feel a thing. Nothing. Zip. Nada. Zilch. When people ask how the treatment was that day I feel almost guilty that it hasn’t been excruciatingly painful but it’s nothing worse than standing next to a microwave for 10 minutes. The machine whirrs and clicks and moves all around you but nothing touches you which is wonderful and disconcerting in equal measure – I did start wondering after session 8 or 9 whether this was just a placebo effect thing to make me feel better. But I was wrong….

You see, after the mid-way point of the treatment I started to notice how red the top of my right thigh was looking and, sure enough, the redness was followed by soreness, the likes of which I had not experienced before. The soreness and the redness spread to what is technically called the perineum although most chaps will know it as the bit between your bum and your balls. By the time I got to the end of the treatment, this whole area was red raw and I was having to apply moisturiser twice a day as well as walking like a cowboy. The pain was compounded by the fact that the hair loss caused by the treatment meant that, logically, new hairs started to grow back. Essentially, my body thought “hmmm, that seems sore and uncomfortable, let’s throw some stubble in there and see if that helps”. Stupid body. For anyone trying to imagine the sensation (I know you all are), I’d go with sand-papering your thigh until all the hair is out and then dry shaving your genitals with an old disposable Bic razor in a hurry before going commando for the day in a pair of tight fitting jeans.

I mention this in such detail not because I like to make you squirm (honest) but because this is the unseen side of such treatment. Aside from a week with a nasty throat virus that poleaxed me, I’ve been carrying on as normal, including going to work and even managing to watch a few bands down at the Looe festival but not without wincing every time I have to go from sitting to standing or working out new ways to subtly have a scratch ‘down there’ to relieve the itching. There is no blue badge for me but between the treatment and the ‘bloody stocking’ as I have now termed it, there are times when I want to say to people “I’m not being lazy, I’ve got medical issues and that means I need to sit down sometimes”.

In amongst all of this treatment, there have been 20 experiences of the waiting area and 20 interactions with complete strangers (the junk hoiking has been undertaken by at least 9 different pairs of hands which seriously upped my tally if anyone’s keeping count). As previously mentioned, there’s bravery, there’s utter sadness and there’s the mundane. One chap I noticed every morning coming in to get his chemotherapy would cheerily wave to the receptionist as he shuffled through the waiting area to be bombarded with chemicals. He was always whistling and always smiling despite looking like he’d been twenty rounds with [insert boxer’s name here – I hate boxing]. There was also the sign that I read every day that I found utterly perplexing; ‘no mobile phones to be used in this area. And no two way radios’. Mobile phones I understand but who the hell is popping in to Oncology with a two-way radio and who’s at the other end of that radio? Also, the way the sign was written it felt like someone had tried to circumnavigate the mobile phone ban but sneaking in a walkie-talkie but for what purpose?! Most intriguing.

The collection of books and magazines to peruse was predictably awful as well. A selection of romance novels and women’s magazines were scattered around the place and, weirdly, a Daily Mail calendar entitled Kate’s Cuties which literally had 12 months of royal baby photos. Who would that cheer up just before a bout of radiation? I have vowed to take in a copy of Viz or one of my old student magazines (big up the S-Press crew) just to freshen things up a little if I ever have to go back. The most amazing thing, however, was not what I saw but what I felt. This may sound horrendously harsh but walking out of that treatment centre and away from that place every morning felt like I’d cheated death and escaped. I mean absolutely no ill will to the people who are in-patients or who will continue to go there after I’ve gone but being able to redress myself, sanitise my hands and walk out gives you a real shot of enthusiasm for life which somewhat counter balances the feeling that somebody has left pins in the crotch of your trousers. There’s also the issue of the piped music (piped from where and by whom?) which, on the whole, was another soothing distraction but some of the choices were a little odd. For instance, the Kings Of Leon greatest hits is great but listening to ‘Sex On Fire’ while your meat and two veg is getting laser beamed is slightly, well….., it’s a poor choice is all I’m saying.

In all seriousness, if you feel like your life is a bit flat or you hate your job or you’re just bored of the morning commute then get up a bit earlier for four weeks and go to your local Oncology ward. Sit there for 25 minutes without staring in to your phone and look around you and what everyone else is dealing with. Then walk out and compare it with what you’ve got. 90% of you should feel better and the other 10%, well, I’ll buy you a drink and you can tell me all about it. Because there are two truths that the last month have taught me and I feel obliged to tell you all about them. First, there is always somebody worse off than you but that doesn’t mean you can’t feel a bit pissed off with the hand you’ve been dealt from time to time. And second? Well, to quote the wonderful Frank Turner who I’ve been singing along to as I drive to and from the hospital;

You’re not delivering a perfect body to the grave

Time is not there to be saved

Life is a holiday, a moment stolen from the black

Before the demons drag you back

You won’t get everything you wanted

But you will never be defeated

God damn it’s great to be alive!!