If you can hear a whistling sound that will be the referee signalling the end of the first half so let’s all regroup in the changing rooms with oranges and a heavy dose of testosterone, yeah? ‘First half of what?’, I hear you ask. Well, the clear set of scan results I received this week represents two and a half years since getting my cancer diagnosis and, as five years is the crucial period of most likely recurrence in my kind of cancer, that means I’m half way through this thing.
It might not be a boxing match or even volleyball in terms of intensity but imagine playing a particularly slow game of lawn green bowls on a lawn that may or may not have a land mine buried beneath it and you get the idea. Every three months you change ends and roll, hoping that your ball makes it slowly and steadily to the other end without being blown sky high by a weight-triggered explosive device. This roll of the ball was blissfully uneventful, and it is now nestling peacefully against the jack for another three months but as with all anti-climaxes, it’s the build-up that takes up all energy and effort.
Something I’ve noticed over the last 30 months is that my body gets unconsciously tense in the weeks between having a scan and getting the results, leaving me feeling tight, stressed and aching. The second you get the all clear, all that tension, adrenaline and stress starts to leave your body and that makes it hard to focus on much else. Fortunately, there wasn’t much else to concentrate on as the news was broken with a very straightforward “The scan results came back fine, nothing to worry about”. So that’s what you get for two weeks of worrying in every spare waking hour (and some of the sleeping ones, serious stress dreams), endlessly refreshing your inbox in case they email you the results (they never do), frequently reminding people when the consultation is and generally obsessing over the time 9.10am on the 1st November 2018. Ten words. Ten sweet words but ten words nonetheless.
There was some added spice to this appointment as I turned up at the Oncology department not only with the long-suffering Mrs Groin Fruit and Groin Fruit Junior, I also had my eldest stepson in tow. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Wow, that’s taking evil step-parenting to the next level. What did he do so wrong that meant the punishment was spending the morning in the Oncology waiting room?”. He was actually on his way to an orthodontist appointment if you must know but it did prove an interesting eye-opener for him and at least I can use this as a threat if he leaves the bloody cupboard doors open again. Or his shoes on the doormat. I’m proud to say that he saw the humbling side of sitting in that waiting room though, surrounded by those that look ill, frail or just worried about what might happen when they pass through one set of double doors or another.
The other slightly disarming entourage saw my consultant came armed with a new key worker (the lovely lady from Leeds is retiring – sad face) and two medical students which made for a fairly cramped consultation room. I don’t know about you, but I’m the kind of guy that stares silently at the floor in a packed lift even if it’s full of people I know, so four strangers in a room smaller than my bathroom is an intense experience. Particularly when they ask you how you are in yourself and you have to make that distinction between your physical (fine) and mental (not so fine) health.
Regular readers will know that the mental strain of this whole cancer thing has taken its toll on my mental health of late, making me live in a twin reality and trying to balance those two realities out on a daily basis. Eventually, the lack of funds for actual therapy and no natural upturn in mood lead me to the GP’s door (via the waiting room and a six-month-old copy of Cornwall Living Magazine that seems to think I live in a county of white middle class couples looking for early retirement and a property by the sea). After some chat about my situation came a few standard questions that are par for the course these days – have you thought about killing yourself, do you drink to ease the pain and are you on drugs? (All ‘no’ in case you were wondering, I use drugs to ease the pain thus beating the system).
And this is where the other ‘half’ of this story comes in because this is where the dreaded ‘anti-depressant’ discussion begins. Apparently, 1 in 2 (that’s exactly half, see?) adults in the UK will take anti-depressants at some point in their lives and they are not as addictive as they used to be in the days that gave them the ‘happy pills’ cliché. I’ll admit to being relieved at hearing both of those factoids so I wanted to share them with you in case anyone else is having the same concerns at the prospect of taking medication to ease the mental strain.
What I’ve been given is a tiny (seriously, smaller than a Tic-Tac but bigger than a contraceptive pill) tablet to take once a day which is designed to rebalance the serotonin in my head and, interestingly, in my gut. According to the doc, large scale stress events deplete your stocks of serotonin which can lead to depression but, eventually, your body and brain recovers and naturally reproduces your stock levels. The problem in my situation is that my three-month rollercoaster pattern of reassessment doesn’t allow my stress levels to drop, the serotonin doesn’t naturally replenish and so I’m stuck bumping along in the teacups rather than soaring on the loop-de-loop.
I’ve been on these pills (Sertraline, if you’re interested) for about 10 days now and so far, so good – no great difference in mood in either direction. The things I am mostly concerned about, however, are the myriad side-effects listed in the instruction pamphlet – everything from weight gain, weight loss and sweating to anxiety (go figure), diarrhoea and insomnia is listed and although I could get on board with the weight loss, the rest of it feels like taking a step backwards to try taking two steps forwards. The main point, however, is that I’m taking control of the situation and making the most of what I’ve got at my disposal.
Half time team talks are supposed to be inspiring, rousing and tactically astute so assuming my immune system is a team of sweaty, overweight, Sunday League footballers who stink of last night’s booze and a fair amount of raw onion then my team talk for the big cup match would be:
“Right lads, we’ve got this lot (Melanoma Athletic FC) on the ropes and if they know what’s for them they won’t come out for the second half. The trouble is, they’re a dirty bunch of bastards so they’ll probably come out and try all the tricks to get you riled up or do something stupid. So just keep doing what you’re doing, stick to the game plan and let’s see this thing out. No extra time, no penalties and no messing around – there’s a carvery and pint in this for you if we win so let’s get out there and give ‘em hell”. At this point I’d spit in a bucket, put a smouldering cigar in my mouth and slap each of them on their flabby arses as they waddled out of the damp portacabin that is not only the changing room but also a worryingly accurate metaphor for my body.
Blow the whistle then ref, let’s get this second half underway…