THE NEW NORMAL #21 – BACK IN BLACK

Ahoy there, fancy one more trip around the lake in the cancer pedalo before we shut it down for Christmas? Of course you do. Who doesn’t love the idea of a pedalo (the reality is far less enticing – sitting on hard, wet plastic pumping your crazy legs until you get back to where you started sweatier than before)? Are you well? I am. I’m remarkably chipper but I’ll come back to that later.

First, I wanted to recount a slightly stressful period that occurred a few weeks ago – just for shits and giggles (mainly giggles). Regular readers will recall that a black more on my right big toe was where this whole cancer thing started and so it was with no small amount of alarm that I saw a reoccurrence of the black on the same toe. I thought (hoped) that it might be a bit of sock or a bruise after a couple of weeks of monitoring the thing and no change I decided I ought to practice what I preach and take my toe to the GP (attached of course although wouldn’t it be great if you could drop off ailing body parts like you do with your car and pick them up again in your lunch break. I might write to Richard Branson about that).

Now, being British, male and middle class means that I down play everything and shrug it off – yes even after everything I’ve been through I still assume that things no big deal and yes its stupid but sometimes it feels like that or being a complete hypochondriac are the only options so I plump for the less time consuming. Nevertheless, no amount of bravado and stiff upper lips (or stiff upper anything for that matter) can get you through seeing your doctor lying prostrate on the floor with a tiny torch aimed at your toe saying “I think we’re duty bound to get this looked at”. Duty bound. Such an odd choice of phrase but one that, had it been uttered by other medical professionals six years ago, could have avoided a whole lot of pain and the necessity for this bloody blog.

So, off I trotted a week later to a new part of Derriford Hospital (very exciting) to see a dermatologist who was larger than life and, as with a lot of the specialists I see, lacking in certain personal hygiene areas. Between my lack of understanding of medical terminology and his heavy Greek accent, we cobbled through to some sort of conclusion that the regular swelling of my foot (lymphodema side-effect number 342) has caused my toe nail to be slightly detached from my toe. What then happens is I shower in the morning, dry myself, put on a surgical stocking, then a sock and then a shoe which all stays covering the toe for around 12 hours (nothing revolutionary here but I wanted to assure you I wasn’t wearing socks and sandals to work).

In this newly formed space, in the dark, warm and damp microclimate of my toe I have grown a fungal infection – or so they think. Mushrooms under my toenail might sound gross (and it is, you’re not wrong) but compared to being told your melanoma had come back I felt like someone expecting a punch in the face but getting a soft, sweet kiss on the lips – albeit from a big Greek doctor with bad breath and improbably small feet. Anyway, medical folk are a bit sketchy around me these days so, as a precaution, I was given some Canesten (no, not for thrush) and asked to visit (wait for this, this is a good one) the medical photographer. Yep, that’s actually a job title and what a job it is.

A poor woman spends her day sitting in a windowless room at the hospital as a parade of sick people with various ailments wonder in, press the door bell and are then ushered in to have the affected part of their bodies professionally photographed and stored for posterity. Now, I expect the normal plan for the day is to look at a severed leg, a fallen-out eye or an exploded elbow – something dramatic and interesting. For me, I was presenting with the opportunity to take a photo of my toe for which I was required to stand jauntily with my foot on a shiny black box with all the lights aimed at my digits.

The slight snag is that she wasn’t expecting me to be wearing a surgical stocking so when she turned to see me in just my pants (trousers have to come off to remove the stocking, it’s basic physics) there was a slightly awkward moment only akin to getting naked and lying in wait for a lover who arrives without any intention to actually be your lover. There was a split second where I thought she might reach for some sort of panic button but once she clocked the creased stocking crumpled on the floor, I think she understood. This was followed by the phrase “I don’t think that’s necessary, put your trousers back on and put your foot on the box” which was an unconventional chat up line to say the least. There then followed the more familiar sentence of “that’s it, I can’t zoom in any closer. It won’t get any bigger than that on the camera” and “you can put your sock back on now, we’re done”.

Now, I said earlier that I was feeling a bit more chipper and that’s no lie. I’m nearly at the end of my second month on the ‘happy pills’ (as people who’ve never taken them call them) and life is definitely easier to cope with – I’m back in the mental black, as it were. . I wanted to write about this a bit because I had no idea how this experience would go and was sceptical that a pill half the size of a Tic-Tac could do anything to lift my mood that had seemed to be permanently set in. The idea of a pill that makes you happy is as ridiculous as it sounds and that’s not what my anti-depressants have done but I do have more energy (both mental and physical), I’m not floored by the slightest set-back and I have lost the dread about each day. Starting each day from a point of zero rather than in negative numbers is a victory in its own right and I think it makes me a lot easier to be around so that’s a bonus for everyone else too.

To put it in to perspective, a few months ago, I would have taken personally the rejection of a hug from my four-year-old or been irrationally angry at people moaning about the queue in Costa or having to spend time with their kids. The concept of my own mortality weighed heavily on my mind, a constant reminder that perhaps I’m pushing my luck with this whole life span thing. Now, however, I’ve managed to present four radio shows with minimal training (a massive tick on the bucket list), started to think about progressing my career as a positive move rather than running away and I’m insanely prepared for Christmas so I’m ending the year on a high.

I’m not going to recommend anti-depressants to anyone as it’s a choice that you need to make when other avenues aren’t available, but I will say that I’m no longer as sceptical as I once was. There is a time and a place for Western medicine and although I still need to talk a lot of things through for some proper healing, I am starting to feel a bit like myself again thanks to the little white tablets – normalising pills though, not happy pills.

So, that’s it from me for 2018. It’s been a real ride and I thank you for being part of it. Next year is a busy one with a wedding, honeymoon and a couple of concerts thrown in to the mix. I’ll keep writing though and keep working out how cancer and lymphodema impact upon these ‘normal’ activities – like travelling to hot countries, standing in fields for long periods surrounded by thousands of Fatboy Slim fans and, well, my wedding day….and night. Maybe not the night, it’s best to keep some mystery, eh?