THE NEW NORMAL #24 – FOOT AND MOUTH

We are off to Mexico soon, the family and I, on something annoyingly called a ‘Family Moon’ (needless to say lots of jokes have been made about collective family bottom baring) which is essentially a Honey Moon for couples who already have kids and have very little ambitions towards wall-to-wall romance. The prospect of a five-hour drive to Gatwick and a 10-hour flight to the Yucatan Peninsula is not dripping in romance but to stop tempers fraying en route I dug out some old I Spy books. Sure, I know it’s massively optimistic but, at some point, the Wi-Fi or their data allowance will give out and then in come good old books to save day.

Anyway, whilst leafing through the criminally out of date pages I wondered if the NHS should produce an I-Spy book, a Panini sticker book or at least some kind of loyalty card for folk like me. Since 2015 I have had my gall bladder out, a tumour removed, my right big toenail removed twice, 23 metal staples inserted in to (and removed from) my abdomen, my mental health has taken one hell of a beating (a la Norway vs England in ’81, my eyes have failed me, my lymphatic system is ruined in one leg and I’ve lost a bunch of blood. So, I’m doing pretty well in terms of the Pokemon mantra of ‘Gotta Catch ‘em All’ but lung trouble is a new one on me, so I was pretty excited to get my Bronchoscopy sticker.

Scratch that, reverse it; I was actually pretty terrified of this one, partially because of ‘the reading of the risks’ that is traditional before any operation as I was given the odds of everything from a punctured lung (300/1) to death (5000/1) which is particularly distressing for an ex Coral employee. Also, the list of things I am not allowed to do for 24 hours after the procedure included climbing ladders or signing legal documents which seemed oddly specific and ruined my plans to visit the treehouse solicitors on the way home.

Now, for those about to Google Bronchoscopy and wondering why this was terrifying me, let me paint you a picture. Having had the usual observations done and a cannula fitted, I was led into a dark room at the end of the ward where there was the most comprehensive looking dentist’s chair and four medical professionals. I was then fitted up with a sedative into the cannula, bitter anaesthetic spray to the back of the throat (which they pointlessly tried to infuse with a banana flavour – the very definition of sticking a flake in a pile of vomit), a massive bib (?), a heart rate monitor, three ECG monitors and, inexplicably, a pair of goggles. For some reason, the main thought in my sedative addled mind was that I hadn’t taken my shoes off and that I shouldn’t be having any kind of procedure with my shoes on but they seemed down with it so who am I to argue?

The piece de resistance was a piece of apparatus strapped to my head with an attachment designed to keep my mouth open like something between a gimp mask and that hideous family game where you’re forced to name celebrities whilst wearing 1920s dental gear. Once kitted up, the kind doctor (who looked a lot like the drummer from Coldplay) introduced me to the three (that’s THREE) tubes he was about to introduce to my windpipe and/or gullet. One was a camera, the second was a different type of camera and the third one was some sort of collecting device for taking samples in case them come across anything interesting while they’re in there. And then it began…

The anaesthetic and sedative are there so that you just lie back and think of England (a slightly woozy England illustrated by Terry Gilliam) which is a great idea but then it might be wise to not put a moderately sized TV monitor right next to the bed so I can see the full horror of the inside of my lungs while lacking the mental capacity to process what I’m seeing. Phrases like “there’s one”, “nice and pink” and  “just relax and breathe – swallow if you can” float through the air while saliva wells up in your throat and you think hard how to move individual muscles to make it disappear downwards rather then in your doctor’s face. This is what cancer does to a lot of people, it chips away at little parts of you that you haven’t thought about since you were first developing, making you realise that it is all about little battles along the way and each one is winnable or losable in equal measure.

The battles are worthwhile, however, especially when your little boy comes in to collect you with a beaming face and a genuine interest in all the tubes and needles. I don’t want him growing up with an image of his father as constant visitor to hospital wards but as I don’t seem to be able to avoid that, the next best thing is to make a hospital a place that holds no fear for him, a place that daddy goes to and comes back feeling better and a place that, should he ever need to go, is not an uncomfortable or daunting experience.

That’s the mouth element covered, and we wait the indeterminate period for those with the necessary skills to work out what’s going on at the bottom of my breathing hole. A few days earlier, the foot aspect came in to play as the Dermatology department (a big tick for the i-spy book) wanted to have a go at removing the rest of my melanoma in situ on the tip of my right big toe. This time I needed four injections of anaesthetic (only twice did the needle hit the bone) and then they removed, and this is a direct quote, “a piece of skin about the size of two twenty pence pieces stuck together….so probably about the size of a one pound coin….maybe less rounded”. I decided not to watch this time, however, as I’ve had enough of seeing bits of me being peeled away like a serial killer eating an apple.

Now, finally, the squeamish among you might want to skip ahead a few lines but I feel this needs saying. When the student nurse was preparing to dress the end of my toe (“no stitches this time, the wound is too wide so we’ll leave it open”) she paused and asked the surgeon what the white dot was in the middle of the end of my toe. “Oh, that’s just the edge of the bone” replied the surgeon as she casually tossed her disposable gloves into the waste bin. Like I said, little battles where they cut you down to the bone to get rid of the cancer or they blast you with radiation or they poison your system. Winnable though, very winnable.

And now, after the excitement of two hospital appointments and a visit to the GP in three working days, I’m hobbling and wheezing and generally feeling as weak as a kitten which is enormously frustrating and pretty boring. Then there’s the waiting for results which is even more frustrating and on top of that the only news on offer is wall-to-wall Tory gasbags which tops off the frustrate-o-meter. Still, I’ve got a new job to concentrate on, a family trip to Mexico and a kid who likes to come and hold the gauze on my arm when the cannula has been taken out so what more could I ask for? (That sounds sarcastic but it’s not, I promise).

THE NEW NORMAL #23 – The Game of Life

I was playing a round of the popular tower building game Jenga the other day with my little man (by little man I mean my son Jake, it’s not a penis analogy although naked Jenga has potential….) and it occurred to me how much the games we play as children prepare us for real, adult life. In the case of Jenga, we are taught that no matter how carefully and precisely we build our lives up in to a neat but precarious tower, our own actions, the actions of others or a giant cat’s tail can bring it all tumbling down. Similarly, Snakes and Ladders gives you the false sense of security of progressing through life one square at a time – sometimes getting to skip ahead on a cheeky ladder – only to find yourself sliding down a slithery snake, back behind everyone else through no fault of your own.

The arse-end of a snake is where I currently find myself as my latest CT scan has brought me bad news for the first time – like the last dagger in a game of Pop-Up Pirate. Sitting in the familiar Oncology consultancy room with the replica Brian Pollard paintings on the wall and my wife by my side, we had all the familiar sensations of nervousness, fear and anticipation as my Oncologist walked through the mysterious side door. Normally, the diminutive doctor tells us the scans have come back fine before he’s even finished shaking our hands but this time his first utterances where “how have you been?” and “how is your chest”? Another game then – Animal, Vegetable or Cancer? And here is where it gets a bit tricky so try to keep up (it might help if you imagine my body to be a Rubik’s cube and each colour an important area of the body or it might at least keep the game analogy going). So, the Melanoma (White) that returned in my big toe (Yellow) made my immune system (Green) a bit weak and this has potentially caused the Melanoma to spread in to my lungs (Pink) OR I have developed a condition called Sarcoidosis (Blue) which attacks the lungs but can be treated with steroids and isn’t cancerous. Still with me? Well, one of the main symptoms of Sarcoidosis is problems with the eyes (Red) which regular readers will now be remembering I’ve had recently with the foggy Iritis condition. See, easy. And we didn’t even have to peel any of the stickers off.

Now, we’re obviously rooting for Sarcoidosis as the lesser of two evils (which is odd considering the NHS website refer to it as a ‘rare condition’ and according to a website about famous Sarcoidosis sufferers – yes, really – only Bernie Mac, some Dutch King and a few other c-listers have had this) but if the cancer has spread then that is a far bigger problem. The next step is to have a Bronchoscopy which involves a doctor sedating me and sticking something long and plastic down my throat until he can see inside my lungs. This puts me in mind of the dubious lucky dip we used to do at school Summer fêtes although I really hope he doesn’t reach in and pull out a Yo-Yo or a packet of Hubba-Bubba (although, if those are the items showing up on the scans that would be a massive relief and would explain where my Yo-Yo and Hubba-Bubba has gone). I’ve also still got to have my toe chopped up on the same day I was supposed to be going to be Fat Boy Slim (I’ll just be Fat Boy Sitting-Down that night instead) and we have a trip to Mexico to prepare for but it’s going to take a lot more than lumpy lungs and a misshapen toe to keep me off that flight.

As always, the worst thing with all of these things is the waiting. Games like Patience, Frustration, Buckaroo and Operation teach us the importance of staying calm and having a steady hand but waiting on something that you have no control over is an absolute killer and is certainly never featured in one of the worst named board games of all; the Game of Life. At no point in any version of this game do you get a card or a square saying ‘sit out the next 6 rounds while everyone else gets on with their lives and wait to see if you’re sicker than you thought you were’. It’s a valuable lesson to learn but I’d defy any pre-teen to sit there while their competitors fill up their cars with wives, husbands, children and pets and not want to flip the board over after three rounds at most in an absolute rage of injustice and boredom. Personally, I always liked word games like Boggle and Scrabble as you had some control over your success and it wasn’t based on chance as much as it was skill. That might explain why the only question I managed to ask after receiving the bad news was how to spell Sarcoidosis – there’s a triple-word score if ever I saw one.

So, a little less toe, sort out my lungs and keep an eye on the pancreas (that’s another story for another time) while my eyes are back to their wonky best so something is going in my favour. The main thing to remember, at all times, is that as long as your life doesn’t resemble Screwball Scramble then you’re probably doing alright. Or Dreamphone. Dreamphone is terrifying.