The Road to Recovery
I woke up earlier than usual this morning. My eyes were reluctant to open, but my brain had made up its mind. Time to get up. I searched for my phone with one eye half-open; the other one hadn’t got the memo yet. Sunlight was peering through a gap in the curtains so I knew it wasn’t too early. 5:58. Ok, it was earlier than I thought.
Lucy the puppy was snoring and I could feel her body heat against my leg. She likes to sleep underneath the sheets, either in between my legs or between Anna and I. Sometimes we go to sleep with her in the bed, then wake up and she’s in her own bed on the floor, fast asleep. We used to wonder what we did to insult her during the night, but now we tell ourselves that she was probably too warm. I think it’s Anna’s snoring personally, but I do have a tendency to move a lot in my sleep so it might be that. Maybe I’m always dreaming of being a ninja, spin-kicking cancer in its ugly face. If that is the case, I haven’t remembered a second of the dreams. Maybe one day I’ll remember it all and experience it so lucidly that it feels like it is really happening. For a few hours, I’ll be content, beating up cancer with no regard for poor Lucy in between my legs. She’d experience each kick as a sudden jolt and eventually decide she is safer in her own bed. I’d try and fight the urge to wake up in the morning, reluctantly doing so in the end. “You were moving a lot in your dreams again,” Anna would say. I’d smirk to myself – “I was kicking cancer’s ass.”
The appointment with the oncology team wasn’t until 15:15. Before that, I had a bloods appointment scheduled for 14.15. That means that we didn’t need to leave the house until around 13:15. I knew I had time to kill, so I made a few plans in the morning to keep myself distracted. Those plans didn’t account for me waking up at 6:00am. They expected an easy-breezy wakeup time of 8:00, maybe even 9:00… make sure I’m well-rested for the big appointment – ready for any adrenaline hikes or dives that may kick in. 6:00am was unacceptable. I got up and went to the bathroom, then came back to find Lucy had gotten out of the bed and gone into her own. Proof – it was Anna’s fault all along, not my sleep-kicking. My only fault had been going to the bathroom…which meant I had moved…which may have disturbed her into going into her own bed…damn, maybe the evidence isn’t as conclusive as I thought. Luckily, I then slipped in and out of sleep until about 7:20. Better, but not perfect.
Once I got out of bed, I fumbled around the house a bit – cleaning this plate, playing with that dog. I then settled onto the sofa to watch a few YouTube videos. I can waste an impressive amount of time on YouTube. If it was a sport, I’d be in the regionals at least, maybe even pushing nationals. This session was short-lived, as my mum rudely interrupted me – “Want to do yoga, Dan?” she asked in her incredibly polite, caring and enthusiastic tone. “Yes, I’d love to,” I replied. How dare she suggest doing something useful with my time; I proceeded to get the yoga mat out, feeling deeply offended.
I then showered, before heading to ProCook with my good friend Jack. We’ve known each other since I first moved to Alsager when I was about 9 or 10. For all those years we spent playing on his farm, going to gigs together and attending football games, we had a first today. We’ve never been to a cooking store together. Who would have guessed it? He was after a set of knives, and I was flirting with the idea of purchasing a new baking tin. Adult life is one hell of a ride. Jack got his knives, and I left disappointed. They only had 23cm tins and I needed a 20cm one. I hoped this would be the only emotional turmoil I’d experience today, but there was a certain event lingering in the air that was threatening to topple it. I should probably just move on to the exciting bit, shouldn’t I?
We got to the hospital at around 14:00. Anna and my mum found a spot in the cafe, whilst I went and signed in at the desk. It was the receptionist that knew me well. For the first time ever, I approached and she simply said “Hey Daniel. Bloods and a meeting with your consultant today, correct? You’re all checked in.” Usually, you have to reel off your name, date of birth, home address and confirm that you are at the same GP surgery. I had to check if my mouth was open I was so shocked. So this is what it’s like to be a local at your local pub? You walk in to be greeted by a smile before someone tells you exactly what you were just about to order. I’ve never got to that level of familiarity before. It felt good. I’m going to start drinking in my local pub more.
I remember learning about pathetic fallacy in English when I was in school. The teacher used a scene from a film to help explain the concept. It was a sad scene, and as the actor sat there crying, the shot panned to a storm outside the window. She said that the weather was being used to emphasise the human emotion being displayed. This was called pathetic fallacy – the use of non-human elements to express or emphasise human emotions being portrayed in the scene. As we sat waiting for my name to pop up on the appointment screen, I couldn’t help but notice that it was torrentially raining outside. It had been sunny earlier in the day. I hoped this wasn’t a reflection of the results to come; if it was, there was a higher power mocking me today. That higher power was probably also responsible for giving me the cancer in the first place, so it was most definitely not the worst thing they’ve ever done to spite me. Perhaps it is the kind of humour I appreciate – the thought alone made me chuckle a little bit in a cynical kind of way.
The bloods appointment was approximately 30 minutes later than planned, which is reasonable. It went fine – we chatted about my tattoos and I complimented a few of hers. She told me that the one on her arm cost her £13 because her local tattoo shop does random tattoos for £13 on Friday the 13th. I remember my best friend Luke telling me about that once; it’s quite a funny concept. As if I needed more proof that blood nurses were vampires – this one brought up Friday the 13th out of nowhere. She’s mocking me… She managed not to lick her lips too obviously as she pulled the blood from my veins. I did notice her getting a little bit excited, though. She thought I hadn’t noticed, but I see everything with these monsters. I counted the canisters of my blood before walking out of the room – she had filled four. Is that a light snack or an evening meal? One day I’ll just ask, I’m sure they’re happy to chat about it once they know that the secret is out.
I made my way back to our spot in the cafe. More waiting, more rain, more anxiety. It was building fast now. My stomach was feeling tighter and I was getting restless. Finally – my name popped up. We made our way to consultant room 18. The nurse took my weight – 76.2kg – checked my blood pressure – a little high but not concerning given the context of the meeting – then she left Anna and me to the confines of the office. Nothing left to say, nowhere to hide. Approximately ten minutes later, the oncologist entered and introduced himself. Here we go…
In summary – the results were not bad. He stated this quite plainly as he began. “I don’t have any bad news for you today,” he said. I think those words may have been more reassuring in his head. In reality, that immediately said to me “he doesn’t have good news for you either, Dan. Prepare yourself,” and I was right to think that – he didn’t have any decisively good news to give us. In fact, I learned something that has worried me quite a lot, but I’ll come back to that.
The tumour has not shrunk any further since the halfway scan. My tumour markers in my blood are very low, which he emphasised was a good thing, but the main tumour seems to have stabilised at 2.1cm. That means I still have a net reduction in tumour size over the whole of my treatment, but it was disappointing news. The thing that I learned which worried me was in regards to what has previously been called the ‘cyst’. There had been mention of a cyst throughout the period when the doctors were trying to diagnose me. At first, it was the cyst causing all the problems, then the cyst had given me pancreatitis, and then they stated the cyst may have a soft tumour on it. The last time I heard about it was when I was finally diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at King’s hospital in London. I had asked the doctor who delivered the diagnosis if the cyst was in fact the tumour, but he had told me to forget about the cyst as it is no longer important. The oncologist today told me that they did not know what this “mass” was, but that it had reduced in size slightly. He said this could only be a good thing, but what concerned me was the whole ‘not knowing what this ‘mass’ actually was’ thing. Apparently, they know it is full of liquid, but they do not fully understand whether it is another tumour, whether it is a cyst with a bit of tumour attached to it or any other infinite amount of possibilities (the last part is my own interpretation). Hmm, concerning.
He told me that the case is being handed to the surgeons at Manchester Royal Infirmary and that if I do not hear from them within a month, to contact my surgeon’s secretary. That was it – that was the news. It felt extremely deflating, both because we did not get any news which felt overtly positive, but also because we had misunderstood the process again. We thought we would be getting more information on the next steps, but all we were told was that my team of surgeons will review the case and make a decision on what is next then contact me. That may be fully removing both the shady ‘mass’ and the tumour in surgery, which would be best, or it may be some lesser version of that, perhaps using the Nano-knife technique instead. I asked if anything but outright removal would be with a view to extend my life only and not cure, but he couldn’t answer as he was not sure. There were many things he couldn’t answer because he was not a surgeon. It makes sense, it just wasn’t what I expected. I thought The Christie managed my case, and the surgeons get involved in it when they are required. If that was the case, it would be reasonable to assume the oncologists would be able to answer more of the questions. That is not the case, though, so I understand that the oncologist’s role is now to hand over to the surgeons who will take the lead on the next part.
It was hard to not feel deflated. We were all upset as we left the hospital – knowing that we should feel positive overall but also feeling like we hadn’t quite got the final hammer blow that we wanted against the tumour. Now more waiting, and not knowing whether the next meeting will be when we find out the next steps, or if that meeting will be another ‘we need to discuss this further before making a decision’ type of meeting. The journey home was long and the traffic was terrible as it was rush hour. We didn’t speak a lot in the hour and a half it took.
As I got in the car, I’d just played whatever was last played on my Spotify. It was the ‘Moody’ mix playlist that Spotify makes automatically for me – perhaps not the best choice given the context. At one point, Bon Iver’s Holocene came on, which is a song I always find very emotional and moving anyway. I sat listening to him sing the words “And at once I knew, I was not magnificent,” and found it hard not to buckle under the weight of the situation. The song conjures up a lot of emotion in me at the best of times, but it felt extra hard to process during this moment. I’ve always found it strangely comforting too, though. The lyrics mean different things to me at different times. Today, it reminded me that I am another person trying to fight cancer, hoping I’ll have plenty more years to enjoy with my family, fiancee, friends and my dog. I want to see my siblings get married and have children, I want to buy a house in the countryside, push for a better job, support my friends when they need me, run 100 miles just so I can say that I could, and did. I want to see my parents grow old and be there for them as they do. None of it feels as tangible anymore; it feels like a far-fetched dream, as if I am asking to win the lottery. But I’m not magnificent and neither is my story – there are thousands of people attending appointments at The Christie every day who are suffering and hoping for the same things. There have also been tens, maybe hundreds of thousands who have hoped for the same things walking around that hospital’s corridors. A lot of them will have gotten their wish, but there are many who didn’t too.
So, as the chemotherapy fog gradually clears over the next few weeks, I walk into a new sort of fog. No longer under that cover of protection that chemotherapy offers, I’m forced to address new realities about the future. Whilst on chemotherapy, you have a specific battle to refer to. You have side effects, illnesses and symptoms to fight. You feel like you’re in a struggle, and although that struggle sucks, it is real and you know it is for the best. There’s a number you can call whenever you need help, where someone picks up quickly and reassures you, telling you where to go and what to do. I didn’t realise that at the end of chemotherapy, I’d actually not be under the care of The Christie anymore. Now, The Christie is writing a referral to Manchester Royal Infirmary, who will be the new custodians of my case for the foreseeable future. Of course, this is a good thing. It is the next step in the journey, and a full removal of the tumour is still on the cards. It just feels like a shock and I’m struggling to come to terms with it. New faces, new processes, new unknowns. I’ll adapt to it, I know I will. It just leaves you feeling stupid – like you should have realised that this was the case, but you didn’t because you didn’t listen closely enough or weren’t smart enough to comprehend it. I’m getting the same self-critical feeling about the lack of positive progress in the second half of the treatment cycle – was it my diet, the fact that I couldn’t exercise as much over the past 3 months, did I not sleep enough to allow the chemotherapy to be as effective? It all feels like my fault, and now I’m paying for it.
Whatever happens, I know that I have incredible support around me. In reality, the news today was always going to ultimately be that it is now being passed to the surgeons for review and they will decide the next steps. I know that, but it doesn’t make it feel any better. We didn’t walk away with a big headline – THE TUMOUR HAS SHRUNK. Instead, we walked away with more questions and fewer answers. But it is back to being patient and embracing the unknown. The chemotherapy did shrink the tumour overall and even managed to shrink the unknown ‘mass’ too. Just focus on that and hope that the surgeons decide they can get the bastards out. If they can’t, hope that whatever path we are embarking on is still one that leads to being cured, not just being made to be ‘more comfortable’. After all, Nigel’s story tells us that there are people who are magnificent, and I haven’t been fully excluded from that category yet. The sun came out as we waited in traffic on the way back from the hospital – that higher power really is mocking me today. Maybe it’s in jest, communicating that things are going to be fine. Let’s hope so.