The Road to Recovery
I want to start this post with an apology in case I repeat anything I have written in my previous two posts. Surprisingly, two weeks of opioids and painkillers aren’t conducive to a well-formed memory. “Why don’t you go back and read the posts then, Dan?” you may ask. I don’t waste my time reading such drivel; I leave that to my poor readers. On a more serious note, there’s something about not remembering what I said which makes me nervous about going back. They were also written when I was in a dark place – getting very little sleep on the ward and struggling to adjust to a new life, one of diabetes and fighting back from major surgery… a fight which is still hamstringing me now. I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of views the blog has been getting in my absence, though. A few days ago I looked at the figures, and it had received 160 views that day. Not too bad considering I’ve fallen off the face of the earth over the past month!
It is funny that before the surgery I claimed I’d be offline for a fortnight or so. Technically, I wasn’t wrong. There have been posts since the surgery. I really did believe I would be back to full activity after two weeks… a laughable claim, really. Turns out that it isn’t quite so easy recovering from a 13-hour surgery. In my defence, I was starkly warned that a full removal was very unlikely. The fact that you could have your entire pancreas removed was actually news to me, news that I would only properly understand about a week after the operation. I’d been told many times during that first week what had happened, and probably even regurgitated the words to some unsuspecting nurses who were just trying to clean my wounds, or even to another patient in a bed next to mine, perhaps. “How are you feeling today, Daniel?” They’d ask. “Well, I’ve had my entire pancreas removed and don’t know if I still have cancer or not.” That’s one way to kill a conversation. I don’t remember such a conversation, but I know myself well enough to know that I would have told anyone who came within 6 feet of me what had happened.
The meaning of the words only landed about a week later for me, though. I’d been sitting there at night struggling to sleep when suddenly I started saying to myself, “wait, my entire pancreas was removed? Is that even possible?” The fact that I was now fully diabetic hadn’t occurred to me yet as I was attached to a machine which measured my blood sugar every hour and administered insulin to balance it out. Essentially, the machine was acting as the pancreas I had lost. The machine wasn’t leaving the hospital with me, though. That reality wouldn’t dawn on me for yet another week, when I finally got taken off the machines and had to deal with it head-on. Unfortunately, my first stint as a free man after being discharged from the hospital was short-lived.
I first got out of the hospital about 10 days post-surgery. Though I was incredibly happy to be out of the hospital and back in the comfort of my own home, the relief didn’t last long. That night, as I went to lie down in my bed for the first time, I felt a wave of sickness come over me. After several more attempts to lay flat, I realised that it was the act of laying down that was the catalyst. As soon as I lay back, it felt like my stomach was sitting in my mouth. I’d barely slept in the hospital and felt like I was suffering from a form of PTSD, which I probably was, I think. During those 10 days in the hospital, I felt like I had developed an extremely unhealthy association with sleep – one of me twisting and turning in a hospital bed with tubes coming out of every part of me. Some nights I’d sat there crying whilst 3 nurses tried to console me. “How much more can I give? I don’t even understand if I’ve got rid of the cancer and even if I have, it’ll just come back anyway.” I was inconsolable on several occasions. The nurses sometimes seemed confused, as if what had happened to me was a miracle. Maybe it is. I’m still trying to decide. I don’t think they quite understood what road I have ahead of me still, though, even if it is incredible what was achieved during the surgery.
That isn’t to say that I’m not incredibly grateful to the surgeon for what he did. I’ve since had the histology results from the operation. This is where the lab analyses all of the things taken out during the operation and determines how successful it was. They do this by analysing whether good margins were achieved – i.e. whether they have taken all of the infected areas out of the body, with the inclusion of a margin, assuring that any lingering cancer cells should also have been removed. After analysing the samples from my operation, they determined that good margins were achieved and that the whole tumour has been removed. That is amazing news, of course. It was confirmed that I did indeed have pancreatic cancer, and they now believe that the cancer formed because of a cyst which had grown on the pancreas, allowing the tumour to then take hold. Two-thirds of my large bowel was also removed, as well as the bile duct, spleen and some of the stomach. Forty-five lymph nodes were removed, with two of them testing positive for infection in the lab. On top of all of this, I also had two major arteries reconstructed. The reconstruction of these arteries is why the large bowel had to be removed – something to do with the blood flow meant that the bowel had to be taken out. The lab confirmed that there was no cancer found during the testing of the bowel, which is encouraging.
All of this is very good news. The problem is that pancreatic cancer is extremely aggressive. Although I may be cancer free for now, in terms of having no tumours visible on a scan, it does not mean that new tumours won’t form or haven’t started forming in other organs. I’m entering a period of 5 years where I have to ‘Live With Cancer’, as the surgeon put it. That’s Ok, but it still takes some adjusting to. It feels like being in a strange limbo where I know I am extremely lucky to be here but also struggle to feel contented in it at all times.
Anyway, back to the hospital story. The next morning, after throwing up all night and getting hardly any sleep, I made my way to the nearest A&E on the advice of the non-emergency contact line 111. There I was put on a drip and left in a room with my mum for hours. Eventually, the surgical team came to see me and asked what operation I’d had. When I told them, they barely believed me. It turns out that getting extensive surgery isn’t that common, especially when you’re in your 20’s. She immediately set out on a path of getting me transferred back to Manchester hospital where I’d had the procedure, so she did not have to deal with this absolute mess of a patient. I was happy – I absolutely hate this hospital. I’m sure I’ve spoken about it by name on the blog before, but I’m going to keep it under wraps today so no one can accuse me of being a ‘hater’. I will give you some clues – it is located in Crewe and its name rhymes with ‘Clayton’… I’m sure you’ll never work it out.
My second stint in the hospital lasted 7 days and was pretty painful. This time around I experienced several uncomfortable situations. I had a pipe pushed up my nose and into my stomach to help remove excess liquid from the digestive tract. I had a catheter put in when I was fully awake – the first time I had one put in was during the operation when I was out cold, which was much more convenient. Then, I sat and watched as the wound on my abdomen started to leak so much blood that I needed two blood transfusions. And finally, I got put on a ward where my bed was directly in front of the toilet, and I got to sit watching as everyone on the ward made their way in and out of the toilet – what a joy to see (and smell).
I won’t bore you with all of the minute details of my hellish experiences in hospital over those 2 stints, but there are a few things which feel worth discussing. Firstly, the severe bleeding from the wound. The surgeons were incredibly worried about it as they thought it might have been one of the reconstructed arteries leaking. I was rushed to the CT area for an emergency scan. After having the scan, 3 senior surgeons rushed into the room and asked the clerks to give us a few minutes alone. The head surgeon approached me, staring me dead in the eyes. He put his hand on my arm and started speaking to me in a very serious tone. “Look at me – how do you feel? Not mentally but physically? Only you can know if you are feeling unusual and we may have to make some critical decisions over the next few hours.” If I wasn’t worried at the sight of blood pouring out of the wound, I was worried now. They told me that I may need emergency surgery that night, depending on what the results of the scan said. Luckily, that didn’t happen. It turns out that the skin was bleeding and that blood was building up under the wound. Two cavities had then opened up on either side of my stomach, and the buildup of blood was leaking out of them. It wasn’t pretty. They’re still healing to this day. Nurses come to my house every day to take pictures, pack the wounds with fresh material and then change the bandages. The wounds need to be packed to prevent them from healing too quickly. When this happens, the top layer of skin heals quicker than the inside of the cavity, allowing a pocket under the skin to form where infections can build up. It is all pretty gross. I have to say, watching someone use a little plastic stick to push a piece of material into your abdomen is pretty uncomfortable. One of the cavities is 3cm deep… gross.
Now, the blood transfusions. There are a few things about blood transfusions that are creepy. The most obvious one is the fact that someone else’s blood is being pushed into your veins, and you are sitting there watching it happen. It is an amazing thing, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less creepy a concept. I sat wondering who’s blood I was being blessed with. Maybe I’d start liking different things or having someone else’s memories come the morning. Maybe they were much smarter than me and had big business ideas harboured in their mind which they were now passing on to me. Or maybe they have some sort of disease that wasn’t picked up in whatever screening they do before they let someone give blood. That probably won’t happen, although I did read a few articles about people seeking compensation for that exact thing happening when I was in hospital… Just put it to the back of your mind, it probably won’t happen to you. It didn’t – as far as I know. I haven’t had any big, out-of-character business ideas either.
The other thing that is disconcerting about a blood transfusion is that the bags of blood are kept very cold to stop the blood going off. Not only were they very cold, but they were being infused into my veins over a period of 3.5 hours, and I needed 2 bags. That meant I had to sit there for 7 hours whilst this blood transfusion was going on. Due to the temperature, you can feel the blood going into you, and it gives you these strange chills. My body was occasionally shivering because it was making me so cold, and they didn’t start them until 23:30 at night, so it was happening through the entire night. I hardly slept during my hospital stay anyway, so it didn’t affect my sleep, but it made for a very uncomfortable night. I put my headphones in and tried to relax, but the nurses were coming to prick my finger every hour to check my blood sugars, so relaxing wasn’t that high on the agenda. I also still had the catheter in and every time I moved, I felt the tube pull. As a result, I lay there trying to be as still as possible, shivering and wondering how close to the next finger prick I was. If your life really does flash before your eyes when you die, this is my request to my life to leave these memories out – I’d rather not relive them, thank you.
There is so much more to talk about – the recovery since leaving the hospital, how I’m feeling now, the next steps, dealing with diabetes. I can’t fit it all into one post and considering it has taken me 3 days to even write this, I don’t really have the energy. I’m hoping to get back to posting regularly, but it may only be once a week for a while. Recovering from major surgery really is tough – I feel proud of myself when I manage to eat a full meal without heaving or manage to get through an entire afternoon without accidentally falling asleep for 3 hours on the sofa. My energy is at an all time low and I just feel completely zapped. Things have gotten better over the past few weeks since leaving the hospital, but every time I take a step forward in one department, it feels like another one pulls me back.
Last night, as I was preparing to get in bed, I started feeling extremely itchy all over my body. After inspecting my skin a little closer, I realised that I had a rash forming all over my body. It has been causing me problems ever since. It is the most recent example of life seeming to enjoy kicking me while I’m down. It means that I should have plenty to write about over the next few weeks, though, so that’s something. I’m sorry for going missing for so long and thank you to everyone who has reached out on the blog and beyond. I’m absolutely terrible at answering at the minute, so please don’t be offended if I haven’t gotten back to you. I will make my way through the comments on the blog soon, I promise.
Thanks for sticking with me and I promise there will be a steady stream of content coming over the next few weeks. I’ve got loads of complaining to do!