The Road to Recovery
I woke up with a mission today: bake chocolate chip brioche. I had seen it in the shop a few days ago and excitedly purchased it. In defiance of my status as an insulin-dependent diabetic person, one of only 400,000 in the UK apparently, according to a stat I read a few days ago, I set off home with a vengeance against my sweet treat. This brioche bread is about to receive a crash course on the topic of gluttony. It got me excited.
To my disappointment, it was a little tasteless, which is probably the biggest insult you could say about something which is meant to be soft, buttery and full of chocolate. It has the makeup of greatness, yet it tasted rather bland. It was concrete proof to me that if you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself.
The recipe requires a total of 2 hours of proofing time, as well as a good 20 minutes of kneading. I recently invested in a proper Smeg stand mixer, which comes equipped with a dough hook attachment; as a result, I hunt out baking recipes with demanding kneading times so I can lurk over my stand mixer, watching the dough hook do its magic. The whole process is magical. It makes me rather giddy as I watch the ingredients bind together, before being pushed and pulled around the bowl repeatedly. I imagine the dough hook is a bully and the dough is a child with an abundance of lunch money. A more sinister side of my personality kicks in when I’m baking.
Of course, I’d hate to see someone be pushed around in real life. Sometimes, when I’m watching a tv show which contains some kind of bullying scene, I flinch at the thought of someone going through it. It’s awful. I’m a decent person underneath, I promise. Baking just brings out the villain in me.
Between making and baking the dough, and playing some mindless games on the Xbox, I managed to dissolve the morning away. By the time it was 12:30, I was starting to get some faint butterflies in my stomach, in anticipation of the afternoon to come. Whenever my mind went back to thinking about the news I would be receiving later that day, I started feeling anxious and fidgety.
We set off for the hospital at 13:00, arriving about 15 minutes early. Despite all of my knowledge of delays at the hospital, and how painful it is to sit in a hospital waiting area whilst the notification sound of the patient screen rings out again and again, displaying names other than your own, I still blindly hope that arriving early may mean being seen early. It doesn’t. It never does. Don’t be so naive, Dan. What an idiot you are.
After waiting about 40 minutes, a familiar name popped up on the screen. It wasn’t mine, but that of my late grandad – John Ratcliffe. My grandad and I were close. There’s a picture of me sitting on his lap when I was a child. Both of us have big smiles painted across our faces. I had white hair as a child, and we look strangely alike. His hair was white as a result of old age, mine was white with youth; a precursor to it turning as bright blonde as summer sunlight. The picture immediately came to mind as I read his name. It made me feel like he was there with us in that waiting room. He probably never guessed that this would happen to me in my 20s. I’m glad he never had to see it happen to me; I hope it won’t happen to anyone else in my family.
Earlier in the day, at around midday, I received a call from a number that I didn’t have saved. It began with ‘0161’ – the area code for Manchester. My heart started to race. What does this mean? Have they found a tumour so bad that they felt it necessary to call before summoning me in? Dread ran through my fingertips as I accepted the call and lifted the phone to my ear.
It was a hospital in Manchester calling, but not The Christie. It wasn’t even Manchester Royal Infirmary where I had undergone surgery to remove the tumour. This was Saint Mary’s Hospital Clinic calling.
“I work for the Genetics department at Saint Mary’s. We’ve had a referral for you and would like to book an initial appointment.” Although I understood what the woman was saying to me, I was utterly confused. No one had mentioned that I was being referred to another hospital, never mind why it was happening. I asked for more information.
Eventually, after digging deeper, I came to the conclusion that this must be related to the genetic testing that I had agreed to during my first appointment at The Christie, back in November 2021. They had asked me if I’d be willing to have the genome of my tumour mapped, to help determine whether my cancer was due to an issue with my genetics, which would have implications on others in my family, or whether it was down to good old fashion bad luck.
When I put this theory to the woman on the phone, she responded with a confidence-building, “Yeah, that sounds about right.” I asked her if they’d need to do any tests, but she said that initially, it will just be a video consultation. Further tests may be required, but I will learn more in the consultation. We arranged the appointment and I hung up, relieved that it wasn’t something more sinister, but disconcerted at the timing of the call. It was my first true test of the day; the brioche had gone well, other than being a little over-baked. I didn’t have time to taste it before leaving as it was cooling down, so how it tasted was to remain a mystery until later.
It was an hour and ten minutes before we were summoned into the consultation room at The Christie by the omnipotent patient summoning screen. Of course, my name only popped up when I went to the bathroom. A good tip, if you are ever waiting in a hospital for an appointment, is to go to the bathroom – it almost always results in your name being called instantaneously. I wish I’d remembered that tactic an hour earlier than I did, but it did the trick when I remembered it. As I walked out of the bathroom, I saw my mum gesturing to me, indicating that I had been called.
We then spent another 40 minutes waiting in the small consultation room. A heavy silence sat in the air. Anna and I barely even looked at each other. It is strange how time can feel like it is both standing still yet passing relatively quickly. I can’t believe we were waiting another 40 minutes in that room. We must have uttered a total of 10 words to each other in that time. My stress levels were rising. I tried my bathroom trick, but they had cottoned onto it; I returned to the room to find Anna alone still. Shame.
Eventually, an oncologist walked in and introduced himself. “We’ve met a few times on your journey, I believe,” he said as he entered. I remembered him – he is a very nice man. Oncologists seem to have a casual swagger to them in general; not to the level that surgeons do (my surgeon rode into work on an old-school motorbike), but they’re pretty close. They remain professional, but you always feel that they would be immaculate under pressure, and they speak in a way that put you at ease. It’s a shame that what they are usually saying does anything but put you at ease. I feel like I shave a few years off my life every time I have to go to the hospital for scan results because of the tension that builds in my head.
After all of that waiting, the meeting lasted a total of about four minutes, which is probably what you want in this situation. A long meeting means there is a lot to discuss. A lot to discuss is bad. I want my conversations with oncologists to consist of a single word – ‘Clear’!
In the most nonchalant fashion, the oncologist told me that my scan is clear and that things are looking positive. The only warning he had for me was that two of my lymph nodes were slightly enlarged. He said that they aren’t considered a risk until they reach 1cm and that they are currently 5 and 6mm. They will need to be monitored, so another scan would be planned for 3 months time. If that is clear, the scan schedule will change to every 6 months.
I sat confused and asked why the scans weren’t going to be every 3 months for the first year. I’m sure that is what I had been told. I actually thought they had said that the scan would be every 3 months for the first 2 years, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself so lowered it to 1 year. He seemed confused at this. The whole experience made me wonder if I actually have a deadly cancer at all. Other than him saying, “Well done – you’ve been through a lot to get here,” the rest of the conversation carried an unusual tone. It almost seemed like the oncologist didn’t understand why this was news to me, as if it is more normal to receive positive results in these scans, as opposed to negative ones. The picture of pancreatic cancer I am used to being painted is very different.
He also asked me if I’d like to be followed up by the team at The Christie, or by the surgical team at Manchester. This question confused me a little too. Why would I want to be seen by the surgical team? They are experts at surgery, not in cancer. Surely being followed up by a team of oncologists is far more beneficial than being followed up by a team of surgeons.
To his credit, I said I’d much prefer to stay under the care of The Christie, and he seemed to understand that, and was immediately receptive to it. I also requested to leave the port in my chest for the time being. Having another procedure where a device is cut out of my chest is just not high on my list of desirable things right now. I want to enjoy time away from hospitals, as best as I can, and to try to restore some normality in my life.
So, the headline is that all of the treatment has worked. Remarkably, I am cancer free. It is still hard to fully appreciate and enjoy that fact. The experience of getting results is always so stressful that it is very hard to decompress afterwards. I still haven’t had a rush of relief or achieved a state of nirvana, but I have tried the brioche, and it tasted even better knowing that I don’t have cancer. That’s a start. Hopefully, the state of nirvana will come later. If it doesn’t, I’ll just keep making brioche.