Sonder

‘The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passing in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it.’

Wikipedia, Definition of ‘Sonder’
Manchester Royal – 10 Days Post Surgery

I’m sure the title of this blog post will be met with glee by some of my closest friends, so I may as well get the story out of the way. When I was 18, I learnt the word ‘Sonder’ for the first time. I can’t remember where I heard the term; I have a suspicion that a band I liked put out a song with that title, but I’m not sure what band and I don’t have any recollection of the song itself. I quickly looked up what the word meant, and its definition immediately struck a chord with me, as it perfectly framed something that I had thought about many times but had never managed to properly define. It is such an interesting concept and one that still occurs to me frequently.

The most recent time it occurred to me was when I was sitting in a traffic jam earlier in the week. There were roadworks on, and some temporary traffic lights were in place to control the three-directional traffic. In a classic case of ‘The World vs Me’, I watched as the lights seemed to let every car come through from the other directions, then only allow about 5 cars through from my direction before turning red again. I was getting wound up despite having nowhere to be, and it all was pretty inconsequential whether it took an extra 5 minutes for me to get through these lights and get home. At some point, I became cognisant that I was being stupid, and I started telling myself that it did not matter and that I was one of many people who were experiencing the exact same thing at that moment. Then I started to think about the fact that someone else might actually be late for something in that queue – a spouse’s birthday party, picking their child up from school etc. Maybe someone was sitting in that queue after having a horrible day at work and knew they were returning home to an empty house, after recently getting divorced, or some other miserable scenario. I started romanticising the idea that my life wasn’t so bad, and that someone else in this queue was probably dealing with something far worse than me, and that I should use this time to just relax for a few minutes. It helped me gain some perspective, even if the scenarios were completely imaginary. I actually managed to forget that I have cancer for a few minutes, and was even claiming to have an enviable life because I didn’t have anything to get annoyed at these temporary lights for, other than the mild inconvenience. If only that was the measure of success in the world… I’d be a bona field Buddha by the now if it was.

Anyway, back to the story. Young, 18-year-old Dan, was totally in awe of this new construct that he had discovered. So what did he do? He got it tattooed across the right side of his chest… because why wouldn’t you do that? The word ‘Sonder’ awkwardly lay across my chest in a curly font for no real reason other than “I liked the definition.” It was my first tattoo, so part of me wanted to see what it felt like getting one too, and perhaps that made me more willing to randomly get a word tattooed on my chest. I was yearning for any excuse to get a tattoo now that I could legally do it.

I’ve since had it covered up. Not because I was ashamed of it, it just looked quite lost having a single word on my chest, and it was difficult to get things done around it without it looking strange. So, it is no longer there. I haven’t lived it down with my friends, though, and one of the common jokes was that it actually read ‘Sandra’ instead of ‘Sonder’. Despite never having dated anyone called Sandra, the joke was that I got an ex’s name tattooed on my chest before we broke up. I did play my own part in perpetuating this joke as I did find it very funny, and would regularly tell people that I had an ex-girlfriend’s name tattooed across my chest. Sometimes it is better to just indulge in the joke as opposed to becoming a victim of it. I also found the joke pretty funny, so that helps.

The ‘Sonder’ Tattoo – During Masters Year, 2015

I’m not sure why I thought the best course of action after discovering a new word I liked was to immediately get it tattooed on my chest. Whether I thought it made me more interesting, or whether I liked the way that this obscure word might help explain something about me as a person, I’m not really sure. I can’t remember how I thought then, and I struggle to relate to a lot of my actions throughout this period of my life now. After all, I was a very different person then, one who drank to extremes and actively ignored many uncomfortable truths about myself. I probably still ignore some uncomfortable truths about myself, but some, like the fact that I have cancer and am statistically very likely to die in the next 5 years, I feel like I’m pretty good at facing… maybe I’m even too good at facing those uncomfortable truths now, and the more pertinent challenge is learning to ignore them and just enjoy myself.

The thing is, I have a lot of tattoos now, and I don’t really understand why I got many of them, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like them. They capture something about myself, from a certain point in my life. I try not to regret any of them, even the one that I got covered up… Poor Sandra; the ex that never existed. As a concept, though, the term ‘sonder’ does still mean a lot to me, both because I decided to get it tattooed on me at some point, and because it did have such an impact on me upon finding out its definition.

The motivation for writing this post came at 4am yesterday morning, as I lay in bed struggling to sleep. For some reason, I decided to start making my way through some of the comments that have accumulated on the blog. I’ve had a backlog of comments which have built up over the past 2 months since I had the surgery. At first, they built up because I didn’t have the energy to respond to them. Then they continued to build up, and I continued to not answer them as it felt disrespectful to the older comments if I only answered the newer ones. Then, I had so many to respond to that I just shied away from the task. I haven’t been posting too often anyway, so I assumed that my readers weren’t taking my absence to heart. It must have been obvious that I was struggling, I thought, and that made me feel better that I had not been responding. I was struggling, so it was hardly a lie. I still am, but it’s getting easier.

Well, as I lay there unable to sleep, I decided that the time had come to start responding. I’m so glad I did. Although I had read all of the comments before, most of them whilst I was still in hospital, or only recently after I had got out, I’m not sure I had properly considered what many of them were saying. People can be so incredibly supportive – I felt really touched as I made my way through them and started responding. It got me thinking back on the concept of sonder and how profound it is.

We get so caught up in what is going on in our own lives that we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that we are truly alone in whatever struggle we are engaged in. That feeling of solitude can be detrimental to our well-being; sometimes more so than the struggle itself. I’m lucky that I have the blog, and this stops me from falling into such a trap so easily, as I have a small network of people who frequently reach out to me, with very similar experiences to the ones I talk about. It still surprises me just how similar some of the experiences that I read about are to mine, though. One person had recently commented on the blog stating that they had a total pancreatectomy (a full removal of the pancreas) only 8 weeks ago. I had the same procedure only 10 weeks ago. In the hospital (where I did suffer from feeling truly isolated and had nothing but time to dwell on my circumstances), I fell deeply into the feeling that I was alone – that what was happening to me was not being experienced by anyone else in the world. That feeling is crippling. It dragged me to the deepest pits of the human experience, resulting in an episode of delirium and some of the darkest thoughts I’ve ever had.

As I read that someone else had experienced the same surgery as me only 8 weeks ago, only a few weeks after my surgery date, I almost felt giddy. It feels sort of sadistic to admit that I was happy to read someone is going through what I am, especially knowing how difficult it has been. That shared experience goes a long way in normalising what is happening to me, though. Not ‘normalising’ in a negative way – not that you ever want to ‘normalise’ suffering from cancer, despite it feeling very normal when you see how busy the oncology wards are at hospitals – but normalising it in a way that makes it feel just that… Normal. At times, the most difficult part of going through everything that I have with pancreatic cancer is the feeling that I’m the only one going through it, due to the constant reminders from health professionals that “not many people your age get pancreatic cancer,” and the fact that “it is very rare for someone to successfully have a surgery like yours.” Even the latter, which is meant to be something positive, doesn’t feel positive when you’re still reeling from the surgery months later, struggling to manage the aggressive form of diabetes now bestowed upon you and still having to visit the wound clinic every day to change the dressings on your abdomen, because the wound still insists on bleeding to this day. Thinking that someone else is probably experiencing these same frustrations right now just makes me feel less abnormal. It is strangely comforting.

The problem with seeking out these types of shared experiences is that sometimes you find something which has the opposite effect. After spending about an hour responding to comments, I decided to look on Twitter, a platform I have been mostly ignoring since the operation. Due to me following a lot of cancer-centric pages and people on there, the algorithm has pinned me down as a real cancer-loving fellow. It is essentially all I see in my feed now. It brings a mix of personalities – the positive ones, the grieving ones, the defeatist ones, and a whole spectrum in between. Unfortunately, I stumbled across the below post at about 5am.

Considering I have scan results later today on Thursday, around 10 weeks after my surgery, this isn’t exactly what I wanted to read today, especially at 5am when I am feeling frustrated and tired. I’ve been comforting myself by saying that the scan can’t possibly pick anything up this quickly, and must just be a process thing to allow me to start chemotherapy, but this post made me think otherwise. I get that it is probably based on real experience, and I know that in most cases my cancer does come back in the form of metastasis to another part of the body, but what a bleak way of looking at things. Hoping to be cancer free should not be something worth criticising, I would hope. Let someone dream – hope isn’t always equivalent to denial. You can both hope to be cancer free and remain that way, yet know that it is unlikely to be the case. This is the world I find myself in – hoping I’ll stay cancer free, yet knowing it may, and probably will be, futile. Perhaps I’m just feeling a little defensive after an unwelcome dose of reality.

Still, the concept of sonder, where everyone has their own view of the world, and where everyone is at the centre of their own universe, can be incredibly comforting when you are going through hardship. No matter how bad things feel for you at any given moment, there is always someone going through something similar. Whether you seek those people out and communicate directly with them, through the internet or some kind of support group, or just allow the thought that they exist to comfort you, I hope it does comfort you when you are feeling low. If it doesn’t, I hope you have at least enjoyed reading about the concept of sonder, and next time you’re sitting in a traffic jam, it encourages you to think about all of those other cars and their occupants, and how they’re probably just as angry as you are about having to wait. I might even be in the car behind you…

The concept of sonder reminds me that these things that are bothering me are not unique to me. There is a whole network of others currently lying in bed, considering the fact that they have scan results for their own cancer later today. Some of them may have more on the line than me. I don’t really know what bad results would mean for me… another tumour? What would that actually mean? Different chemotherapy? No chemotherapy at all? Who knows. Someone is probably just being diagnosed for the first time this second, and I don’t envy them at all. That first diagnosis is soul-crushing. The words which trigger a plethora of existentialism, and start a new chapter in life; one of hospitals, sympathetic looks and a whole load of “I’m glad that isn’t happening to me”’s, even if most of them are probably only said in other people’s minds… Because if it isn’t happening to you, then you should be happy that it isn’t. Why wouldn’t you be? You should be glad it isn’t happening to you… I wish it wasn’t happening to me.

But I’m equally glad that it is happening to me and not to either of my parents, my siblings, my wife or any of my friends. Anyway, it is happening to them in a different way, and even that is hard for me to process. Let’s just hope that the scan is clear, so I can get on to the mop-up chemotherapy, and then push through to being ‘cancer free’, for a while, at least.

Wedding Day

It feels a little weird to sit down and write a blog centred around a wedding. Usually, I feel like I understand my role in writing the blog – I describe gritty scenes of hospitals and feeling unwell, demanding the reader’s sympathy, all to make myself feel better about the predicament I find myself in. So where does a wedding fit into a cancer blog? Well, it was my wedding, and I have cancer… or I had cancer. I’m not sure what is technically correct right now. Until I’ve finished the mop-up chemotherapy, I don’t feel like I can say I’m cancer free, but the sugeron did tell me that I was technically ‘cancer free’ before I was discharged from his care. Considering I have just had another scan on Friday, I’m not going to curse it and start ringing the bell of success just yet. That would be tempting fate. Let’s say I do still have cancer, for now.

The wedding date was Friday, September 16th. Despite there being a few days of rain prior to the day itself, the sun showed up for the event. We did personally invite it, so it would have been rude if it had shunned us. Another issue had been looming over the event, though. Rail strikes were planned across England and were majorly impacting the train services which many of our guests would be using to get to the venue. In the weeks leading up to the wedding day, I was receiving more and more messages from friends stating that their trains had been cancelled. One friend who was travelling from France had messaged me to tell me that the Eurostar train service from France to England had even been cancelled, and she was having to seek an alternative route to the wedding. Everything was going wrong. Then, Queen Elizabeth sadly died the week before the wedding, and all train strikes were called off. The circumstances were unfortunate, but they did benefit us. Perhaps the omens surrounding the wedding weren’t so bad after all.

I started the day in my own bed, alone. Anna had stayed with her family in their Airbnb. A sudden panic had come over me as I had no idea where Anna’s wedding ring was, and whether I was supposed to have it. She didn’t inform me that she was going to ignore me all morning, but I got an inkling that this was occurring when she ignored my 3 calls to her that morning. Her mum rang me back a few minutes later, fulfilling her apparent role as ‘messenger’. Luckily, Anna and her mum had the ring. It then occurred to me, however, that I didn’t know who was supposed to have the rings for the ceremony. I understood it was the ringbearer, but who was the ringbearer? It should have been our dog Lucy, but we doubted the venue would allow it. Anna’s mum, Kathy, also would not have allowed the wedding to go ahead if we had actually given Lucy the rings, so the dream was already dead.

I took an executive decision and gave my wedding ring to Keiran, my brother-in-law, and our new ringbearer. The decision was very thought out. “You can be the ringbearer,” I retorted to his complaints that he didn’t have a role at the wedding. Keiran’s thirst for attention needed to be sated somehow, so it seemed an easy fix to both problems. When it came to presenting the rings during the ceremony, he made a huge song and dance out of the whole affair, ensuring he was stood at the front for as long as possible. ‘Forgetting’ which pocket which ring was in, and taking as long as possible to dig them out and pass them over, Keiran made the most of his 5 minutes of fame. “Keiran nearly did a good job,” the registrar said at the end of the ceremony. Even she was sick of his antics; I’ve been putting up with them for 7 years now.

The day went very quickly, as everyone always tells you it does. I could barely breathe between conversations and was constantly getting dragged in twenty directions. All the nerves I felt came at the start of the day, when people started to arrive outside of the venue. Once the ceremony started, they mostly dissipated, only coming back again as the speeches began. My speech was third out of the four, and I sat trying to focus on what was being said in the speeches that came before me, but with one half of my brain focused on the impending speech that I’d have to deliver. Things went very similarly to my nerves at the start of the day, I felt incredibly nervous at first, but after a few of the routine jokes went down well and I really started to believe that I had the room on my side, it got easier. I then got to enjoy my best man’s speech with impunity. All of the speeches were great, and it was interesting to see all of the different approaches taken during them.

By the evening part of the wedding, I was starting to feel tired out. I lasted until about 23:00, though, which is much better than I thought I’d manage at the start of the day. Aside from the guilt of not speaking to anyone enough, the day went as well as we could have hoped it would. I thought that I’d suffer from a huge lull once it was all over. It has been a beacon of light ever since we set the date around 7 months ago; a safety net that was there to support is no matter how bad things were getting in the present. Strangely, I’ve felt quite the opposite. It has felt easy to appreciate that it was an amazing day, but that it is over now.

There is a comfort knowing that it all went so well, and that I am now happily married. I think it is a lesson that I have been learning over the past 12 months. As you adjust to a new standard of life, and a new reality that you exist in, one which requires you to be ever more conscientious of the fragility of it all, you learn to really enjoy something for what it is. We cannot go back and relive special days like our wedding day, we can only breathe life into those memories by chatting with friends and family about them, looking at the pictures and re-experiencing the key components – things like the first dance song or the main course that you chose. That has to be enough once the day is over. If it is not, you will mourn the fact that you can’t do it all again, and it will tarnish how you special it all was. Anna and I have been listening to our first dance song a lot in the past week. It’s been lovely.

The First Dance Song

After the wedding, we spent a night away at a very nice hotel called The Tawny in Stafforshire. We could only get one night at such short notice, which was unfortunate. It has lovely grounds around it, and we spent a few hours walking around and discovering some of the hidden treasures. We randomly found a tennis table as we walked along a path, and Anna proved just how terrible her hand-eye coordination is. It was good fun. I couldn’t take advantage of the hot tob like she could, as the wound on my abdomen is still open and at risk of getting infected. I sat next to the hot tub reading whilst she enjoyed the bubbles. It was a nice way to spend the evening and definitely made it feel special, as we would not usually do something like that so off the cuff. Perhaps we should start being more impulsive like this, but I have 3 more months of chemotherapy to get through first, which is why we hadn’t booked a proper honeymoon yet.

Exploring the Grounds

This week it has been back to the hospital appointments. On Thursday I had a meeting with a diabetes specialist nurse at Manchester Royal Infirmary. The nurse told me that she only did two days a week as a diabetes nurse at the hospital, and spent the others as a sports nutritionist for a university. As a result, we ended up speaking a lot about running and its impact on your body. I told her that I was starting to consider running again, and that I had been running throughout my first bout of chemotherapy. She wasn’t impressed. I didn’t know this, but she told me that your lungs and respiratory system are very vulnerable during and after running. With my body going through so much, with the chemotherapy, surgery, and with the upcoming chemotherapy, she told me that I should be careful. I asked her how long she would suggest waiting before starting again, and she responded that she would wait until at least 6 months after finishing chemotherapy. I was quite shocked, actually. It was a helpful conversation as it has convinced me not to start running too soon, but I’ll inevitably ignore her advice. I’m already itching to get out again and I haven’t even started the final 3 months of chemotherapy. Before I start chemotherapy, however, I have to receive more scan results.

On Friday, I had another CT scan at The Christie, checking for tumours in my body. It is never fun attending scans, and the period in between having the scan and receiving the results is never nice either. I’m still feeling very in the middle of the treatment, so I don’t feel too nervous about it. I think it is quite unlikely that a tumour would have taken hold in the time since my surgery, so that makes me feel better. My life hasn’t really returned to normal anyway, though, so I don’t feel like I have very much to lose right now. If I heard another tumour had started to grow somewhere, it would just mean more fighting. I don’t feel like I’ve left that mode in my mind yet, so fighting on would just be a continuation of the current status quo. It’ll be much harder to cope with the scans if I get to 2 years clear, and I have established a ‘normal’ life again. That will be when it risks completely unturning everything again, like my original diagnosis did. For some reason, I feel like a lot more hangs in the balance in that situation. Perhaps this is all just me rationalising why these results aren’t too important, making me feel better about them. Who knows. For now, it’s back to work, back to scans and back to the ‘real’ world. Anna and I had a few days where we treated ourselves, but it all needed to end at some point.

Sorry for disappearing on the blog again – it was a very busy period. I’ll be back to it properly from next week, complaining about having my blood taken and delving into all the doom and gloom of having/not having cancer. I have so much complaining to do about diabetes that I’m considering writing a book titled ‘Don’t Lose Your Pancreas’, which would be all about how fucking annoying life gets if you do indeed lose your pancreas. Maybe I should call it ‘Dancreas Pancreas’, actually. It sounds like a spell from a Harry Potter book, though. Maybe I’ll write some fan fiction where the world of diabetes crosses over with the world of Harry Potter. Instead of having a scar on his head, Harry could lose his pancreas and then have to manage his blood sugar whilst he tries to fight 3 headed dogs and woo Ginny. That’s probably the only way it’ll actually sell. At least I’ve got a plan for the book now. That’ll distract me from the fact that the wedding is over and I’ve got scan results coming up on Thursday…

Another Day, Another Hospital Stay

The Progress of the Wound

I’ve spent so much time in hospitals over these past 12 months that I’m starting to consider myself somewhat an expert on them. Sure, the staff at a hospital spend much more time there than I ever could, but they aren’t then forced to sleep on the thin foam mattresses and eat the inexplicably disgusting food. When I go into the hospital, I really walk the walk. I throw up in the cardboard buckets, sulk in the side rooms and indulge in the various sizes of cannulas. Once, I had 3 separate cannulas in my two arms, yet the nurse still approached me and asked if she could put in another one. “What is wrong with the ones I already have in?” I asked. “They aren’t big enough for a blood transfusion,” she responded. I wondered how my veins were still managing to carry blood around my body at all. They were starting to resemble a Kerplunk tower.

My knowledge of hospitals is exactly what makes them so unappealing to me. The overbearing smell of the chemicals used to clean every surface. The solitude of the shared wards, where I am forever damned to being at least half the age of everyone else in the room. The excitement when a nurse or doctor shows up to talk to you about something, only for the conversation to last a mere 3 minutes; a momentary break in your daily routine of watching videos on Youtube, trying to sleep and staring at your own legs. A&E is even worse, though – a holding pen of drunk, miserable and desperate people, most willing to exaggerate, lie and even scream to get a 5-minute improvement in their overall wait time. Pair that with the average wait time being approximately 2 weeks and you get a pretty unappealing offering.

A&E is so unappealing in the UK right now that I spent 4 hours last Saturday night projectile vomiting and trying to withstand some of the worst abdominal pain I’ve ever felt just to avoid it. My theory was that it would all pass if I just waited another hour…

Another hour…

Just one more hour…

Eugh.

That theory never materialised and as I lay there on the sofa, keeled over in pain, I finally succumbed to the inevitable. At first, we tried to ring an ambulance to take me. The last time I required an ambulance was to be transferred from Leighton hospital to Manchester. During that journey, the ambulance crew encouraged me to ring an ambulance in future if I am in a lot of pain as they described my case as “more worthy than 99% of cases that we spend our lives attending to.” Encouraged by this advice, and in desperate need of some top-grade morphine, I called the ambulance service.

Unsurprisingly, they told me that I could wait, but it would be at least 4 hours. Who would have guessed that the ambulance service would be busy on a Saturday night? Perhaps I should have lied and told them that my chest and back were indeed hot, and that my stools were so black and tar-like that they turned the water in the toilet basin the colour of squid ink, but that isn’t the kind of person I am. I answered their list of questions as honestly and positively as possible, which got me exactly where it was always going to get me. Deprioritised. Rating your abdominal pain an 8 out of 10 and repeatedly projectile vomiting 2 months after major surgery is only worrying if your chest is also warm… You really do need to be on death’s door before they’ll take you seriously. My last ambulance crew told me that they spend their lives attending to low-priority calls about issues that barely require hospital attention, but maybe they were just liars.

My mum, Anna and I jumped into the car. Royal Stoke hospital is a 20-minute drive, so it isn’t too bad. It was the pain relief that I was so keen to get, and I knew that I wasn’t going to get it for hours if we walked into A&E. When you get an ambulance, you get it before you even make it to the hospital! It is a life of luxury in an ambulance – you’re given your own driver AND a separate paramedic who can prescribe you morphine; no wonder they’re so popular on Saturday nights. I crawled into the back of the car. My mum handed me a bucket, which was a good idea in hindsight, as 15 minutes into the journey I started throwing up again. The car stank for the last 5 minutes, but the bucket was then left in the back of the car, to my mother’s dismay as she returned to the car a few hours later. She then had to drive back to the house with the smell of stale sick lingering in the air.

Anna and I went straight into A&E whilst my mum negotiated the car park. One thing I will say about having a major operation and a history of pancreatic cancer is that you do get triaged very quickly. As the receptionist was handed my discharge notes from Manchester, which includes my original diagnosis of stage 3 pancreatic cancer, all of the gritty details of the operation, as well as the fact that I am now fully ‘insulin dependent’ (AKA Diabetic), she looked a little overwhelmed. We sat in the waiting room for no more than 10 minutes before I was called up. I was glad to be out of the waiting room – it was full of drunk, miserable people. I was also miserable, but the others were really miserable; there was wailing, shouting and some chaotic laughing coming from a man lying on a set of chairs who was occasionally shouting something at a man sitting across from him – I’m pretty sure he was being racist to the poor guy, but he could barely form a coherent word, so it was hard to really know.

The nurse took us into a bay and closed the curtain. As she asked me to explain what was happening, and I started making my way through the history of Dan’s cancer, I started to cry. At some point during my recital, a thought hit me like a freight train. I remembered watching an advert about cancer a few years ago where a woman described suddenly falling violently ill, projectile vomiting and not knowing why. A week later, she was diagnosed with cancer. I sat in the chair, bent forward and holding my abdomen. “It’s fucking spread, hasn’t it?” I said to Anna. Shortly after the nurse took us to a room and told me that I can’t be around the general population in case anyone passes something on to me. There we waited about 30 minutes for a bed and then we settled in. It was about 23:30.

It took around an hour or two for the nurse to put in a cannula, take bloods and give me a course of pain relief. Things slowed down after that. The nurse told us we were “going to be seen next” for a grand total of 5 hours. By the time a doctor finally came to speak to me, it was around 6:30 in the morning. After the pain relief had dampened my abdominal pain, I’d spent most of the time drifting in and out of sleep. Poor Anna and my mum were taking turns alternating between the two chairs in the room – one was actually a stall, so to sleep on it, they were having to lean their head forward and rest it on the bed. It didn’t look comfortable at all.

Luckily, when the doctor did eventually see me, she was extremely knowledgeable and diligent. She quickly went through my blood test results, telling me that my infection markers weren’t worryingly high but were raised. The plan was to do a CT scan at some point that morning. Unfortunately, the shift changeover was at 7:00am so after that brief interaction, we didn’t see her again. After a few more hours I was moved into another part of the hospital where I stayed for another few hours, before being admitted onto a ward. I really didn’t want to be admitted. In my experience, trying to get out of the hospital once you’ve been admitted is like trying to escape Alcatraz. The amount of procedures you have to fight through just to leave on the day you are discharged is crazy. You sit around waiting for the doctor to write the discharge notice, then you wait for the ward to process it, then you need a porter to ferry you to the discharge lounge where you have to wait for the Pharmacy to put together your medication, which has never taken less than 3 hours for me, then, finally, you’re allowed to leave. By this point, it is usually 20:00 in the evening and you’ve spent all day in purgatory, resisting eating any more hospital food because you know that soon you’ll be able to have real food from home, food that actually tastes of something.

So I went to a ward, then got moved to another ward and then went to do the CT scan. A few more scans were planned for Monday morning – the hospital needed to order some of the materials required to do the scan. The CT scan used a contrast dye which is pushed directly into your blood via the cannula which is connected to a line. The type which they couldn’t do was one where you drink a liquid before the scan, taking a cup of it every 15 minutes for an hour, and then you go into the scan. I believe the liquid you drink can be tracked as it makes its way through your body, allowing them to trace how things are moving through. Some of the details might be wrong there, but hopefully, you get the gist. The hospital didn’t have the liquid you need to drink prior to having the scan, so this is what we were waiting for.

The results of the CT scan showed that I had a blockage in my colon. One of the new joins in my digestive system had swelled up, I think, and it was causing my stomach to not empty properly. When my body realised it couldn’t digest food, it went into emergency mode and decided to fire it back out from where it came from. That seemed to explain why I’d had such a bad pain in my abdomen.

A downside to the next scan being Monday was that I wasn’t allowed to eat anything until after the scan. This wasn’t a problem Saturday night, with the taste of sick lingering in my nose and with me barely stomaching water alone. It was starting to become a problem by Sunday afternoon when I was actually feeling a lot better. My stomach was hurting but I was starting to get quite an appetite again. There was nothing to be done, though, so I settled into another night in a hospital.

A downside of being diabetic is that not eating can send your levels all over the place, especially if you’re ill. My body was not only fighting whatever was happening now, but it is also trying to recover from the surgery. The surgeon had warned me that this will likely be the case for 6 months and that my blood sugar levels will be difficult to control throughout this period. Between the illness, recovery from the operation and not eating, my blood sugars kept dropping to dangerously low levels.

For those of you who don’t know much about diabetes – the idea is to try and control your blood sugar levels in a similar way to how your body does when it is functioning properly. You inject insulin to stop your blood sugar from spiking when you eat and to bring it down, and if your blood sugar gets too low, you urgently take on sugar to bring it back into a safe tolerance. By ‘take on sugar’, I mean that you drink something sugary like fruit juice or Coke. You can also eat sweets that are all sugar, but anything that also has other nutritional content, like chocolate bars, which also contain fat, will take longer to digest. That means a slower increase in your blood sugar, which could be dangerous. Your blood sugars can be high without it being dangerous on a short-term basis, so it isn’t too concerning if they are slightly elevated. Low blood sugars can be very dangerous, though, and can result in an individual passing out, with the risk of falling into a coma.

Another downside of being diabetic and being an inpatient in a hospital is that nurses, in general, do not seem to know how to manage it at all. That night, the nurse came to take a reading from me. It stated that my blood sugar was at 2.7, which is low. The ideal range is between 4 and 7, but I consider anything up to 10 as Ok. The reason it had got so low is that my Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM), the device which is attached to my arm and continuously sends readings to my phone, tends to record around 2 points higher than my blood sugar level when tested. It isn’t always that different, but when the blood sugar levels are changing frequently, as they were that night, it tends to be more inaccurate. That meant that I thought my blood sugar levels were around 4.7, which is fine, but in reality, they were lower than this. As I had recorded low blood sugar levels, the nurse had to put me on a sliding scale.

Now, I repeatedly told her that I’d rather manage it myself and that my body will be very susceptible to insulin when my levels are being so volatile, but that couldn’t supersede the ‘process’. If your blood sugars are recorded as low, the staff have to ‘take control’ the nurse told me. The problem is that most of the nursing staff don’t seem to understand how to control a diabetics levels. I heard the nurse repeatedly asking another nurse how a sliding scale works, what she should be doing with it etc. I wasn’t particularly happy that this person was in charge of it.

A sliding scale is a machine which is hooked up to the cannula and monitors your blood sugar levels. The nurse can tell it to give you a certain amount of insulin per hour, which is what this nurse did. The problem is that my level was randomly dropping without much warning, so why would I want to introduce more insulin into my body at this time? I said this to her, but she told me that they had it under control. Of course, that night, I had 3 hypos where I urgently had to eat glucose gel to get my levels raised again. Eventually, the nurse listened to my pleas to stop leaking insulin into my body and changed the amount of insulin being issued to 0. This was happening throughout the night as I was trying to sleep. I genuinely lay there terrified that these nurses were going to kill me if they didn’t listen to me and stop what they were doing. It is incredibly frustrating.

Going into the hospital as a diabetic is genuinely scary – you really see the lack of fundamental knowledge in the area. You are constantly given things like orange juice with your meals, there is no indication of how many carbohydrates are in a meal, which would help you inject the right amount of insulin for what you eat, and the nurses frequently seem bewildered by what to do with you as they routinely check your levels. I don’t blame the individuals, but something really isn’t working in this area of care. You’re far better off at home where you can eat healthier and be responsible for controlling your own blood sugar levels.

The next morning, the surgical team came and spoke to me. “You seem well,” the head surgeon said as he approached me. “Yeah, I feel fine now. I’m just starving,” I retorted. “Well let’s cancel the scans, let you eat and get you discharged then,” he said, to my surprise. He explained that these types of blockages usually clear themselves up and then the subject is fine. I was sceptical but I accepted what he said – he knows better than I do, and I was feeling much better now. That was that. A few hours later I was let out (I did not have to pick up any medication to be discharged with so I missed the pharmacy debacle, which was a relief).

My problem since leaving the hospital has been that some of the issues haven’t gone away. It isn’t comforting to be released from the hospital with nothing – no antibiotics, no advice on what to do next time, or what not to do to help prevent it from happening again, nothing. For the first few days at home, I did feel better, mostly. Since Wednesday, I’ve started getting this heavy feeling in my stomach and lower abdomen again. When I try to eat as much as I feel I want to in order to satisfy my hunger, I start feeling incredibly sick. The whole thing has left me feeling lost, and I’ve just reduced the amount I’m eating by a lot. I feel hungry all of the time, yet still a little bit sick. It is exhausting. As a result, my blood sugar levels are also all over the place. I seem to have at least 1 hypo every night, where my blood sugar drops too low and I have to have a glucose gel. Luckily, when my phone records a low reading, an alarm goes off. If I didn’t have this, I probably just wouldn’t be sleeping out of fear that I wouldn’t wake up.

All of this is worsened by the fact that my wedding is on Friday, so I am extremely nervous that I may have another episode around then, which would ruin the entire day. There are so many growing pains with everything going on – the diabetes, recovering from the surgery and, now, mentally preparing myself for the next bout of chemotherapy. Sometimes you wish life would just give you a break. I really need it right now.

Home Again With Little Lucy

Cancer Free (Sturm und Drang)

The Road to Recovery

The Day After the Operation – Tubes Everywhere

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 First Time I Managed to Walk Outside – About 5 Days After Surgery

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.

Taken During My 12 Hours at Home, Before Returning to Hospital

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).

Extracting Stomach Fluid – Not My Best Angle

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!