From now on, I think October will always be a weird time for me. It is that period when the days start getting shorter, and all of the enthusiasm of the summer sun is waning. I didn’t use to mind the shorter days; winter was actually my favourite time of year when I was younger. Me and my friends used to hang out together when we were teenagers in the local parks, and it was fun when it was darker. You felt inconspicuous. Nowadays, I realise that we probably looked intimidating, but we mostly stayed out of people’s way. There wasn’t a lot to do in the village we’re from, so standing around in parks felt like a pretty normal pastime.
Unfortunately, October is now known to me as the month where I was in and out of hospitals, trying to get the sudden sickness that had come over me diagnosed. It started out with me reluctantly going to A&E, knowing that it’d take away an entire evening of my precious life. Then it extended to a week of blood appointments and scans. Then a referral to another hospital with a more specialised Hepato-Pancreato-Biliary (HPB) unit. After 3 weeks of this, I’d been told that I had cancer but that it was a very slow-growing and non-aggressive cancer, which felt comforting. Another week passed; the diagnosis was wrong. By the start of November, I was learning the true extent of the issue. Pancreatic Cancer. You never think it’ll happen to you, but here I was. It was happening.
I’d be lying if I said that it does not feel significant to be sat here a year on. I remember attending the hospital throughout October and wondering when it was finally going to be over. I remember the first time I picked up a prescription for a drug called Creon – the enzyme replacement treatment that I am now all too comfortable with. At the time, the specialist told me that it might help to reduce the amount of pain I was experiencing in my abdomen. He told me to take one before and after each meal. I had no idea that I’d end up taking around 20 – 30 of those tablets a day. At the time, I think they believed my pancreatic functioning to be a little low, meaning I only needed a small amount of enzyme replacement therapy. Now, I have no pancreas at all, so all I have is enzyme replacement therapy. I constantly have to battle with the local pharmacies for more of the drug because I use so much of it, and they seem reluctant to stock too much of it. Perhaps the town I live in is full of people suffering from pancreatic issues. Maybe they should start testing the water and sorting out the issue – there isn’t enough Creon in this town for all of us. I hope I get priority as the flagbearer of pancreatic cancer (a title I have definitely assigned to myself and do not deserve based on any reasonable definition of ‘merit’).
It didn’t even occur to me last October that I might end up a diabetic, need major surgery, or have to do 6 months of chemotherapy. I was still assuming that it would be a quick fix – even if that was some sort of minor surgery. You don’t think you’re likely to have cancer when you’ve been running marathons like I had been doing throughout September. You just assume that people with cancer feel different, that their bodies can’t cope with the stress of training for more extreme fitness events. Unfortunately, they can. Bodies are resilient. So are human emotions of denial, especially where that denial can preserve one’s sense of normality. Going to the hospital was a concrete admission that something was wrong. I told myself that it was a food intolerance causing me pain. I told myself that it was minor and that it didn’t require further attention. The few times I did try and get diagnosed, I felt like I was making a mound out of a molehill; I wasn’t taken particularly seriously by any of the medical professionals I saw. That reinforced the feelings of inadequacy – inadequate to be taking away these people’s precious time; they could be seeing someone who really needs the attention, someone with cancer.
So, October drags on, and so does the treatment schedule. I’ve been back at the hospital to do bloods today before starting the mop-up chemotherapy tomorrow. The new treatment schedule is one consisting of 4-week cycles – 3 ‘on’ weeks and 1 ‘off’. On the on weeks I have a 30-minute infusion at the hospital and have to take chemotherapy tablets twice a day. On the ‘off’ weeks I forget about hospitals and get on with my life…until the next cycle starts, of course. The whole cycle repeats 3 times, and then I have to do another scan. Assuming that scan is clear, I’m then a free man! Until the next scan, then the next scan, but you get what I mean…
It means that The Chemotherapy Diaries series is going to have some new life breathed into it. Back by popular demand. I think I’ve probably had some of the biggest compliments on the blog from that series. Maybe the feelings that chemotherapy inspires are the exact point where cynicism meets defeatism, creating the perfect environment for comedy. Time to pick up my sick bucket and pull up my gloves again; the tingling fingers of a chemotherapy patient, tapping away on their phone, writing their blog where they moan about everything and don’t relent over anything. Oh please dear nurse, take more of my blood for I have no need for it. Shakespeare would have invented 500 words in 12 chemotherapy sessions; I barely managed to produce the ones I know. I usually sat with my head between my legs and my headphones on full blast. It was comforting until I got the inevitable tap on the shoulder from the nurse – “Are you sure you’re ok?” They’d say. “I’m fine. I always sit like this,” I’d respond, not moving my head from its brace position, still staring into the eternal void I’d created between my legs. Lovely, endless void, we meet again. That was always during bag number 2 – this time there is only bag number 1, and it’s only 30 minutes.
The cycle does sound much more manageable. It’s going to be interesting to see how much the mop-up chemotherapy affects my energy levels. They’ve been good recently – I’m working full time again, taking Lucy on regular walks and waking up relatively early without feeling devoid of all energy. The blog has been taking a hit now that I am working full-time again, but I’m figuring out how to create space for it in my more normal life. I’m finding myself staring at spreadsheets again instead of fawning over this word or that phrase. It’s been good, actually. I forgot how much personal triumph you can feel from working. When I have an idea about how to sort out a data problem that my team is having and I write the formula, then watch as I execute it and all problems are temporarily resolved in the world, I feel a rush of adrenaline. “This is living,” I think to myself as I take a sip from my coffee. Life is simple sometimes – Microsoft Excel offers refuge in the form of linear problems with linear answers. Dealing with chemotherapy doesn’t feel quite so linear.
Even the sickness I get after eating has been reduced. It is still a problem, but less so. Sometimes I manage to eat a meal without getting any sickness at all, though this is rare. The sickness is much more manageable even when it does happen. It’s more like an annoying voice in the back of my head telling me “you feel a bit bad after eating that sandwich for lunch, don’t you, Dan? Maybe you shouldn’t have put so much cheese on it, you pancreasless weasel.” Come to think of it, I should change my Twitter handle to Pancreasless Weasel. My Twitter account is far too serious currently.
The excitement at finding data solutions is yet another sign that my life is actually returning to normal. It’s crazy – I truly didn’t believe that things would ever get back to this place, or anything like this place. Despite knowing that I have another 5 years of regular scans before I can truly breathe, it feels like space is being created between the cancer and myself in my life. I’m starting to feel like someone who can talk formatively of cancer, not as someone suffering at the hands of it. No matter what happens in the next 5 years, I’ve gotten to a place which I didn’t even dare to dream of a few months ago. In the last 12 weeks alone I’ve come to be at peace with being diabetic, even finding the process quite fun. It is like a game that you are constantly involved in, yet have no choice over your involvement in it. It is similar to life itself in that regard, I guess, but the diabetes game comes with an app that has a nice graph and lots of statistics about how well you’re doing. Life doesn’t come with such an app. Perhaps I’ll try and create one.
Something that does feel somewhat significant is the fact that Lucy turned 1 at the end of September. We got her at around 8 weeks old, so the countdown is on to the 1 year anniversary of us first meeting her. She has enriched our lives so much. You really do see the best of the world when you spend time around a sausage dog. Seeing their impossibly long bodies bounding through the shortest of grass, yet making it look like a fully grown cornfield, is a comedy that you cannot really recreate any other way. I watched an interview with Christian Bale yesterday where he said “The best actors are children and animals because both don’t give a shit what anyone thinks about them,” and it is so true of Lucy. She is unapologetic in her approach to the world. I’ve spent so long feeling every negative and positive emotion under the sun this year. Everything has been intensified by what has been going on with the cancer. With a sort of end in sight, I’m beginning to get more perspective on everything and feel a sense of relief. As I start chemotherapy again tomorrow, I do so with a genuine end in sight. That certainly makes it easier. So does watching Lucy go about her life without any regard for the bigger picture. There is only this impulse or that desire. You can find plenty of lessons in watching a dog go about their day-to-day life of eating, pooing, sleeping, and repeating. Someone should turn that into a t-shirt or something.
It doesn’t make the month of October any easier to deal with, though. I will forever blame this time of year for punishing me as it did last year. I remember an unusual period of hanging around the flat after spending whole days at the hospital, not knowing what the future was going to hold for me, getting increasingly frustrated at the lack of concrete answers, and the growing anxiety that was building. Who knows what I was doing exactly 1 year ago this second. In a way, it is easier now that I understand the extent of the illness and that I have been through so much to try and fight it. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. I’m married now, and I’ve got a little not-so-puppy puppy that has just turned 1. Life is good, so let’s hope this next bout of chemotherapy is good too (and generates some juicy content for the blog).
Oh, and my mum has a little puppy sausage dog now too. So that’s got to generate some good pictures for the blog, right? Lucy keeps humping her which is a little disturbing but further proof that dogs really just don’t give a shit. She’s 9 weeks old, Lucy. Tone it down a bit…