The Road to Recovery
I tried to kill the pain, I bought some wine and hopped a train
Seemed easier than just waitin’ round to die
Townes Van Zandt is widely regarded as a veteran of American songwriting. I don’t listen to a wide variety of his music, but I’ve loved ‘Waiting Around to Die’ since I first heard it years ago. I remember being taken in by the finger-picked guitar and grimy lyrics. It is one of those songs where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You can learn and play the main riff on your acoustic guitar, but you can’t make it sound as good as it does on the recording for some reason. I feel similarly about Bob Dylan’s song ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’. That song is also primarily made up of a picked acoustic guitar pattern and a vocal, and is equally as difficult to play to the standard of the recording. Both songs are tantalising in their delivery.
One of the first things I did after hearing the song was looked into the background of the artist. The lyrics in the song are so painful that I wondered just what went on in his life that made him write such heart-wrenching words. I think the Wikipedia page dedicated to him best summarises his ills under the ‘Personal Life’ section – ‘Relationships’, ‘Addiction’, ‘Death’. He was married several times, struggled with addiction throughout his life, and, if the lyrics to Waiting Around to Die allude to anything, seemed to have an unhealthy fixation on death.
The song is so poignant and powerful that I remember seeing a live video of him performing the song, whilst a man watching in the background sat crying through the performance. It made me feel a little inhuman, and like I lacked empathy. The song evokes quite a different reaction from me. I find myself listening to it sometimes to remind myself that things just aren’t that bad. “At least I’m not feeling negative enough to write ‘Waiting Around to Die’,” I’d think to myself on those days where I find myself struggling. If I ever think I am at a point I could write a song like that, I would be very worried about myself. It is so grim in its outlook that it almost paints a caricature of just how painful life can be, and how downtrodden one may feel as a result of it. Although it provides the right environment for a fantastic song, it doesn’t seem to provide the conditions for a healthy and happy life.
One time I will agree that I feel like I am waiting around to die, though, is when I have to wait for scan results. The next set of scan results are particularly important as they are the ones which will vindicate me of all cancer treatment moving forward, should they come back clear. If the news tomorrow at the 14:00 meeting at the hospital is that there are no signs of cancer, I will be hospital appointment-less (not yet a term recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary) for the first time since being diagnosed in November 2021. It will also be the first time that I will not have any more treatment on the horizon and will be considered ‘cancer free’ (also known as ‘Under Surveillance’, but I prefer the phrase ‘Cancer Free’).
Today I went to do the pre-results meeting blood test. I must admit, I had a spring in my step. I’m trying my best not to assume that the scan will be clear, but I can’t help but fall victim to the prospect of hope. After a really tough month of treatment, I am finally feeling my health start to improve again. My head isn’t so cloudy in the mornings, I am managing to eat without feeling sick most of the time, and I’m finally starting to go on daily walks again; I’m having to build the distance up slowly, but am managing to comfortably do 30 minutes most days. It is crazy that this is the standard of fitness I now measure myself by, considering I used to frequently run 50 miles in an average week, but that emphasises the toll that cancer treatment has on your body. I’m probably still recovering from the surgery in many ways, and my blood sugar occasionally has its days where it throws all of its toys out of the pram and decides to be a nuisance all day, constantly going high or low, and refusing to get in line.
Despite reminding myself that there is no certainty that the scan results will be clear, I walked into the hospital feeling like I was exhausting a tickbox exercise more than I was undergoing something determining my fate. The signs are all pointing in the right direction – I had barely sat down in the waiting room after checking in at reception before my name appeared on the screen, summoning me into the blood room. As it popped up, I looked around me to make sure no other Daniel James Godley’s were standing up. It was just me. I made my way down the white corridor and knocked on the door.
One of my favourite nurses opened it, much to my delight. When you have had approximately 4 million blood tests, you start to understand the difference between a ‘good’ one and a ‘bad’ one. The good ones entail an uncomfortable prick of the skin, a minute of relative discomfort followed by a small shudder as you feel the needle being pulled out and replaced by cotton wool being pressed against your skin. The bad ones entail a wrench of pain as the needle is pushed too deeply into the arm, followed by a minute of gritting your teeth as an unsteady hand vibrates the needle, switching between the few vials of blood used during the extraction, followed by a twinge of pain as the needle is jolted back out. The good ones don’t leave much of a mark; the bad ones can leave a deep bruise for as long as a week, and can even leave your arm hurting when you fully extend it. One time I could barely move my arm for 3 days because it hurt so much after a particularly bad blood test. This nurse was firmly in the ‘good’ category, which makes the whole experience far more pleasant.
The deed was over quickly and with relative ease. As I sat there holding the cotton wool on my arm to stop the bleeding, another one of the nurses came in, who I also had a good relationship with. She had counselled me a few weeks earlier as I sat with my head in my hands during treatment, complaining that I couldn’t do it anymore and that I was feeling too overwhelmed. She had spent a good 10 minutes sitting next to me, encouraging me to fight on and reminding me of all the good things in my life – my wife, my puppy and my new found love for baking; the nurses particularly enjoyed the spoils of that last one.
“Dan! How are you doing? Are you feeling better?” She asked, as she picked up a few vials of blood and put them into bags.
“Much better thank you. I’m finally starting to recover from the treatment,” I responded. I then made reference to the blood nurse being one of my favourites. During my response, I said what I thought was the blood nurse’s name, which I immediately regretted, as I got a streak of insecurity in my head as the word came out of my mouth.
“Was her name ‘Aileen’?” I thought to myself, as I said ‘Aileen’. Something didn’t feel right about it. Her name is actually Elaine, which I confirmed by looking at her name badge in that exact second as I uttered the wrong name, so I wasn’t far off, but I still felt horrifically embarrassed. This particular nurse had asked me how my son was two weeks earlier, and I had to tell her that I don’t have a son, so that does make me feel a little better. No one mentioned that I had gotten her name wrong in this situation, though, and I wondered whether to make a joke of it. The moment had passed, and the conversation quickly moved on. It seems we are drawn 1 – 1 on awkward social faux pas – I got her name slightly wrong and she thought I had a son. Luckily, this should be the last blood test I have to do for a few months, so she won’t get the opportunity to punish me for a while. Hopefully, by then, she will have forgotten.
Now, I have a long 24 hours of waiting before I find out the full scan results. It is always painful being at the hospital waiting for scan results. The oncologists at The Christie are overprescribed with the number of patients they have, and there are almost always significant delays with the face to face appointments. As a result, you arrive for a meeting at 14:00, but frequently find yourself not being called into a room for at least an hour, if not longer. Then, you are taken into a room where a nurse takes your observations – blood pressure, heartbeat, height, weight – before being asked to wait for the doctor. That can entail another hour of waiting, only in a private room. Every time you hear footsteps approaching the door, your breath deepens and your heart sits in your mouth. Then you watch as a person walks past the room, and you let out a big gasp of air, before repeating the whole process again and again and again before you finally hear that fateful knock. It is painful – I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to it.
Perhaps the universe was trying to send me a message when Waiting Around to Die came on one of my Spotify playlists this morning as I made my way to the hospital to do bloods. I sat listening to the lyrics, and it oddly made me smile. I thought about myself waiting around at the hospital, straining over every minute that my name didn’t appear on the screen, summoning me into the office to learn of my fate. I thought about going through the whole process tomorrow when so much is at stake. If I am clear of any signs of cancer tomorrow, I can start to plan my move back to London, start seeing friends and start making concrete plans again.
There are so many simple things in life that we take for granted when we are healthy. Over the past year, I’ve barely been able to plan beyond the next 7 days with any certainty. There is always the chance that you’ll have a bad day or week on the chemotherapy, or that a scan will reveal some new devastating truth, which you’ll then have to contend with; whether that means more treatment, or that no treatment will suffice to save you, it carries with it an enormous weight. To have that weight lifted seems almost… unfathomable. I cannot wait to finally fathom it.
Of course, then I’ll have to attend these scans every 3 months for the first 2 years. After that, it’ll change to every 6 months. Then, if I make it all the way to 5 years without a reoccurance, it will change to once a year. That is a fairly daunting prospect, but I’ll have plenty of life to keep me busy in between. That is all we can really do with our free time – look to stay busy, finding things that best occupy and satisfy us. I’ve been writing a few special pieces recently that I’ve been really enjoying; I’m going to keep writing and see where it takes me – hopefully, as my energy grows and I feel stronger, I’ll find even more energy to put into it.
Still, I have another 24 hours of waiting to go before I find out what the scan results say. I’m getting ahead of myself and assuming the scan results will be positive again… Perhaps I will try and cook something nice tonight, or bake something to give to the oncologists tomorrow – they can’t give me bad news if I bribe them, can they? Whatever I decide to do, I need to do something. It is all better than waiting around to die – right?