Surgery Date

The Road to Recovery

You’ll have to excuse the constant posting about surgery, but it is a bit of a hot topic at the minute. The headline is that I have a surgery date – Friday, July 8th. I need to get to the hospital nice and early – for 7:15am that morning. Upon hearing the time, as the scheduler spoke to me on the phone, I briefly thought to myself, “I’m going to be shattered,” but then I realised that I am going to the hospital to be put asleep/knocked out for approximately ten hours during surgery, followed by days in intensive care recovering from whatever they manage to do to me to improve my cancer. I’m pretty sure I’ll find a way to not worry about how tired I may be after my 5:30am wakeup on that first day. That was a thought that certainly didn’t age well in the five seconds it existed in my head; I travelled from an innocent thought about being tired, to tyrannical thoughts about surgeons playing Operation on my real-life body. Come to think of it, the Whipple procedure may have been thought up as a surgeon was playing the board game Operation considering the aim of the game is to remove all of the organs out of a body; that doesn’t sound too far away from what the Whipple procedure aims to do to your digestive tract.

The surgeon told us in our first meeting with him that the best-case scenario will require about ten days in the hospital. The worst-case scenario that he has experienced with someone he has personally operated on was two months in hospital, where there were many complications. Luckily, he has never had anyone die on him, but he did say that a colleague in his team has. I think that was a veiled dig at his colleague; these surgeons are a competitive lot, even in the most serious of circumstances. I left the hospital thanking the universe that it was him performing the operation and not his colleague, even though I’m sure his colleague is a very skilled and diligent individual. I just don’t want to chance it, really. Although, given that it is such a long procedure, perhaps they work it by tagging in different members of the team like a wrestling tag match. Damnit. Don’t think of it, Dan. It won’t matter to you no matter what happens, you’ll be out like a light.

Specific complications that the surgeon called out included the pancreas leaking pancreatic fluid, the patient needing blood transfusions and I must have blocked out the rest of the list because I can’t remember any more examples. Leaking pancreatic fluid sounds pretty gross, I know that much. I remember him telling me that Nano-knife works by applying a small shot of electricity. The shock is supposed to be small enough so as not to produce too much additional heat, but I think he said that there is a risk that the heat could damage my organs. Maybe I’m remembering that wrong, I’m not sure. The meeting is a little hazy now, so trying to piece together the specific things that were said, and why they were said, is difficult. He definitely spoke about how the Nano-knife technique produces a small amount of heat and spoke about why they wanted to minimise this, but I think that I was high on adrenaline at this point and simply nodding my head and smiling, in a picture probably reminiscent of Christian Bale in American Psycho. For some reason, I always find myself being more upbeat in these meetings; I’ve probably creeped out every oncologist, doctor and surgeon that I’ve met who has been involved in the process. During my diagnosis, I actually started laughing when the doctor said “it’s bad news I’m afraid.” I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a drama on TV and couldn’t believe the news was actually being delivered like this. I was waiting for the Eastenders theme tune to start playing, but it didn’t.

There are a few questions that the surgery has raised, but the most important one is this: is five weeks enough time to recover and go on my stag do? We’re assuming so because otherwise a lot of plans have to be changed. What plans specifically, I’m not sure, as I wasn’t invited to the sleepover where they all drew up the sinister blueprints for the weekend. Luckily, I have literally centimetres of cancer in my pancreas (2.1cm to be exact), so they aren’t allowed to physically or emotionally traumatise me too much. That is how it works, right? Surely I’m not expected to join in with the Frosty Jacks boat races or anything. If Frosty Jacks boat races were not on the agenda already, I’m certain it will be after my best man Luke reads that sentence. He’ll kick himself for not putting it in the schedule already.

For those of you who don’t live in the UK, or who lived a much healthier teenage life than me and my friends, Frosty Jacks is a cheap cider which has an alcohol content of 7.5%. When we were younger, you could buy a 3-litre bottle of it for about £3.50, which is absolutely crazy. It has something like 22.5 units in a bottle and we drank them quite religiously from the age of 16 to about 18. If I tried to drink it now, it may actually kill me, both because it is almost certainly 99% chemicals, but also because the amount of alcohol in it could last me six months with my current drinking habits, or lack of. The thought of actually drinking a 3-litre bottle of Frosty Jacks over the course of six months is so sad, come to think of it… And for those of you who don’t know what a boat race is, it is where you split your group into two teams who compete against each other. The two teams face each other on either side of a table. Starting from the same side, both individuals start to down their drink. When they finish, the person next to them can start drinking. That means that everyone focuses on the one member of their team who is currently drinking, making it quite a high-pressure situation, especially when you’ve already had a few drinks and are getting competitive. The winning team is the one that finishes their drinks first. A truly remarkable game to be discussing in a cancer blog, I’m sure you’ll agree. I haven’t played it in years and have no desire to, but we have to keep the blog content fresh somehow – it can’t all be ‘cancer this’ and ‘cancer that’!

One thing that my best man has shared with me is that he has started baking bread over the weekend. That got me riled up, as I’ve been meaning to start baking bread for a while. So yesterday, I baked my first wholemeal loaf. It actually went pretty well. Today I did it again to test whether it was a fluke. Another success. It’s actually quite easy and makes eating it far more rewarding. Tomorrow, I’m going to try and bake a wholemeal spelt loaf. I know what you’re thinking, “that’s got an entire additional word in the name!” It’s a crazy thing to dare to do, but I’m going to do it. Replacing the wholemeal flour with the wholemeal spelt flour might just be the downfall of my entire bread baking career. If it goes well, though, it’ll mean that I have two types of wholemeal loaf to make in future. High risk, high reward!

Half way through making some banana bread this afternoon, I received a call from Macmillan at Manchester Royal Infirmary. After my meeting with the surgeon last week at the hospital, I had spoken to the nurse about how I was feeling about things. I mentioned the financial concerns I had, which have been ever-present for months now ever since my employer made it impossible for me to return to work, yet only paid me a month’s full salary. Very nice of them. I truly believe that their HR department could receive ‘Worst HR Department in the UK’, which would be nice for them; I’m sure it is the only way they’d ever win an award.

Anyway, bitterness aside, the nurse had told me that she will get one of the Macmillan representatives at the hospital to call me and chat to me. Every time I see an ‘0161’ number calling me, my heart stops a little bit as it is the area code for Manchester, where the hospital is located. I’m always assuming it’ll be someone telling me some new development about my cancer. It was a relief to hear that it was Macmillan. The representative I spoke to was incredibly helpful. She spoke to me about all of the things that concerned me, offered to speak to my mum to further support her and said that she would get the financial advice team to call me after I have been discharged from the hospital, after the operation.

There was something in particular that she said which has really stuck with me and has given me such a lovely perspective. She stated that surgeons won’t decide to do something unless they see value in it, and that they believe that the pros will likely outweigh the cons of doing it. After all, it isn’t only my life at risk, but their own reputation (and pride too, probably). These decisions are highly calculated and scrutinised by an entire team of extremely skilled individuals. Not only that, but this is an expensive procedure to perform, requiring a complex surgery with a lot of equipment, and a long period in hospital afterwards for aftercare. Going ahead with it must mean that they perceive it worthy of that cost, which could be used elsewhere, for another patient.

Although I had thought of it in many different ways to help me process the news, I really hadn’t considered this one. It made me reconsider so much of the conversation that the surgeon had with me. He is always going to focus on the risks, concerns and potential issues – all of this information is incredibly important. If a patient walks out of that office not understanding the full extent of the consequences of agreeing to such an operation, they could end up agreeing to something that they, in fact, do not consent to at all. It is, therefore, the intent of the surgeon to ensure that the severity of the situation is communicated in the clearest of terms – that there is little evidence of how successful Nano-knife may be, that the operation is a major surgery and carries a lot of risk, and that my general diagnosis is a damning one, especially statistically. He also pointed out that most people in my position wouldn’t get an operation at all, but I am getting one, so they must see something different in the situation. Whether it is my age, health or diagnosis that they see as ‘different’, or a combination of those things, I don’t know. I don’t care, of course. I’m grateful that they made the decision that they did and I need to remind myself of that when I am fearful or anxious about the surgery. Surgery is what I wanted, and it was not guaranteed at all. It does create a strange dichotomy between the excitement of achieving that goal, yet knowing that it means I will be having a big operation, but that’s ok. Life is full of situations which leave us emotionally confused, being pulled in multiple directions at the same time. We are complex beings; we cannot expect ourselves to always feel certain we understand how we feel about a situation, especially where it is complex.

There is one last thing which I saw today that I thought was worth talking about. As my Twitter account is for the blog, and the primary things I follow on there are cancer-related accounts, I get a lot of cancer posts in my feed. Today on my feed, I saw the below post by the actress Mindy Kaling, who was put on my radar by the series The US Office, but has had her own show since, and has been in various big-budget films.

I thought that I was glad she was posting about it to her 11.5M followers. It has to be good for pancreatic cancer, I’d think. Spreading awareness on such a big platform is a great thing. Being nosy, I went to the comments. That’s where I found an …interesting… take. The following comment had been posted:

“What you’re doing is great but children with multiple malignant brain tumors with so much treatment that they suffer a stroke and end up paralyzed and still tumors in the brain that cannot be removed to cured.

I’m honestly not sure what the central point even is here, it is so confusing how it is written. It seems to continue adding new ideas as the sentence drags on. What I do know is this – it may have been written with the best of intentions, but certainly doesn’t come across well to me at all. Why do people find a way to apply some form of elitism to every topic? What benefit is there to treating cancer like it is a new edition of Top Trumps? Mindy posting that she supports pancreatic cancer gaining funding from the government does not mean that she does not support more funding going towards children with cancer, or any form of brain cancer research. Why this person thought that this was a helpful or mindful thing to say, I do not know. The two things are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps they actually know more than I do, and the additional money would be allocated from brain tumour research, in which case it may make more sense. They have not said this, though. Sometimes I really wonder what people’s intent is – I’m sure this person came in with the best of intentions, but what help does it really provide? Is it really an appropriate place to raise such an argument?
So, I want to make this clear – when I say that I believe pancreatic cancer needs more funding, given it has the top mortality rate of any common cancer, it does not mean that I want money diverted away from any other cancers necessarily, or that I don’t value the struggle that other cancers bring. Having said that, pancreatic cancer seems to be low down on the priority list, due to an average diagnosis age of 72 and difficulty diagnosing it early enough to do anything about it (in most cases). Of course, the second issue is also probably that way due to a lack of funding, which I believe to be because it has been designated as an ‘old person’ cancer, which relates it back to point one. It is a vicious circle.

No one will say the words ‘it’s fine if old people die’ publically, but that is essentially what is happening in terms of pancreatic cancer, and I do believe that it hurts the attractiveness of the cancer in terms of research funding. I understand that having such an old average age of diagnosis is a genuine consideration when dealing with cancer and research grants, as it is much harder to save people who fall ill at this age, but it seems to be becoming unjustifiable. I regularly see pancreatic cancer charities sharing posts stating that the survival rate has not changed in over 50 years – how is that acceptable with how quickly our technology seems to move? I’m sure that the other common cancers have experienced at least some improvements in this period, if not significant ones.

The overall lesson is simple, though. Think about what you write online. It may feel like it only matters to you, as you sit alone on your phone and decide to voice your opinion on something, but by writing it, you are throwing it out into the online ether for anyone and everyone to consume at their will. I’m not sure if this comment was trying to imply that so long as children get brain tumours, no other cancer is worthy of consideration, but if it is, that isn’t fair. It isn’t fair to make people who care about pancreatic cancer feel bad for doing so, and it isn’t fair to take away from the message of Mindy’s post. No one would disagree that the things being described by them are horrific, and if that has happened to someone this person knows then I feel even more sympathy, but it is not the only consideration at play. It is also not the place to make such an argument. Would they be happier if Mindy took the post down, choosing to only post about brain tumours instead? Will she see your comment and repent, or simply ignore you? I believe the latter is more likely.

Rant over (until the next one). One day closer to surgery!