Monday, 13 January 2020

The Big Wind

As I write, Storm Brendan is battering this island. Gusts of wind of 90mph have been recorded on the Cork coast. Some 50,000 people are currently without power, although this number is expected to rise as the storm continues. Met Eireann have issued an orange warning (a threat to life and property) and recommend that people avoid travelling. My dearest T is battened down in the North West with the curtains closed as the wind howls outside, threatening to lift the tiles off the roof.

Yet in a couple of clicks we can look at a live weather map and see that the centre of the storm is several hundred miles off the west coast and that it is tracking towards the north east. Few of us are likely to think that the storm is of Divine origin and a harbinger of the Day of Judgement. But this was exactly what many people thought on 6 January 1839 when The Big Wind struck this island.

The day before the storm was unusually warm and windless. People were preparing for the Feast of Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, to celebrate the coming of the Magi. By sunset the wind had risen and rain began to fall. By midnight, the island was in the grip of a ferocious hurricane that roared like an animal. The storm hit the west coast so hard that the thunder of the ocean could be heard many miles inland and waves actually broke over the top of the Cliffs of Moher (500 feet above sea level).

As the storm intensified, the wind began to rip the roofs off houses. Thatch was blown away; chimneys, slates, timbers and other debris were hurled to the ground. Trees were uprooted everywhere. Stone buildings collapsed, factories and barracks were destroyed. Fires erupted in the streets of many towns. All of the water was blown out of the canal in Tuam. Sheep and cattle died in droves.

Many people sought what little shelter they could find from the wind and hailstones in hollows and behind hedges. The immediate death toll was around 800. Most killed by falling debris. Many others later succumbed to pneumonia. Hundreds of thousands were made homeless.

The forecast tells us that Storm Brendan will abate this evening and by tomorrow it will be gone and we can pick up the pieces and get on with our lives. Hopefully, no-one will be killed. Some repairs could be needed, but contemporary houses rarely collapse in storms. In a day or so power will probably be restored to those who lost it. In 1839 the homeless and destitute only had the workhouse to turn to, if it was still standing. If not a harbinger of the Day of Judgement, then The Big Wind was certainly a precursor of a decade of famine.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Looking Back and Beyond

I’m now three years clear of cancer and two years on from my last big operation. This has given me the freedom to have a full year of activity, the first uninterrupted one in the past five years. I’ve kept up my promise, made in hospital, to do something active every day. I’ve also been on two overseas trips (to La Gomera and Mallorca) for the first time in a decade. It’s done me a lot of good. Over the course of the year I’ve definitely regained strength, fitness and self-confidence.

I’ve been cycling throughout the year and my computer shows that I’ve done 5240 miles in total. That’s the equivalent of cycling from here to Delhi. I’ve also been walking most days and have done 1236 miles over the year. That’s the equivalent of walking from here to Barcelona. I’m delighted to have been able to achieve this.

Having two fully-working lungs again, I’m using them as best I can. In August my lungs were thoroughly tested for the first time since the surgery two years ago and were found to be functioning at 123% of the average for my age, weight and height. I’ve since bought a heart-rate monitor, so that I can try some harder rides and measure how I get on. My maximum is 152 bpm, but I’ve rarely been above 130 so far.  

After years of cancer recurrences and major surgery, I have gained the freedom to be active and I use it every day. Recently, the NHS has been experimenting with giving patients, who have been newly diagnosed with cancer, the prescription of an exercise programme. The logic is that a fitter and healthier patient will be better able to withstand the treatment ordeal (surgery, chemo, etc) that they are going to receive. I’ve since been told by several senior medics that my health and fitness helped me to survive my years of cancer treatment.  

My journey through the valley of the shadow of death has indeed changed me. My realisations about what was important in life began during the sleepless night I spent on a trolley in A&E in 2011 and have continued since. I’ve ended up with a practical guide that helps me to live whilst facing my own mortality. In short, it goes like this.

Live as well as you can every day. Say what you think and mean what you say. Don’t suffer fools or false friends. Don’t put off things unnecessarily and don’t waste time and energy on maybes. If something matters, get involved and do it as well as you can. If not, just let it go. You have no idea when your life will become curtailed. Everything can change in a moment.

Looking forward, let’s remember our good friends who have departed this life and let’s live our lives fully and well.

A Happy New Year to one and all.

Sunday, 15 December 2019

In the Bleak Midwinter

As the shortest day of this year approaches (22 December) the temperature has plummeted. The daytime high here has been just three degrees recently, which makes it below zero when you factor in the wind-chill. With the land in the grip of deathly cold, it is entirely appropriate that the midwinter festival (whatever version of it you choose to celebrate) should focus on symbols of life and light: the bringing in to the house of evergreen plants, the building of fires, the lighting of candles and feasting with family and friends.

We have brought in a small Nordmann Fir; it is alive in a pot and sits in the centre of the lounge table, surrounded by candles and sprigs of red-berried holly (which I cut from the tree in the garden before the mistle thrushes came to eat them; they took the rest of the berries a couple of weeks ago). We have brought down the boxes of decorations from the loft and are putting up tinsel, bells and pine cones, along with plenty of red and sparkly fabrics. We have already accumulated plenty of special foods to eat.

I’ve begun to write Christmas cards and have sent some to cousins in the Antipodes, who swelter amidst bushfires and volcanic eruptions. Each year I marvel at the well organised people who manage to do this in November, as witnessed by the cards that begin to arrive from the start of December. I have only just finished buying all of my Christmas presents. I’ll get round to wrapping and sending them soon. But we’ve just received one important present (from the insurance company); T’s car has been fully repaired. With freshly painted body panels, it looks shining new.

I don’t go cycling when the temperature is below 4 degrees C. The chill is too great and there is a risk of frosty patches where you could easily come a cropper. Instead I go for country walks in forest parks, such as Castlewellan or Tolleymore. I haven’t yet tested myself with a mountain walk in the Mournes. With strong lungs and heart, I can manage the ascending fine but the long descents put great strain on the poor old knees. Thirty years ago, I would have thought nothing of running to the top of a mountain with a rucksack on and bounding back down again. Perhaps that is how I got my sore knees. As I won’t get new knees for Christmas, I will have to stick to cycling and low-level walking for the time being.

Our semi-feral cat, Squirrel, aka Ginger Dog, who normally lives on our back garden, no longer sleeps in the old dog kennel, which I filled with straw, but at dusk goes to the local farm and its barn which is heated by cattle. We think that all the other feral cats in the area do so too and that this frequently leads to fights. Our cat often arrives with a scarred face and bloodied ears. We feed him every day in the back porch and he now regularly comes in to the house to rest in the warm.

The carol ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ is based on a poem by Christina Rossetti and was set to music by Gustav Holst. I always enjoyed singing it with the choir. In whatever way you celebrate the midwinter festival, may I wish you good cheer, peace and well-being. It’s good to know that from 23 December the days start to get longer and the warmth will begin its return to the land.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

An Impactful Week

Our dramatic week began with a car accident and ended with a visit to my oncologist to get the results of my latest cancer surveillance scan. T was driving home from work and stationary on the M2, queuing to get onto the Westlink in Belfast. An elderly driver whacked into the left rear of her car. She was jolted backwards and sideways, but thankfully suffered no serious injury. The elderly man got out of his badly damaged car and wandered over to her. She wound down the window but he just collapsed in floods of tears. Fearful for his safety on the motorway, she called the police.

The police arrived quickly and sorted things out very effectively. The elderly man admitted responsibility for the accident. His car was a write-off. T’s was badly damaged but just about driveable. After they made sure she was okay, she was escorted along the Westlink by two police cars with blue lights flashing. When she got home she was exhausted but unhurt. The next morning she had a sore shoulder and bruised ribs. I wanted her to go to hospital for a check-up, but she wasn’t keen.

Her car was a mess. The rear bumper was bent and hanging off. The rear side panel was badly caved in and one rear wheel looked wonky. We took photos and sent them to a mechanic friend. He said that it looked like the car had suffered structural damage and warned us that it could be written off. We were shocked because the car was only six years old. Indeed, we had just spent almost £2000 on new timing belt, water pump, radiator, tyres and shock absorbers. The work on the car had been completed the day before the accident.

The insurance company agreed to provide a courtesy car. T’s car would be taken away for assessment of the damage and the cost of repairs. We read up about write-offs and learnt that if a car is repairable but written-off because the repair costs are too high (as a proportion, possibly 50%, of the book value of the car) you can buy it back from the insurance company. But you shouldn’t go down this road without an independent professional opinion on the extent of the damage and the cost of repairs. We called the proprietor of a local body-shop and he agreed to come and check the car over the next morning. We were keen to hear his verdict, but he didn't turn up. The day after a wee man from Belfast came in a low loader. He delivered a shiny new courtesy car and T’s poor damaged car was dragged away.  

Several hours later we were sitting in the Bridgewater Suite of the Cancer Centre awaiting a different call. A nurse escorted us to the doctor’s office. It was the Registrar instead of the Consultant. This was a good sign. He began, as usual, by asking me how I felt. As I replied, I looked at the printed page he had taken from the file in front of him. The scan report was about three-quarters of a page of writing. This was a bad sign.

He smiled. Your scan report is fine, he said. We gasped with relief. He gave me a copy. The report was long and detailed, comparing my recent scan to the one done in May. It concluded with the key words - ‘stable appearances’. I had now been clear of cancer for 3 years and one month. Despite the car problem, we could go home and sleep a little more easily.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Mallorca Return

We are not long back from Mallorca. I’d never been there before, having been put off by its reputation for crowded holiday resorts. But late October is rather quiet, and you will encounter many more locals than tourists. And the weather is still good, with many days of clear blue skies and 25 degrees. Mallorca is a large island with a great variety of places and landscapes. True, there are still some big resorts, but we steered clear of them, staying in a small village in the southeast corner, about an hour’s drive from the airport.

Our rented house had a garden with a pine tree, a palm tree, a trellised walkway covered with pink flowers and a veranda. I opened the shutters each morning whilst T walked to the local shop to get our order of freshly-baked baguette and croissants. We then sat and scoffed them with greengage jam and coffee, with some papaya and melon on the side. It was a good way to start the day and entirely in keeping with the climate. At home, I would normally take porridge.

The village was built on cliffs. The houses seemed to be mainly retirement or holiday homes. The languages you most often heard were either Catalan (Mallorca is part of Catalonia) or German. Our house had satellite TV, but all the channels were German. When you walked about 100 yards to the end of our street you ended up amidst pine trees beyond which were sandy-coloured cliffs with the blue Mediterranean crashing about 100 feet below. Going the other way took you through the rest of the village and down to a wooded cove with a sheltered sandy beach that was great for swimming. The local markets were especially good. There were huge ones on each Saturday and Sunday in two nearby towns: Santanyi and Felanitx. We revelled in all the different foods there were to try, from the jujube (the odd-looking fruit of a tropical tree) to the amazing fruit and nut breads of the artisanal bakery.

I arrived in Mallorca still feeling groggy from the dose and coughing a good bit. But warmth and brightness are great healers, and by the end of the first week I was fine again. I’d brought my bike with me and I went on some great rides, whilst T sat and wrote or painted. Mallorca is set up for cycle-tourism as there is a network of back roads across the island that take you to every town avoiding traffic. You cycle between drystone walls, past small farms with sheep and goats, and orchards of fig, almond and olive trees to sleepy towns where the tallest building is the local church. On other days, I wrote as well, or just sat and thought.

We had remained here during the summer as T was studying and completing coursework. It was our delayed summer holiday and we are already looking forward to going back to Mallorca. But the return transition was very tough, for we came back to the leaden skies, cold and damp of winter. Leaving the airport, it was just one quarter of the temperature we had been in. What I noticed most of all was the dullness. Within a few days my solar powered watch had stopped. It was suffering from SAD too. And then I had to go for my cancer surveillance scan, something that would give anyone a chill.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Double Dose and Hallucinations: A Warning

Having spent the best part of the past two years without catching a dose, I’m just emerging from my second dose in four weeks. I realise that this is the time of year for doses, but to get two in such a short space of time is bad luck. At first I wondered if it was the same dose coming back, but I’m sure it wasn’t for two reasons: I was well for a week in-between the doses and the symptoms of the second one were quite different from the first. Ironically, I’ve just received an invitation from my GP to get the annual ‘flu jab next weekend.

I went down with my second dose just 24 hours after going into several opticians to try on different spectacles. Viruses remain alive for several hours on surfaces in warm rooms. I assume that other people who were infectious had visited the same optician earlier that day and left their legacy. Whilst the first dose was fairly mild but long lasting, the second was most virulent. I was laid low in bed and couldn’t move for several days with a severe throat and sinusitis. Then the chest infection kicked in.

I took the standard treatment: paracetamol and oral decongestant tablets along with nasal decongestant spray. But at night I found myself with insomnia and catastrophic imaginings. I saw terrible car crashes with me driving into huge lorries and then looking around to find my dearest T dead beside me. After several similar nights, I was completely exhausted but too anxious to relax and sleep. We checked the information leaflets on the decongestants. They both described possible side effects of insomnia, bad dreams and hallucinations. Beware, this decongestant tablet (Sudafed) is exactly the same drug that is included in Lem-Sip, but at a higher dose.

I stopped taking the decongestants and my night-time symptoms improved. I became able to rest and sleep. But lying down was bad for my sinuses, which without the decongestants were more bunged up. I began to inhale steam from a bowl of warm water and this helped clear my nose for a while. It also seemed to help move phlegm from my chest. As the week wore on, I sneezed down and coughed up surprising quantities of yellow-green mucus. Slowly the sinuses and lungs got clearer and I was able to sleep better at night as well as to take naps in the day.

But as I slowly improved, T went down with the dose too. She had the sinusitis thankfully without the chest infection. Instead of her tending me, the roles were reversed. She chose to avoid the decongestants and seemed to be making a quicker recovery than I was. Outside it was rainy and cool. I wrapped up to make an emergency dash to Tesco for more food. Autumn storms came and went. We both steadily improved. What we really needed was a warm weather holiday. It was a good job we had one already booked.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

The Mental Big Bad Wolf

For the past few weeks I’ve been feeling much more anxious and sleeping badly. I was waking in the small hours and obsessively turning over problems in my mind. But these were minor problems that had escalated in the night. I tried mindfulness relaxation and deep breathing exercises, they brought my heart-rate down but I still didn’t sleep. In the morning I would feel exhausted and chide myself for being so obsessed with such minor matters. And earlier this week I began to suffer from a cold as well. Yesterday I sat down with T (who is now a qualified therapist) and talked all this through. Last night I managed to sleep for six hours.  

Although T is newly qualified, after four years of study for a counselling degree, she possesses great emotional intelligence. She gently probed the concerns that I described to her and I ended up learning a great deal about what is troubling me. The relatively minor problems that were disturbing me at night were stand-ins for a bigger problem that was more difficult to expose and address.

The big problem was, of course, to do with cancer. But this time, it was not the fear of recurrence itself; although, that is always there. Especially when you’ve had a type of cancer that is known to recur up to 20 years after the initial tumour. The big problem was how to live well alongside the fear of recurrence and the pervasive sense of vulnerability that are your inevitable life companions when you are a cancer patient.

In the early days of cancer treatment you are like a soldier in the front-line. You are wounded, in pain and it feels that death could come easily at any moment. It seems to be quite arbitrary that you are still alive when others around you, family, friends, neighbours, have died.  As time goes on, you manage to move away from the front line; but despite it being out of sight, it is not out of mind. On the other side of the hill the grass is green and the sun is shining but you can still hear some explosions and know that you could be catapulted back into the horror of the front-line at a moment’s notice. How do I know? Because it has happened to me three times.

Living with this sort of PTSD seems to be the norm for cancer patients. My last return to the front-line was almost two years ago and after that I was walking wounded and on morphine for three months. Since then I have been steadily building up my strength. This has gone well and over the past few months I’ve been regularly cycling three or four times a week and have managed some long rides again. My longest ride has been 77 miles and I’ve regularly been cycling over 150 miles a week. Just two weeks ago, as described in my last post, I was discharged from the lung clinic with well above average lung health.

The source of the problem suddenly became clear. Alongside this rebuilding of my body I had also been creating expectations about the rebuilding of my mental health. That this physical rebuilding, which was intended to take me back to the level of physical health I had pre-cancer, would somehow be accompanied by a rebuilding of my mental health – enabling me to regain the sense of casual self-confidence and lack of vulnerability that I had pre-cancer. Despite my physical progress, I was still plagued by anxiety and fear. So, plainly, my mental health hadn't been able to be restored to where I was before. This loss and apparent failure left me feeling additionally disturbed.

However, such a return cannot happen. You can’t go back to who you were before you were catapulted into the front-line. You can only go on to be who you have become, having survived thus far. You can’t escape the PTSD, but you can learn to live well with it; with all the capabilities (endurance, patience and resilience, to name but a few) that you have gained.

It won’t be easy. But with a partner like T I know I will have healing love and huge support on the journey ahead. Thank you T for helping me to see the wood from the trees and to find where the wolf lay.