Tuesday, 12 February 2019

On La Gomera

We are just back from La Gomera, one of the smaller Canary Islands. We’d had a very stressful January waiting for test results (thankfully my cancer surveillance scan was clear, making it two years and four months that I’ve been clear of cancer) and it was my birthday.  So we headed off for a well earned week of sunshine.

La Gomera doesn’t have an international airport. You have to fly to Tenerife Sud and take a ferry from Los Cristianos. This adds a few hours to the journey but is well worth it, as the island is more natural and less developed. We stayed at a lovely hotel on the south side called Jardin Tecina. It has white-walled and terracotta-roofed apartments spread out in a botanic garden across a cliff top. From our balcony we gazed over flowering shrubs towards palm trees and the shimmering sea.

It was 20 degrees every day. The midday sun felt very hot on skin that had not been exposed to the outside air for many months, so we sought the shade at this time. I would read and T would paint. Each day we went to the saltwater pool mid-afternoon for a swim, followed by coffee and cake on the sun-loungers.

The island is renowned for its walks. It is an extinct volcano with deep ravines and steep ridges that rises to about 5000 feet. The mountaintops are covered in a dense forest of laurel and myrtle that has its own ecosystem. When the wind blows from the north and east, clouds form and give misty rain on the summits and it gets pretty cold. This happened on my first day out, I’d hired a car to explore and do some walks, and when I got back from the cool and damp north side of the island T told me the sun had shone for her all day.

Thankfully the wind changed and the hillwalks I did on two other days were warm and sunny. One walk was up a steep sided ravine to a high village, then back down a stony ridge. I met a few walkers and a flock of goats. The other was through the forest with an ascent of La Fortaleza, the holy mountain of the Gomerans (who were ethnically Berber). It was a steep climb through crags to a flat topped summit, where altars and ritual sites have been found. This was the last refuge of the ethnic Gomerans after the Spanish invasion some 500 years ago. The conquistadores showed them no mercy.   

The hotel was a pan-European convocation. The majority of guests were German, then Scandinavian, Dutch and French. The Brits were in a minority. The food was fantastic. Breakfast and dinner were a tasting menu of different dishes, several cooked immediately for you by chefs at serving stations. We indulged ourselves so much that we rarely needed to eat lunch. The Gomeran specialities are palm syrup – dark, sweet and smoky, it is extracted from the sap of palm trees – and small black-skinned potatoes that are grown in terraces on the steep hillsides. By the end of our stay we were more tanned, somewhat heavier and wishing we had booked a second week.

We came home to stormy cold weather and the news that a good friend and neighbour had just passed. Her breast cancer had recurred aggressively and despite courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy she had succumbed. We put our unpacking on hold and went to the wake. The next day we paid our last respects in a windy and cold graveyard along with several hundred others. Despite the spitting rain, we were glad to be there.


Saturday, 26 January 2019

More Perils of the Towpath

I’ve returned to the scene of the crime to help my recovery from the assault. This week, my story featured in two local newspapers: the factual reportage of Wednesday’s Banbridge Chronicle (see below) and the more lurid and economical with the facts approach of Thursday’s Belfast Telegraph. I’m glad of the exposure. I hope it helps to identify the culprit and prevent him from harming someone else. Yesterday, I went back to the towpath and this time ended up in the canal itself!

I’m pleased that the soreness in my ribs has subsided a little. Before I was punched on my thoracotomy scar, my ribs had been sore; probably due to nerve damage from the operation, an outcome that I had been warned about by the surgeon. This pain was certainly a lot worse after the attack. But the mental scar has been harder to deal with. The fact that a stranger chose to attack you doesn’t resolve so easily. You get flashbacks, and musings about the experience come into your head unbidden at the oddest moments. Understandably, my sleep has been disturbed. 

Yesterday I decided to get back into the saddle and go for a bike ride along the canal towpath. As usual I first headed north from Scarva towards Portadown. All went well for the first fifteen minutes, then I got a puncture. I sighed, it is an occupational hazard for cyclists. I removed tyre levers and spare tube from my saddlepack, turned the bike over and took out the rear wheel.

I could see nothing stuck in the tyre that could have caused the flat. After taking out the holed tube I felt around the inside of the tyre to find the cause. Again I found nothing. I then inflated the holed tube. It went down but I couldn’t see the hole. I knew I had to find it. At home I would have put the inflated tube in a bowl of water and found where the air bubbles were coming from. I looked around for a trusty puddle, but none to be seen. The canal would have to do. I chose a place where the bank wasn’t so steep and descended, tube and pump in hand. I squatted at the water’s edge, dipped the tube in and found the hole; it was about a foot from the valve.

As I stood up to leave, the bank gave way. I was in the canal, cold water up to my thighs and I wasn’t touching the bottom. I grasped the nettled bank and hauled myself out. Wet and very muddy, I returned to the bike. Nothing for it but to find what had caused the puncture. I checked the inside of the tyre a foot from the valve on either side. But no thorn or anything like it could be seen. A passing cyclist stopped to help. He checked the tyre too and found nothing amiss. We decided that the flat must have been caused by a thorn or suchlike that went into the tyre and then came straight out again. I put in the new tube, replaced the tyre and went on my way. Thankfully the tube stayed inflated.

I was by far the wettest and muddiest cyclist on the towpath that day. I stopped for soup at Petty Sessions in Poyntzpass. Helena and her staff were delighted to see me. I cleaned myself up a little and spoke to the only other customers, a pair of police officers. They knew nothing about the assault and were just having a break. I cycled on down the towpath and then headed back up towards Scarva at dusk. As I reached Poyntzpass I became hyper vigilant. I scanned the towpath for a lone figure heading towards me. I saw no-one until I got back to my car at Scarva. I was glad. It felt like a small victory. I headed home and got out of my damp and dirty clothes. After a Burn’s night feast of haggis, neeps and tatties, I slept more soundly than I had done for a week.


Punched by stranger while cycling on the towpath

A CANCER patient has told of the shocking moment he was punched in a sickening assault on the Newry canal towpath last Saturday afternoon. Paul Jeffcutt, who lives near Katesbridge, was cycling close to Poyntzpass when the attack took place at around 4.45pm.

Recalling the alarming incident, Paul, who was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2011, revealed: “I was cycling along the canal path heading to Scarva when a stranger, who was walking towards me, jumped sideways across the path to block me. I slowed right down. Then, he grabbed at my handlebars and I tried to push him away. He punched me in the ribs, exactly where I’d had a major operation 15 months ago. I cycled on, shouting at him. He waved his fists at me.” Paul, who is in his late 60s, immediately called the police and reported the incident.

“I’m still in shock that a complete stranger would do something like that,” he told the Chronicle. “And I’m in pain because he punched me on a scar. I had a big operation where my ribs were split open, and they are definitely a lot sorer. I would go to the canal towpath regularly to cycle - it’s part of my recovery. I’m a cancer patient and I’ve had three big operations in the last three years. Because the weather has been so mild, I’ve continued on cycling through the winter months.”

Paul recalled that the towpath - which is popular with walkers and cyclists - was “pretty empty” when the assault occurred, late on Saturday afternoon. “It happened a couple of hundred yards from the main road at Poyntzpass,” Paul explained. “He was coming from the direction of Scarva towards Poyntzpass. There was plenty of room for him to pass by, but he deliberately jumped across the path in front of me.”

He continued: “It’s shocking what has happened, but it’s not going to stop me going out on the towpath. I posted an appeal on Facebook, and a lot of people said they didn’t know if they would go back to the towpath again. This person has to be found before they do something to someone else.”

Paul describes the male as being about six feet tall, of medium build, with grey, curly hair.
He was clean-shaven, aged 50 to 60, and was wearing a dark blue thigh-length padded coat and grey trousers. “Anyone with information which might help to identify him, please report it to police on 101 and quote reference 981 on 19th January,” appealed Paul.


The Banbridge Chronicle
23 January 2019

Friday, 18 January 2019

Tests and Results

It had been a long four weeks over Christmas and New Year waiting for the results of my biopsy and for my next gastroscopy. I’d done my best to put it all to the back of my mind, although it did keep coming up and catching me unawares. While there is always plenty to distract you at this time of year, it is also a period for reflection on what has gone before and what is to come. Cancer patients are by nature apprehensive. You get tested more often than others and you know the devastating consequences of a bad result.

So, T and I again went to the South Tyrone Hospital. It was easy this time, we knew the way. I had been fasting overnight and my gastroscopy would be done in the afternoon. It meant missing breakfast and lunch. Not much of a hardship. Indeed, three years ago I had been made to fast for 12 days when my lung collapsed after surgery in the Belfast City Hospital. The first part was the hardest, but after a few days you began to lose interest in food. After 12 days, with only fluids, you had to learn to eat again.

In the small theatre, I found a new team doing the procedure. It was certainly more uncomfortable than the previous time. The doctor seemed to push the endoscope in more rapidly and there was some sensation of choking for a while, but nothing like as bad as the first time I’d had it done. Happily it was also over fairly quickly. My stomach was empty and they got down as far as my duodenum and took another biopsy.

They found nothing untoward in my stomach. There was some inflammation in my duodenum and the biopsy was to check for the presence of a virus, H pylori. I was told that the biopsies taken four weeks earlier showed that I had ulceration in my oesophagus. This was caused by acid reflux. Importantly, the lab found no sign of cancerous or even pre-cancerous cells. I gave a sigh of relief. I might be one of the few people who were happy to be told that they had an ulcer. In the short-term I would need to have a course of high dose acid reducing tablets (a PPI), which I might need to take in a low dose for the rest of my life.

I was taken to a small recovery room and was monitored for pulse and blood pressure. Then a nurse came and told me that the biopsy they’d taken today was negative for H pylori, another good result. She then did my discharge from the hospital, which included a long list of what I should and should not do in the next few hours. This concluded with one of the most unnecessary pieces of medical advice I’ve ever received, ‘if you start to vomit blood go straight to A & E.’

I can only hope that my run of test results continues, for I have my regular cancer surveillance CT scan next week.