Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Scan

It's now two and a half years since my major surgery and my next scan is imminent. I have a CT scan every six months for the first three years and then every year until five years have elapsed - at which point the NHS considers you to be cured.

Up to now, all of the scans have shown me to be clear of the disease. So chronologically, I'm nearly halfway there. But in terms of the level of risk I'm over the worst.

Two and a half years ago I found out I had a high risk of recurrence of the disease. After the tumour is removed from your body they do a laboratory analysis of it and make a prognosis. I was then told I had a 30% chance of dying.

Obviously this is very tough knowledge to assimilate. Learning to live with such a huge threat is an enormous problem. There is big dark cloud across your sky every day. And the long nights are the worst. At that time I was still in a lot of pain from my major surgery. My world seemed to revolve around the hospital and GP's - I was still very much a patient.

After a year or so I began to find some light inbetween the darkness. I learned to live more in the here and now. With my prognosis that seemed the only real place to be. But I was still being assessed for follow-up surgery and whenever a scan became due the darkness would roll in and cover my sky again (particularly when I was waiting for the results).

Over the past year there has been much more light than dark. I'm not going to have follow-up surgery and I've stopped seeing myself as a patient. I've become able to do all the things I used to do before I was ill, including cycling and hillwalking. I've also embarked on a new relationship, which is going very well. In short, I'm feeling fully recovered.

Recently I had a meeting with a urology consultant who told me that recurrences of the disease would normally be seen within the first two years. After that the level of risk decreases steeply towards five years, at which point I would have a 2% risk of dying from the disease.

On the face of it, this is reassuring. But if you happen to be one of the unfortunates in whom the disease recurs, statistics don't really matter.

So I'm waiting for the letter from the hospital to come through the door and tell me the date of the scan. It should arrive soon. I can feel my anxiety rising. As I've become more fully alive, it feels like I've much more to lose.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Memorial Walk

Yesterday I walked up the North Ridge of Slieve Commedagh to the memorial I'd made for Gill in 1999. The spot I'd chosen was at the northern end of the summit plateau; I had built a cairn from stones I'd found nearby.

Slieve Commedagh means the Hill of the Watchers. It's easy to imagine it as a good place for a lookout as you can see all of Newcastle and Dundrum Bay below as well as across the Mournes and far inland too.

I hadn't been there for 3 years (this was the first time since my illness): I repaired the cairn and laid a bouquet of flowers.

Gill died in an accident in Snowdonia in 1987. She was 27 years old and an experienced hillwalker. We were engaged to be married and had just bought a house together. She died three weeks after we moved in. Our house was still full of boxes. For a very long time I couldnt bear to go there. I stayed with good friends Phil and Jean instead.

Much has happened over the past 27 years but I have never forgotten all that Gill gave to me. In her short time on this earth she made a difference to many lives - mine in particular.

Slieve Commedagh from the West; the memorial is at top left.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Gill Banks

Gill died this day 27 years ago
At 27 years of age
In her too few years on this earth she gave so much
And since she has gone she's continued to give
Rest in Peace
With Love

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Wild West

Whether you enjoy mountains, moorland, cliffs, beaches, fresh air, fine cuisine or intriguing heritage, Mayo has it all. The wildest and most unspoilt of Ireland's western counties is a great destination.

T and I set out early in the New Year and drove to Enniskillen and Sligo. There we ascended to Queen Maeve's Cairn with its expansive views from Benbulben to the Ox Mountains and then headed on to Ballina. We paused at Downpatrick Head with its sea stacks and at Ceide Fields before traversing the great expanse of peat moorland that stretches all the way to Achill Island.

We arrived at the Mulranny Park Hotel and were given the bridal suite, complete with four poster bed and bay window overlooking Clew Bay to Croagh Patrick. After a sauna and a wonderful meal in the Nephin restaurant, we were definitely on honeymoon.

The hotel was built 100 years ago to accomodate tourists on the Westport to Achill line. The railway closed in the 1930's and was recently turned into a Greenway for walkers and cyclists. The first day we did a long moorland walk under the Nephin Beg Mountains before returning for our regulation sauna and grand evening meal.

After an enormous storm throughout the night, I went for a hillwalk whilst T explored the Greenway. The so-called pilgrims route up Croagh Patrick from Murrisk starts out steep, levels off briefly at 1500 feet, then gets steeper. The top of the mountain was plastered with fresh snow but many hardy pilgrims in trainers, hoodies and a trusty staves made it to the summit. Freed from sin, we trudged down with lighter loads.

Our last day was stormy, we drove through the brooding Dhulough Pass (Ireland's Glencoe) to Killary Harbour: which Churchill wanted to use for submarines during the Second World War and offered Northern Ireland in payment for, but De Valera refused the deal.

We drove back via Aghagower, the site of a monastery and bishopric from the 5th Century. What remains are ruins and the stub of a round tower, a few houses and a pub with a grocers. St Patrick would have set out from here on the last stage of his reputed pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, some eight miles due West. The modern pilgrims route follows a quite different path. As do modern pilgrims.