Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Wilderness

John the Baptist managed forty days and forty nights. We would have liked longer, but our bargain break only promised three. We were, however, located in the magnificent Nephin Wilderness: 27,000 acres of mountain, forestry and bog in North Mayo entirely preserved for nature. The principle behind this unique designation was that nature rather than humans would mould the development of this landscape over the coming decades. Visitors were welcome to experience the Nephin Wilderness as long as they used the land sensitively and left no trace.

Mindful of these principles, we picked a good hotel on the coast near Achill Island and went for walks into the wilderness each day. The weather was changeable: bright sunshine and blue skies interspersed with showers of rain and sleet. This produced some fantastic vistas of changing light as we walked along old drover’s trails and turf-cutters paths across the bog. The mountains had a sprinkling of snow on the tops and hardy black-faced sheep peered at us as we passed. We were able to take an informed interest in their heads, eyes and legs, having recent viewed the excellent hill-farming documentary ‘Addicted to Sheep’.

We ate well at the hotel breakfast buffet and pocketed snacks to munch during the day. We had home-made bread and wild honey; as no locusts were available, we took sausages. The first day we walked some eight miles and the second we went seven. I found that my post-operative body could manage these distances okay. The only trouble for me was a sore knee, a flare up from an old injury. T managed the walks without any problems.

Our hotel was blessed with an award-winning restaurant run by a very inventive chef who only used locally sourced ingredients. The restaurant also made all their own bread and each day there would be three or four different types to try. Our wild walks meant that we tucked into the very fine food on offer most heartily. The first evening we became so stuffed that we had to go for a walk down to the village and back to be able to sleep.

Unfortunately, there has been a sting in the tail. At the end of the week the hotel became full of families on half-term break, with kids running everywhere. The very next day we went down with a dose. Our return journey became an ordeal of coughing and sneezing. And since then we have been suffering in bed. It’s proving to be a bad dose of the flu.

Monday, 15 February 2016


I was delighted to get the call that told me my bone scan was all clear of cancer. Thankfully the torture of waiting for the result was over quickly. At first I was deeply relieved. Then I felt euphoric. Not long after I began to feel tired. The next day I felt run down. And this exhaustion persisted.

I had received the appointment letter several weeks ahead of the bone scan. I tried to keep doing things one day at a time and not to focus on this impending event. But my stress built up inexorably. This was intensified by the knowledge that there could be no way back from a positive result in the scan.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve regularly had aches in my lower back due to a worn disc I acquired during my younger days of running up and down mountains carrying a rucksack. In my youth I thought this was all good clean fun, and if someone had told me then that I would suffer in later life because of it I would have laughed. However, during the past couple of weeks when my back and pelvis were sore my mind began to tell me that this pain was something more than just the worn disc. These thoughts often seemed to happen when I was lying in bed at night. It was all too easy to believe that the pain was the cancer eating away at my bones.

All my fears seemed to be confirmed when I was asked by the nurse when I attended for the bone scan - had I noticed any pain in my joints and bones in recent weeks? I reluctantly answered yes. She noted my response and moved on to the next question. I gulped and my heart sank.

Since the scan result I’ve been treating the tiredness by cutting down on what I do each day. I’ve been meeting friends for coffee and going for walks in the fresh air and reading and doing a little writing; but not much else. I’ve also booked a wee break with T in the West of Ireland next week.

The war against cancer is an ultra-marathon. And to be able to win this war you have to remain strong and healthy throughout. The bone scan was an important victory, but the fight continues. In a couple of weeks time I will have a general CT scan which will check if there are any traces of cancer elsewhere in my body. I feel reasonably well at present, but you never know.

I’ve also been reading about what you can do to boost your immune system. It seems that despite much research there is no definitive evidence that there is any one thing that is of proven benefit (i.e. Vitamin C, Echinacea, Garlic, etc). The conclusions lead in entirely the opposite direction. To stop doing things that harm our immune system is the most important. So: not smoking, not drinking alcohol, not being overweight, not failing to take regular exercise, not missing a night’s sleep, not eating a balanced diet, not being stressed, and so on.

Given the intensity of our contemporary lifestyles these modifications are very hard to do. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to keep the unhealthy lifestyle and to take some magic bullet that would fix these problems? I wish it could be so, but unfortunately that doesn’t work. It looks like I’m going to be doing Lent for the long-term.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Bone Scan

I didn’t think I had anything in common with Alexander Litvinenko. After all, I wasn’t a Russian √©migr√© and I didn’t take tea with members of the KGB. However, yesterday I was injected with a radioactive substance at the City Hospital. Thankfully this was not Polonium 210, but a small amount of a radioactive isotope that would help identify whether the cancer had spread to my bones.

The procedure happened in two stages. First, a radiographer inserted a butterfly needle into a vein in my arm (much like when you have blood taken for a test). But here the tube from the butterfly needle was attached to two syringes: one was clear plastic (as normal) the other was metal with a glass face. The radioactive isotope was in the metal syringe and there were only two millilitres of it. The normal syringe was full of saline. Both of these syringes were bit by bit injected into my arm.

After this I was given a time for my scan: it was two and a half hours later. Until then I was free to go and didn’t have to stay in the hospital. Because of the radioactivity in my body, there were some precautions I had to observe for the next 24 hours. I was advised to drink plenty of fluids; to empty my bladder frequently; and to flush the toilet twice each time I went. I was also advised to avoid close contact with children.

I expected to feel odd. I didn’t. I asked T if I was glowing green. I wasn’t. I thought my pee might be a different colour. It wasn’t. Strangely enough, I soon became used to wandering around Belfast with radioactivity coursing through my body. We went to a coffee shop for lunch, the Central Library and a jewellers before returning.

Back at the hospital I was ushered into a secure area with radiation warning symbols on the door. The triangular warning symbol was also on the door of the toilet next to the little waiting room. Then I was taken in for the bone scan.  Like other scans, I had to take off anything metal. But I didn’t have to undress and wear a gown. I lay on a narrow bed with my arms beside me. The radiologist strapped me firmly onto this bed and I was told not to move. The scanner consisted of a tunnel between two large panels above and below. I was drawn between them on the moving bed. Then the bed was raised up towards the upper panel. I saw that there was a cross marked on its surface. The bed stopped about an inch away. The cross was right between my eyes. I then remembered the name of the scanner, which I had glimpsed on the way in, it was ‘Hawkeye Four’. I closed my eyes and began to pray.

The bone scan took about thirty minutes. I was drawn very slowly on the bed between the two panels. There was no breathing in and out, like a CT scan. There was no horrible noise, like a MRI scan. Physically, it was the most undemanding of all the scans I had been given. Mentally and emotionally, it has been the hardest.

After the injection, the radioactive material circulated and became temporarily absorbed into my bones, giving off gamma rays. The scanner was taking pictures of the gamma rays from head to toe. In a normal scan these rays would be evenly distributed across your body. Concentrations of gamma rays are called ‘hot spots’, these indicate cancer, infection or bone damage.

So I am again waiting for results. And given the potential seriousness of the outcome, the wait is agonising.