Saturday, 19 March 2016

Sheep and Stress

Out for a walk near my house, I came across a sheep in the hedge at the side of a small field. Nothing too unusual I thought, sheep always try to get out of the field they are in. I carried on down the lane, it was a fine sunny day and this was one my first walks out in the fresh air after weeks of bronchitis.

I had suffered from a terrible cough for three weeks and then this had been replaced by a sore and wheezy chest. It felt like very bad asthma, my breathing tubes were still inflamed by the virus. Although the sun shone, the wind was keen and I pulled my hood up to keep my face warm. It was lovely to see the new grass in the fields, the ewes and their lambs grazing, catkins hanging from the hazel trees, wild snowdrops and daffodils in the hedgerows and queen bumblebees active after their hibernation ready to establish nests. With tomorrow being the Vernal Equinox, it certainly felt like the height of Spring.

Since the discovery of my lump, some five months ago, I have been suffering from very high stress. Getting the all clear two weeks ago in my first general CT scan post-surgery was a huge milestone, especially as the oncologist had told me that she expected it to show a recurrence. But long-term stress doesn’t just switch off like a light-bulb. I felt enormous relief, then complete exhaustion. And my stress symptoms persisted. I felt sluggish, restless, anxious and often had difficulty sleeping. Stress hormones were still coursing around my body. Then I would sleep for ten hours and wake feeling completely burnt out and depressed. I had what is called a stress hangover. And I hadn’t touched a drop.

The treatment for this condition is gentle exercise, good food, talking through your troubles and gentle distractions that take you into a different mental and emotional space. My ability to follow the first of these was somewhat undermined by the bronchitis, but I could pursue the others. T has continued to be a great help and support. Despite her own persistent cough, she made me healthy soup and we laughed at Shaun the Sheep videos together. And slowly the problem has eased.

On my return up the lane I saw that the sheep was still in the same place in the hedge. That is strange I thought, and I entered the field to investigate. As I approached I saw that the sheep was stuck, held tightly by several briars that were strung across its back and latched into its wool. The sheep was panting and began to buck against the briars. As I got closer it began to buck harder, loosening one of the briars. I picked up a sturdy stick and prised the briar from her wool. She bucked again, the other briar snapped and she was free. The ewe ran off across the field bleating, the broken briar dragging behind and a little black lamb trotting at her side. 

Monday, 7 March 2016

Well done my little white cells

An epidemic of swine flu has been spreading across Europe this winter. It seems to have been particularly pronounced in Ukraine, where 3000 people a week were being hospitalised and over 300 people have died. Unfortunately in recent weeks it has spread to this island and over 20 people have died here thus far. Swine flu is a particularly virulent strain of flu (H1N1) which is strong enough to kill the young and healthy. This flu last hit us in the epidemic of 2009 when over 250,000 people died from it worldwide. It doesn’t come from pigs, but is similar in its structure to a virus that affects pigs. You don’t get it from eating bacon and sausages.

I know only too well what it feels like as I’ve had this flu for the past two weeks. It began in the normal way, with a headache and sore throat. Then it quickly escalated to a sinus infection and a chest infection. My chest became very sore and I had frequent coughing fits that couldn’t be soothed. I took Paracetamol, Sudafed and Benylin. My chest got so bad I was heading towards a bottle a day habit. I was feverish, my joints were aching, I felt exhausted and listless. I couldn’t concentrate, my eyes and forehead throbbed. Added to that was the diarrhoea. Without doubt it has been one of the worst doses I’ve ever had.

After the 2009 epidemic the UK stockpiled a drug called Tamiflu.  This drug inhibits the spread of the virus through the body. But it must be taken within the first two days of the virus appearing and has some significant side effects. In practice most people are very unlikely to recognise that they have something out of the ordinary within this time period. The £500 million cost of this stockpile has undoubtedly benefited Roche, the drug manufacturer, but probably not the rest of us too much. The seasonal flu vaccine does offer some protection from this strain, apparently you still get infected but you don’t get quite so ill with it.

Once the flu virus has spread through your body there is little you can do other than keep warm, keep hydrated and take things like Paracetamol, Sudafed and Benylin, to manage the symptoms. Over the past week I’ve also taken a course of antibiotics but they haven’t had any discernable effect. This confirms that the problem is viral and the bug will have to run its course. Thankfully, during the past day or so my immune system appears to have been gaining the upper hand, as I have had periods when my symptoms have subsided and it feels like I am getting better. But I also know that I must be careful as deep down some vestiges of the swine are still there.

The greatest boost to my recovery came today when I heard that the CT scan I had last Thursday was all clear of cancer. I’m over the moon and deeply relieved. I was dreading the result of this scan. Because last month the Oncologist told me that she thought that this scan was ‘likely’ to show a recurrence, as the pathology report had shown that some cancer cells had been left behind by the surgeon. She even gave me a leaflet about the chemotherapy drug that she was expecting to put me on.

I can only conclude that my immune system is doing extremely well. It has killed off all the cancer cells that were left behind when my tumour was removed. It has repaired all the cells that were damaged during my abdominal surgery. And now it is sorting out the swine flu bug that has already killed hundreds of healthy people across Europe. Well done my little white cells.