Sunday, 26 April 2020

Leather Anniversary

I’ve just passed another significant milestone on my cancer journey. It is nine years since I was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer of the kidney. I remember the occasion vividly. I had spent a night on a trolley in A&E with excruciating pain in my left side. In the morning, it was Good Friday, I was scanned. The young doctor who gave me the result was matter of fact. The tumour had grown significantly beyond my kidney and had travelled most of the way up my vena cava towards my heart. I remember shrinking down into the bed as the world closed in on me. He asked me if I had any questions. I could hardly speak. I thought that I was going to die.

When I saw the consultant the next day, I found my voice. I asked him what my chances of survival were. He gave me an odd answer. He said ‘I can tell you the average outcome for people with the type of tumour you have’, and went on to offer a poor prognosis. ‘But I can’t tell you what will happen to you, because that is written in the stars.’

At the time, I found his answer puzzling and very irritating. I was in a terrible predicament and I wanted clear answers. In retrospect, I can see that it was a good answer. Medical experts can only ever tell you what the average outcome is for people in your situation. Because how an individual responds to a disease, and vice versa, varies enormously. There are so many factors that make a difference to the outcome, from genetics to levels of health and fitness, to factors that we just don’t understand yet

I went on to have a series of major operations as well as two recurrences, but my worst fears are yet to be realised. I thank my lucky stars that I have come through this ordeal. So far, so good; for I am now over three years clear of cancer. I’m due another surveillance scan next month, but I expect that will be delayed. A year or so ago I ran into the same consultant again. He explained that he hadn’t expected me to live beyond the first two years and told me that my recovery had been ‘miraculous’.

I don’t know exactly what I’ve done, or not done, to have a better than expected outcome. I do my best to live well, eat healthily and keep fit. The poor old body has had a lot of surgery and there is plenty of scar tissue and physical limitation. But every morning I do a set of Pilates-type exercises. And each day I do some exercise in the outside world, either cycling or walking. I was told that my levels of health and fitness helped me to get through the series of major operations I had.

I don’t drink alcohol, not out of principle, it just doesn’t agree with me anymore. Besides, one of the major reasons why I used to drink, a stressful job, has gone as I took early retirement not long before I got cancer. I live surrounded by fields and farms, a relaxing environment with low levels of air pollution (apart from when the fields are being spread with slurry). But perhaps, most important of all, I am happily settled down with T in a loving relationship, and have been for the best part of seven years. This gives me enormous stability and great peace of mind. She is my rock and I cannot imagine life without her.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Groundhog Days

I have a confession to make. I love watching films in the daytime. This began whilst I was a student; that escape from the bright and busy world into a darkened cinema to immerse myself in a story on the silver screen. And it has continued ever since. Indeed, it even intensified when I moved to Northern Ireland, for my office was a short walk from the front door of the Queen’s Film Theatre and I would regularly pop in. Under lockdown, I have been able to indulge myself as often as I wish, albeit on a smaller screen. Yesterday I saw a film that I hadn’t seen for decades and I was struck by the intriguing metaphor that it offered for these strange times. The film was Groundhog Day.

I expect you know the story. Egocentric and narcissistic TV weatherman, Phil (played by Bill Murray), is compelled to relive the same day over and over again in a small American town that he is desperate to escape from. The camera closes in repeatedly on the radio alarm-clock in his hotel room, which turns to 6 AM, and he wakes to the tune of ‘I Got You Babe’ by Sonny & Cher as the same day begins again. And despite whatever he does in each of these repeated days, every day begins and unfolds in exactly the same way. At first he is unbelieving; then he becomes exasperated. Later he exploits the situation by binge-eating and drinking, anti-social behaviour, seducing beautiful strangers and robbing a bank. After all of these excesses he ends up in despair. But even repeatedly committing suicide makes no difference. At 6 AM the radio alarm comes on and he wakes to the same day again.

Is this not somewhat like life under lockdown? I am stuck at home, like most others, and I have built up a routine that helps get me through the day. The outside world is threatening, with an unseen enemy, the coronavirus, that we fear we cannot escape from. Every day at 5 PM we are told what the deaths from the virus have been for that day. And the next day will be much the same. We have no idea when this lockdown will end, it could even intensify. Many people feel trapped. Our strategies for coping may include binge-eating and drinking or anti-social behaviour. We may develop depression. We may engage in self-harm. But, unlike the film, these actions will indeed have consequences for ourselves and for others.

Groundhog Day is a highly moral fable, for it is only when Phil actually changes and genuinely becomes a better person that he is able to escape the confines of his repeated reality and win the love of the fair maiden, Rita (played by Andie McDowell). Films are, of course, adult fairy-tales, and trade in archetypes that we know from reading the stories of Aesop or the Brothers Grimm as children.

But how does this moral fable translate to the coronavirus crisis? Well, there are plenty of unreconstructed Phil’s who have stockpiled guns and built electric fences around their homesteads. But, at the same time, there are many others who have gone out of their way to help people that are in need. For example, the many small community groups which have sprung up to help the old and vulnerable who are now stuck in their own homes; doing, amongst many other things, the shopping for the vulnerable and delivering it to their front door. The nub being that when we are less egocentric and more altruistic, when we reach out to help others, we actually end up helping ourselves too. Because giving something beyond ourselves does not just make a difference to the recipient, it also leaves the giver with a sense of purpose and of self-worth. In the end, these are qualities that the lockdown, by its very nature, seeks to take away from us.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Essential Exercises

My post last week about gardening injuries was indeed prescient. I’ve developed a shoulder injury and T is exhausted. So the heavy gardening jobs that we were undertaking have been set aside. There remains plenty to do, but we are only working on lighter tasks for the time being. In the main we are resting, reading and going for local walks and bike rides.  

I’ve recently bought a Kindle and have downloaded a pile of classics from Project Gutenberg. I’m currently re-reading Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. T is reading plenty of gardening books, her favourite is Monty Don. We check the coronavirus news online once or perhaps twice a day. We have stopped watching the BBC news as it has become rather unbalanced in its reporting since the Government has put pressure on it via the license fee. In the evenings we usually watch a film that we have recorded from Film 4 or TPTV. We don’t subscribe to any pay channels.

We are content with our routine. And T is still working from home. We didn’t have a very active social life previously so we have managed to adjust to the lockdown so far without too many problems. We have each other and that is a great blessing. You can pretty much cope with anything when you have the one that you love by your side.

To protect me, T has taken on the ordeal of going to the shops once a week. She travels into the local town with mask and surgical gloves on and queues up outside Tesco to bring back our essential groceries. She is always very stressed when she returns and regales me with tales of people (often the young) who are paying scant attention to social distancing rules.

I rarely leave the house for anything other than exercise. Because there are far fewer vehicles about these days, I have taken to cycling on local roads that I would previously have avoided due to the heavy traffic. The main roads around here are certainly less hilly than the minor roads. But the surfaces of the main roads are often far worse than the minor roads. Cars are able to scoot along with most of the bumps being contained by shock absorbers. On a bike you feel all of the bumps and potholes. Furthermore, on a bike you are travelling at the side of the road where the surface is at its worst because the main road has been dug up repeatedly for work on cables and piping. On these bike rides I take all the food and water I need and stop for my breaks far away from people.

I have stopped going for bike rides along the canal towpath. It is flat and with a good surface, but since the lockdown has been introduced the towpath has become much more crowded than usual. Many more people are now travelling there for their essential exercise. I was a little worried by the groups of people with prams and the gangs of dog walkers, but I managed to give them a wide berth. But the runners were a different proposition. They came towards you puffing and panting, dispersing aerosols which you had no choice but to breathe in.

Today I was amused by Matt Hancock’s observation that sunbathing was not an essential exercise. Obviously, he has no knowledge of the climate of Northern Ireland. Sunbathing is only possible here for a couple of days a year. Whilst these hot days are very unpredictable, they certainly don’t happen in early April. And if you were unwise enough to strip off, the wind would cut through you like a knife.