A Place in the Sun

A Place in the Sun is yet another programme that I can’t get my head around.  It’s basically Escape to the Country but this this time the house hunters get to go abroad instead of trudging through the British countryside.  You can normally tell pretty early on if the house hunters are actually interested in buying anything, or just fancy a jolly away. A pretty typical give away is if they think every property that they are shown are simply marvellous and it’s their first visit to said location.  Why on earth would you buy a property if you have only found out where the place you are visiting actually is?  Also it’s pretty typical that the house hunters won’t be able to speak the lingo.  This means that any building work that the chilled, relaxed presenter will highlight that needs to be done would be doubly difficult to do once they have moved there.  I find it hard to communicate with British builders let alone with builders who can’t speak English.

Basically A Place in the Sun is escapist TV.  It’s set in stunning locations where the sun always shines and there’s a friendly bar full of jolly locals who are happy to see and help you. It is selling a dream and a lifestyle that very few of us can actually achieve.  When I had learnt that my cancer had reoccurred, it was so tempting to jack everything in, max out my credit cards and go on that travelling odyssey that I had always wanted to go on.

However, over time, reality hit. It’s all good going travelling, having amazing experiences and showing off on social media but there comes a time when you have to go home.  Everything in life is temporary.  Soon you need stability and time to really consider your options.  Flitting around everywhere is merely a distraction from what is really happening around you.  Friends and family provided this stability for me and time spent with them gave me the focus to consider my options.

So I’m all for a bit of escapism.  Who isn’t?  But you also need to prepare for when life slows down and ultimately it’s up to you and only you to make the next move.

The PET scan was just as efficient as before and about a week later, I was in the waiting room again, this time with my parents.  We were all stayed with some of my parents’ friends near Chesterfield.  The plan was to get the results and the spend a week with my aunt and uncle in Anglesey.  I stayed overnight in Chesterfield and I felt petrified.  I had this thing in my head that could trigger a stroke.  I was afraid of going to sleep in case I never woke up again.

As I was called through I noticed that Mr C was smiling.

“Good news! It hasn’t spread anywhere.  In fact, your head lit up like a Christmas tree…”

I felt a bit relived but I don’t think my parents felt it.  My dad asked a couple of questions and all I remember of the exchange is him shaking his head and saying:

“You’ve picked a right one here haven’t you love?”

He meant the cancer, not my husband…I hope.

After Mr C, we went to speak to another cancer support nurse called Ginta, as Melissa was on holiday.  Ginta was just as lovely as Melissa.  She talked about hospice care in such a way that it didn’t seem so terrifying after all.

After we saw Ginta we headed up to Anglesey.  It was just before Christmas and the weather was playing its part well. We drove through a snow storm in the Peaks, but we arrived in Anglesey in one piece.  My aunt and uncle were fab and kept us all busy.  I did get a bit emotional at times, but there was always a hug and a cup of tea to help me through it.  Mum had the idea that my husband and I should go on holiday somewhere.  After much debate, we decided on a Caribbean cruise.  My parents would pay for my ticket and my father in law would pay for my husbands.  There was no option. We would go on a Caribbean cruise whether we liked it or not.

So at the beginning of 2012, my husband and I found ourselves winging our way to Barbados. We were bit nervous as to how I would be on the seven-hour flight.  Would I faint?  Would my head explode?  Thankfully none of that happened.  As soon as the plane took off and I just felt relief.  I felt that I had left the cancer behind me in the UK and by God, I was going to have a good time!

The cruise was amazing and the Caribbean was a wonderful place.  When we came back, we both felt refreshed and energised.  Life was to be living and what will be, will be.

But after about a month, I found myself in a funny place mentally.  It felt a bit like limbo.  All I knew was that I was going to die soon.  I didn’t know when or what it would be like and this I struggled to get my head around.

Then one day my sister called with a strange proposal.

“Hi. It’s me.  I don’t know if you know but I heard from one of my colleagues that Mr N is in the country.  He’s a world famous brain surgeon and he’s based at Wimbledon Hospital.  Do you think it would be a good idea for him to look at your scans and see if there is anything that he could do?”

“Mmm… I don’t know.  Mr C seemed pretty adamant about it all.  Plus won’t we have to wait months for a referral?”

“We could go private.  It’s a one off and if we do that we could see him next week.  I think it’s worth doing as he’s not in the country for long…”

I was a bit emotionally detached from it all.  I felt I had some kind of morbid acceptance of the situation that I was now facing.  What was the point? All that fuss and he would probably say the same thing as Mr C anyway…

I was in a bit of a day dream when I snapped out of it to hear my sister say…

“So I’ll book it for next week and you just need to get your scans sorted.  I’ll text you the day and time.  See you, bye.” And she hung up.

A week later, my husband went to the QMC after work and picked up the precious CD containing my scans.  Then me, my sister and my parent were sitting in yet another packed waiting room awaiting the verdict.  After about twenty minutes a jolly looking receptionist shouted my name.  We were ushered into a rectangular room with a desk and a computer one side and an examination bed on the other.  At the far end of the room was a window and sitting in front of the window, by the desk was Mr N.  Mr N was how you would picture an extremely intelligent person.  He was quite tall and thin with his hair brushed back over his head.  He was wearing tortoise shell glasses and had a large hooked nose.  He looked quite similar to an owl or Professor Jaffle from Bagpuss.  He kindly shook all our hands and there was five minutes of confusion where we tried to find places for everyone to sit.

After we had all sat down, I handed over the precious disc and Mr N switched on his computer.  While he was waiting for it to warm up, my sister filled him in on the story so far.  He nodded while always keeping a beady eye on the computer.  Finally, it splurted into life.

“Bloody thing… it was a lot easier when scans were on film.  You could just hold them up to the light and see exactly what was wrong.  What did the brain surgeons in Nottingham say?”

I told him how they had say that they didn’t want to operate as it would be too dangerous.  The tumour was in a dangerous place and while they were operating, they could trigger a stroke from which I could never recover from.

“Mmmm…” said Mr N while clicking on his mouse.

He put the CD into the computer.  He clicked a few more times and then the image of my head appeared on the screen.  I held my breathe.

After about 10 seconds he delivered his verdict.

“I’m sorry to say this but I concur with the brain surgeons in Nottingham.  The location of the tumour is extremely problematic.  You would definitely have to lose your left eye and there is not guarantee that you would be you after the operation.  As it’s a cancer, do you mind if I keep hold of this and give it to some of my colleagues at the Royal Marsden to have a look?”

No, no was the answer we all chimed in unison.

“Very well then…” he said while standing up.

We took the hint and stood up too and bid our farewells.

“Urm.. where do we pay?” asked my mum nervously.

“Oh I never charge for second opinions.” Said Mr N. “Good luck Anna.”

That night I relayed the story to my husband.

“Well that’s a bugger isn’t it?”

Bizarrely I didn’t think it was.  I felt weirdly optimistic about it. I don’t know but I think for the first time I had hope.  I didn’t really have that before. I just felt in my gut that everything was going to be OK.  For the first time I felt a bit in charge of this.  I finally plucked up the courage and do some research about the type of cancer I had. The blinkers had now come off.  I was no longer detached from the process watching some weird film about a woman with cancer.  I was back in the room and in charge of my own destiny.  It might not look all that good, but boy, I was now ready for it so bring it on!

Radiotherapy Pt 1 – The Outcome

About a month after I finished radiotherapy, we all went on a big family holiday to north Devon.  We all had a great time, until the very last day of the holiday.  I started getting really painful headaches.  I tried all manner of painkillers, but they weren’t doing the trick.  We eventually after a lot of faffing, got in contact with Melissa.  She arranged an appointment for me to see Dr C.

We drove back a bit earlier in quite a tense state. I had an MRI and a couple of days later me, my husband, my sister and my mum were sitting in the ENT waiting room to hear the results.  It was the first time my mum and sister had been there.  My mum especially was thoroughly confused by it all.

My name was called out by the nurse and I was weighed.

“Why were you weighed?” asked mum.

“I dunno… it’s something they always do.”

Mum looked puzzled, but before she could formulate a question, we were called through.  This time we sat in a line next to a door.

“This isn’t….”

“Good?” said my husband.

“Actually I would say nerve wracking.” Said my sister. “ You would think they would organise it in a better way…”

As we debated how they could do this better, Melissa magically appeared and called us in.

It wasn’t Dr C or Mr B that saw us. It was a nervy looking registrar.

“I’m afraid that both Dr C and Mr B are away on holiday at the moment.  I’ve had a look at your scan and it looks like you are disease free.”

“Does that mean it’s gone?” asked my sister.

“Urm… yes.  It says there is no evidence of disease…”

We all breathed a sigh of relief.

“But what about the pain?” I asked

“ I think that must be an after effect from the radiotherapy.  I can prescribe you some medication if you like.  What is the pain like?”

I outlined the types of pain that I was in.  It was a shooting, nerve pain running up the left side of my face.

“Ok…I’ll prescribe you a drug called Gabapentin.  That is good for nerve pain so hopefully it should do the trick.”

As we made our way out of the room, my nearest and dearest were cockahoop.  They were high fiving and talking of places to go to celebrate.  I however didn’t feel quite so jovial.  Something wasn’t quite right…

As summer rolled into autumn, I prepared to go back to work.  I had a meeting with my manager and decided to go down to working four days a week.  One of the classes I was assigned was an evening class which I was due to start after Christmas, once I had got back into the swing of things.

I started back just before the summer break which was quite a good time to return to work.  I initially didn’t do any teaching and was helping out in an admin role.  The summer break went by in a flash and soon I was sat in a classroom at the beginning of September listening to our Induction for the next academic year.

It all started so well.  We spend the first couple of weeks of every academic year interviewing and enrolling learners.  This went well and most of the classes filled up quickly.  It was when the teaching started that I began to feel a bit peculiar.  Basically I was knackered.  A whole day of teaching would completely wipe me out. I would get home, have a shower, have something to eat and then go to bed usually by eight o’clock.  The prospect of having to teach an evening class terrified me.  I would be asleep by break!

The tiredness you get with cancer is completely different to the tiredness that you usually feel.  It is energy sapping, fuzzy head making and eye drooping.  You feel it in your core.  No amount of coffee, energy drinks or supplements can tackle it. You just have to give in, however frustrated you may feel about it.

I was still getting really bad headaches, so Melissa booked appointment to see Mr C and soon I was being weighed in the ENT waiting room.  I had another MRI and was here for the results.

We walked in the room and my husband moved his chair closer to mine.

“It’s not good news.  The cancer has returned and has spread.  It’s gone up a nerve and has now formed a tumour at the base of your skull.  I’ve spoken to the neurosurgeons at the QMC and the have said that it is inoperable.  It’s very small but where it is located is the problem.  If we operate you would definitely lose your left eye and would more than likely have a stroke.  This would greatly affect your quality of life.  I’m going to book you in for another PET scan to check that the cancer hasn’t spread any further…”

Part of me felt relieved when I heard this.  I KNEW something was wrong! Aha! I was right! I felt like shouting.  I also felt like I had some justification on where to tell my manager to stick her evening class.

It was only when I looked at my husband that the reality started to hit.

“So… there’s absolutely nothing you can do?” asked my husband.

“Not surgically wise… no…”said Mr C.

“What about radiotherapy or chemo?” I asked.

“We don’t think the tumour would respond to chemo and as for radiotherapy, you have only just finished one cycle. It would be quite dangerous to make you anymore weaker.  It would greatly affect your quality of life.”

“So… how long have I got then?”

“We don’t really know but…why don’t you speak with Melissa?  I’m sure she can help you come to terms with this news.”

We thanked Mr C who gave us an appointment sheet to hand in to collect the PET scan results.  We then left with Melissa.

I can’t quite remember what we discussed with Melissa, as we were both in shock.  I remember phoning my dad afterwards and breaking down on the phone to him.  I think the reality of it all had began to have sunk in.  While we were stuck in traffic on the ring road my husband made quite a glib remark.

“Now’s the time to do anything that you want to do…have you ever thought about doing crack cocaine?  You’ve got nothing to lose you know!”

For which he received a thump on the arm.

The Office

I vaguely remember when The Office first appeared on our screens.  It was in the summer of 2001.  I was working at a private language school in Wimbledon at the time.  It had a partner school in Perth, Australia which meant that some of the teachers I was working with came from Australia.  I remember befriending one of them called Louisa.  It was her first time in London and she was loving every minute of it.  When she first arrived, the school hooked her up with some other Aussies who were also living in Wimbledon.  Unfortunately for Louisa, these Aussies all happened to be hard drinking males with whom she had little in common.

A similar thing happened to a friend of mine who is French.

“Oh you must come and meet Pierre!” chimed one of her colleagues. “He’s French too. You’re bound to get along.” Well… they didn’t.

This not only happens if you share the same nationality but also if you share the same life threatening disease too.  Just because you have cancer doesn’t necessarily mean that you are bound to get on with anyone else who has cancer.  Cancer affects everyone. This means that everyone has their own different take on it.

One person might avoid all sugar, practise yoga everyday and live off a mixture of apricot kernals and kale juice.  Another patient might be boozing every night, eating cake and be out partying.  Both approaches are fine but these two people probably wouldn’t get on should they ever meet.

What someone with cancer needs is space.  Space to find their own path to come to some kind of acceptance of the disease that they have.  The issue of space is touched upon slightly in The Office.

The Office, in case you didn’t know, is a mockumentary about life in a typical British office.  It was released without much fanfare, but its popularity grew mainly through word of mouth.  The main lead is the office manager, David Brent.  He’s played brilliantly by Ricky Gervais.  Brent, although he’s the manager, tries to be “one of the lads”.  The scenes where he tries to crack jokes and integrate with his staff are so cringe worthy that I can only view them from behind a cushion.

Brent’s number two is Gareth Keenan, again acted brilliantly by Mackenzie Crook.  Gareth tries to throw his weight around the office but is often thwarted by every man Tim Canterbury, played by Martin Freeman.  It’s the relationship between Gareth and Tim that I most identify with.  In one of my favourite episodes, Tim gets so annoyed by Gareth, he builds a wall of A4 file boxes between his and Gareth’s desk because he can’t bear the thought of looking at him for seven hours everyday.  I’m sure most people who have worked in an office environment can identify with Tim’s frustration.

I can safely say that I have never felt that way about people at work, I certainly have felt a little bit like that when I meet some people who have cancer.  Like Tim, we need space to… well… get on with it.  We don’t need to be told what we must or mustn’t do.  Everyone is different and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else.

When someone says to me “Oh you must meet so and so.  They’ve been recently diagnosed with…” My first reaction is to back off.  Being diagnosed is horrific.  The last thing that person needs is me to come swaggering in and telling them what to do.  All that I or anyone else can do is listen.  That’s all that needs doing.  A bit of listening and a lot of tea or coffee making.  By listening you are giving that person time and space to come to terms with what has happened.  Once that person has come to terms with the situation, then, step by step, you can plan what to do next.

It turned out good for Tim at the end of The Office.  He hung on in there and ended up with the girl of his dreams.  The same could be true if you have cancer.  If you hang on in there and keep on listening, you’ll find yourself empowered to make the right choices for you.  No one but YOU.

Radiotherapy Part 1

Nothing and I mean nothing, can prepare you for the trauma of intense radiotherapy to your head and neck.  The first treatment went fine.  I was applying aqueous cream three times a day to the left side of my face and neck.  I was also using the mouth wash I was prescribed and it all seemed tickety boo.

It all started to hit the fan in week two.  My saliva started to become really gloopy.  I would need to spit out this gloop every ten to fifteen minutes.  My husband commandeered an old plastic bin from IKEA to act as a spittoon for me to flob in. It was never more than three feet away from me at all times.  Even now, when we go to IKEA, if I see those bins on display, I shudder a little.

A side effect of this gloop, would be that it would sometimes build up at the back of my mouth, and trigger my gag reflex.  So not only was I flobbing every ten minutes or so, but every so often I would be gagging too. Plus this was all happening twenty four hours a day. Nice.

I was also feeling tired to the point of exhaustion. I had painful sores in my mouth and I couldn’t open my mouth very wide due to the scar tissue from my surgery.  I also had an angry rash on the left hand side of my face that was basically a template of the mask, that was being fitted to my face day in and day.  All in all I wasn’t a pretty sight.

A typical day would be like this.  I would wake up at about half eight after an uncomfortable nights sleep due to the gloop that I had to spit out.  I would get up and use my mouth wash.  I would go downstairs, have some water and then make myself a bowl of Weetabix and mush it all up.  If I was feeling adventurous, I may add a banana to the mix.  I would then plonk myself down, with my spittoon and watch The Wright Stuff.

I would spend the whole of The Wright Stuff, some two and a bit hours, eating my Weetabix.  After breakfast I would normally have to go to the hospital for my treatment.  My husband would accompany as would the spittoon.  We would walk the length of the hospital to get to the radiotherapy department.  This was actually quite nice.  For some reason we used to joke around a bit.  One day my husband got hold off a wheelchair and was pretending to be Lewis Hamilton with it, driving me quite quickly down the long corridors to many a disapproving look.

Every Wednesday, usually after treatment, we would have to go to the new radiotherapy department for an appointment with Dr B, so she could see how I was getting on.  It didn’t help that this appointment was near to where the car park was, so we would have to zig zag back on ourselves to get there.  There was a little transporter thing, like you see at airports, that we could have taken, but we, especially my husband, preferred the Lewis Hamilton wheelchair method.

It was at these appointments I also saw a radiotherapy nurse and a dietician. Although there were nurses who delivered the treatment, this radiotherapy nurse was a bit like Melissa.  She was especially assigned to me and was lovely.  The dietician was equally lovely and quite helpful on giving suggestions on what to eat.

“Protein. Try and get as most protein as you can down you.  Eggs, cheese, meat… anything really.”

“What do you mean by anything?” asked my husband.

“I would go full fat on everything.  Put cream in your porridge.  Put butter on crumpets.  Anything to bulk you up.”

We nodded in unison.  On our way out, she gave a food diary for my husband to fill in, being the carer and all.

My husband took it rather briskly from her.

“Look… I want to make something clear.  I’m Anna’s husband NOT her carer.”

“And… I think I’m more than able to fill in this.” I added taking the diary away from my husband.

“I’m sorry…I just assumed…”

And we left it at that.

After my treatment, once we got back home, I would have a Complan.  Complan is a food substitute in the form of a milkshake.  It’s a bit like Slim Fast but you can make bigger quantities of it.  I was prescribed bottles of Fortisip.  I found these good for me, but I know of others who have had all manner of problems with them. My biggest problem with them was that they were too small.  If they were in litre sized bottles, rather than small cartons, I may have used them more.

Once I or my husband had made up the Complan, I would watch the news and Doctors, all while sipping the Complan.

After Doctors, I would go to sleep for a couple of hours.  I would wake at about four o’clock and then watch Escape to the Country or A Place in the Sun.

At around five o’clock, I would have another Weetabix/banana combination and settle down for the evening.  At around seven or eight, I would have another Complan and then go to bed at around ten. The next day I would repeat the whole process.

This went on like this for six weeks, and as you imagine for my husband, it wasn’t exactly a thrilling existence.  His main duties in all this was to ferry me to the hospital, make the occasional Complan or Weetabix, empty out the spittoon and picking up prescriptions. The prescriptions were for the mouth wash, the aqueous cream and all manners of pain relief, that I was consuming like nobody’s business.

I remember on one very bleak day, my husband telling me that my body was strong.  It could cope with the lack of food.  Six weeks compared to the rest of my life was a teeny tiny blip.  My body would cope and protect me from the chaos that was being thrown at it.  In the end it would come out stronger as a result.  I really took strength from this.

My husband also didn’t treat me as a patient in any way. I was still Anna.  We would bicker, he would tell me if I was in the wrong, we would laugh and joke.  We were essentially the same people.  The only difference was that I looked a bit odd, spat and slept more.

My husband also taught me to listen to my body. If I felt tired, go to sleep.  Don’t feel guilty.  You are not letting anyone down or missing out on anything.  Your body wants to rest, so let it rest.  If you are in pain, take painkillers.  Don’t try and struggle.  You are not admitting defeat if you take the pain killers.  The pain killers are there to relive pain so take them.

This direct approach worked really well with me as I am somewhat of a faffer.  I do faff over everything to such an extent, I am amazed that I am actually quite punctual.  I think it’s because that although I faff about making a decision, once I make a decision, that’s that and I plough ahead, regardless.  My husband taught me to cut back on the faff, and go for what I wanted to do or rather what my body wanted me to do.

Eventually the day of the last treatment rolled around.  My parents came up to visit to cheer my through.  My mum came up with an excellent idea to help me through the radiotherapy.  She made a box full of presents.  I was to open each present after each treatment I had.  It was a lovely thought and reinforced the thought that although my mum was some 200 miles away, she was thinking of me and willing me through the treatment.

As I walked down the corridor after finishing my last treatment, I could hear my parents and my husband cheering.  I smiled meekly and the nurse asked me if I wanted the mask that I had worn throughout it all. I said that I would and I could see that my mum wasn’t happy about that.

“Why on earth do you want to keep that?” she asked.

“I dunno really…” I replied weakly. “I met one woman who made her mask into a fruit bowl… Maybe we could do that?”

My husband squeezed my hand.

“Come on… lets get the hell outta here…”

The Wright Stuff

The Wright Stuff, according to their website, is “a lively magazine show hosted by Matthew Wright”. Basically every weekday between 9.15 and 11.00, Matthew Wright along with a guest and two panellists discuss and debate various issues that are in the news on that current day.

I think that the Wright Stuff plays quite an important role on TV.  At school we used to have debates on anything and everything. They were really good fun.  They really taught you the importance of seeing both sides for an argument and because of this, I think made you a bit more empathetic towards your fellow citizens.  Now with such an emphasis on pass and success rates, I very much doubt that debating takes place in most state schools.  It probably still occurs in most private schools and this is quite a sad thing I think anyway.

This is where the Wright Stuff steps in.  Unlike Question Time, which is designed to debate mainly political issues with the Wright Stuff, pretty much anything goes.  I’m watching it at the moment and today the topics being discussed are Can You Choose You Gender? Brooklyn Beckham – Hot, Legal? He’s Still A Child! Halloween Horror – Bad Taste Biscuit about biscuits being sold in hospital with “I’m a Goner” written on them and as it’s Friday, the TV review with Kevin O’Sullivan.

The topics are first debated with the guest of the day and the panellists.  Then after 5 minutes or so the Great British public are the called upon to deliver their verdicts.  On today’s episode the guest of the day is another journalist called Matt Barbett.  He’s promoting a new Saturday morning show he’s on.  It sounds a bit like a watered down version of the Wright Stuff, but without the audience participation.  He’s a bit prepared for anarchic nature of the Wright Stuff and the fact that he will be asked his opinion, about the most bizarre topics imaginable.  I’ve seen other episodes, especially with American guests, where the guests go on, thinking it’s a normal chat show where they are flogging their wears and then look horrified when Matthew is demanding to know their stance on Putin’s bombing of Syria.

The highlight of the show, in my opinion anyway, is the paper review.  This happens every episode normally at about 10 o’clock.  Sometimes the guests are so bedazzled by this, they just read the headlines and it’s left to Matthew and the panellists to fill in the gaps.  Other times the guests get a bit too involved and poor Matthew has to pick up the pieces where they might have caused offence or possibly libelled someone.

As its Friday. I’m extra happy because it means that we also have the TV review with Kevin O’Sullivan.  Kevin must be an old journalist friend of Matthew’s from his Daily Mirror days.  He has the look of a tabloid hack and reminds me of a cut price Simon Cowell.  He always wears the same clothing as Cowell, a white shirt that has the two top buttons undone, unlike Matthew, who is always suited and booted.  The only difference between him and Cowell is his hair, which is in a 90’s curtain style, unlike Cowell’s well sculpted do.  However despite his appearance, he does know his telly.  He’s pretty much spot on about what is good and what isn’t.  I actually think he is quite refreshing as he says pretty much what he thinks and Matthew on the whole, actually listens to him, which sadly can’t be said for some of the callers into the show.

Matthew’s treatment of the callers into his show can be a little schizophrenic to put it mildly.  Sometimes he is very sympathetic, even if they hold a view different to his own.  At other times he can have a complete go at them, even if their only mistake wasn’t answering to their name straightaway when Matthew asks for their opinion.  Part of the reason for this schizophrenic attitude could be down to schreechy woman.  Schreechy woman is probably a producer or a director on the Wright Stuff who is schreeching through Matthew’s ear piece telling him what to do next.  She is probably either telling him to keep the caller talking or telling him to get the caller to shut up hence the schizophrenic attitude.   Strangely I have quite a bit in common with schreechy.  The first is that we were both Gamesmakers for the 2012 Olympics.  Many of the stories she relayed to Matthew at the time, were very similar to mine which was a bit odd.  Also quite often I’ll be thinking of a counter argument while watching a debate on the Wright Stuff only to hear Matthew say “ I’ve just hear from schreechy that…” and she would have said the same thing.

Another weird thing is that Matthew is very similar to my husband.  Both like heavy metal music especially from the 70’s.  Matthew is a massive Hawkwind fan and my husband is a big Motorhead fan.  Anyone who knows anything about 70’s rock will know that the two bands are connected.  Lemmy, who is the infamous lead singer of Motorhead, used to be the bass player in Hawkwind.  In fact my husband is partial to a bit a Hawkwind, when the mood takes him.  Matthew also comes across as someone who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and that if you are in an argument with him, just give up.  This is because he will always probably be right and it takes a lot to dissuade him otherwise.  My husband is exactly the same and will often start a discussion with the phrase “Remember now I am always right…” at which point I cease arguing because there is no point in persuading him otherwise.

I think this is why the Wright Stuff appeals to me.  I think in a weird way that Matthew is like my husband and I am like schreechy, trying to keep him on the straight and narrow by yelling in his ear.  It does sound a bit odd but I think that most relationships do operate on a similar basis.  One half of any couple is often more sociable, opinionated, dysfunctional, irritating (delete as appropriate) than the other and it’s up to the other half to help reign that aspect in, especially when you are with others.  This aspect can work two ways and there are times where my husband is my schreechy and telling me gently that no, we don’t have time for you to sing Wuthering Heights for the fifth time on karaoke, Anna.  I guess it’s kind of filling in the role or a parent by setting boundaries for one another.  It’s when this role becomes too restricted for the other half and this behaviour can be seen as controlling, that problems start occurring.

I’m often asked when I talk about my diagnosis and treatment, “So how did your husband take it?”  It’s a really difficult question to answer.  Firstly I sadly do not possess any telepathy qualities so I am unable to read his mind, something of which I am quite grateful for.  Also I’m not too sure what is the correct way for a husband to respond when his wife is diagnosed with cancer, if there is one.  What works for one couple must surely work for them alone and not for others, you would think.

When we got home from the operation it was just me and my husband.  That was it. Obviously we do have families but they either lived over 200 miles away, were expecting the birth of their first child and generally had their own lives to get on with.  I’m not saying that on reflection, we would have liked more help.  In fact I think our relationship was strengthen by the fact that we had to rely on one another.  We are both very independent people.  The fact that we both met while working abroad, away from our families, meant I guess, was one reason why we were attracted to one another.

A couple of weeks after the op, I had my first appointment with Dr B, my oncologist.  Both myself and my husband were big fans of the medical drama House.  I remember joking with my husband that I was hoping that my oncologist would be Dr Wilson, House’s best friend.  That character was my only experience of oncologists up until that point.  This was better than some people and some of my friends didn’t even know what an oncologist was until I explained it to them.

We were called through and met Dr B who turned out to be a soft spoken Scottish woman.  She remarked how well I looked (mmmm) and then briefed me on what was going to happen next.

“Your next appointment will be a fitting for a head and neck mask.  They will make a mould for the mask using plaster of Paris.  When the mask is made, you will then have an appointment for a mask fitting.  Then they will lie you on the radiotherapy bench and check that the mask fits correctly.  They will also take a CT scan of this and maybe give you a tattoo on your chest, to make sure the mask alignment is correct.  You will then have an induction for your six week course of radiotherapy and you will be given your radiotherapy appointments.  You need to come to radiotherapy everyday for six weeks.  The sessions themselves last only for 10 minutes and are painless.  However over time you will suffer from very severe side effects.  This is because the radiation will be going straight to you head and neck and will destroy tissue not affected by cancer.  You will get mouth sores and find eating extremely painful.  You will also have burns on the left side of your face and neck.  We can give you medication to help you alleviate these side effects.  Any questions so far?”

I looked over to my husband.  He was nodding away.  I couldn’t quite take it all in. Masks?  Plaster of Paris? Tattoos? Painless?  Well at least that bit sounded good.

My husband then asked a question about pain medication, I think, but I was gone by that point.  They could have been discussing about running away together as far as I was concerned, it was that word painless.  The doctor had said it.  Painless.  Radiotherapy was going to be a doddle.

Doctors

I love Doctors.  It has to be one of my guilty pleasures in the daytime TV schedule.  It’s also something of a dark horse.  It has been on our screens for some 16 years now, yet aside from the terminally ill, the elderly and maternity leave mums, no one seems to have heard of it.  It seems to be taking a break from our TV screens to make way for the Olympics, but I hope it returns soon.

Doctor is a continuous serial drama (oh go on then… soap) that is set at a GP surgery in the fictional Birmingham suburb of Letherbridge.  The stories in Doctors normally follow two strands.  One strand will involve the doctors, nurses and receptionists at the doctors’ surgery.  All sorts has happened to them and compared to some soaps, it does have a very high turn around rate of staff.  Whether this is true of all GP surgeries, I have no idea, but I suspect that the death toll of staff at most GP surgeries may not be quite as high as those in Doctors.

The second strand involves the patients of the surgery.  Sometimes it is a bit like Casualty where they identify someone at the beginning and then they have some kind of medical incident that will then involve them having to visit the doctors’ surgery in Letherbridge in order for it to be resolved.

It’s this reason that I love Doctors.  They are not afraid of taking risks.  I have seen storylines involving child prostitution, domestic abuse, drug abuse, euthanasia, police brutality, anorexia, all at quarter to two in the afternoon.  My mum also loves Doctors and she told me that apparently a lot of new scriptwriters, directors and other TV crew use Doctors as a bit of a training ground.  This sometimes is quite clear to see as some episodes are dramatic masterpieces while others fall flat completely.  However, it’s this boldness that I like.  The two strands means that you have the excitement of a new story but the continuity of the characters from the surgery that somehow, holds it all together.  It can be a bit twee and middle class at times, but then again it is about a load of doctors, so that may not be too much of a surprise.  But the way that they often leave storylines opened ended with no full resolution at the end is often quite realistic, especially where health matters are concerned.

The day of the operation eventually rolled around. So there I was at eight o’clock in the morning on 19th January 2011, sitting on the edge of a bed while a nurse explained to me how a hospital gown operated.  She was mid-way through her preamble when an anaesthetist rushed in carrying a clip board.

“Urm… I’m sorry to interrupt, but we need you in surgery straightaway…”

The nurse looked a little startled and I was told to quickly get undressed and put the gown on immediately.

After I had done this and was sitting up, in the bed, the anaesthetist gingerly approached the bed.    He was quite short and stocky with a mane of dark hair and a beard.

“So Mrs Read, could you confirm your date of birth for me?”

I went through all the normal hospital protocol and he quickly ran through the precautions of the operation.  I signed the consent form and he drew on the left side of my face and neck to show where they were going to operate.  That was a bit reassuring.  Heaven forbid they actually take out my kidney by mistake.

A porter magically appeared and I was rushed, quite quickly, to the operating theatre. I was put to sleep and my last memory was looking at the clock in the anaesthetist’s room and it said a quarter to nine.

When I came round, back in my hospital room it was half past three.  Blimey.  It must have been a pretty big operation.  I generally felt OK if a little sore.  I always became aware of something protrubing from my neck.  I slowly turned my head to the left and saw two transparent tubes coming out of my neck.  I slowly began to sit upright on my bed, to see what the tubes were attached to.  They were attached to two small jars that looked a bit like milk bottles.  These milk bottles were sat in a little cage that looked a bit like a milk bottle carrier that you see milkmen use.  In the bottles, there was blood.  Mmmm.

About five minutes later a nurse came in to check my temperature, blood pressure and the amount of oxygen in my blood.

“Ah… you’re back in the land of the living I see..”

“Just about… what are these?” I said holding up the bottles in the cage.

“They are your drains.  When the blood reaches a certain level, we will remove them for you.”

“When will that be?”

“Well everyone’s a bit different, but probably not for a day or two…”

Great.  That meant no shower, going to the loo being a bit nightmare and not much sleep.  Still I was alive so that was a bonus.

Visiting time rolled around and although my parents, my sister and my husband all said how marvellous I looked, you got the distinct impression that they were a bit shocked.  It wasn’t until I nipped to the loo and saw a reflection of myself that I saw why.  I had a massive scar that started from my left shoulder and arched all the way round to behind my left ear.  However it was the left side of my face that was more shocking.  As the tumour had wrapped itself around one of my facial nerves, Mr C had to remove the nerve during the operation.  The result of this was that now, the left side of my face hung limp.  I tried to smile but it was only a half smile.  When I spoke, only the right side of my face moved so it looked a bit like an Elvis Presley lip curl. Ah huh huh.

I was mortified.  I knew that would be some facial changes but I wasn’t prepared for this.  When I came out of the bathroom, Mr C was there with his registrar laughing and joking with my parents.

“Ah there she is. How are you feeling?”

“What have you done? I can’t believe I look like this…”

The room became silent.

“Well from our perspective, the operation was a success.  It was a long one. You have been through quite a lot for today so it’s understandable that you feel a bit emotional.  I’ll pop in a see you tomorrow to see how you are…”

We chatted a bit more about the drains and then off he went, looking a bit emotional himself.

“Well love, we’ll leave you to it.  You’ve had a long day and we’ll come and see you tomorrow.”

And off my visitors went and I was left with two drains sticking out of my neck, trying to work out how to get some sleep.

A couple of days later I was discharged and ready to go home. I remember on the drive home, feeling completely detached from the world around me.  People were getting on with their lives and as it was a Saturday, that involved shopping.  As we pulled up at some traffic lights I was amazed by these ant like people busying themselves, hustling and bustling and for what?  A new colander from Wilko’s.  Some dog food.  A haircut.  Treats for the kids.  The normality of it all seemed so removed from me.  I was a little bit scared of it. Would I ever get back there?  Would I always be someone who had to be ferried somewhere like some precious cargo that could never be exposed to sunlight? It all seems a bit dramatic now and doubtless medication was clouding my judgement at the time.  But I knew, ever back then, life would never be the same again.

Escape to the Country

Escape to the country. I’ve always hated that programme. But I would remember this episode for a long, long time…

Escape to the country.  I’ve always hated that programme.  The idea behind it is that some couple suddenly decide that city life is so much strain for them that the only option for them is to move house and well, escape to the country.  Whether the country wants them or not…

I was watching this particular episode on a 20 inch TV, mounted high in a corner of the outpatient waiting room of the ENT department.  Someone had wisely had put the volume on mute so I was squinting at the subtitles, trying to follow Brian and Pauline’s odyssey into the “country”.  Then I noticed that a nurse had started puffing.

“For the last time… ANNA READ!”

Oooppss! I poked my husband awake in his ribs with my elbow and stood up.  The nurse took us both into a small white room.

“ We need to weigh you…”

“Why?”

She just shrugged.  I went on the scales and thank the Lord it was in kilograms.  I have never really understood kilograms. Anyway the scales said a number, the nurse wrote it down without any expression to say if the number was good or bad and off to the waiting room we returned.

“Grumble grumble…” grumbled my husband.

“What?”

“Oh nothing…”

“ANNA READ!”

My husband and I shuffled forward.

“Please… Sit here.  Mr C will call you”

This was said by a different nurse to the first.  She was holding a clipboard and gave us both a sympathetic smile.  We sat down on chairs that were in a line.

“It’s a bit like waiting to see the head master isn’t it?”

“ Well, we’ll probably be in and out quite quick as he said it was just a follow up didn’t he?”

“ Here’s hoping.  Chinese buffet in town later eh?”

The door opened.

“Ah… Anna.  Good to see you again.  Sorry about the delay.  Please come in…”

In we walked and Mr C directed me to a chair directly opposite him.  My husband was directed to a chair to my right.  It was at quite an awkward distance.  Just a bit too far away.  I looked up and along the back wall were one, two, three, four, five doctors.  Six if you count Mr C.  Standing behind my husband were three women.  Two were nurses, one of whom had told us where to sit, and another woman with short bobbed brown hair who was now holding the clipboard.

Mr C turned my chair in such a way that I could no longer see my husband, but now I could only see him.

“ I’m afraid it’s a carcinoma…”

Carcinoma?  Now where have I heard that word before?

I turned to my husband for some clarification and I noticed that he had stood up and was moving his chair closer to mine.  He then held my right hand very tightly.

Mr C carried on describing something very quickly and I could only pick up certain words.

“It’s in one of your salivary glands…”

“We need to operate…”

“ Six weeks of radiotherapy…”

But I was still struggling with carcinoma.  Then it dawned on me.  Hang about is that cancer?

So I asked Mr C:

“Is it cancer?”

“ Umm… yes, the full name for what you have is adenocarcinoma which started to form near your paratoid gland.  It’s quite rare and can be quite aggressive.”

That’s when I left myself.  It all started to feel that it wasn’t happening to me.  It felt like I was watching a film and that I was the lead actress.

“ So when will the operation be?” asked my husband while gripping onto my hand.

“Well…”

Then I noticed something about the five doctors lined up in front of me.  It looked like that Mr C was the most senior and then behind him was the next senior, all the way down to the junior doctor at the end.  The junior doctor gave me a “you are soooo brave!” kind of a smile.  I couldn’t see how I was brave.  I just had a tumour in my salivary gland that was all.

Mr C then produced a big diary looking book and dates were discussed.  Finally a date was agreed on and Mr C explained for a second time what was going to happen.

The first thing I would have is a PET scan to see if the cancer had spread.  After that I would have an operation to remove the tumour.  Then after that I would be referred to an oncologist and start six weeks of intense radiotherapy to remove any cancer cells that hadn’t been removed from the operation.

He then stood up and walked towards the women with the clipboard and brown bobbed hair.

“This is Melissa.  She is our cancer care nurse in the ENT department.  If you have any questions please discuss them with her and I’ll see you next week to discuss your PET scan results. I also need another blood sample from you…”

“ I’ll take it!” said the “you are soooo brave” junior doctor.

“OK have your bloods done and then come back to reception to see Melissa.”

We both thanked him and left the room with the junior doctor.  I whispered to my husband.

“ I didn’t catch the date of the operation.”

“It’s on 19th January.  My birthday remember?”

I gasped and squeezed my husband’s hand.  The start of the great escape had begun…