This is one of those entries where I start writing with the intention of keeping to one particular theme and then something happens which takes me in a completely different direction; as if I’m in a boat sailing through calm(ish) waters and am then blown off course by a storm.
There’s a footbridge/cycleway over the Grand Union canal at the end of my road. Not an old, traditional brick-built ‘hump-back’ but a modern (1970s) metal/asphalt design. The approach on my side is relatively short and therefore relatively steep, but on the other the ground drops away for some considerable distance and the path curves back under itself for a full 360º in order to reduce the gradient and make it manageable without the need for ropes and pitons. I have to negotiate this bridge when I cycle to work. I also have to negotiate it when I cycle home again.
I decide I need to start biking to work again. On Sunday I have a rehearsal – just to see. Going is a bit of a breeze. The route from home to office runs almost due East and the canal bridge is the highest point; if I did not have to stop to cross a road, I could probably freewheel all the way when the prevailing Westerly is at my back. As it is now.
The return journey is a different matter altogether. The route from the office to the road crossing rises so gradually it is unnoticeable to the fit. But into the wind I might as well have the brakes on. I’m like the old guy you see on a rusty old bike veering from side to side in a vain attempt to make forward progress. Except mine is shiny.
The Dutch have a saying “the wind is our mountains”. Not grammatically correct perhaps but poetic nonetheless. This time last year I would not have noticed. Now I have to stop halfway to catch my breath. This causes me a great deal of embarrassment. A couple are walking a dog so I cover my shame by using the old trick favoured by all cyclists when unable to climb a steep hill; I get off the bike, look at my gears and pretend there’s a problem.
Then there’s the canal to negotiate.
I can see the bridge ahead in the distance. Timing is everything – I do not want to arrive at the steepest, tightest curve at the same time as someone else. In a previous life I would attack the bridge – speed up on the straight part as the gradient increases – and then use momentum to help negotiate the 360º turn. But now my chest is hurting and I am struggling for breath. I feel as if my lungs have shrunk and I’m panting like a dog on a hot day.
I stop at the top and wait for things to calm down. A boat passes underneath and greetings are exchanged. I imagine a network of boat-owners telling their friends that the natives are really friendly, whereas the reality is just a knackered bike rider.
My shoulders and arms ache. I’ve ridden so little in the past year that my body needs time to adapt to this unfamiliar posture. Home is not far and it takes 10 minutes flat on the sofa before I can speak. Annie says it will get easier. And so it does. Monday morning is a different story altogether. The sun is shining, it’s warm – and there is no wind. Not the slightest hint. Just still and calm.
I fly from the top of the bridge. This route is popular with other bike commuters. Although I’m frequently overtaken I can often hang on to someone’s back wheel without too much effort. The elastic does stretch but not to breaking point.
With no wind to deal with the return journey is manageable. I do not need to stop halfway or at the top of the bridge. And I do not need a lie down when I get home.
Tuesday is dull and windy. I’m game to give it a go but my heart has other ideas. I know it’s not right when I wake. Annie confirms it’s unstable again. It’s been just over 2 weeks since the ablation so it’s still under guarantee. The theory is that this is normal – it will fix itself. The first post-ablation wobble lasted a day and a half. By the time I had the ECG organised it was back to normal. I have to remain positive for myself and Annie and not allow negative thoughts any air time.
The difference between today and yesterday is quite extraordinary. I could be two completely different people. Or myself, perhaps, in 30 years time. It’s important I record these differences; at some point in time someone will have to decide if the ablation has worked or not. I assume frequency and duration of these fluctuations might become part of the equation.
Wednesday morning my heart is steady again. This time the episode lasted 24 hours, which is an improvement on last week. I don’t feel great though – still breathless and it’s not until lunchtime that I consider myself back to normal. Although quite what ‘normal’ means now I’m not sure. I have an appointment in 6 weeks time at the cardiology dept. in MK. I’m hoping by then that the ablation is considered a success and I can stop taking Warfarin and get back on the Voice list again.
Thursday brings a bombshell. News as unexpected as it is unwelcome.
We’re at a Thoracic/respiratory clinic – I was referred back in April by Heart Doctor No.3 who thinks my chest pains and breathing problems are not related to what is going on with my heart. We’re expecting to hear about lung function tests and an exercise programme. Instead the consultant shows us two chest X-rays – one from February the other from the end of April. There’s a shadow on what’s left of my left lung – and it’s increased in size between the two dates.
I’ll have a scan in 2 weeks time – but his initial diagnosis is either Fibrosis resulting from the radiotherapy or “something to do with the original illness”. Come on – don’t mince your words. You mean cancer. We’ll see him again in 4 weeks time to discuss the results and treatment options; “I’m sorry, you’ll just have to be patient.”
We’re both taken aback and can’t respond to the “do you have any questions?” Although by the time we get home we have plenty, the most important being why did no-one spot this sooner? These X-rays were taken when I was admitted with the tachycardia episodes. Perhaps they didn’t know what they were looking for – I recall that it was mentioned in April; “it looks as if you have a chest infection”. For which I was given antibiotics. Let’s hope that’s all it is.
I write the appointment in my dairy in red; Thursday 21st July at 3.40pm. Another turning point. In the meantime we go through that process again of living a parallel life – the one that all people in this situation have to go through – pretending as if nothing has changed just to get through the next four weeks. The reality though, is that everything has changed. Neither outcome is good. It would be so awful to get through cancer only to stumble because of the consequences. Although we talk, it’s clear that there’s an unspoken agreement between us to concentrate on Fibrosis rather than the other possibility.
The British Lung Foundation website suggests trying to combat Fibrosis by keeping as fit as possible; ‘… many people with … lung problems are afraid to exercise’. I have to put my hand up to this. I waste time thinking maybe I could have done something about it – pushed myself harder to do more exercise. Annie is more pragmatic; she’s already picked up leaflets from the hospital – ‘Exercise and the Lungs’ and ‘Pulmonary Rehabilitation’.
It’s late afternoon and the sun is shining when we get home from the hospital so she suggests a bike ride. There’s a lake with a cycle path not far from home – a round trip of just over 6 miles. “We’ll take it easy” she says. As we hit the far side of the lake, the wind hits us. If ‘the wind is our mountains’ we’re now crossing the Alps. But I manage the whole ride without needing to stop. Except at the top of the canal bridge. Annie’s waiting patiently for me. That’s what comes of having a competitive wife.