It starts with my pal Big Al; “what’s your pain threshold like?” He knows someone who had to stop the procedure halfway through because it was just too much. Then another friend, Grace, chips in; “it can’t be worse than childbirth. Just remember to breathe in for 4 and out for 8”. Whoever first said, “it is better to give than to receive” had not thought this through when it comes to advice.
The hospital sends a helpful leaflet explaining that a cystoscopy is a ‘relatively painless process’. Like dysfunctional family weddings, it’s the ‘relative’ bit that always causes trouble.
Al comes over all philosophical. Like John Wayne in Stagecoach, and with a tear in his eye (I can’t decide if from shared experience or laughter) he says, “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” Or something along those lines. I’m still grappling with the idea of John Wayne as an existentialist when it’s time to go. He’s right of course and with Annie prodding me in the back with a pointy stick, I square my shoulders and stride manfully into the hospital, reserving my best smile for the camera.
“We meet again”. While I sign the consent form he explains the procedure; “we’ll do this quickly – it’s probably overkill, but I just want to make sure”. As I follow him into the cystoscopy suite I can’t help wondering how doctors choose their specialism. I can see the appeal of the more glamorous – or rather, what are considered more challenging fields – like brain surgery. Indeed, we often use ‘brain surgeon’ as a metaphor for superior intellect. But who would choose to become an urologist? Why? What was going through their mind when they ticked that particular box at med school?
I lay on the bed dressed in the ubiquitous hospital gown – and as a concession to the cold floor – I’m advised to keep my socks on. The shame of it. The world is divided into two sorts of men – those who wear socks with shorts and those who don’t. I’m a no-sock man, so imagine my discomfort at this particular combination.
I am extremely nervous, Big Al’s words hanging heavy on my mind. Two nurses hover round the bed. One distracts me with innocuous comments about the weather while the other suddenly whips the bottom of the gown away. Are there no humiliations left? Cold gel is applied to my nether regions and it begins. He is incredibly quick – and it’s not as painful as I imagined. But it is very uncomfortable. And then it’s over. He utters the magic words; “your bladder is fine – I don’t need to see you again”. I don’t know if I really believed that I might have cancer of the bladder; my head is just a mess of different conditions and diagnoses at the moment. I’ll have a good Spring clean sometime.
I hobble back to the car – now it hurts. OMG; this is really something else. I guess anyone who’s passed a stone or had cystitis will know the feeling. I haven’t – so this is new one on me. Forget all those ‘100 things to do before you die’ lists. I’m going to start a new one; ‘100 procedures to have before you die’. Cystoscopy – tick.
It’s been a week now, but I think it fair to say that the voice procedure has not worked. Or rather – has not worked to the extent that I could appear on a talent show confident of walking away with the prize for best Ethel Merman impression. Or any competition for that matter, that requires speaking out loud. There may be a slight improvement but I can’t detect it. Annie hears “no discernable difference”. Others might though. Particularly those who want to.
A piece on the BBC news today about optimism; the brain filters out bad news and keeps us optimistic. I don’t particularly see myself as an optimist – and I’m not alone in that. Researchers report that “80% of people were optimists, even if they would not label themselves as such”. I’ll buy that. It’s the only way I can explain my behaviour over the past 5 years. There are days when I could land the part of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – “it’s only a flesh wound”.
We keep going in the face of all sorts of adversity because the brain lulls us into a false sense of security. I see evidence of this each day that I cycle to work. I wrote previously (The wind is our mountains, June 24th 2011.) about a bridge I have to cross and how difficult it becomes on the way home, in the face of the prevailing Westerly. From my office window I see the trees bowed and humbled by the wind. The evidence is there before my eyes. And yet, as I set off – I always image that as I approach the bridge, the wind will have miraculously changed direction. It never does – and I never stop imagining that it might.
There must be some evolutionary benefit to this behaviour, but it has a downside – we tend to underestimate risk. The researchers also suggest that ‘smoking kills’ messages don’t work because people think their own chances of getting cancer are low.
And likewise, I continue to think that eventually my voice will be sorted out. I’ve seen evidence that shows, for a lot of people with vocal palsy, these procedures simply don’t work. But like the smokers – I assume it doesn’t apply in my case. Is it optimism or naïveté? I guess it doesn’t matter – my brain is telling me it will be so.
The new procedure was the not the pain-free option I first assumed it to be. The effects of sticking a needle in my throat became apparent after about three days. But the spirit of the Black Knight (who just happened to bump into Oliver Twist) prevails. I put my hand out; “Please Sir, I want some more.” A man really does have to do what a man has to do – the brain says so.