It’s been three long months. Good months and bad months. I can hardly remember a more turbulent period of highs and lows in my life – at least not since I was a teenager. Annie’s not immune from the roller coaster of emotions either. Her beloved younger brother Rob is poorly – his cancer has now spread to his bones. Her eldest son Chris has had CT and MRI scans because of an injury playing rugby and her youngest, Dan, phoned from Cambodia to say he was not coming home this month as hoped, but moving on to Australia for a couple of years. And then there’s me. All the men in her life are causing her heartache.
We managed to escape all this for a while and had a good couple of weeks in France, particularly in the South. The most taxing problem we had to deal with was “where shall we eat tonight?” On our return Annie took her crowbar¹ to the kitchen and what started out as an “I’ll just take these shelves down…” has turned into a work of epic proportions involving a cast of builders, plasterers and electricians. And us. I say ‘us’ – it’s more her than me really. She is turning our kitchen and dining room into one large room. At the time of writing we have nowhere to cook and nowhere to eat, just piles of rubble. And we can expect it to be like this for another 6 weeks or so.
I stand back because I can see it has therapeutic value – every yank of the crowbar or whack of the hammer is a blow against the things that are causing her distress. I also stand back because I have to; I’m struggling to keep up. It takes me a day to do what I could once have done in a couple of hours. After one session of lifting worktops (I now know that a 2 metre long laminate worktop weighs 30kgs) I’m nauseous and my heart goes into overdrive. Each time I try to eat I feel sick. This general malaise lasts a week and I see my GP; he thinks my stomach is making too much acid for some reason and prescribes a proton-pump inhibitor; “Perhaps you’re overdoing it.”
So while Annie wields her weapon of choice, I sit and wait (…. while an Angel, contemplates my fate….²).
I think I’m more anxious/scared this time than on previous occasions, though I’ve probably said this before. I’ve really stared into the abyss – no – climbed down, had a good poke around with a pointy stick, examined the horrors in the minutest detail, imaging that my fate would be to be stuck here forever. With each ache and pain in my arms and legs and back, I think of Rob and convince myself that my cancer has returned. And yet …
…. the human spirit (or whatever it might be), as it has done so many times over these past 6 or so years, confounds me, by lifting me out of this gloom. There have been times over the past three months when I’ve never felt happier in my life. And these snapshots of pure joy come in the strangest of places.
Standing in the plumbing section of B&Q looking at sink wastes (I’m fitting a new sink in the utility room) I’m overcome with happiness – I just want to sing and dance – simply because I am here, doing something so ordinary, something that so many people do all the time without a second thought. And a few weeks ago whilst driving through southern France, we cross the Millau Viaduct – the shear audacity of building such a thing would surely lift anyone’s flagging spirits. But that’s not the best part; a little later, at the visitors centre, I’m sitting in the sun with Annie, a coffee and a slice of something made of chocolate and pastry – and I’m thinking ‘this is the life’. And it is the life. Never underestimate the power of the ordinary.
And so now we get to it. No Angel of Death! Instead we see the nice professor of clinical oncology who we met a year ago. He cuts to the chase – the scan is clear. It hasn’t changed in 3 months so the consensus is that it’s probably benign. He doesn’t know what it is. He suggests it could be a remnant from surgery “your body has been through so much in the past few years.” (So why did it only show up in the summer? – oops – forgot to ask that question).
He’s incredibly understanding and helpful. And a good listener. I explain what’s been going on in our lives over the past 3 months. He acknowledges that this has been an extremely anxious time for both of us and does his best to reassure. He draws a graph showing the probability of recurrence of cancer over time. It peaks at 1 year after treatment (i.e., the greatest probability of the cancer returning happens in the 1st year) and then the chances of recurrence decrease with each passing year. It looks something like this:
It’s been almost 2½ years since the lung resection; “You’re over the top now and that’s good.” Annie points out that we’d almost got to the bottom in 2010 when the cancer returned. He nods; “we reset the clock each time. You’re well on the way back down again.” So now it’s just routine scans every 6 months for the next 3 years.
He spends some time talking about the heart; it transpires that the cardiologist has written to Oxford expressing concern about the clotted stump³, suggesting I may need to go back on warfarin and wants to know if this would be a problem for them. No – as it turns out it’s just a problem for me; “We have no objection. I know warfarin is a real pain, but I don’t think you have any choice – the fact that you are experiencing AF so frequently increases your risk of a stroke.”
OK – but what about the nausea, the aches and pains? He puts it down to the following; (i) anxiety, (ii) overdoing it in the house and (iii) – perhaps the real killer – “you’re not as young as you used to be”. I hear a snigger next to me. And with that it’s all over.
As we walk back to the car park I confess to Annie that I really thought the cancer had returned. “Do you think I haven’t thought that too?” She smiles and says this is one of those moments when we should do a leap in the air and kick our heels together; “Like they do in cartoons”. I haven’t the energy but get the idea. She tries, but two weeks of wielding a crowbar have finally caught up with her. If she’d managed it would look something like this: