Well here we are again – another year gone – and seven since this particular journey began. Seven years. Seven years to the day since I first set foot in CancerWorld.
Seven years is a long time – a Biblical timescale (what with plagues and famines and so on). I’ve had my own personal apocalypse; my bowel, liver and lung have been butchered. My veins have been filled with poison and my cells zapped with death rays. All this, in an attempt to stop the spread of this insidious, clever, manipulative, destructive and ultimately heart-breaking disease.
But enough of that – today is a day to celebrate; December 16th 2012 is Special Day Number 7.
‘Special Day’ sounds a bit … well … naff, a bit half-hearted, as if I couldn’t come up with a better name. It’s all about survival; a day for jumping up and down and shouting “I’m a survivor”. It’s as important (if not more important) than a birthday; if it was a Roman general it would be granted a Triumph through the streets of Rome and the crowd would cheer and party like it’s AD99.
But I digress. We are survivors from the moment we’re first diagnosed; from the instant we know we have the disease. Some of us survive longer than others – but we all start from the same point. Although, strictly speaking, I guess we’re survivors from the moment a gang of delinquent cells decide they are not going to conform to the usual model of growing up, settling down, etc, like their parents did, but live in the fast lane, dividing and subdividing like there’s no tomorrow. Which is often how it turns out once they get started down that particular road.
But we can never know that precise moment – unless we are blessed with prescient good (or bad – depends which way you look at it) fortune. For all practical purposes, survival starts the moment the oncologist stops looking at his/her computer, or shuffling papers or whatever it is they do while they think about what they’re going to say, and turns and gives us ‘that look’.
In my own case it wasn’t an oncologist but a colorectal nurse who broke the news, following a colonoscopy. And so I became a cancer survivor on Friday 16th December 2005. Each anniversary is celebrated as something ‘special’ (hence it’s rather unimaginative name). In the early days its passing was marked by a glass (or two) of fizz; lately, in a bid to keep the arrhythmia at bay, it’s been a cup of tea. But very nice tea. With cake. Perhaps rather than Special Day, I should rename December 16th Cake Day.
It’s worth saying again – seven years is a long time.
My early wanderings in CancerWorld were accompanied by a mix of naiveté, ignorance and fear. A new boy at Dotheboys Hall hoping for a Nickelby to rescue me. And now I’m a senior, an old hand – someone who’s seen it all. Or at least a lot of it. The innocence and ignorance have largely gone, replaced by a quiff of nonchalance; the fear though, never quite goes away.
Last December on Special Day Number 6, as I looked to the coming year, I hoped for a ‘new voice’ and a ‘year free of treatment’. The Cancer Fairy must have heard because both those wishes have been granted (more or less – although one shouldn’t really be picky when a fairy grants a wish). I can sing again. Not loudly and not with my previous range – but enough to amuse myself and not embarrass my friends. And enough to warrant a new guitar and engender the idea of performing again in public. It’s not the old voice so it must be a ‘new voice’.
And a few days ago I received a nice letter from the cardiologist; it began ‘Dear Ian ….’. Our relationship has clearly improved somewhat in the past 18 months or so. We got off to a bad start when I was trying to juggle the conflicting demands of repairing my heart and repairing my voice. To recap – in 2011 I was taking Warfarin whilst waiting for a catheter ablation to try and cure atrial flutter (resulting from lung surgery) – at the same time as waiting for a procedure on my voice to deal with a paralysed vocal cord (also resulting from lung surgery). The ENT consultant would not operate on my voice while I was taking Warfarin – and any attempts to stop the drug were met with derision by the cardiologist because he didn’t think the voice procedure was important enough. Or even worthwhile; “I wouldn’t hold out much hope for it being successful.” ¹
Since then we’ve been on a team building exercise, had the mandatory group hug and learned a little about each other. The angry phone calls between him and Annie (because I couldn’t) are all in the past. Now I’ve had the voice procedure, the cardiologist and I are, quite literally, on speaking terms. Writing terms even.
He’s seen the results of my latest ECG. After the formalities he urges me to see my GP as soon as possible to start another course of Warfarin. This is not a temporary measure – this time it’s to be permanent. The catheter ablation apparently cured my atrial flutter, but as often happens in these cases, resulted in atrial fibrillation, which in turn has increased my risk of a stroke. He signs off by looking forward to seeing me in the New Year to discuss ‘my further management’.
All in all, 2012 has turned to be a pretty good year. Right now the hotspot in my abdomen, which grabbed much of the limelight these past few months, appears dormant. The heart continues to beat, albeit in a somewhat haphazard fashion. And the voice – though not what it was – is better than expected. So thank you to all the medics and nurses and secretaries and the unknown, unseen people who got me to this particular anniversary. For the coming year I’ll go further than a ‘year free of treatment’ and hope for a year free of cancer. Are you listening Cancer Fairy?
I also want to say thank you to you – the person on the other side of this screen, reading my thoughts, fears and hopes. You make a difference. Some of you are personal friends and some are virtual friends – although we’ve never met, we’ve exchanged emails over the years because this poxy disease has brought us together.
The statistics page on this website shows me that there are far more anonymous readers than those I know (personally or otherwise). Apart from friends and family who have signed up for an alert each time a new post is published, the majority of readers (or visitors) have simply stumbled across this place by virtue of a particular word or phrase they just happened to type into a search engine. The most common search term is ‘bikes’ followed by ‘posterior chink’ and then ‘atrial fibrillation’. I wonder what they think when they look for information on say, a Specialized road bike, and end up here. I can’t recall a single entry to do with cancer. And no one has entered ‘bikes+posterior chink’. Although I Googled it just now and this blog was the first entry.
The statistics page not only tells me how many people are reading each post, but also where they are from. The geographical spread is quite amazing; (in alphabetical order) Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Ireland, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Paraguay, Philippines, Poland, Romania, Russian Federation, Serbia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Syrian Arab Republic, Taiwan, Turkey, UK, Ukraine, USA, Vietnam.
This global connection reminds me that the world can sometimes seem a sad, bad place. But for every atrocity or appalling act of greed or selfishness there is heroism, generosity and hope. And the greatest of these is Hope.
I wrote about this place in the summer². It’s Monument Valley, Arizona, just before sunrise.
Dawn has symbolic meaning in many cultures; rebirth, hope; a fresh start. For me, it sums up the spirit of this special day. It’s hard to put into words without sounding trite or clichéd – but I feel as if I’ve been given another chance – and in the chaos of everyday life I sometimes lose sight of that. Celebrating today reminds me how lucky I am.
I tip my hat to all of you reading this and to all members of the great cancer family,whoever you are and wherever you are. If you have a drink handy, a toast; “Slangevar”³ as my Scottish mother used to say (before she gave up alcohol one Christmas, following an unfortunate incident with a goose and a glass of sherry.)