Thursday, 23 February 2017

Appointment with the Oncologist

The Cancer Centre has self check-in. You input your sex and date of birth at a terminal and the system puts your details on the screen. You confirm them and your appointment appears on the screen. You confirm it and a ticket is printed with your number at the bottom. You take the ticket and go into the large waiting room and find a seat. It has comfy chairs. But the people there are not sitting easily.

No-one makes eye contact and hardly anyone is speaking. Most people are sitting blankly, staring at the panel on the wall which scrolls through the list of the consultants in the clinic today and the average waiting time for each. Then a number flashes onto the screen and a voice says ‘will patient number x please go to room y.’ All the patients in the waiting room glance at their tickets. Someone gets up and enters through the double doors that are opened by a push button at the side.

I wait for about twenty minutes, and I am called. Beyond the double doors is a white hospital corridor with a series of numbered rooms with closed blue doors. A slim young woman about half my age is standing outside the door that I have been called to. I haven’t seen her before. She introduces herself as my consultant’s registrar, escorts me into the room and asks me to sit beside the desk. An even younger man with a wispy beard is sitting in the corner. She says he is a fourth-year medical student and asks me if I mind him sitting in on our review meeting. I give a weak smile and say that I don’t mind.

‘How are you feeling?’ says the registrar.
‘Okay,’ I say, sitting stiffly in the chair. ‘I’m just over a bad cold.’
She nods and glances at a file on her desk. ‘Well, your interval scan shows no appreciable change.’
I gulp. ‘So there’s nothing sinister been found?’
‘No,’ she smiles, ‘not at all’.
‘That’s great’. I sigh and notice that my hands are clutching the arms of the chair.
‘It’s much the same as last time,’ she says.
‘Thank you.’ I smile and begin to relax my grip.

I ask for a copy of the scan report and she prints one off. I read through it and ask questions about statements I don’t understand. She explains the medical language to me. Apparently I have a gallstone. But don’t worry, she says, many people have them and they don’t cause any trouble at all. And I have an enlarged prostate. But that’s also normal for someone of my age, she tells me.

I finish my questions and she asks to examine me. I take my top half off and lie on my back on a paper covered couch behind a screen. She places one hand on top of the other and presses them into different parts of my abdomen whilst looking intently at my face. I feel no pain and tell her that I only have twinges when I use my abdominal muscles to sit up. The medical student watches from the end of the couch. She asks me to sit up. I lever myself up with my arms. She takes the stethoscope and listens to my lungs. Then she stands behind me and feels around my neck and under my chin.

That’s all fine, she says, you can get dressed now. They leave me behind the screen. When I come out, she is sitting at the desk looking at my file. The medical student is back on his chair in the corner. I return to my seat beside the desk. She looks up and tells me that I will be scanned again in three months time. I thank her. I explain that had been worrying that they might extend the interval this time. We’ll keep a close eye on you for the first year, she says.

I thank her again and leave. Out in the waiting room, the fear in the faces that are staring at the screen is plain to see. I wonder if they can see the relief in mine.

Friday, 17 February 2017


The name for a person undergoing medical treatment is a patient. This is well chosen, for most of the time you are waiting and worrying. You wait for a scan to check whether the cancer has returned. Then you wait for a review meeting with the consultant to hear the results of the scan and to decide what the next step in your treatment will be. I had my CT scan last week and I meet the consultant next week. In the time in-between you feel that your life has been paused.

You try and cope with this anxious waiting by only thinking ‘one day at a time’. Or when the stress is particularly bad, you break it down even further and only think - one morning, afternoon, evening and night at a time. The date of the next event in your treatment becomes the objective. You do your best to get there as unscathed as you can. And only then can you allow yourself to think beyond it.

Family and friends ask normal questions like – what are you doing for Easter? And you can’t really answer because that is so far in the future, well beyond your next treatment date. If they ask – why? Do you say that your life could have changed before then because you might have heard that the disease had come back? And Easter would become irrelevant.

The in-between feels like treading water in a stormy sea. You are desperately trying to keep your head above water. You are spluttering and gasping. You are looking from side to side, trying to sight land. The sea sways and foams around you as far as you can see. Your feet and arms keep thrashing. You are in a sort of suspended animation. Time passes slow and fast. Your past and a whole host of possible futures spin before you. You blink and gasp. The sea sways on.

Sleep is often broken and unrefreshing. Sometimes I wake more tired than when I went to bed. The night is filled with exhausting dreams. Before the scan, my dreams were filled with strange episodes in which I would end up being stabbed or bitten. I woke up clutching my wounds. Since the scan, my dreams have been filled with surreal episodes in which family and friends have been haphazardly put together in bizarre circumstances. I wonder if I am working through a jumble of odd memories and characters from my past.

I don’t know what I would do without T. She is my bedrock, my trusty companion on this awful journey. Despite her own stresses, she usually finds a cheerful word or a hug to help me come out from my watery sojourn. I hold her hand and, with a sigh of relief, step onto solid ground for a while.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Surveillance and Surgery

I have a cancer surveillance CT scan next week. This will be the second scan since my recent surgery to remove a tumour. The first scan in November was, thankfully, clear. The second is worrying because any cancer cells that may have been left behind by the procedure have had time to grow and are likely to show up on the scan. My fingers and toes are crossed. Although, whatever happens, I know I’m going to end up back in hospital.

If I get the all clear, as I fervently hope, I will then be scheduled for surgery to repair a problem that was caused by the very major surgery I had in 2011. This opened me up from neck to groin and a very dangerous tumour that had grown from my left kidney into my vena cava and almost as far as my heart was safely removed. The surgery involved three teams of surgeons, took seven hours and I had three blood transfusions. It saved my life but a mistake made by one of the surgeons left me with a problem, a hole in my diaphragm on the left side. Since then my stomach has become embedded in my diaphragm and has been pressing onto my left lung.

Due to the dangerous nature of the tumour, I was told that I had only a 30% chance of surviving the first couple of years. On top of that, it was a very difficult and slow recovery, physically and emotionally, from the big operation. I was certainly not ready to have more surgery to repair the hernia. And by the end of those oppressive two years I had become used to managing the hernia problem. Years of running and mountaineering had left me with strong lungs, so only having the use of one and a half lungs meant that I was still capable of many activities. I also learned that I mustn’t try and combine eating with doing any activity, as a filled stomach severely handicapped my breathing.

Then I developed late-onset asthma. My pulmonary specialist’s theory was that I had always had very mild asthma, which was masked by my high level of fitness. And my asthma had become exacerbated by my lung being under stress due to the hernia. I began to use inhalers and again adapted to this limitation. Then I talked to a thoracic surgeon about the repair of the diaphragmatic hernia. He explained that this was major surgery, my ribs would be split open on the left side and the stomach delicately cut away from its attachments to the diaphragm, then the diaphragm would be repaired with a polypropylene mesh. I would need around ten days in hospital, followed by three pretty painful months of recovery.

I was mulling over this uninviting option when I had the first of my cancer recurrences, eighteen months ago. The hernia repair was put on the back burner whilst I had the first abdominal surgery to remove the tumour. In hospital my left lung collapsed due the overinflation of my stomach which pushed up through the hole in the diaphragm like a balloon and compressed the left lung. I was told I must have the hernia repaired as soon as I had recovered from the abdominal surgery.

But, last June, at the point of being scheduled for the thoracic surgery, I had my second post-surgical cancer surveillance scan. This showed that the tumour had regrown from the same site. I then went in for more abdominal surgery to remove the tumour and had another lung collapse. Late last year I met the thoracic surgeon again and agreed to have the surgery to repair the hernia.

If my scan is all clear, I will soon be going in to the Royal Victoria Hospital for major surgery. If it is not, then I will be going in for whatever treatment is required. It is a time of great anxiety and poor sleep. I seem to have regular nightmares in which I am being stabbed or bitten. It’s not easy for either of us. We go forward one day at a time.

Monday, 23 January 2017


The news over the past week has been dominated by stories of abuse. Internationally, much space has been given to the tyrannical abuses of power of the new President of the USA. Locally, much space has been given to the corrupt abuses of power in the Renewable Heating Initiative, a scandal which precipitated the fall of the devolved government of NI. Both of these matters remain high on the news agenda and are sure to run and run. But only passing attention has been given to news of much greater abuse suffered by more vulnerable victims. On Friday, the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry reported that there had been widespread physical, emotional and sexual abuse in children’s homes in NI, taking place over decades. Today this story is nowhere to be seen on the news agenda. The rapid public forgetting of this inconvenient truth is a scandal in itself.

For three years the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry of NI took evidence from almost five hundred former residents of children’s homes in NI run by churches, charities, local authorities and the state. It investigated these homes over a period of seventy years. The survivors that came forward to tell the Inquiry their stories are to be applauded for their bravery. Not only had they suffered prolonged physical, emotional and sexual abuse from adults who were placed in positions of trust and responsibility for them, but when they plucked up the courage to tell other adults in authority of their suffering, they were not believed.

Those in authority either returned the children into the charge of the abuser that they had just complained about, condemning them to suffer further abuse; or moved the abuser to another position of trust and responsibility in another institution, enabling them to continue their abusing behaviour.  As has been seen in the findings of similar Inquiries in other places, the pattern of behaviour of the authorities in these matters continues to be one of denial and cover up.

Many of the survivors were frail and ill, testament to the extended suffering that they had received. Some were so unwell that they were unable to give evidence to the Inquiry in person. A number have died since the Inquiry began. The most complained about institutions were run by the Catholic Church, and in particular those run by the Sisters of Nazareth. Now that their misdeeds have been publicly exposed, the institutions involved have issued apologies. But surely this is far too little and much too late.

The Inquiry has recommended the payment of compensation to these abuse victims. But how do you compensate someone for a tortured childhood and a haunted adulthood? Survivors are not able to live their lives over again. They were forced to experience the unendurable, and found a way to live through it. Many victims did not survive to tell their stories. Can you put a price on survival?  

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

La Gomera

T and I have just returned from a lovely New Year break. I must admit I had been wary of going to the Canaries due to their reputation as the winter Costa del Brit: sunburn, fish and chips, the pub and never miss an episode of your favourite TV programmes. But La Gomera is one of the smaller islands and is not developed for mass tourism. It became a hippy hideaway in the 1970’s and still has a little of that atmosphere. There is only one large hotel and we were staying in it.

As the island doesn’t have an airport that can take large passenger planes, you fly to Tenerife Sur, transfer to Los Cristinanos Port and take a large ferry for an hour. Then the journey gets really interesting. The island is an old volcano, which has eroded into deep ravines separated by narrow ridges. There are few roads and all of them zigzag up from sea level to the centre of the island at almost 5000 feet, and then drop down, through precipitous hairpins, to your destination along the coast.

The style of Hotel Jardin Tecina would be familiar to fans of the ‘The Prisoner’, filmed at Portmerion, Clough William-Elllis’s fantasy Mediterranean village in North Wales. It had a jumble of whitewashed houses with terracotta tiled roofs set amid tropical botanical gardens connected by a maze of ochre paths that ranged across a clifftop. Our balcony looked out on purple bouganvilla, an African tulip tree with canaries singing amongst its orange flowers, a banana plantation, the shimmering sea and Mt Teide with white clouds at its summit. But unlike Patrick McGoohan, you would not be seeking to escape, just wishing you had booked another week.

The food was mostly home grown and organic. There was a huge breakfast buffet, we overdosed on tropical fruits, particularly papaya, and coconut yoghourt topped off with dark palm syrup. There were chefs who would make you omelettes or crepes and a station where you could make up your own tea mixture from a range of exotic jars. There was pretty much everything you could want spread before you, from cold cuts, cheese and salad to fried potatoes, bacon and eggs. In the evening the buffet was filled again, this time with salads, fresh fish, vegetables, meat and exotic desserts. It was not a good place for anyone on a diet.

We wandered the large hotel site and went swimming in the saltwater pool beside the black stone beach that you accessed via a lift that descended through the cliff face. We visited the local village and walked though the banana plantation to the next rocky bay where several old campervans resided and a couple of young hippies lived in a cave. The weather remained warm, from 21 to 25 degrees, and it only rained for a couple of hours one morning.

For several days we rented a car, a small Fiat that struggled to ascend the steep hills but was light and manoeuvrable on the switchback descents. The centre of the island is covered in a unique laurel forest, the trees are densely packed together and hang with moss; when clouds roll in they extract moisture from the air. After the island was settled by the Spanish, some 500 years ago, this water was transported to terraces on the sides of the high ridges where wheat and barley were grown. These days many of the high terraces have been abandoned and root vegetables and palm trees are cultivated instead.

The Spanish killed off or enslaved the original inhabitants who had been there since Neolithic times and were North African in origin. They worshipped the mountains as deities and built stone circles and court tombs on the peaks but were no match for conquistadores with guns and Christianity. Yet they left their mark, having originated a unique whistling language that is still used today to communicate in the mountains. And almost fifty percent of contemporary Gomerans have Berber in their genes.

Our time on La Gomera was bookended by two festivals. First was the hotel’s magnificent Gala New Year Dinner: a six course extravaganza with free champagne and table wine with dancing to follow. In Spain it is considered good luck to eat a grape for each of the twelve bongs of midnight. But we were so happily replete that we could only manage a couple each. Feliz Anno Nuevo.

On our last full day we drove to San Sebastian to see the Cavalcade of the Three Kings. A large crowd of parents and children in their Sunday best had assembled outside of the small stone cathedral. In Spain children get presents from the Magi on January 6th. They put their shoes by the door, so the Magi will know how many children live at that house, and leave some food for them and for their camels. If the children have been good they will get a present, if not they will get a piece of coal.

We waited and waited, the children got more and more excited. Then in the distance the sound of a brass band and the swaying of something red, could there be camels? The anticipation intensified further. At last, into the small square paraded a school brass band. Everyone applauded. After them an entourage of young women dressed Arabian style with full veils carrying red flags. And behind them strode the first king: a young man with golden robes and crown, long white wig and beard, behind him came another young man in purples robes carrying a silver casket. They waved and walked around shaking hands.

Next came Micky and Minnie Mouse, then another king with their entourage, followed by Spongebob Squarepants and a Minion. After the third king came Mike from Monsters Inc and Phineas Flynn. I think the cartoon characters got more applause than the Magi. Finally into the square came an ogre with a large list of childrens names and an assistant pushing a trolley full of coal. The ogre growled and pointed to his list of names, the children howled and shook their heads. The Magi appeared for a curtain call then went into the cathedral.

We left early the next morning, already plotting our return. Somewhere on the journey back, probably on the plane, I picked up a stomach bug. So the only blot on a lovely week was to spend the first few days at home in bed with a temperature and the runs.

The village below the hotel

Thursday, 29 December 2016


I hope you all have had a lovely Christmas. And if it hasn't been lovely, I hope it hasn't been too difficult. I know exactly how it feels not to have a happy Christmas. Indeed, last year I was in hospital after major abdominal surgery.

This year T and I have had a very happy and relaxed time at home. We ate duck, turkey and gammon with chestnut stuffing. We drank mulled wine and champagne. We scoffed mince pies, Christmas cake, Baklava, dates, chocolate and nuts. We sat around our large tree and enjoyed plenty of good presents from family, friends and neighbours. And we slept in, often not rising until noon.

It has been a time of indulgence and celebration: giving thanks that I am not where I was a year ago; giving thanks that I have come through two recurrences of my cancer.

In-between all the sleeping, eating and relaxing we managed a few local walks, giving Rex, the farm dog, a present of extra biscuits. He was happy to see us, as usual, and rolled over in the farmyard to get his throat, ears and belly rubbed.

We got so relaxed that we almost forgot that we were going away for Hogmanay. So we have been frantically packing.

Wishing you and yours a healthy and fruitful New Year.

I'm wishing for a cancer free 2017.

Paul xxx

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Dear Friends,

Thank you for following my blog. Your support and encouragement has made a real difference to what has been a very difficult year for me.

As you may recall, after four years of being all clear I had a recurrence of my cancer and this time last year I was admitted for major abdominal surgery. Due to some complications I ended up staying in hospital until Boxing Day. T decorated my bed with Xmas lights and tinsel, the nurses called it Santa’s Grotto!

Unfortunately, they didn’t remove all of the bad cells and six months later the tumour had regrown in the same place. In early September I went back into hospital for more surgery and have been recovering well since. I had a scan a month ago and that was all clear, but you need a series of them to be sure.

T and I have exchanged rings and have set up home together. She has been great throughout these hard times. I don’t know what I would do without her.

While recuperating from the two periods in hospital, I’ve continued to write poetry and my weekly blog. I’ve also managed to become active again, walking and cycling regularly. And I’ve rejoined the Sing for Life choir.

I very much hope your troubles have been few.

Wishing you and yours all the very best for Xmas and the New Year.

Paul xxx