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It’s been a long time between visits…
This month it was back to my old, familiar haunt, The Royal Marsden Hospital – a place of fear and wonder. Fear because any patient or visitor to this venerable institution is there because they or someone close to them is suffering or has suffered from cancer. Wonder because the incredible medical team here has saved many lives and prolonged countless more.
Certainly it saved mine and my great oncologist Professor David Cunningham and his team seem hell-bent on prolonging it well into the future.
Like all those who have gone through cancer treatment and come out the other side, I am now subject to rigorous six-monthly tests (CT scans and blood) to monitor the possible return of the disease. Such a process is arguably a greater psychological challenge than a physical one. The verdict is almost gladiatorial in its finality – it’s either thumbs up or thumbs down, there’s no middle ground. But it’s better, way better, than the alternative.
I have spoken to many cancer ‘survivors’. All have different ways of dealing with these periodic revisits to a stage of their lives they would rather forget. Some manage to block it out entirely until the very moment they enter the hospital; others enter a state of anxiety for several weeks beforehand. All tell me that it gets easier with time.
So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut’s constant refrain ran in Slaughterhouse 5. So it goes. Five years is the closest the medics will give you to a finishing line. Get to that point and you’re in pretty good shape, not ‘cured’ but in full remission. Each six-monthly all-clear is a major step along the way.
Me? I tend to adopt the same preparation technique that I chose the night before I had my stomach removed. On that occasion it was a 1996 Chateau Palmer (rated 100 out of 100 by great US wine critic Robert Parker) that was kindly given to me by DFS’s Andrew Ford. Accompanied by the biggest T-bone steak that money could buy, I drank the whole bottle, figuring that with seven hours under the knife the next day I would be able to sleep off the hangover.
My budget doesn’t run to Palmer but a gloriously velvety Shottesbrooke Shiraz from Australia accompanied by a Partagas No 4 cigar had just about the same relaxant effect. Test? What test? I’m not sure though that the Marsden would approve.
I’ve been told the first two years are the danger ones, the period when recurrence is most likely. To date it’s a case of so far, so good. My first green light was on 1 April but it was no April Fool’s. Back then, battered by chemotherapy and the effects of a full gastrectomy, all I felt was relief. Excitement and delight had become strangers.
This time round it was different. The news, again, was good. Very good. Not only was my cancer nowhere to be seen but perhaps even more remarkably after one month spent in New Zealand during the Rugby World Cup my liver function was normal…
“We don’t see many people like you,” my Oncologist noted, pointing out that only 25% of patients with my type of aggressive gastric/ oesophageal cancer make it. Understandably, they weren’t odds that he was prepared to share with me earlier. That put many things in context, not just the struggle but also the profound privilege of being alive. Work crises no longer seem so bad, simple pleasures are the best, and experiences matter far more than material things.
I look back on my Blog from last year with a strange sense of unreality. On 24 June 2010 when I revealed to readers what was happening, I wrote: “It is my absolute conviction that I will emerge from this period in my life strengthened both physically and spiritually.”
Did I really have such belief? Or was it blind optimism? Did all those things really happen to me? Was I really that gaunt, skeletal figure (below) just a few months ago when I feel so healthy today? Yes and yes are the answers and much as one would like to, one should never, ever forget such times.
[With Clive Carpenter, January 2011]
For with survival comes not just relief but responsibility. Responsibility to be there for others who fall ill, responsibility for helping raise funds for and awareness of cancer-related causes (my favourite is Cancer Research UK – www.cancerresearchuk.org – but there are many others).
This disease is a brute, a bully and a blight on our society. But it can be stood up to. I suppose I am living proof of that and, you know, this time round my feeling is not of relief but of euphoria. Life is for living. Never, ever forget it.