One down five to go

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Yesterday marked a whole week of radiotherapy/chemotherapy. With the build-up, the dread and the various tales of what might or might not happen, I’d expected something worse. I have a long way to go, yes, but while it’s not pleasant, overall I feel – here it comes – positive about it. Dad and I have got into a kind of routine where he drops Bun and I off on the moors, goes to do the shopping, gets his papers and returns to collect us. We then do our Derriford stint.

The timing of everything seems inordinately complicated, to the point where I’m considering volunteering the problem as a SATs question for 6 year olds. But how much is due to my still slightly less than agile brain? I have to take my usual meds, which include the steroid, early. For these I need some food so I have toast and tea. I have to take the Temozolomide one hour before the radiotherapy starts because its role is to render the cancer cells more vulnerable to the radiation. The radiotherapy time varies between late morning and mid afternoon, and is planned to the minute. So I take the T on the five minutes before the hour, because by the time I’ve opened the four little sachets a couple of minutes have passed.

Now, I must also take the T on an empty stomach, which means at least two hours before the last food (which includes drinks with milk and so on, though water is fine I think). So when Dad offers me shortbread, I’m not supposed to eat it… ooops. I must also not eat or drink tea for one hour after I’ve taken the T. Oh, and then there’s the ondansetron. The T makes me feel quite nauseous in a stomach-churning way. So I take ondansetron thirty minutes before the T.

Yesterday, Dad and I had a plan involving going into oncology early so I could have my weekly bloods taken (reading up on this, there’s a point called the nadir when blood counts, and thus resistance to infection are lowest, and this is from 7 – 10 days). So I’ll take the T en route, grab my ticket, get the bloods done, and we’ll dash off to B&Q to pick up a few bits including the paint for my front door which my brother Dave is going to paint for me. Then we’ll return for rads at 1.38.

I open my sachets as we pass Runway Road, and promptly drop a capsule which slips between the sachet and my mouth as I hold my water bottle up to wash it down.

Stop! I’ve dropped one! Dad obeys, and the water slaps from the water bottle over my face and down my front. We stop in the bus stop but I can’t find the capsule. It’s not on the floor, it’s not in my scarf, or hiding in the folds of my coat, or by the side of the seat, or under the mat.

In your bag? Says Dad? I must admit that very many lost items show up in my bag, including swimsuits and elderly bananas. So I empty it – and yes, there it is, a glimpse of lemon yellow, nestling right at the bottom in the seam. I yam it fast with the remaining dribble of water.

We arrive at 12.25. I grab my ticket, number 22 for bloods, and 21 is on the display so things are looking up. Fifteen minutes passes. No change. Do I ask? I know they have other things to do, and maybe there’s a problem. So I wait. It’s now 1250, and they close for an hour from 1-2. The phlebotomist appears and places the bag over the ticket machine – so I tell her I’ve been waiting – oh I didn’t know you were here I was looking for 21 and they’d gone! I’ve been restocking, you could have come in straight away! Drat. My veins are still missing on the right.

So, bloods done, Dad and I race to B&Q at 1. I choose the paint colour (I was torn between a lovely bright turquoise, a burnt orange and pink, but plumped for the pink – I have standards to maintain). I leave my request at the paint mixing counter and we dash off for the rads…except there’s a complete jam outside and we can’t get out of the car-park.

Finally we creep onto the road with minutes to spare, and I make it through the doors at 1.36. The minute I check in with my barcode I get called and wander down to the waiting area, stopping for a wee on the way – I don’t want to be uncomfortable. I’m getting to know some of the faces in the oncology waiting area, and wonder at the constitution of the waste products being flushed down these toilets. Not much can be alive in the sewers beneath Derriford; the recent research that mentions the amounts of medication finding its way into the water supply via excretion have nothing on this cocktail. These must be among the most toxic toilets in christendom.

Having wondered about the type of tree in the ceiling light panel of the radiotherapy room, I have noticed that each radiotherapy treatment area is named for a tree. Mine is Acer. There’s my clue then. On the wall by the tiny waiting space is a series of oak plaques carved with a poem. It’s taken me five days to decipher with the odd fluorescent light casting shadows in the wrong places, but I rather like it. There’s also a second hand book shop run by POOCH, a fundraising charity founded by a local man I know called Dave Hocking.

I’m getting to know my radiographers now, and we chat about this and that. I know exactly where to put my bum on the gel pad (much closer to the head than you’d think), and I know when I’m central, and which part of my neck needs to press into the rest, and the angle to place my nose and chin so the mask clamps without pressing. As one of them said, correct positioning is as much about me knowing it’s comfortable as it is about them measuring and lining up. The mask clamps, I wiggle my head slightly, there are some minor adjustments as they check either side, everyone except me leaves the room and we’re off.

I tend to close my eyes for the first minute or so, then once I feel okay with the pressure of the mask, I open them. The circular head of the machine begins overhead, then moves across and the imaging plates appear to the sides. This is the checking and lining up phase as far as I can work out. It’s similar to the feeling I get while sitting in my rocking chair at home, when people passing on the bridleway peer in through the sitting room window. Some even shade their eyes to get a better look.

Then the whirring starts. There’s a clunk and a jerk as the slab I’m on moves into position. At this point there’s nothing in front of me beyond the blurry bone-coloured plastic and the dark ceiling; in my peripheral vision to the right appears the machine head, like a sun rising. Pure 60s sci-fi, ominous, detached yet intrusive. When you feel someone’s eyes boring into your skull, this is the physical manifestation of how that feels, being probed by an alien you can’t quite see.

The machine head swings over the top, close to my face. The central area, glass-covered and framed by white plastic, turns. The machine head moves to the left, tilts on its axis, then begins to swing across and back to the right. The beep comes, and then a sound like a dying wasp trapped in a glass. This is the sound of the radiation, the particles being accelerated perhaps. I can feel it, a slight tingle that oscillates with the frequency of the wasp sound. All the while the dishwasher whirr continues in the background. There’s another beep, and the machine returns from right to left, tilting and stopping just above my left temple. Then it’s back to the middle, the machine staring straight at me from a foot above my face. There are some holes, some grey plastic parts. The reflections hide much. A blank, empty stare. What’s it thinking? The radiographer reappears, unclamps the mask, and I wait for the head to be raised so I can sit. All done. It’s taken maybe 20 minutes in total.

We return to B&Q, but not before I’ve eaten a rather nice fruit scone and then a Crank’s egg and salsa wrap from the oncology café. At this time of day I’m always hungry, and able to eat. Later on, I start to feel yeuch and eating isn’t an option. At the weekend with just the T and no rads, I felt slightly less nauseous. I’m unsure how much is T and how much is rads, but I think there’s a definite effect from the rads. I’ve taken to eating around 8, having popped an ondansetron a bit beforehand.

After three or four sessions in Acer my scalp is becoming sore, and I can feel some heat on both sides. The scar is reddening. Last night I used cold-pressed coconut oil as recommended somewhere on line, and gently covered the warm and sore areas along the right parietal area, and on the left where the rays have come through. These are the areas where my hair will fall out after 2 – 3 weeks, which will actually make it easier to oil, so there is a god.  It felt better, post oiling, although I did look like a Brylcream girl. I washed it out with my gentle shampoo this morning, and it feels far less sore. I also get a right-sided focal headache that begins shortly after the treatment, and worsens till I go to bed. I’m taking paracetamol for that, but it’s perfectly bearable.

Another bonus is I’m sleeping. I feel generally drained, and tired in a can’t-be-arsed to do things kind of way. I can walk pretty well in the morning, but less so in the afternoon. I don’t feel sleepy. When I go to bed, I nod off in minutes (I never do this normally) and wake between 6 and 7.30. I can quite happily nod off again in the morning if I don’t get up. I’ve lost my morning heat sensitivity too, which I think is more down to the low dose of steroids. This morning I showered Bun, who was pretty manky. After that we went for a walk at Long Ash, but it was so hot I couldn’t bear the sun. I’m rocking the keep out of the sun look, but each time I move the hat blows off.

Today I have my weekly review with Dr Pascoe, and she’s happy with how I’m feeling and my blood counts are fine which is nice to know. She asks about headaches and nausea, and warns it’s likely to worsen since I’m only at the end of week one; however, the area being irradiated is relatively small. She shows me the prescribed area – the larger one I noticed at the start is actually a slice taken vertically through the brain rather than horizontally as I’d thought. This corresponds to a 3cm margin around the tumour site. Sarah says we’ll try to stop the dexamethasone altogether by the end of this phase of treatment if everything continues to go to plan.

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IMRT treatment area through the horizontal plane
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IMRT treatment area through the vertical plane

I take my Temozolomide and go up to the Mustard Tree to await my radiotherapy slot; there I get chatting to two women with breast cancer. It’s the first time I’ve really engaged with anyone in the center generally, which isn’t like me at all. I wonder if it’s to do with the can’t be aresed-ness this week. Making conversation isn’t something I feel like doing. Nonetheless it was good to chat. Both of them volunteered that if things don’t work out for them (and I don’t know the details) they’re intending to stop treatment at the point when they become ill, to make the most of what they have left and to let nature take its course. Me too I say. We talk about wills, and about advance directives, both of which I need to address. I also learn the details of their recent marital breakups and we agree that friends and family are where it’s at when you have cancer. All in 20 minutes, cancer’s as much of an icebreaker for letting it all hang out emotionally as wild swimming.

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Histology Results

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First, a warning; there’s some unexpurgated information about brain tumours here, including prognosis. It comes further down, under the Result heading.  It’s the kind of information that I didn’t want to know for sure at the start, although I did have some idea. It’s also the kind of information that I can’t resist forever. I’ve always wanted to know things, to find out. I’d balk at the thought of being completely in the dark; my paternal grandfather in the 1960s was never told that the illness that killed him was cancer. So there ensued a game of charades which from what I’ve been told involved various efforts to avoid upsetting my grandmother (a strong and capable woman) and various others, including my grandfather who was clearly dying and who said to my mother at one point of course you and I both know what I’ve got.

My grandfather was a man who’d grown up in extreme poverty and violence; he was one of eight children whose father had lost a leg in World War One; he and his brothers would go to school via the soup kitchen in Plymouth for their only meal of the day. He worked his way to Australia on a ship aged 14, spent a couple of years on a sheep ranch, and returned to Devon to join the police, where he attained the rank of Superintendent. He was 6’5” tall, always smartly-dressed, hard-drinking, charming, tough to the core, and funny. A few years ago I was called to an elderly Plympton man, who I took to hospital in the rapid response car. He’d been an apprentice barber around the time of the war, and it turned out my grandfather Jack Roper used to go to that barber’s for his haircut, where he’d always spoof the barber for the cost; sounds about right said my Dad when I told him. A man who knew life.

That pressure is on everyone. What an odd notion, that you are protecting people from accepting, understanding, planning, tying up loose ends. Isn’t that opportunity a golden one? It’s denied those for whom death comes suddenly, but I’d argue it’s a chance to prioritise, consider what’s important, right a few wrongs. I spoke to a few people I felt I needed to clear misunderstandings and arguments with (one contacted me) after being diagnosed, because each was a little thorn that I held and I couldn’t let them fester. It was a good thing to do and I’m glad I had the chance. Of course I’m an extravert who communicates – I say what I think, I discuss, I’ll talk about more or less anything. Many people are more private. Atul Gawande talks about that, and around the end of life it’s about identifying what is important to you. For that to be easy, those closest to you also need to understand and it’s one of the difficulties with the crisis management of end of life, how others respond and what kind of process is kicked off; Gawande talks of end of life patients being maintained in intensive care right to the end in the US, which is of course utterly futile, and horrible too. Avoiding the acceptance of death (and ageing) is an art form in our culture. Each important person in your life will go through the process of accepting your death in her or his own way, and at their own speed. But the conversation has to be had in some form, and your wishes have to be made clear.

I’ve had a few message conversations about death with kindred spirits from Facebook whom I don’t know personally. Isn’t that odd? Or is it? As one says, maybe it’s harder to talk about your feelings with people you feel responsible for – certainly that was how I felt today, leaving my parents in the café while I got the news, then relaying it over tea and lemonade afterwards. But they knew the score, and I felt I had to process the information myself without worrying about how they were taking the news. So the protection instinct is there, modified.

I’ve slightly diverged from talking about prognosis; I imagine some would rather not know in anything other than vague terms, and since there are no definites in game of percentages, median survivals and averages, that would appear to be a reasonable strategy to take. I already know the prognosis for metastatic breast cancer, and of course there are many variables there according to where the mets (what Mr F calls seedlings) lodge in your body and so on. I looked up the GBM4 a couple of weeks ago, peering at the information rather as the babysitter in a 1970s slasher film peers around the basement door to investigate a noise. It was the point where I felt I needed to know.

Result

I’m sitting in Fal in the bay again, waiting for Mr Fewings, and Louise Davies the neuro oncology nurse. I chat to a woman awaiting breast cancer surgery; she’s having the same kind of op that I had first time around, in January 2011. Full circle. I don’t mention that this might be related. We talk about the surgery, and about the woman’s grandchildren. Finally, Louise appears and calls me in.

It’s a small room, white cement, metal windows. I sit in a black chair by the desk.

We begin with how I feel, the weakness and the strange numb/burning patch on my leg. The weakness is steroid related, classic. It’s no longer predominantly left sided, and the upper arms and thighs are most affected. Mr F also notes I’ve put on a noticeable amount of weight since he last saw me, in the classic steroid pattern, and related also to the effects of a significant dose of dexamethasone over six weeks or so. My cheeks are so swollen they’ve gone numb. The leg is a nerve problem, which he demonstrates. It’s a nerve that crosses the bulge in one’s gut over the pelvis, and it can become stretched. It enervates precisely that area. It’s the side I’ve been lying on, and makes total sense. So I’m glad to know that’s not Hunt-related. I’m to reduce the dexamethasone as of tomorrow, 4mg in the morning and 2mg at lunchtime over a week, then 2mg and 2mg. That should improve how I feel in myself, reduce the effects and improve the weakness.

The nausea I had intermittently shortly after reducing the dose last time can be treated with Ondansetron if I need it, thus avoiding upping the dexamethasone again.

Now we move to the results.

I asked to record the meeting on my iPhone, so what follows is the transcript with some extraneous phrases removed. I didn’t listen to it again till this morning, and what’s really interesting is that, despite being focussed and concentrating, I actually got a couple of key points wrong on asking Plum to spread the news. Then from Plum’s post there were a range of interpretations, some of which I think missed the negatives altogether. The lesson is clear; no matter what your interest, you hear some things that haven’t been said, you miss some things that have been said, and you read the message in your own way. (Of course there are implications there for informing those close to you about your wishes as I’ve been discussing)

So my cancer discussions are going to be recorded from now. Back to Mr Fewings.

He’s matter of fact, and talks clearly; we had already discussed the two options after the surgery so I am prepared.

I’m expecting this to be metastasised breast cancer.

It’s not.

It’s a Glioblastoma (WHO Grade 4), abbreviated to GBM4, an aggressive, primary brain tumour. This is the one that most people thought Hunt was not.

It’s 45mm x 30mm x 23mm.

Mr F:

Usually with a glioblastoma there’s an area which is obviously the tumour… and then around that is a patch and a rim of obvious tumour, intertwined with areas of brain, and then as you get away from the tumour there’s still patches of tumour, and then microscopic rootlets through a widespread area.

[He’s drawing a diagram as he speaks; there is a lot of scribbling].

Yours however looking on the scan and from the operation, was very well demarcated with a clear plane and so the main bulk of it, phhhhp! has plopped out.

So because it is a glioblastoma, you will still have to be managed as per the glioblastoma, which is chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

But with respect to your prognosis I would expect and hope that it would be better than the average, because it’s all been removed, with the caveat that it won’t have all been removed there will still be some microscopic rootlets.

Better than average means half the people do worse than average and half the people will do better than average. But I expect you to be in the good half rather than the bad half.

Unfortunately this problem, despite this being removed, is incurable.

The treatments are aimed at keeping you as well as you are now for as long as possible.

Without treatments, it’s likely that this disease process would take your life within a number of months, maybe six months plus or minus a wee bit, but with treatment your life should be considerably longer than that, say add on about another year…and as I’ve said hopefully in your case maybe even longer than that.

I ask Mr F about the oedema and the blood brain barrier, as I’d read that oedema constitutes a failure in the blood brain barrier. So is there cancer all around my brain?

No, just the tumour site, that’s all.

I ask about the tumour; the fact that it’s grade 4 is the most important information, because that describes its high level of aggressiveness.

I ask for and am given a copy of the histology report.

We briefly discuss radiotherapy which should be over 6 weeks with a tablet chemotherapy drug called temozolomide alongside. On Thursday morning I have an outpatient’s appointment with my oncologist who is, Dr Sarah Pascoe. She will go over the plan, discuss the options, and then most likely the planning will start so I’m to look forward to spending a few hours at the hospital. Louise my nurse tells me that fatigue is the main side effect of brain radiotherapy. Mr F says there may be an indicator for stereotactic boost as it’s well-defined, so more focused radiotherapy is a possibility.

I feel I have enough to think about at this stage, ready for my appointment with Dr Pascoe who is the expert.

I then ask Mr F about the lung nodules, which showed on the CT scan and which was a part of the reason I was drawn to the idea that Hunt was a met from my breast cancer. That and the bad luck of having two unrelated types of cancer within 5 years. Is there a god?

Whilst they noted them, a 3mm nodule and a 5mm ground glass nodule, it was noteworthy but of no major concern. However if this had turned out to be a seedling tumour, they would be other seedlings, but because this has turned out to be what it is I’m happy to ignore that. Also you have the abdominal lymph nodes related to your microscopic disease, the gut stuff.

At your operation when it was removed I said, ‘ah it’s going to be a met’ and the others though the same. About 1 in 20 are like this, and as I say they do tend to do better than average because the main bulk has been removed. If one can remove about 90% of the main mass of it that does confer some benefit, and with respect to the actual area of abnormality, 99.9% of yours has been removed.

Me: So that’s as good as it can be really.

Mr F: Absolutely yeah. So it’s not great news, of course it’s not, I’m not going to pretend it is…

Me: Yes I was ready for that, I knew it wasn’t. It’s nice to know it’s got a positive to it than just being shit and more shit.

Mr F: Indeed! You are well, no cognitive problems or neurologic problems, you’re a bit crap at the moment if you excuse the expression – courtesy of steroids which we’re happy to reduce down – and you’re seeing Dr Pascoe on Thursday for a plan of action for your other treatments.

I thank Mr Fewings and the other staff who have been excellent.

So in summary:

Only around 1:20 GBM4s is demarcated from normal brain tissue in the way that Hunt was. 99.9% of the tumour was therefore removed. A very good result for the more usual GBM4 would be to remove 90% of it.

Hunt is surrounded by an area of microscopic tumour rootlets, which can be treated by radiotherapy and chemotherapy in tablet form; potentially some more focused radiotherapy can be used in this case.

With no treatment, I would expect to live only 6 months, give or take.

The median survival for a GBM4 is one year. 50% of patients will live for less, 50% for longer.

I am expected to be on the longer side, which could mean 18 months, or even more. There are no guarantees.

So my news wasn’t as I’d expected at all. As Mr Fewings said: you never know.

I feel slightly shell shocked, suddenly tired, and half relieved by the thought that what remains of Hunt can be irradiated and chemically shrivelled, with of course my shrivelling prayer joining the fray. I feel some visualisation coming on particularly after a funny message last night in which kneecapping featured for the real Hunt. Now I see Hunt the tumour as the Cheshire Cat’s ghostly smirk. You haven’t got rid of me yet, he leers. I see the smirk exploding in stars with stereotactic rads and some blue stuff that burns, forms an acrid, fizzing smog and makes him cry. Sometimes only vicarious violence makes me feel better.

For now, Louise and I head to another office, and she runs through my folder of information. I can plan and monitor everything using the folder, including my food intake, signs and symptoms and pretty much anything else I can think of, but I suspect I won’t if past form is any indicator. Louise ensures I’m ok, explains the steroid reduction for about the fourth time, and points out that she’s written it in my folder. The page is cleverly marked. Now it’s a case of allowing everything to sink in, and preparing for the oncology appointment.

I am glad to know what’s what, even relieved. Of course few of us knows when or how we’ll die though I can probably predict with more accuracy than most that I’ll be dying of smirking Hunt as he re-materialises, sooner rather than later.

I think of some of those sudden deaths I’ve been to as a paramedic; the young lad driving home from work on a Friday, losing concentration momentarily, thinking about his night out perhaps, and clipping the verge. Hanging from the car, still alive but I can’t reach him and I doubt he’ll survive. I talk to him, touch his shoulder, chat about all sorts and tell him he’ll be okay while the fire fighters get him out. I hope he doesn’t know what’s happening but if he does he’s not alone.

The elderly man, a non-injury fall, sat on the floor next to his bed at 3am, unable to get up. I’m not a happy bear, I’ve not been a happy bear all day… as we lift him he goes into cardiac arrest. His wife knew he was going she says.

My grandmother, ooh, I’m going, I’m going…we hold her, tell her she won’t fall, misunderstanding.

And the baby, handed to me by a woman whose eyes beg me to help, while they know it’s too late. I see the tiny mouth, blanched almond white from attempts to breathe life back; the little nub at the centre of the lower gums where the ghosts of tiny teeth will never appear, the minute finger nails, dark blue.

The unhappy bear knew he was about to die. The baby just stopped breathing in its sleep, warm, fed, loved. The young man? Maybe an oh shit and disbelief, the terror. And the loved ones…

I’m still not dreaming. I don’t have nightmares, or terrors. I wake each morning in the early hours thinking about my illness. But I don’t dream. Why aren’t I dreaming? Or why aren’t I registering the dreams I have?

My fear, the slasher in the basement, is that I am going to lose my mind after all.