Monkey brain

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Sitting in a kind of seminar room with S in the Mustard Tree, tears materialise from outer space. I say that because I didn’t somehow have access to them from within myself, they kind of landed on me. Fear? Grief? I talk to S who is a counsellor about how I am, and about the looming treatment. I tell her about my needle fear; isn’t it odd that in descriptions, fear so often pricks, as do tears? One of those tiny things that is imprinted in my mind from the initial ambulance training course is that we never say the word prick when using a needle in case it’s taken the wrong way, whether for a blood glucose measurement or cannulation. We say sharp scratch. But sharp scratch doesn’t quite express what’s going on. I think of Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger, of the thorns that grew around her. A scratch is on the surface, it doesn’t pierce, break the boundary.

We talk generally about the treatment, and I explain how I deal with claustrophobia in my previously normal life, the life where I choose to swim into the cave and when the swell picks me up and pushes me to the roof I bob beneath the surface and swim through aquamarine, above constellations of starfish. I’m not pinioned by a mask staring at the geometry of the ceiling; that bright white chequerboard of tiles and lights boring down before being pushed into the machine that will irradiate a part of my brain, and I hope, tumourous Hunt’s Cheshire Cat smirk. A slight digression here; it was properly amusing to hear Dennis Skinner MP savaging Jeremy Hunt over his smirk when giving a statement over the Junior Doctors’ strike.

I’ve lost my focus in the past couple of weeks, scattered the rays across the political spectrum and spent too much time on social media. There’s that air of time disappearing, of desperation as more and more political nightmares vanish beneath the carpet and are replaced by others. The fear as the NHS crumbles and it’s blamed on the doctors. The thought that I’ll die and I won’t ever know what happens to it, that it’s lost forever. I can’t bear it. S talks about mindfulness, about moving back into the moment, not dwelling in the past, or in the future. The thing is, I don’t actually want to be here in this moment.

I’ve been trying also to tie up the mounting heap of admin I have, and the displacement of scattering political bullets over Twitter and Facebook has pretty much ensured I’ve not completed anything I meant to, including my tax return. Back to the days when Hunt grew in my brain, before I knew he was there, those days where I judged myself for that inability to complete tasks, or even get to grips with them at all. There’s also the advice given by a friend years ago when I found myself crying on the phone to her having chosen my then dog Bubble from the local dog pound and had to leave so many others behind; focus on your sphere of influence, she said. You can help one dog, do it well. And I did look after Bubble, give her a lovely life, train her, love her, feed her, walk for miles over the hills of Scotland and Dartmoor.

So I sit in a chair, close my eyes and relax as S talks me into my left foot. There I focus on each part as she mentions it, breathe into it, note sensations and move on. The focus comes over a few minutes, and I manage, as she reminds me, to notice when my mind wanders, to acknowledge it has, to bring it back to my left foot. It’s good that we started there, because My Left Foot is one of my favourite films. I have monkey mind, and the types of yoga I’ve done in the past tend to be active ones. When sitting and breathing, meditating, I can’t overcome the cramp from having tight hip joints nor the boredom of staying still and focussing on breathing. I start to fidget, daydream. Here, I’m managing remarkably well. I breathe into my foot, then out, and we move to another body part. S has previously wondered whether my medical knowledge will prevent me from breathing in and out of random body parts that aren’t lungs; but having a writer’s imagination I assure her it’s no problem, as long as I’m in the mood.

When we reach my chest a few minutes’ later I’m stuck. That shortness of breath blocks me as I move around it, sticks whatever it is that does the moving around. I’d tried to explain to S that my breathing is short, and that really is the best way I can describe it. A deep breath, a diaphragm-flattening breath, isn’t possible. I feel my steroid babies, the waistband of whatever too-tight clothes I’m wearing, and the abrasive quality of the air reaching my lungs, like tiny particles of sharp sand, or some chemical vapour scouring. The dull ache between my shoulder blades.

We move to my head. It’s uncomfortable. I’ve developed a headache over the past week, a fairly generalised headache still, but it’s moving, focusing more on the left than the right, and while it’s not a Hunt headache, it’s moving that way. Or is it? Is it in my abstract mind or my physiological mind? I’m imagining the Hunt-shaped hole in my brain. It’s closed, for sure. It was described as a space occupying lesion (SOL) initially, and the slight bulge I can feel over the craniotomy site, over which the palm of my hand fits nicely, makes me wonder. I’ve lost the carapace altogether now. But still I worry about Hunt’s return. The GBM is fast-growing, that’s why it’s so dangerous. And the fear of the GBM, the wondering. I can’t quite form the imagery beyond the Cheshire Cat smirk, an image of a vanishing as much as a materialising. So I get rather stuck in my head too. But I feel enough, enough to think I can manage. I’m to call and book another appointment when I know the timings for the treatment. It’s helped, not least to identify some ways in which I can regain some focus and get through the next six weeks.

After that I saw E in the Mustard Tree, and she pointed out that I’m looking ahead always to the radiotherapy effects on me, and seeing the worst case. It might not be that, so once again I have to move to the present, take a day at a time. I’m upset again, definitely out of control. She wonders if I hold grief in my chest. I hadn’t thought of that.  I tell her about the needles. We talk about space; I don’t feel I can let go in my parents’ home, because I worry about them and it’s too complicated. I’m certainly not easy to live with in any case, and less so when grumpy on steroids and scared, and feeling pressured since I’m used to doing my own thing mostly without reference to anyone. Now I’m expected to organise, I am organised by others, constrained. Not in a mean way, but in a way that I feel deeply. Conflicts where you least expect them.

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Cheshire Cat Hunt: it’s a no brainer

Firstly, a warning that this post talks about prognosis for glioblastoma grade 4 (GBM4), so if you’d rather not know, stop here.

I’ve decided on an alliterative title today, don’t say it too fast.

On Monday, I met my consultant oncologist, Dr Sarah Pascoe, at Derriford Hospital. I had encountered her some years ago when she came to talk to us on a paramedic training day about the management of neutropenic sepsis, which is a life-threatening complication of chemotherapy treatment. She had made quite an impression then.

I like her at once; she’s friendly, warm, open, straight-talking and has a sense of humour. We talk generally, and in detail about Hunt the tumour and how he might behave in future. The treatment on offer is:

Six weeks of radiotherapy, which will be daily on weekdays, with weekends off.

Six weeks of oral chemotherapy daily, with a drug called Temozolomide; this runs concurrently with the radiotherapy and enhances its effectiveness by making the cancer cells more vulnerable to it. I will also get an antibiotic to prevent a type of pneumonia that is common with this treatment, which affects the immune system and makes you especially vulnerable to infections, and also means your body is unable to deal with them.

Following this treatment will be a six month course of chemotherapy with oral Temozolomide, taken for four days, with 24 days off.

A big concern for me as you know is in weighing up the value of treatment over months and which has some significant effects, with quality of life. That’s a particularly tough call when the prognosis for GBM4 can be limited to months. Dr Sarah is clear that my surgical result and fitness gives me a good chance of the proposed treatment working well and that I should tolerate it well too. The aim is to prolong symptom-free life.  Of course there are risks, in particular: infections; somnolence that might go on for 6 weeks post radiotherapy; sickness; blood clots; and fitting. Those can be managed however.

If I opt for no treatment I’d be looking at months, and I would be unwell with neurological problems for a significant part of that. The evidence, she says, supports the treatment in terms of quality of life. So, it’s a no brainer. Dr Sarah says that in some cases she would not recommend the treatment because it would not give a good quality of life, so we are clear on that.

When Hunt recurs, treatment options depend on where the recurrence is: this might be around the site where he originated, which is my right parietal lobe; or it might be elsewhere in the brain where he’s not accessible. So he might or might not be surgically accessible, or vulnerable to radiotherapy.

I ask about swimming during the treatment (and that’s the huge advantage of oral chemotherapy).

Are you swimming in swamp water? Asks Dr Sarah.

No, moorland rivers or the sea… 

She sees no reason why I can’t swim if I feel up to it, with the proviso that I must not swim alone because of the risk of fitting.

I sign the consents.

I go to have my bloods taken, and am given an appointment on Monday for a CT scan to measure me for my radiotherapy mask. This will hold my head still while the radiotherapy takes place. The treatment should start in the next three to four weeks.

DWP

Because I have a GBM4, Sarah will issue a form DS1500, which means I get full ESA including the support group rate and full PIP with mobility allowance, no questions asked. So my struggle with DWP is at an end.

As an aside, I had called them on the previous Friday because I still hadn’t got to grips with the medical and work assessment forms, and the deadline was 6 April. I had my histology, but was unsure whether I would get the DS1500. On this occasion I spoke to a lovely woman who was clearly old school, and who told me not to worry about anything, and annotated my files to ensure I’d not have any problems She checked I was in touch with Macmillan, which I am, and explained the support they can give including excellent benefits advice (in sharp contrast to the initial experience in which the advisor insisted that Macmillan ARE NOT BENEFITS TRAINED). It does highlight the culture of DWP which has changed from one of being there to help and advise, to one of being there to identify and punish scroungers.

I leave Dr Sarah, get my ticket for the bloods, and buy a cup of tea and a Bakewell tart with which to take my dex. I  walk to the table, and as I go to put the tea down, the strap of my bag slips from my shoulder and falls, so I spill half the tea over the table and my arm. Once the mess is mopped, I open the Bakewell tart. I peel off the layer of sugar icing, and find a heavy, tasteless, clag, like sawdust spilling from a corpse. I feel a bit shaky.

There’s something quite final about being officially terminally ill, to the point where even the government will admit you’re not going to recover. The Bakewell tart feels like the shape of things to come.