Yeuch

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So to what’s now been named the yeuch. Not a feeling of being really unwell, but rather an intermittent feeling of maybe feeling a bit not right, that gently builds to something more; a lethargy and nausea. Sometimes verging on the almost-but-not-quite sick before subsiding like boiling milk as you whip it off the gas ring. My head aches on the right and down the right side of my neck again in that carapace point. I have a burning ear, and nerve pain along my right cheekbone; that was one of the things I’d noticed as Hunt grew in my head, it’s a branch of the trigeminal nerve, and I guess the pain has to do with pressure on it.

The yeuch has assumed a pattern now; I wake feeling more or less okay, then the headache builds with the nausea. I take my meds and have toast early, and that calms it down. Then after I have muesli later, it begins to build a bit, before easing. I take the Temozolomide and feel ok. By lunchtime, I’ll be ready for a meal, and I eat quite happily. Then at about 3.30 – 4, the yeuch returns with a vengeance. I feel I need some food with it, and nibbling an oatcake will help a bit for about ten minutes, but then it gets worse. Sipping water doesn’t help much either. I sip  Pukka Three Ginger Tea, and that’s helpful as long as I let it cool down first – hot is bad. I can’t eat till about 8pm, at which point the yeuch dissipates.

I saw Dr Sarah, my oncologist yesterday. My blood counts are good, and she’s arranged for the nebulised antibiotic for me probably in the next couple of weeks, because of my allergy to one of the constituents of Septrin which I should be taking.  We discussed the timing of the meds, which is fine. So Sarah is prescribing a different anti-emetic for me to take at night. It’s one of the antipsychotic drugs that, taken in small doses, have an effect on a range of the various vomiting receptors in the body and so also work as anti-emetics. They tend to cause drowsiness also, but at night that won’t matter. So I get that today, and will try it tonight.I’m hugely releived she didn’t suggest upping the steroids, although she has said there’s no chance of reducing them again for the duration which I knew.

I’ve been in touch with a man who’s literally 3 days ahead of me on his treatment for a GBM4, and who is the friend of a friend. I shall call him A; he’s happy for me to discuss what happened to him here in the hope that others can benefit from his experiences.  We’ve been comparing notes by email, and were both doing pretty well initially. It was especially helpful to chat to him over the mask stage since both of us had similar fears, and managed to get through; he was able to have eye holes cut from his mask which made all the difference for him. Thinking back, the claustrophobia for me was largely  a manifestation of all those deeper fears, the thought of having that radiation boring into my brain. The worry that it might miss the target.  The tumour, the chemicals, the feeling of swallowing poison when I try so hard to avoid it the rest of the time, alcohol and clotted cream excepted.

Both A and I were struck with the effects of the radiotherapy at the same stage of treatment last week.

The difference was that I took matters into my own hands and upped my dexamethasone dose over last weekend. The effects are as I understand, caused by swelling in the brain from the radiotherapy. The problem is, that there’s that fear there, a deep fear, that something’s growing back. The not knowing what’s in your brain. The knowledge that the alien exists in some form, whether that’s the remains of the original tumour, or the cancer cells blossoming around it. The wondering whether the radiotherapy is killing them, or has it missed some? Are they growing anyway? Then there’s the chemotherapy; the metallic poison that I can taste and feel like a hand around  my throat, like a victim in an Agatha Christie novel.

I’m a paramedic, I have enough knowledge to be able to consider the signs and symptoms and to work out what’s most likely to be going on. I have a professional understanding of pharmacology and pharmacokinetics, which is sufficient to be able to research drugs and understand how they work and what effects and side effects they might have. That certainly doesn’t make me an expert, but it gives me insight and some control.

There’s a big but though; I’m also a patient. I’ve already had a significant scare when my vision went blurred in the early days before surgery. It took me an hour to be clear-headed enough to work through some of the reasoning for differential diagnoses, and then a couple more days and a chat with the GP to get everything clear and to be happy. That was fear (exacerbated by being unable to see enough to read up on the problem). And of course I’m being subjective always, and with an emotional response.

Back to A; his neurological signs and symptoms from pre-surgery returned with a vengeance. He twice lost his speech for a period. He lost strength and sensation the limbs on one side. He was terrified. He took to resting as the only way to calm things. He told me how afraid he was, how afraid that this is how it will feel to move towards death. That’s my fear too, but I haven’t had the severity of A’s signs and symptoms. The knowledge that it’s your brain and your mind being destroyed by this cancer is a horrible one.

I asked A about his steroid dose and explained I’d upped mine. He didn’t respond to that part of my email, but talked more about feeling a bit better with more rest. I tried to reassure him that there are experts there who are able to manage the worst of our nightmares. I didn’t pursue the steroid question as I felt I was interfering, and I was sure it would have been addressed. Then yesterday, A more or less collapsed in the hospital and saw a consultant who immediately upped his steroid dose, which was low.  So somehow, A, who has no medical knowledge, had been suffering all these dreadful signs and symptoms caused by swelling in his brain from radiotherapy treatment, yet nothing had been done for him. I don’t know the precise circumstances. I do know that even if you’re literate and have all the leaflets and booklets, and you have the phone numbers to call, you don’t necessarily think or act in the way that those who’ve provided that information think you will. That’s because you, and those who are close to you, are terrified.

A was having treatment five days a week, and yet nobody chased up the problems he was having, most of which would have been obvious to anyone who’d seen him on a regular basis for a couple of weeks.  He didn’t know that the steroid dose could be raised. He didn’t understand what was happening to him. At Derriford, I hope that would never happen. My radiographers ask each time I see them how I am, and what problems I have. They refer to my oncologist. That’s how it should be. Some patients might of course not say what’s going on, through fear, or other problems, or not wanting to bother people (I once attended an elderly woman with a fractured neck of femur and fractured wrist who’d laid on the floor since 1am, before pressing her alarm at 8am, because she didn’t want to disturb either her neighbour who was her key holder, or the paramedics).

But you get to know your radiographers and I’ve come to look forward to our daily chats, and bits of banter. They are happy to show me things too when I ask, to explain the machines and the lining up. I watch them with other patients; one in particular clearly has significant neurological deficits and gets lost in the corridor. I see them come to find him, take his arm and chat. They’d notice if something unusual were going on.

I’m hoping to go on a longish walk and swim on Sunday, very slowly. I don’t know if it’ll be possible – everything hinges on the new anti-emetic. I’m two weeks in, a significant chunk. So an amble up the Dart would give me a huge extra boost. Here’s hoping.

 

 

 

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The weekend effect

It was all going so well… I had a lovely visit from one of my mastectomy friends who came from Cambridge on a walking weekend and stopped off, bearing cake, including the best Bakewell tart ever. It was lovely to see her. I was feeling okay till dinner time, at which point the nausea and headache struck. Ondansetron and paracetamol didn’t help, and by 10pm there was no change so I took a second Ondansetron. I slept sitting up, and woke at 4 with a headache and nausea. So the weekend effect strikes again; I have my weekly review on Thursday afternoon and then everything changes ready for the weekend.

So on Saturday I doubled the Ondansetron to 8mg morning and evening, to no effect. I toyed with the idea of calling the out of hours GP, but I’m pretty sure the cause is brain swelling from radiotherapy. I wonder whether having the weekend off will help, but Dr Sarah has already explained that it’s about fractions of doses of radiotherapy, and those build. So I took a second 2mg of dexamethasone at 12. I still felt nauseous and headachy on Sunday, when I took 4mg of dex in the morning. I also dropped one of the steroids while trying to take it, but couldn’t find it on the floor. Then I noticed a small white blur in Bun’s water bowl; there it is, the mostly dissolved little pill. Just imagine the results of that, Bun on roids!

I feel down about upping the steroids which as you know make me feel all-round crap. At that dose they start to cause steroid myopathy (muscle weakness especially in the thighs and upper arms). I’ve got a lovely trip planned next weekend, and I was thinking that it looked hopeful that I could do it. Still, the focus has to be on getting through this six weeks, and on managing the signs and symptoms. Maybe the myopathy won’t reestablish itself for a couple of weeks. As Plum said I know it’s worth doing this treatment in terms of extra good time, so I have to stick my head down and get through it. Also as of Thursday I’ll be two weeks in which is a significant proportion.

I’ve over-committed myself, voluntarily, and and spent much of the weekend failing to finish the feature I’m writing for the Tavistock Times, and fighting to make some curtains for my brother and sister-in-law’s bus. It was curtain Armageddon, with a series of disasters involving some pink tailor’s chalk that turned out to be wax and wouldn’t come off, shrinkage in the wash that took 3cm from the length (I told you I should have washed the material first Mum), and unpicking 1.8m of machine-stitching using a pin and some dressmaking shears, wearing a Petzl head torch because I can’t see well enough and we’d lost the stitch unpicker, and the shops are closed. It was all okay in the end, and the curtains were duly installed in the bus using the only ten curtain hooks we had. The two cushions I’d made in the week also looked pretty good. I managed to eat dinner (currently the meal I have trouble with) but then went through 3 hours of being unable to keep my eyes open, which kept happening in the two weeks before Hunt was diagnosed. It’s more than tiredness. Bun asked to go out, and I just couldn’t summon the energy to get up from my bean bag. In the end I rolled onto the floor on all fours and forced myself to go downstairs an inch at a time like Peter Crouch’s robot goal celebration in super-slomo.

I did sleep last night, and woke at 6 feeling as alert as I ever do in the mornings. So today I’ll speak to one of the oncology staff about what to do, bearing in mind I now have another five fractions of IMRT coming up.

Kari returned from Iceland full of stories about her new best friend whom she’d met with near her home in the far north of the country.  Kari found this new friend via Facebook after she was told about her by a man she met – who’s probably quite famous but she can’t remember his name – on a tv programme she appeared on as a part of her Diamond Duke of Edinbugh ambassador role. This woman tans hides in the north of Iceland in a disused herring processing plant. She’s tanned seal hides including from a near-term foetus found inside its mother, all of whom drowned in fishing nets; such a horrible thought. This woman teaches Inuit how to tan hides too, since much of their knowledge and skill has been lost.

There are geothermal chimneys in the fjord near to the woman’s home, that are normally only found in the very deep ocean, but which here are just meters from the surface. The sea is still utterly freezing, however. Kari is utterly enthused. I want to swim over the chimneys, and to meet Kari’s new best friend. Something to look forward to.

 

 

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.

Days of whine and roses

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Here goes then; Andy Williams on the iPhone and an emotional emitus of sorts. I’m trying to be honest about how I feel, but sometimes it just isn’t going to work and I have to divert away because I don’t know how to control it, nor what to think, nor how to express my world at the moment. I’m not even sure where I am, other than it’s a liminal sort of place between the me that used to be, and the me that is very not as she used to be.

My world is here, in a house that’s not mine, with some of my things, and my parents and dog. I can’t drive,  or walk far. I’ve not had many physical visitors since Op Hunt Saboteur, and I’ve not felt engaged in any real sense with people other than occasionally; it’s like looking in through windows streaked with years of grime. I’ve been angry rather than sad, knowing it’s not going to be good news next week, yet not really knowing how bad it might be and how I’ll react if that’s the case. I’ve picked up on campaigning Facebook posts, something I really didn’t want to do, and become involved with people who are cross with me which I can’t deal with. It’s a struggle to type them, but I can see to read online far better than I can in a book. I’m so angry with the government I can’t really think, the scale of their perfidy in selling all our assets off. Fear at what they’ll do next, then the thought that actually why do I care? I doubt I’ll be here for the revolution.

Displacement of course, but then I’ve always been displaced by injustice. I’ve still heard nothing from Geoffrey Cox QC MP. But I have so many other administrative tasks to sort out, and I can’t get my head around them at all. One is my tax return, due now I think. Apparently I’ll get fined if it’s late, but it’s impossible to speak to them without hanging on the phone for literally hours which I can’t do either. The second is benefits because I’m afraid I’ll lose my £73.10 per week if I do Airbnb in an effort to keep my cottage although it’s only going to pay the bills, and maybe not always in full.  Then there’s the mortgage cock ups that I thought I’d managed to address with Nat West, who have admitted the repeated failure to take my DD was their fault, acknowledged that I wouldn’t have noticed what with everything else going on in my head, and paid me £50 compensation, before sending me a letter telling me that credit reference agencies will be informed of my late payments. I ended up crying.

Oh, and I have to complete my work assessment for the DWP by 6 April, which also involves knowing what treatment is next. And I have to tell them about Airbnb, which means I need another appointment with the Macmillan benefits advisor. So I woke up worrying this morning about that.

My world is the same every day. I wake at about 3am, I get a mug of ginger tea and oatcakes with some cheese. I fiddle around with my iPhone on twitter or Facebook. I blog or write about whatever’s in my head in a document that I might use parts of in another blog. I wait for the first light to creep beneath the blind, for the bird band to strike up. Then I get up and make tea and toast, take my steroids and other meds.

I have breakfast, Mum tries to chat and I’m grumpy because I hate mornings and want to be left alone. Then I try to be chatty for a bit. I go back to bed, doze or sleep for a couple of hours. I get up, take more steroids with more food, go out with Bun maybe; wander really slowly feeling the air abrasive in my chest, count my respiratory rate (higher than usual), wonder what the nodules on my lungs are.

I go back to bed in the afternoon if I can, sleep or doze, think a bit, Facebook and Twitter, mostly political. I get up for dinner, chat for a bit, go back to bed sometimes, sometimes just sit here and listen to music. Then I have a snack and go to bed at 11 ish till 3, and it all starts again. I am terminally bored.

My left side is noticeably weaker as of Friday, and my arm and leg start to feel hollow. By yesterday I had realised my left arm had no muscle tone at all, and my left knee started to buckle. I think often about what to do. Both hands had developed a mild tremor. I’d ended up having to clean my cottage with Mum, and although I did the light work I felt shattered. But it was developing before that. Prime suspect is the tailed dose of steroids; is the brain swelling returning? I feel unsafe on the stairs. I already know that dexamethasone can cause myopathy or muscle wastage quite quickly in some people, especially if they develop Cushingoid features which I most certainly have (Cushing’s syndrome of moon face and belly fat, rather than the more cadaverously dashing Peter Cushing). But I have been tailing off and on a low dose of 2mg twice a day for four days, so that’s less likely.

My left arm is noticeably smaller than the right, although I still have a pretty good bicep on the right. My left knee has swollen from the osteoarthritis and the muscles are not defined at all, though I can still see muscle on the right. My face is more numb than before (the inside of my cheeks and mouth have been that way for some time, but my rubbery mouth had improved with the steroids). I dribble water when drinking, twice. When I flex the right arm, the bicep feels strong. On the left, I can’t feel it at all. My left hand is also more numb.

I think it has to be some returning cerebral oedema. The limb deficits I have are left sided, apart from the weak and strange writing, so my left side is going to be more affected by weakness in any case. But the right side isn’t feeling much different as far as I can tell. I consider calling the out of hours GP, but decide against it for now.

We’re off to lunch with my brother and family, and I double my lunchtime dose of dex back to 4mg. We have a lovely meal of lemon sole Jamaican style with rice and peas and plantain. He’s a mean cook my brother. I’m still wobbly as we arrive home, but I can feel some tone in my left bicep. Before I had that odd sensation of energy vanishing like water draining from the muscles. By 6 I feel more steady on the stairs, and the hollow in bicep and knee has started to fill. A most weird thing, and a huge relief. By this afternoon, on the doubled dose, I’m able to walk Bun a little way on the moors.

The weight isn’t going to help, but I can’t stop eating. My vision had improved to vaguely smeared, but it returned to blurry most of the time within a day.

Looking out of the window at the hammering rain that heralds Storm Katy, the wind begins to bluster. I feel that need to sniff the air and get my hair tangled in the tempest, to be elemental. But it would probably blow me over, and I’d have to get past my Mum, who at 78 is stronger than me. I wonder whether I’ll ever feel okay again, enough to walk up tors, or swim in a strong current or jump into the river. I open the window and let the storm in.

This week I’ve resolved to see people, if only for a short time. It’s the endless sameness, the need for sleep every morning and afternoon. I sleep. I spend most of my time in the bedroom, like a transitional teenager.  Sausage, the dog formerly known as Bun, spends the day on my bed with me, then the evening downstairs with Mum and Dad.

Part of the problem is that I can’t read books or watch films, something I do normally. I can see screens better than books, but can’t concentrate enough to sustain it. The audio books make me fall asleep. I listen to Radio 4 and music.

My music choices are odd too; I’m not usually into folk, but have somehow downloaded a fair bit, including some of the kind that I hate involving fair maidens with child and dastardly men who skip away scot free. I’ve discovered Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with Jessye Norman as Dido, and play that over and over (thanks Fi). Madame Butterfly is always on my list, and that’s remained. Then there’s Anthony and the Johnsons who are calling to me at the moment; Andy Williams, Dusty, a bit of Adele, Birdy, Kate Bush, Eels, Fleet Foxes. Rachmaninov. Bowie. Nadia Reid, Tanita Tikaram, Ricki Lee Jones, Mozart’s Requiem. Also some Sicilian music I discovered via watching Montalbano on BBC 4; Olivia Sellerio, and the amazing Requiem by Fratelli Mancuso and Armoniosoincanto which is Sicilian folk and Latin choral music combined. It seems to replace my emotions rather than eliciting them; vicarious unfeeling.

I want this weekend to be over. I know I’m not going to hear anything till Tuesday at the earliest. But I don’t want to wish time away. I received a beautiful bunch of tied flowers in the post, from my school friend Pip’s parents; bay leaves, yellow roses, white somethings and purple fresias and irises. They lift me when I look at them. My colours.

Hair and head bogs

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Sometimes, Mum would wrap my freshly-washed hair around bits of toilet paper and tie them up at bedtime. She’d complete the effort with kiss curls; coiled strands just in front of either ear, pinned in place by two crossed Kirby grips. The photo is from my cousin Sarah, on the left here, showing the two of us in 1964 aged three, on the beach at Bude. See my ringlets! Mum used to say: we all must suffer in the cause of beauty. I can remember her in the same era backcombing her hair, layering it in spray, adding hair pieces and grips and big doughnuts like roadkill moles, the constructions needed to achieve the Dusty look. Sometimes I got the Audrey Hepburn topknot (hair covering the mole that was as big as my head, and wrapped beneath, skewered with curved pins into my scalp), or the dreaded ringlets, which meant a night with knots hurting my head, unable to get comfortable, and the tussle between those and the pulling of individual strands of hair was some kind of torture. And tonight, my first night home, l’m back there in that powerless state with my new dressing catching now dry hairs all over and irking the Hunt scar in a way it hasn’t been irked before. So I grab the dressmaking shears and cut through one side of my hair, releasing it as Mum shrieks. Finally, a rebellion. Relief, but the dressing’s fallen off from the top. Mum manages to re stick it using one of the new dressings, but when I press the feeling is horrible, a kind of squidge and bubble. I decide to ignore it, and get the dressing redone properly at the Minor Injuries Unit in the morning.

I sleep till 4.30 which is some kind of miracle, then wake and write. As an active resister of routine, at the moment it’s quite comforting to know that I have one. Meal times aren’t usually a feature of my life – I eat when I feel like it. But here at my parents’ home meals are eaten at the dining room table, and they’re planned. I have extras thanks to the steroids which give me a gut-gnawing hunger, and so I start with my first breakfast of oatcakes and cheese – at the moment I have a passion for cambozola – somewhere between 3 and 4am, with a mug of ginger tea. When Mum gets up to make tea somewhere between 6.30 and 7.30 I have my second breakfast of toast with marmite or peanut butter and a mug of builder’s tea with steroids on the side. Then at 9 ish I eat oats with chopped nuts, dates, live yogurt and banana, with a cafetiere of coffee and a glass of apple juice. A whole day’s food by 10. Then there’s the pre-lunch snack with steroids on the side again, the lunch, the pre-dinner snack, dinner and late night snack, and the other meds I take, two of which are tailing off at different rates. It’s hard to keep track. I’m going to be an elephant, anyway, but one with a routine.

Mum and I are sat in the tiny MIU waiting area in Tavistock. We hear the shuffle, a clop clop clop. He appears in the doorway, sheepskin coat, tween cap, walking stick and pointy-toed gait. We smile and say hello.

They don’t tell you about old age, maids, tis a bugger! I used to be able to leap a five bar gate, now I couldn’t jump a straw! He gesticulates low down. These legs is dreadful…

I reckon he could leap higher than I could today, the life force is strong in him.

What happened to your cap then? There’s a triangular singe mark across the peak.

Got im damp and dried him by the fire, and he caught a bit. People’s always mentioning it, telling me I should get a new cap; well I got two spares but this bugger’s got plenty of wear left in im, he’ll outlive me! 88 I am!

He’s a regular, in need of social contact and dressings.The thing I miss most about my job is the contacts like this one; chatting and laughing with people who’ve lived incredible lives often, lives that have seen so many changes and upheavals. He shuffles off with the nurse to get his legs dressed, waving and smiling, muttering Tis a bugger.

A few minutes later and the MIU HCA is looking at my scar which is excellent, and in a flash she’s replaced the dressing with one that I barely notice. I have been worrying, because of the head bog. I’m not minor injuries trained, although a number of paramedics now are. It’s a specialised area, assessing wounds and how best to treat them. My approach is the classic ambulance one – clean, cover with something sterile and big to prevent infection that ensures nobody thinks you’re a Johnner (St John Ambulance are known for their most beautiful bandaging) and send them off for a professional assessment. When it comes to more significant injuries, and in particular head trauma, there’s one sign that we all look for; bogginess. It took me some time to work out what that meant when I started in the ambulance service, but once you’ve encountered it you know. We all talk about head injuries, but bogginess hints at the real concern which is compromise to the skull and thus an underlying brain injury. A boggy head wound goes to the ED, no questions. Now I’m feeling boggy myself and it’s most strange.

One of our favourite wild swims is down the river Aune or Avon from Aveton Gifford to Bantham. We go on the high spring from towards the top of the tidal reach, and swim down the ria three and a bit miles with the ebb. The top stretch is silted mud, and the water is opaqe, greeny orange and brackish. Here when you swim you feel the silt, press with your hands and mould it, release bubbles from dwellers in river mud. I know there’s a world under that brown gloop, a deeper, chthonian world I’m brushing with my hands as I pass. Lower down as the salt water sinks beneath the less dense and cooler river, there’s an area where methane from rotting vegetation is trapped beneath sand layered lightly by currents. As you tread you feel your feet are on clouds and streams of bubbles rise as you move, tickling your legs as you sink back into the water. My head contains a mix of those sensations, and perhaps some Dartmoor mire; one of the places I used to take my nephews bog-trotting, where you run and the ground wibbles and undulates as you pass.

It started with a need to blow my nose. I did so gently, and was surprised by bubbles blipping up from the left nostril beyond my eye. Air in the sinuses. Then when I touched the top of my dressing, the bog in my head began to bubble and squish. Reading the information on craniotomy, the piece of skull is replaced with srews, but is prone to lifting and moving till the bone heals and I guess that’s what I’m feeling, along with the swelling from the op (although I’m happy there’s not much of that as I have no major symptoms). The brain and spinal cord are encased by meninges or membranes, which have beautiful names: the dura mater is the tough mother, the outer protection; the arachnoid mater (spidered with blood vessels) sits beneath; and then the pia mater is the soft mother, the membrane covering the brain itself. Between the latter two is the subarachnoid space, filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that acts as a protective buffer. Those membranes have been cut, and I hope restored. Something I’ll ask about later, how do they repair such fine entities? To notice fluid moving from within is most strange. The potential presence of CSF in the form of watery bleeding from the nose or ears particularly is one of the signs we paramedics look for in our trauma survey and I’ve seen it on a number of occasions. So it’s especially odd to be feeling it, although in such a controlled way. Still, as Mr Fewings says, yes it’s brain surgery but if it goes well it’s fine. I think it’s fine. It just feels odd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Op Hunt saboteur: going under

Where’s my pyjama t shirt? Mum’s ironed one pair of spotted pyjamas she wants me to take but, I never iron pyjamas. I don’t like that horrid little girl pink of the t shirt, nor the little girl hearts on the bottoms. What’s that about? Will the t shirt go over my head after the op?

Have I got a sore throat? I feel a bit chesty too, maybe a cold. If I say nothing will it be okay? But of course I’ve been feeling like this since October, that getting a cold ache and tug as I inhale. Nothing new.

Washing my hands I think of bugs on the towel and grab a fresh one. I used the phone, that must be crawling with microscopic life. I go and wipe it.  Infection control training, a necessary annual annoyance at work, does stick. I was always careful at work of course, primarily because you’re routinely making interventions such as intravenous cannulation where you can introduce pathogens straight into the blood stream. There are also many immune compromised people, and it’s easy to start spreading their nasties to others. But it’s only in the past few weeks that this concern has built into my own life now I’m taking steroids which makes me more liable to infection. I grew up outdoors, covered in mud, drinking unpasteurised milk often straight from the cow. I take the view that we all live in balance, including with the microbiomes that live within us. But not today.

Mum keeps asking have you got your…let me get that, don’t do that I’ll do it… my inner crocodile appears. Bun aka Sausage is most upset this morning. She knows.

There in the back of my brain, is the tangible presence of my tumour, the knowledge of the op, the potentials for what Hunt will turn out to be… but whatever that is, it already is. It’s just that I don’t know who this bogeyman is, what he’s  doing to do to me later on, whether he’ll leave a lingering whiff of aftershave or a large spillage and nothing will get rid of the smell.

I want coffee, I want breakfast. At last it’s 10 o clock and we leave. Back onto Fal Ward, same bag, same label, enhanced sense of dread. Will they cancel again? Finally I get the call to change and head up to blue bay. It’s less busy today. I’m trying not to think about the B word. My anaesthetist flies up. He’s L, a pony-tailed hippy doctor, and we have a chat about the anaesthetic and he explains in detail that he will be asking me to wake up and to consciously make the effort to  breathe at the end at which point he’ll remove the tube. I like detail, and feel reassured.

Finally, I get my HCA with a folder, the final sign that it’s going ahead. He runs thought the last minute bits, name check, allergy check, date of birth, signed consent form. No danger of some imposter getting my op today, I’d probably kill.

We start our walk to the theatre waiting room. There I ask them about the cancellations. Many of the people leaving the NHS at the moment are the experienced staff, and staffing is as much a problem as the beds themselves. It’s the same in the ambulance service. Only the young and fresh can keep with the pace and the relentless pressure of under-funding and under-staffing; the whole resourcing issue that is the end result of so-called ‘efficiency savings’, known as ‘cuts’ if like me you can speak plain English.

Mr Fewings my surgeon bursts through the door and hurtles past from the previous op; he’s gowned and wearing a rather up-market embroidered St George’s cross theatre cap.

“Morning young Roper! I’ll be back in a minute to do your op!”

“If you don’t I’ll shoot you.”

“My wife’ll probably do that for you.”

The HCA and I are called and walk to the anaesthetics room for Theatre 6. Lots of kit, my HCA, a theatre sister, D, who likes to swim in the sea, and C the anaesthetics registrar who I discover has had an interesting career path including a spell as a GP. He’s wearing a gown in a particularly fine shade of blue, another good sign.

C is going to start by inserting an intravenous cannula. I don’t even feel it, and then notice it’s a grey, wide bore, into my hand. Any paramedic would be impressed by that. Next, however, comes an arterial line for instant monitoring of my blood pressure during the surgery. This goes into the radial artery in my left wrist. A stab of fear. I don’t mind needles usually. My left hand still isn’t entirely sure where it is, and there’s a period of struggle where I’m failing to hold my arm or hand in the right place before I remember that thanks to Hunt, while I might think it’s in one place, it’s most likely not. So I end up with a board to put my arm on.

The arterial line presents some problems because I have a small and oddly-angled radial artery. C uses more local anaesthetic each time, but I’m fretting about it, feeling afraid of the next stab although it’s perfectly bearable. More displacement fears, something to latch onto in a physical sense. After a chat with L, C tries again using ultrasound. I begin to get that faint feeling, the sicky ugh. I can hear them discussing it, it looks to be in but isn’t. I ask for a couple of minutes to get over it, which they give me. D talks more about the sea to distract me. At this point I discover that L likes to swim under the full moon at Crazywell Pool, one of my favorite wild swimming spots on the moor. I’ve got the right gang in here; but I’m still really fretful. I hate it.

L takes over the arterial line as he explains to C about the planes of the artery. I think back to all those intravenous cannulations (into the vein which is far less complicated than this) where you miss, and start to lose confidence. I had one period as a new paramedic where I felt I’d never get one in again. Then whop, in goes a difficult one, and your confidence returns. You start to feel them in three dimensions. Noddy stuff by comparison of course.

We’ve now been almost half an hour; it’s 1 o clock. I’ve enjoyed chatting with the team as they distracted and tried to relax me. It’s a new experience for me to feel so anxious about things like needles, the minor transient ache-pains that I know I have to go through. It’s just today I don’t want to. I don’t want to be here, but I know I must.

And then the atmosphere turns as L switches into professional mode to get me anaesthetised. The padded mask, quite claustrophobic and I can’t feel the oxygen coming through. that horrid curry-sauce scent that reminds me of Scottish vomit (x pints o’ Heavy, chips and curry sauce being the most usual stomach contents encountered in the pool hall I used to work in as a student). Why do masks smell like that? I take deep breaths, in and out, in and out, oxygenating ready for inubation.

The hiss of gas, the curry still, D’s face, L looking at me, his green cap has a dangly back for the ponytail and bobs wobbles as he talks; the motion is like the dippers bowing and bobbing underwater in the Tavy. The plastic insert in the ceiling pulls me, concentric circles in white. There you go Lynne…

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Negative positivity

I’ve been thinking about positivity a lot recently. It feels good to have positive vibes heading my way from all directions. Yet positivity is also a kind of scourge of our age.

The expectation of a positive outlook can exert a huge pressure onto a person like me, who is in a situation where life is literally subject to the whims of fate. Positivity given is always meant well in my experience, but how often it has the opposite effect. I tend to be positive, to take positive – if not crusading – actions. But sometimes I want to scream, or lie on the floor and give up. That starts to feel like a failing when you’re being held up as a paragon or an amazing person for getting on with it in whatever way presents itself. If that involves three months of crying constantly, then I don’t have a problem with that. It might even be a positive act.

I know I’m lucky; lucky to be able to write and to have found a wonderful writers’ group in Stirling where I attended the university as a mature student in the 1990s. The writers at the local, council-supported group were instrumental in the development of my style and interests. One of my favourite quotes on how to be a writer is from the late, great Maya Angelou whose writing I first encountered via the group:

“Some critics will write ‘Maya Angelou is a natural writer’ – which is right after being a natural heart surgeon.”

It’s being able to write, and being able to adapt to the brain swelling-related deficits in that area, that’s enabled me to keep going with my head pretty intact through the trauma of the past few weeks. It’s also given me a purpose where the various elements of my fairly random life path have melded into this blog.

One aspect of dealing with the big C word is the power that word holds; I described it as a Jihadi snuff movie in an earlier post. Having already had breast cancer in 2010/11, this isn’t a new experience. There are plenty of other illnesses that are equally or more life-threatening, yet they don’t carry the punch; If there’s a disease of the age, cancer is to us as TB was to the Victorians. However, considering a brain tumour is quite another thing. It’s affecting me in a way that breast cancer never did (I didn’t even know that was there), because it’s messing literally with my mind and also my body. I feel ill.

When I was on the speedily efficient pathway towards neurosurgery at the start, I had a momentum. That came to a juddering halt two weeks ago when the meteor of the bed crisis walloped into my path, cracking the earth beneath my feet and setting up a series of tremors and reverberations that continue to circle. Circling is not what I need, I need a positive pathway towards discovering the nature of Hunt and then a treatment plan. So to be hit by the arrows of mindless positivity really does grate at the moment. As does being told how well I look. It’s the steroids. I neither feel, nor am I well.

Hunt the tumour made himself known as the steroids reduced the surrounding swelling which had caused me so many problems over the past months.  I felt Hunt initally as a pliable, generalised right-sided entity, but now he has assumed a more weighty form. He’s curdled and crusted into a hard-edged, dark presence like a bakelite light switch. His carapace still wobbles at the back of my neck, but I can feel him exerting pressure and the focus of my headache is there. Worse I can feel him growing. Little prickles, an outwards force from the centre. All in my head? Yes. But whichever way you interpret that, it’s not positive.

I’ve had to continue ask people to back away from messaging me, because I can’t connect with them at the moment.  While they’re all asking me not to reply, I feel bad not doing so. The utter desolation from Friday’s cancelled surgery meant that each kind thought and positive message made me feel more like Saint Sebastian, under barrage from ironic arrows as everyone tried to tell me it’d be alright. It won’t. So much love and support is what’s keeping me going, of course, but I can’t always engage with it because this is my world, and as Kari keeps telling me, it’s bloody hard, and it’s going to get harder. I like that. I need to know the worst too. I need to deal with that.

Addenda

Yesterday my cousin Sarah and heavily-pregnant goddaughter Kayleigh visited. We talked for hours about our childhood, and about Kayleigh’s baby and plans for the future. We also talked about some of the darker aspects of life. I’d call that a positive experience overall, with some balance.

My GP also called to see how I am, having seen the BBC Spotlight interview. My white cell count is slightly raised from the bloods he took last week, and so he wants to do another blood test this week in case I’m brewing an infection. Hopefully though it’s just the effects of the steroids. He has emailed Sarah Wollaston MP, who was a Devon GP and whom he knows, on my behalf. The NHS is still there for me.

I didn’t hear from the hospital which is beyond disappointing, and I got no reply to my calls, leaving a message on Tony’s answerphone in the end. After Friday, I think they owe me a call even if it’s to say, as I suspect, that this week’s not looking good either. My friend from Friday, however, texted and has had her new date confirmed, which cheered me no end. She also advised me to contact my Macmillan nurse to chase up what’s going on; Ellie had come to see me as I waited for surgery on Friday, but didn’t know it had been cancelled. I’d forgotten about Macmillan in the rush, because I wanted to get the surgery out of the way and it had been full steam ahead. I can also have some complimentary therapies there. So my plan today is to access some of that holistic support offered by Macmillan.