Part 19: And we’ll run for our lives

Cancer doesn't end when you're NED.

Stuck in Lockdown means we are getting in lots of puppy training. Although it's not so good for socialisation. Oh, and it snowed.

Sometimes I can walk in to the hospital and it’s fine. Other times, like yesterday, I start to feel a little shaky. Panicky.

The Surgery AEC unit is opposite Dilham ward. Dilham ward is for surgical in-patients. Dilham ward is where I was sent following my operation in 2019. Dilham ward is a morphine blur of pain and vomit, of disembodied voices and being unable to dress myself.

I peer through the double doors to the reception desk that I can only vaguely place. My chest feels tight, my eyes get hot. I feel a little sick and I wonder how long it will take till I am no longer revisited by these sensations. Just thinking about the chemo ward is enough for the nausea to creep into the pit of my stomach and the back of my throat.

I take a deep breath and turn in to the AEC unit.

So how did I end up back here? I guess it starts somewhere over the past few months, when I looked down to find that I was bleeding again.

I sigh and check the app I downloaded to keep track of these things. Although I don’t need to check. I know. ‘It is only 7 days since your last period. Are you sure this is correct?’ the app asks me when I tap on today’s date and select ‘period starts’. I swipe back through the last 3 or 4 months and let out the breath I’ve been holding. The pink days showing when I was bleeding swamp the white days when I was not. I dig out my mooncup and decide it’s time to book a call back from my GP.

He assures me that it is most likely just the chemo after effects (once more I am reminded how lucky I was to have been able to freeze my embryos) – but requests a blood test to check my hormone levels just in case. He warns me that even if there is an imbalance, my history of pulmonary embolisms means that it is unlikely I will safely be able to medicate. But, it’s worth knowing I guess.

The blood test doesn’t tell us much, except that I am still anaemic. Oh and that my cholesterol is slightly high. We discuss my diet and lifestyle and he decides it must be genetic. ‘Thanks body…letting me down again’ I think. ‘No matter how hard I try you just can’t do what you’re supposed to.’

‘Are you feeling particularly tired?’ he asks me.

‘No,’ I reply, honestly.

But I am sent off to get some iron tablets anyway and to get used to bleeding.

I actually feel good. More than good, in fact. My running is going well. My times are dropping significantly and I am back to clocking up 30 miles a week.

Now, just as during chemo, just as before diagnosis (when it helped me realise something was wrong), running is something of a saviour. When I run, I know that I am ok. When my lungs hurt and my thighs hurt I feel alive; I feel free.

I know that if my times are improving I cannot be dying.

After about a week, the iron tablets start to make me ill: gassy and bloated and uncomfortable. And worse than that? They start ruining my runs. About half way through a target 7:30 minute mile 10k tempo I have to stop several times to allow the cramps to pass; my target speed goes out the window.

The next week my speed session goes the same way, but at least this time I am a bit closer to home.

At nights I find myself reaching for heat pads and hot water bottles and peppermint tea.

Eventually I can’t bare it any more, stop taking the iron and book another call back with my GP. He suggests I try a product called Spatone instead.

But a week passes and I am still constipated; by the Saturday afternoon I also have a pain in my abdomen, close to where the section of my bowel has been removed. It feels as though I’ve pulled or strained a muscle, but have no recollection of doing this. It makes it hard to move and when I press on my stomach it’s really tender.

On top of this, the toes on my foot with the Morton’s Neuroma start hurting and I have to have a complete break from running. I feel frustrated and let down by my body again. But more so, I feel a bit scared. If I can’t run, how do I know I’m not dying?

I take laxatives and nurse this pain for yet another week before booking yet another call back. I am prescribed a different type of laxative to take alongside the one I am already taking: I was up to 3 sachets of Laxido a day. The GP says give it another week, and if there’s no improvement he’ll send me for an ultrasound.

I start to imagine what might be wrong. I am convinced that either my cancer is back, or the scar tissue from my operation has become infected. I play out all the scenarios in my head. I worry about work. What if I do need more surgery? Or chemo? I worry that if I have to have more treatment my students will feel abandoned and that I will lose my courses. I wonder if I could somehow keep working this time. Because I have really been enjoying work – in a way I have never done before. Having my own course has given me greater responsibility and greater connection with my students. For the first time in years I look forward to my working day; I am enjoying the challenge of planning my lessons and working out the best way to approach demanding topics. I am loving the intellectual challenge of A Level Philosophy and Language. My adult GCSE group is engaged and fulfilling. I’m even enjoying my 16-19 GCSE lessons. And yes, teaching on-line is tiring but I feel on top of things finally. I don’t want to return to sick leave.

I get through the week: I am still reliant on laxatives (which brings its own discomfort) but the pain is up and down – if I can have a poo it lifts, but it returns after eating, and most nights I go to bed with a heat pad. I am starting to get a bit down; I am scared. And I am angry. I hear from a friend that her mum has been diagnosed with cancer for the first time and another friend’s cancer has returned.

Apart from Steve I don’t share my worries with anyone. Not even my Mum.

After a particularly uncomfortable night I book a final call back from my GP (we are still in Lockdown in the UK so face to face consultations are rare). He calls me back the following day. That morning I had managed to have a poo (after about 4 days) so I am feeling a bit better than I had been. The pain is still there though and he asks me to come in so he can examine my stomach. It feels ok, but he phones the hospital anyway – ‘given your history,’ he explains ‘I’d rather check.’

‘I feel like a hypochondriac,’ I tell him. He tells me I’m not, he tells me I’m sensible.

‘It’s probably nothing, but the problem is,’ I explain, ‘I told myself it was probably nothing before.’

And that’s why I am here. In the Surgical AEC unit, suppressing my panic, revisiting the memories my past trauma. Waiting. Because even though it’s probably nothing, it might not be.

By the time I am seen the pain is barely there. I haven’t eaten since breakfast, I’ve had a poo – the pressure has gone I guess. I feel like an idiot. My tests come back fine and after 5 hours I am allowed to go home. I am advised to double my laxative dose and keep taking them for another week. It’s most likely just a build-up that needs pushing through, but they will book me in for an ultrasound just in case.

I feel relieved. I feel stupid. I feel tired.

And I try to accept that this is just part of who I am now: this constant wavering between feeling alive and free, and feeling anxious and scared and spending hours in hospital waiting rooms because it’s better to know than to not: better to feel stupid than trapped in a cycle of silently calculating my own mortality.

Today I manage my first relatively pain free run in a while; then the double doses of Laxido kick in.

And despite this, the pain is back.

Left: One of the bonuses of cancer has been getting my first vaccine. It made me a bit ill but wasn't too bad. Right: Roo is feeling her age these days so isn't getting out to as many adventures. But she still likes cuddles.