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.