Saturday, 20 October 2018

Another health bulletin: the good news is that I won't be losing my hair! (And who is/was Garry Weston?)

Three weeks' ago, I had my first appointment with the oncologists at Hammersmith Hospital, where my wife and I learned that my inoperable pancreatic cancer meant that, without any form of intervention, I wouldn't be around to celebrate Christmas next year. A number of options were mentioned - one clinical trial involving chemotherapy and a series of endoscopic procedures during which the tumour would be "burned", another trial involving heavy duty chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and a standard course of weekly chemotherapy over several months. Last week, I returned to the hospital for a scan and a blood test, and this Thursday - having finally steeled myself to read all the literature they'd handed me on my first visit - I had separate chats with a surgeon involved in the trials, my oncology nurse, and my oncologist...

The upshot is that I won't be taking part in either of the trials, and I won't be receiving the standard chemotherapy treatment. I have a month to reconsider, but my mind's made up: when I next visit the oncologists, I'll be discharged and handed over to the palliative care team, who'll be responsible for my welfare between then and closing time.

My wife accompanied me to the hospital, but we'd already decided she wouldn't attend the meetings this time. To use a sports analogy, it's probably a lot easier for a player to take a beating in a match than it is for their nearest and dearest to watch him or her being slaughtered by the opposition (if I'm Roger Federer, then the cancer is Rafael Nadal, and we're playing on clay rather than grass). I also suspected that the medics might try to pull their punches if my wife were present - and I just wanted the unalloyed truth, which is that the most I would gain from any form of treatment would be a few extra months, and that I'd spend most of that time feeling dreadful because of the side effects of chemotherapy.  As Martin Luther King Jr put it, “The quality, not the longevity, of one's life is what is important" - and, in any case, thanks to five years of CFS/ME, I'm already experiencing some of the side-effects commonly associated with chemotherapy, and have absolutely no desire to intensify or multiply them.

At the end of my final meeting on Thursday, I asked the oncologist if he thought I was making a mistake. He responded by saying that, of all the cancers, the pancreatic version is amongst the least responsive to chemotherapy. I could have hugged him for his honesty - he was also very direct about what's likely to happen to me as I near the end, which is likely to be the same, whatever I do between now and then. I felt relieved and cheerful as my wife and I waited for a taxi to take us home - it was almost as if I'd been given the all clear! Partly (and this will sound ridiculous) it was the realisation that there's a good chance I'll retain my barnet right to the end. I've no idea why this matters to me, but it does. I'm not in the least vain about my physical appearance (I have little to be vain about), but I'm convinced baldness would not necessarily enhance my looks. As my Scottish ancestors have bequeathed me hirsute jeans (even more so in the case of my brother), it would seem a shame to throw my inheritance away needlessly.

I won't write about the state of my health (or lack of it) again until there's some major change. Right now, my main focus is on trying to sort out some debilitating digestive problems (probably caused by the tumour pressing on my duodenum), and to wean myself off the steroid the oncologist have had me on for the past three weeks, which has exacerbated my insomnia and sent my blood-sugar levels rocketing, and which, despite the fact that it was supposed to increase my energy levels in preparation for possible medical treatment, has left me feeling even more knackered than usual!

Some observations to end with:

There's an Asian (by which I mean Indian) phlebotomist at the hospital's Garry Weston Centre who seems to have perfected the art of completely painless blood extraction - he's done me three times now, and I genuinely haven't felt a thing when he slips the needle into the vein. Remarkable. (He also displays an enjoyably laconic sense of humour.)

The place I've had to report to each time is the aforementioned Garry (or Gary - it's spelled both way on various official websites) Weston Centre, situated in a modern building at the back of the hospital. I've had a hunt online, but I can't find any explanation of how this building got its name. Presumably, it was named after the billionaire Canadian philanthropist chairman of Associated British Foods and Fortnum and Mason's, who died in 2002. But if the centre was named after him, why isn't there some acknowledgement of the fact? I can't believe that even an organisation as institutionally left wing as the NHS would be petty enough to airbrush the man from their history just because he was a keen supporter of Mrs. Thatcher. Or is it named after another Garry/Gary Weston: if so, who was he?

On each of our last three visits to Hammersmith Hospital, we expected to be out within an hour of arriving - but haven't yet managed to escape in less than three and a half hours. I'm not complaining - I'm just not sure why this should be the case.

What is the point of making patients waiting for a scan swap their tops for an uncomfortable hospital gown and then have them sit in a corridor wearing the damned thing when - as in my case - they won't be dealt with for over two hours? If it's to differentiate between patients and those accompanying them, why not just give us a sticker to wear?

I wish I'd taken a photograph of the elegantly hand-written whiteboard notice on the wall where we were waiting for our scans, which informed us that there were delays of over an hour. Not being at my sharpest (I hadn't had anything to eat for 18 hours), it took me at least ten minutes to figure out that "Pimping Times" meant "Waiting Times".

Why is it that, as soon as you've been diagnosed with terminal cancer, every other television programme, news item and advert seems to be about cancer or about taking out insurance to pay for one's own fucking funeral? Enough already!

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