Cancer & Me – Thirty Years On (Part 2 – Best Friends Forever)

Visiting a doctor at any time can be embarrassing, but when it involves anal examinations and biopsies – and two of the doctors concerned are people you meet socially, well, it doesn’t get much worse! That said, there is no doubt in my mind that my friends Indira and George were instrumental in saving my life and I can never thank them enough. Without them and the doctors I would meet along the way, I would never have seen my boys graduate, get married and have children – and neither would I have met the love of my life.


Having just been given the bad news, we left the hospital and drove around to my friend’s house to tell her in person. As I didn’t want any blubbering I thought the best thing would be to make light of it and spit it out as quickly as possible. ‘Hi Joan, just seen George, put the kettle on, get the brandy out, I’ve got cancer and need a drink!’ Without having time to think about it Joan went over to automatic pilot!

As mentioned in Part One, I didn’t even have enough money for a flight home from Zambia, but I had nowhere to stay down in South Africa, so somehow or other I would have to raise the money to head back to my parents in England. By coincidence my ex was getting a lift to Harare to fly from there to the UK as the flights from Zimbabwe were much cheaper. We were still friends at that time so I thought I might be able to get a lift with him and his driver and also take advantage of the cheaper flight. I rang his home and spoke to his wife and passed my idea by her. Astonishingly (I thought we were friends too) she refused to give me the contact details of where he was staying in Lusaka, saying I couldn’t possibly make the journey with him! I’d just told her about my cancer, so words failed me, but I did phone her back later and ask if she would at least tell him I was ill and on the assumption he would be in the UK before me, ask if he would kindly tell his sister (a good friend of mine), prepare my folks and tell our sons.

Joan had phoned around with the news and my husband had gone out to see what he could organise in the way of getting together enough money for my fare. During the course of the day I had a steady stream of visitors and phone calls, but the only one I really remember was a call from my friend Jill and her daughter, Julie. Not a lot was said – they just howled!

Within hours another friend had lent me the fare, the ticket was bought and two days later I was off on my own from Ndola airport. The same friend had arranged for her sister to collect me from Lusaka airport and take me back to her place for lunch, as there was a long wait before the flight to Frankfurt where I would make my connection to the UK. Whilst I was there she received a call from her sister, saying the Zambian Freemasons had taken an interest in my situation and if I was unable to obtain speedy treatment at a hospital local to my parents, I was to contact a certain person and he would arrange for me to be treated at the Royal Masonic Hospital in London.

I knew very little about the Freemasons and had previously enjoyed a laugh at their purported funny handshakes and secret society in general. I had helped the wives when they had to do catering for their men at various events and once even made a celebration cake for a friend’s husband who was to be inaugurated as Worshipful Master (or whatever). What I hadn’t realised was the amount of good works they did secretly – and it seemed I was classed as a ‘worthy cause’! As it turned out I had no need to take up their kind offer, but I was very grateful to them and it made me very much more aware of their good deeds.

On the flight to Frankfurt I recalled the previous evening when I had arranged to meet all my friends at the Pony Club. For all I knew it might be the last time I would see them, so I had to make the effort, though really I should have been preparing for my trip.

A piano had appeared from nowhere and to this day I have no idea if it was there due to some function the previous weekend or if my friend/s had arranged for it to be there just for me, as it was well known that in the true Irish fashion of my paternal ancestors, I love a good sing-song. It was a bit of a joke, as I have a terrible voice, but under the influence of a couple of drinks that does not deter me, in fact I would often be instrumental in initiating a musical evening – or perhaps not so musical evening!

The evening dragged on with my friend Mike at the piano, playing all my favourite tunes. Many of my friends were in tears, but I was bearing up quite well until Mike played ‘You Are My Sunshine’. When he got to the ‘please don’t take my sunshine away’ I became somewhat emotional, but did my best to fight back the tears. Looking around at all my friends I felt blessed, but wondered when they would be going home as I was leaving early next morning and had lots of stuff to be doing! Obviously I didn’t want to leave before them, as they had made so much effort and I was hanging on to every precious moment. It took me some while to realise they were staying with me as long as I remained there. Eventually the penny dropped and we all left together!

Several of them had given me cards to open on the aircraft and firm instructions not to open them beforehand. When I did so on the flight I found them to be stuffed with cheques with a value of over £650! Good friends indeed!

It was early February – still hot when I flew from Lusaka to winter in Germany, where I had to catch a connecting flight. When we reached Frankfurt the pilot announced it was minus nine degrees, but with the wind-chill factor it was -16˚. The passengers gasped when the doors opened and the cold air rushed in – and walking out of the aircraft onto the top of the steps we could hardly breath so made our way with great haste to the buses that would transport us to the terminal building. As I had a couple of hours to wait for my connecting flight I decided to phone friends living in Frankfurt, thinking it could possibly be for the last time. I recognised Horst’s voice and said in my best German, ‘Guten morgen! He replied, ‘Good morning, may I help you?’ So much for my attempt at speaking his language!

When we left Frankfurt the weather outside was bright and crystal clear, the white tipped mountains swathed in soft cotton-wool clouds. Earlier, when we had flown over the Alps on our way to Germany it was still dark, so I missed the view then. As the cloud cleared and the mountains gave way to the lowlands the ground remained white, just divided into irregular sections by hedges, trees and roads. We flew over Ostend and across the Channel and it was dazzling in the sunlight. Even above Folkestone and Dover we could see the snow extending from the sea and covering the whole of southern England. Above Nottingham I thought of my elder son down below, probably still tucked up in his bed at his student accommodation, blissfully unaware of what was happening to me.

Manchester was relatively green and quite mild at 1°C, but this time the giant vacuum hose was waiting to suck us from the aircraft and save us from the elements. I made my way with the few passengers (mainly businessmen carrying only brief cases or hand luggage) to the arrivals hall and loitered awhile, looking at the horrendous photos and literature about rabies – not pretty!

I trotted down the stairs to await my luggage and there were five suitcases already waiting on the conveyor. Before I had time to think about how long I might have to wait for mine, a porter called over to me, “Is yours not there, love?” “No!” not thinking there was any undue delay. “Did you start your journey in Frankfurt?” “No, Zambia.” “Gawd!” came the reply and like a man who knows the ropes he went to the nearest phone, spoke to someone for a few minutes and then returned to tell me he’d had the aircraft checked and my luggage wasn’t there and there was a man on his way down to see me. Moments later we saw a uniformed guy hurrying towards us.

“Come with me, give me your details, is your address on the case, what sort of case is it?” (showing me a giant chart with every conceivable suitcase type on it). He took my ticket and fed all the information into the computer. I filled out the customs declaration and he said my case would automatically be opened when it did arrive. I said I hoped my banana bark picture didn’t fall into the prohibited plants category. He replied he didn’t think that was a problem, they would mainly be looking for living plants, arms, meat, heroin, marijuana ivory and rhino horn. I scoffed and said, “hardly!’ as I exposed my tee-shirt to him, with the Save The Rhino logo emblazoned across my bosom. He wasn’t impressed with tee-shirt – or bosom!

The little man seemed confident that my case would arrive on the evening flight from Frankfurt and would be dispatched by carrier to my address the following day. I’d always advocated carrying a change of clothing in one’s hand baggage, but of course on this occasion I had forgotten!

I was met by my very good (ex-Zambian) friend, Dorothea (a nurse) and her youngest son who were looking everywhere for me, as all the other passengers from Frankfurt had left long before I appeared. We drove to their house in Manchester for a cuppa and then to my home town to meet my ex-sister-in-law who worked in admin at our local hospital. Apparently my ex had already been in touch with her and she had contacted my GP, so already the wheels were in motion – and she had made an appointment for me to see him later that day. Dorothea left us then and returned to Manchester as I went off to see the GP. I gave him the letter George had written for him and without examining me he said he would refer me to a consultant .

By the time I got back from the health centre my ex had arrived at his sister’s and he came with me to break the news to my folks. He also agreed to contact our son at university and bring home our other son from school on the Friday, as he only boarded four nights a week. The journey home would also give them time to discuss my situation, so that I wouldn’t have that difficult task, though needless to say, our meeting was still very emotional.

Eventually I received the appointment with the consultant, who in turn organised another biopsy – and barium enema x-Ray, the very name filling me full of dread, but nothing had prepared me for what preceded it. I was given two sachets of the laxative Picolax to take, one sachet 24 hours before the x-ray and then another 12 hours before and also a diet sheet for that period. The idea being to flush out the entire system and as soon as the first sachet started to work I was frightened to leave the toilet. Not only that, I was vomiting to an extent were I though my whole stomach was coming up into my throat. I couldn’t even keep water down, so became terribly dehydrated which caused a screaming headache. Then came the second sachet, which I took as per instructions. Big mistake, as by that time I had no strength left and was either sitting on the loo or retching uncontrollably – or both. I could barely stand and had no idea how I was going to get to the hospital. I wouldn’t even have made it to the bus stop and no way a taxi driver would have taken me with a bowl sitting on my lap! My mother hatched a plan and went and asked her neighbour, even older than she and in his late 70s, if he would take me. Together they practically carried me to his car and bundled me inside.

I didn’t want Mum to come, so off I went with Mr Peet. When we reached the hospital I said he had no need to wait as I had no idea how long I would be, but promised to call him if I needed him when it was all over and done with.

Only those who have had a barium enema x-ray can fully understand the discomfort and indignity, so combine that with already feeling like death and you might visualise the scenario. The literature I read beforehand hardly described my personal experience, but I do concede it might have been because I was so unwell due to the effects of the Picolax. You can read more how it is meant to be by clicking here. Good old Mr Peet was still waiting for me when I came out and he took me safely home!

I celebrated my 41st birthday and was smothered in flowers from my friends and some of those in Zambia had clubbed together to buy me a fabulous short-wave radio, which was to keep me in touch with the outside world when I returned to Zambia and it was also responsible for me becoming a big fan of Outlook, The Archers and BBC World Service in general!

My 41st birthday with cake, flowers and short-wave radio.

My 41st birthday with cake, flowers and short-wave radio.

With Mum and Dad on my birthday

With Mum and Dad on my birthday

Back at the local hospital a couple of weeks later, the results of the biopsy and x-ray were given to me by a visiting consultant from Christie Hospital in Manchester, the nearest hospital specialising in cancer at that time. His news seemed more optimistic than the results I initially had in Zambia. He said it was a squamous cell carcinoma, which was a type of skin cancer and he felt it could be treated with radiation. When my son came home from school that Friday, I was able to give him the good news. Associating skin cancer with the sun, he immediately quipped, “well you know Mum, I always thought the sun shone out of your arse!”

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