Cancer & Me 30 Years On (Part 5 – The Recovery)

As you may have seen in the last chapter, my abdominoperineal resection was in November 1987 and coming round from the procedure (as everyone who has had major surgery will know) found tubes feeding in or out of every orifice – and even from where there were no natural openings. I was given regular injections and they eased the pain, but I noticed that I felt sick after each jab and I was losing control of my senses (and far from the rather wonderful effect created by the intravenous Valium I had been given previously). I itched all over and thought it might be due to the protective covering over the mattress. For a couple of days it was a pattern of pain, injection, coughing, vomiting (exacerbated by the aspiration tube running down the back of my throat) and semi-consciousness, not necessarily in that order, but always nausea and oblivion following the morphine jab.

It was then time for me to venture out of bed and the nurse came with the injection, which I declined, but she insisted, saying I must – I’d had half my insides removed and I would be in such pain if I didn’t have the drug. Taking her advice I had the jab and was helped into a chair, but almost immediately the room started spinning and as soon as my bed was made I climbed back in again. Definitely no more! As a result the sickness eased off and so did the itching. I was allergic to Omnopon!

Next day when Dorothea came to visit I got up and she helped me wash my hair in the washbasin. The registrar came in unexpectedly and caught us in the act, but he was pleasantly surprised and soon after that I started taking regular exercise along the corridors. My biggest setback was the wind for I hadn’t been told I would no longer have any control over it (I know, it should have been obvious to me) and I’d never been known for farting in public. Now I would let off the most enormous rip-roaring farts at the most inopportune moments! It was terribly distressing and I wished I were dead!

Friends came from far and wide to visit and my little room resembled a florists shop. The staff at Christies excelled and the hospital was worthy of its good reputation – and by this time I had experience of the radiation departments, surgical and medical wards. The weirdest thing to happen was a visit from some ex-relatives in the nursing profession, who were more interested in the nitty-gritty of my surgery, rather than my well-being and wanted to see my battle scars for their own edification!

My stay in hospital lasted two weeks and needless to say I wasn’t feeling my best, but had made every effort to get myself fit before being admitted. I’d exercised regularly and made a decision to give up red meat (with the exception of the occasional bacon butty and the delicious cooked ham from our local butcher). I had read that red meat was more carcinogenic than white (at that point I was pretending bacon/ham belonged to the white meat category as I felt I needed the occasional treat, but probably a bad decision) and it appeared that some people advocated a vegetarian or even vegan diet, but I didn’t think I could cope with a strict regime. When I was pregnant with my eldest son I was a pescetarian, but apparently became anaemic and had an obstetrician swearing at me and telling me to eat plenty of liver or I was not to expect a blood transfusion from him if my baby or myself needed it! (I use the word ‘apparently’ because in my late 50s I discovered that both my father and I have a genetic condition called alpha-thalassaemia, a blood disorder and apart from other complicated stuff, it means that a haemoglobin reading can be inaccurate and the patient can therefore be prescribed iron inappropriately, which had happened to Dad and me all our lives up until that discovery).

My friend Marian in Zambia in whose house I had a studio, had suggested I get prints made from some of the flower paintings I had been commissioned to do, so I invested some money in having prints produced of a hibiscus flower and a white bougainvillea. At the time there was very little to buy in Zambia in the way of gifts, so my friends rallied round, ordered sets of prints, which I then wrapped in tissue, gift wrap, stiff card and large envelopes and sent off to their relatives in UK (or elsewhere) as Christmas presents. It worked well, their problem of gifts had been addressed and I was making a couple of pounds on each print. Result!

It was to be the second marriage I had walked away from with no settlement or financial support for my sons or myself, but although I had every intention of enjoying life to the full, I vowed never to get seriously involved with anyone – ever again!. My mother was particularly delighted at this news for to her it meant a live-in housekeeper and carer for the rest of her days. My dad wasn’t so thrilled for he didn’t want to think of his little girl, his only child, having nobody to look after her in later years. So there I was, living with my elderly parents in their council house, what should I do? I’d been in Zambia for 17 years, living in a sleepy little town on the edge of the African bush and I felt my work was stale and/or effete and in a different world to the conceptual art which was fashionable in the UK. If I were going to support myself, I would have to buck my ideas up and go back to college to re-educate (it was still in the days of government grants), but where, what, when? Logically it would be best to find an art school within daily travelling distance of my folks (living in a house with young students and shared bathroom could prove difficult with a colostomy), so I needed to see what was on offer. The nearest education office was four miles away, so that would be my first port of call to see if they had any prospectuses. It was January 1988, two months after my op and I decided to walk, not only to save on the bus fare, but also to test my fitness. No point in me enrolling at a college if I wasn’t up to it physically.

Off I set and it took me an hour, which was just about normal for me, but I didn’t think I could walk home again, so decided on the bus for the return journey. There weren’t any prospectuses at the office, but they let me go through their archive and it soon became apparent that Liverpool Polytechnic was probably my best option, so I applied to do Fine Art and awaited an interview in May. The weeks passed and I did lots of painting and drawing in preparation, worked on a few commissions, caught up with old friends and made some new ones.

My two sons have always been a source of great joy and laughter, incredibly supportive and would never allow me to feel sorry for myself, poking fun at me at every opportunity and referring to me regularly as the bag lady! My elder son had just graduated with a combined science degree in maths/chemistry, but had been asked by his dad to go and labour for him on his latest business scheme – a damp-proofing franchise – and for that he would get his board and lodging and payment as and when. I saw very little of him from then on as he was 200 miles away, but my younger son was then at university in the next county and so I saw him quite often and we had some great times together.

At the end of April and beginning of May, my friend Alma invited me to spend two weeks with her at her time-share in Lanzarote – and another friend offered to pay my airfare, so footloose and fancy free for the first time since I was 14, off I went for my first holiday in Europe. Two other friends, Fran and Malcolm, had asked me to go to Menorca with them, as they were intending spending two weeks in a lovely villa right on the Mediterranean, belonging to two mutual friends. (Not a day goes by without me thinking how good friends have been to me and how lucky I am). The only problem being that I wouldn’t have time to get home to my folks from the first trip before I had to fly to Gatwick to meet Fran and Malcolm. Undeterred I arrived back from Lanzarote and spent the night on three chairs in the waiting room at Manchester Airport in order to fly to Gatwick on the first flight next morning!

I had kept up my daily exercise routine and spent lots of time swimming, finding some consolation in still being able to wear a bikini. I just tucked in whatever appliance I was wearing and was then experimenting with what was know as a stoma plug, which literally plugged up the stoma if it was inactive at that time. My biggest problem was that my stoma never settled down to any regular bowel movements, so I never could anticipate what was going to happen and when – an eruption could occur at any time!



Lanzarote 2

Burnham & Lanzarote 3  Menorca & Lanzarote 3

Burnham & Lanzarote 2

I met Fran at Gatwick, but not Malcolm, as he had an important job interview and had decided to remain at home, so Fran and I went off together for two weeks in the sun, except the first week was freezing and having just spent two glorious weeks in the Canaries I was totally unprepared for the cold – and so was Fran for that matter and the marble floors and walls of the villa were not exactly warm and cosy – so we kept warm by sharing a bed!


Menorca 2 Menorca 3Menorca & Lanzarote 1  Menorca & Lanzarote 2

From the bedroom we could watch the ships sail by on the Med.

The weather did improve and we had a hilarious time together. The holiday was rounded off by my suitcase falling apart and me travelling home with all my clothes bundled up in a chitenge (African fabric sarong) in true Zambian style – and thrown into the hold with a luggage label attached! It was two day before my interview at Liverpool Poly.