Cancer & Me 30 Years On (Chapter 9 – Hong Kong and Back to Reality)

It was 1989 and Paul had taken early retirement from his full-time teaching post at Liverpool, but had the opportunity to work there part-time for two days a week. I was still living with my parents, spending as much time as possible with Paul at the weekends.

After the aborted cone biopsy in May at my local hospital (they were also meant to remove a cyst but ‘didn’t have time’) I had started experiencing a heavy ache in my lower abdomen and I reported this to Dr James at one of my regular check-ups at Christies. Over the phone he discussed my case with the professor of gynaecology at St Mary’s Hospital, Manchester, but he didn’t want to take my case because of medical ethics – and especially as he knew the consultant who had attempted to do the earlier cone biopsy, so it was just left that I continued with the regular smears at my local hospital.

That year brought the demise of the new business my ex-husband had started and so one weekend our elder son who had been working for him, made 19 job applications. As is so often the case hardly anyone replied, but one application was successful – and that took him off to the Far East and he bought me an airline ticket to go and visit him early the following year. My younger son graduated and started work that involved short contracts in the Nigerian swamps and later the Libyan Desert.

I was finding life hectic and even more so with taking time off to go and visit my son. My friend Carol at college had discovered a lump in her breast and fell apart, refusing to tell most other friends and relying mainly on me for support. It was very stressful and after she had her mastectomy she wanted me to look after her, spending some nights and weekends with her and occasionally looking after her young daughter. There was so much to do and I felt I was going under. Fortunately my younger son was between contracts and helped me as much as he could and so did Paul.

1990 and off to Hong Kong I went – and Dorothea came too! It was a 12-hour flight and my son met us at the airport. He announced he was playing rugby that afternoon and we were to go and watch him! It was winter and we sat on the cold concrete steps trying to keep our eyes open. It seemed like a very long game! That evening there was a fancy dress party and ‘would we like to go?’ Dot and I are both party animals, but we resisted the temptation in favour of what we hoped would be two nice warm beds. Alas there is no central heating in Hong Kong so the room was far from warm and I had to irrigate in a freezing cold bathroom!

One of the Ladder Streets, Hong Kong

One of the Ladder Streets, Hong Kong

What an extraordinary time we had – walking around Hong Kong and taking buses, trams, trains and ferries, visiting all the tourist spots. We climbed up every flight of steps (or so it seemed – and they are everywhere), saw most of the temples, visited friends near the mainland border, went to Macau (even travelled in a rickshaw at one point) – and Dorothea shopped at every market! I was exhausted! That ache in my abdomen had been getting worse and whilst on holiday I became stress incontinent. Alarm bells were ringing but I said little.

A means of transport we didn't try!

A means of transport we didn’t try!  

Bamboo scaffolding

Bamboo scaffolding

The Ruins of St Paul's, Macau

The Ruins of St Paul’s, Macau

Paper funeral furniture

Paper funeral furniture

the border post near Fanling

the border post near Fanling

In April I had a check-up and smear as usual at my local hospital and reported the latest developments to the doctor. He said he would discuss the situation with my consultant and he may want to see me himself. It might be that the uterus was pressing on the bladder and I might need a hysterectomy, in which case I would be placed on the waiting list and it could be six months before admission.

Just a few days later during another check-up at Christies, I told Mr Schofield the story and he was not happy that I might have to wait so long if a hysterectomy proved necessary (he actually said he wished he had done that procedure at the same time as the AP resection). He phoned the professor of gynaecology at St Mary’s (the same person Dr James had spoken to) and arranged for me to see him the following day.

The prof was probably in his 60s, extraordinarily attractive and very likeable! He studied the notes from Christies and asked me about my symptoms. He paused for awhile and then said, ‘after all you have been through, my dear, is it not possible this is all in the mind?’ For a moment I was speechless, but after taking a deep breath and gathering myself together I said it might seem a possibility, but I most definitely was not imagining it! He examined me and did a cervical smear. He thought the incontinence was perhaps due to bladder problems and not the uterus, so he arranged for me to attend the Uro-dynamic Clinic the next day.

I had a cystoscopy and yet another undignified procedure that turned out to be – my bladder filled with water and then I was told to cough and jump up and down to see what happened. Yes, I was suffering from stress incontinence! The report would go to the professor and he would act accordingly.

I was admitted to St Mary’s at the end of June for my bladder repair and to have the cyst removed. Irrigation is always a problem in communal loos, but in St Mary’s it was awful. They only had a few toilets situated internally along one side of the ward, with little ventilation and the doors opening right onto the ward. Not only a problem for me, but also for the other patients who might have to wait an hour and a half for me to vacate a loo – and then not the most pleasant atmosphere to enter! Suddenly I was moved to a private room around the corner – with en-suite facilities. I never thought there would be advantages to having a colostomy!

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Cancer & Me 30 Years On (chapter 8 – Good News, Bad News)

A few weeks after my interview I heard that I had been accepted onto the BA (hons) Graphic Design course at Liverpool Poly. I was ecstatic and applied for a grant. It was refused on account of me not being resident in the country for the previous three years. Downhearted I attended an open day at the college and there once again I saw Mr Tall and Lanky – now known as Paul – and told him his efforts had been in vain as my grant application had been refused. Once more I heard him snort – ‘see your solicitor – write to your MP – don’t give up!’ I did just that and got my grant.

A friend's renovation project in Folkestone

A friend’s renovation project in Folkestone

The summer was spent with friends and family, sketching and doing the pre-course work we had been given. I spent several weeks house-sitting for friends (Marion and Juan, in whose house I’d had a studio in Zambia before they moved back to the UK) in Folkestone, where they had also invited my parents to stay awhile. My sons came to visit too on separate occasions and with each of them I took a day trip to Boulogne. There were a few old friends in the area and I also made new ones, not least Mad Matt, an Aussie who was doing the usual back packing stuff in the UK. I was free for the first time since I was 14 and I was reliving my lost teenage years by running riot. I had such a good time in spite of my colostomy and the cancer seemed a million miles away. (Marion actually said that she thought the recurrence of my cancer had been a positive thing as it prompted me to walk away from an oppressive marriage!)

With Mum and Dad in Folkestone

With Mum and Dad in Folkestone

Faces at a dinner party

Faces at a Folkestone Dinner Party

Come the autumn it was back to reality and down to work. I took the course very seriously and found it quite hard, especial the art history and the thought of writing essays filled me with dread (I’d even failed my O Level English!) Field trips were a problem too – youth hostels or cheap hotels with no en-suite bathrooms are not conducive to easy living for ostomates, but I coped. Another big problem was the wind. Farting is a wonderful way to ruin a lecture! I developed coping strategies like coughing or knocking my books to the floor. I’m naturally dyspraxic so that came in quite handy as a cover.

In May of 1989 (during my first academic year) I attended a Well Woman Clinic and they discovered I had carcinoma in situ of the cervix and so I went into my local hospital to have a cone biopsy and a labial cyst removed. I came around from the anaesthetic only to discover they had been unable to perform the operation as the uterus had slipped into the cavity where my colon once was. It was decided just to monitor the cells with six-monthly smears. The cyst wasn’t removed as they ran out of time!

There were other mature students in my year and I became particularly friendly with Carol, a few years younger who had lived in South Africa, so we had that magnificent continent in common as well as our art and marital status. We sat back to back in our little workspaces and over that first year, Paul, who was one of our tutors on Mondays, would frequently come and chat to us. I discovered he drove through my hometown every day on his way to and from work and he offered to give me a lift. I do not believe he had any ulterior motive, but I declined, preferring to drive my old banger to my nearest station and taking the train to and from Liverpool.

Before long it became apparent that all was not well in Paul’s household, culminating in his wife leaving him and moving into a house she had been renovating (with her business partner) less than 100 yards from the marital home – with her boyfriend! By now I had learned this was Paul’s second marriage and only three of the six children were his, the other three were step-children – all grown up and away from home, except his wife’s middle child – a daughter aged 23 and her mother left her in the marital home with Paul! He was devastated by his wife’s infidelity, being terribly naïve and having no idea that this had been brewing. One evening he invited me out for a drink and I was snowed under with college work – and had been determined never to get involved with another man, so declined. He said, ‘I though you were my friend!’ I went for the drink – and as they say, ‘the rest is history!’

Telling Paul about my colostomy had been a major issue, but he was fine about it and as it turned out he had issues of his own which we worked our way around and discovered a whole new life with each other. I couldn’t believe my luck at finding such a man, though he was about to go through another acrimonious divorce and as before, his property and life savings were to be decimated, the apparent injustice of it all leading him into bouts of depression and mood swings.

My colostomy was causing me all sorts of problems; never settling down to a regular pattern and I was constantly worried about the wind, especially during lectures, so the stoma nurses at Christies suggested I try colonic irrigation, which is an enema into the stoma and after the bowel has evacuated you can use just a stoma cap instead of a colostomy pouch or plug. I would have still been quite happy with the plugs, but wind was constantly blowing them out, so with the okay from my surgeon I decided to give irrigation a whirl. He had lived in America for 20 years and said it was the preferred method there for various reasons – and if he had a colostomy it would be the method he would choose. That was good enough for me!

An appointment was made for the stoma nurses to give me a trial run of colonic irrigation. What they didn’t tell me it was the first time for them too! How did I discover this? Well, on the ward at Christies they led me into the bathroom – which, although it is very big and ideal for giving someone a bath and had all the lifting equipment – it doesn’t actually have a toilet in it! Looking at each other they even suggested using a bucket until the practicality actually dawned on them. They are two of the nicest people and I really did feel quite sorry for the dilemma they were in. The only answer was to do it in the communal loo next door, so they filled up the irrigation bag with water from one of the sinks and we all squeezed ourselves into a cubicle, together with a drip stand to hold the water bag. I started to take my panties down, but they said that wouldn’t be necessary as all the faeces are evacuated from the stoma via a long plastic bag into the toilet bowl. Well, that’s the theory!

The pain was excruciating and the amount of excrement unbelievable. We were all shocked and I began to feel faint. To put it bluntly there was shit everywhere and my panties had to be washed. I thought I had gone pale, but they described me as going green! When finally things appeared to have calmed down they applied a colostomy pouch, as they were unsure if a cap would be suitable in light of their immediate experience. I was completely drained – quite literally, so they took me to a bed on the ward and went and brought me some disposable knickers. Then they found Paul and brought us cups of tea. I think it took me a couple of hours to recover and although they gave me the equipment to take home, it had been such a disaster that they didn’t think I would ever try it again. They were wrong and although I do still have problems sometimes – another fine mess has quite a literal meaning, but for me it is still the best method by far, unfortunately it isn’t suitable for everyone.

The First Irrigation

The First Irrigation

After the aborted cone biopsy I had started experiencing a heavy ache in my lower abdomen and I reported this to the registrar when I next attended my local hospital for a smear. He said he would discuss it with my consultant and he may want to see me himself. It might be that the uterus was pressing on the bladder and I may need a hysterectomy, in which case I would be placed on the waiting list and it might be six months before admission….

Cancer & Me – 30 Years On (chapter 7 – A Chance Encouner)

The Graphics department was displaying work that did little to inspire me. I conversed with some students who suggested I go over to the main building in Hope Street and look at the current exhibition. Leaving my heavy portfolio in someone’s office I wandered a little way back down Myrtle Street and turned left into Hope Street, the Philharmonic Hall on my left, the Anglican Cathedral in the direction I was facing and the Roman Catholic Cathedral at the opposite end of Hope Street somewhere behind me. I walked along the street and crossed the road to the Hahnemann Building. ‘Some hope!’ I mused as I entered the imposing building and wandered aimlessly into the exhibition gallery, looking up as someone entered from a door at the opposite end of the room. It was Mr Tall and Lanky. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked, quite clearly happy to see me. I told him my sorry tale, my past experience in art, a brief outline of my cancers, my time in Africa and the need for me to move with modern times and my ambition to get started on a course without further delay.

I told him of my selection committee and how they disparaged me and advised me to do a foundation course. He snorted at the very thought but asked why I didn’t want to do graphics. I explained that I’d had been there, done that and felt too old for the cutting edge of the market. He understood my concerns, but went on to say that graphics covered a wider spectrum that could include printmaking – his department – and anyway, if I got accepted I could always change direction part way through the course and get transferred to painting or sculpture.

He invited me into his department to have a look around and when I had finished doing so I sat with him in his office for a chat and a coffee. I liked what I saw of the printmaking and I liked him. He told me a bit about himself, his years at the college, going back to the days of John Lennon – and that he was married with six children and his wife was a property developer. He asked if he had managed to convince me to change course, but I was still very down in the dumps at the thoughts of having to postpone for another year in order to reapply for Graphics. What would I do for a year? He had the solution; he told me to return to Myrtle Street, collect my portfolio, climb the stairs again and knock on the door of the office at the top, to go in and ‘demand’ to see the Head of Department, Bruce Sabine, the smaller bearded dapper gent I had seen with him on the stairs earlier. I laughed – in no way was I going to demand to see anyone. He was serious, but added – ‘don’t tell him I sent you’. I bade him a fond farewell and retraced my steps.

Knocking tentatively on the door of the office a female voice invited me to enter and I asked to see Mr Sabine. The secretary told me to go right in to his office – did I hear correctly – did she say ‘he’s expecting you?’ Before I could dwell on those words I was in the office and after a brief introduction Bruce Sabine told me to spread my portfolio out on the floor and no sooner had I done this than the door opened and Mr Tall & Lanky entered, grinning. In view of his instructions I was startled to see him (but I had heard the secretary correctly), and they looked at my work together. They asked if I would like to re-apply there and then and I realised this was an opportunity not to be missed. After a bit of form filling they said I would hear if I had been accepted in due course. I thanked them and left with a lighter heart.

Cancer & Me 30 Years On (chapter 6 – The Interview)

The big day of the interview arrived. I was nervous but felt good and had a new-found air of confidence in myself as a woman (if not in my potential as a mature student) – the four weeks in the Spanish sunshine in the company of my friends had given me the boost I needed. Still slim following my surgery, I was now bronzed and looked healthy in my polka dot skirt smooth and sleek over my hips, but lightly gathered about six inches below the waist in a girly feminine way and ending just above my knees, revealing two very brown legs. The pure white broderie anglaise camisole top clinging to my small frame and accentuating my tan. I was 43 and doubted that anyone would realise what lay beneath that fabric stretched taught across my belly.

The Long Walk to Myrtle Street      parking bay 6

It was a warm day and I carried my heavy portfolio from Liverpool Central Station, up past Lewis’s and under the famous statue exceedingly bare (as noted by the songwriter Peter McGovern) and along Renshaw Street, up Leece and Hardman Streets and finally into Myrtle Street and the building of Liverpool Polytechnic, where the interview was being held. The sweat glistened on my chest and my cheeks were now pink on brown. Other prospective students had congregated and after a while we were split into two groups, I was in Group A and was directed with the other A’s to pin up our work in the allocated room. The tutor on the selection committee drifted in and lingered by my work. I could tell he liked it and that I would be accepted onto the course. The tutor drifted out again and I waited with the others. Some time passed before someone else entered and said there had been a mistake and some of us were to join Group B instead. We, the selected few had to pull down our work and pin it up in the adjoining room.

We discovered that different room meant different selection committee, consisting of one tutor and one student representative. The student rep was perhaps 18 or 19, unkempt, unprepossessing, buxom and brimming with self-importance. She took an obvious dislike to me – the woman old enough to be her mother and the tutor was equally arrogant. They looked at my work on the wall and I knew from their body language and facial expressions that I was doomed even before they started talking to me. All my hopes and aspirations were dashed and I couldn’t retrieve the situation. The tutor launched a scathing attack at my work, but that was nothing compared to the student, who sneered in contempt – she quite clearly fancied him and was trying to impress.

Neither adjudicator was interested in seeing photographs of the artwork I had sold – and just gave a cursory glance at the work in my portfolio. In their own words my work was ‘too graphic’ for Fine Art. Unanimously they suggested I reapply to do the foundation course or graphics. I was flabbergasted; I’d done a foundation course in the 60s, followed by two years on the Intermediate course, and then worked in graphic design till after I married. More recently I taught art up to ‘O’ level in a secondary school, illustrated for the Zambian National Correspondence College and for many years been selling my work. It was all in my CV, so clearly they hadn’t read it. Having been through recurring cancer, time was not on my side – why on earth were they telling me to do a foundation course – or apply next year for Graphic Design. Wasn’t that notoriously geared up the younger end of the job market?

I left the room bruised and battered, with the smirk on the face of the young student imprinted on my mind. Fighting back the tears I decided I hadn’t been spared death by cancer just to go home a broken woman. Hadn’t I proved just how gutsy I could be? In Africa I had encountered all kinds of dangerous situations, not least narrowly missing being blown up by a bomb in 1981 when visiting Salisbury (now Harare). Fortunately I had just entered a department store and suffered no more than some bruising and a certain amount of shock when I was blown off my feet. I would go and look at the Graphics department, I would find someone to take me, re-educate me and enable me to make a living for myself back in my native land. The gauntlet was thrown and I was determined to accept the challenge.

Reaching the foot of the stairs I looked up to the notice on the wall, Graphics 2nd Floor. Out of the corner of my left eye I was aware of two figures rounding the first landing and descending the stairs towards me. Anticipating my destination a voice said, ‘You’ll need oxygen by the time reach the top!’

I turned to look at the two men, one middle-aged, tall and thin and the other one older, shorter and stocky. Both wore beards and had piercing blue eyes, but surprisingly smartly dressed with ties and the shorter one wearing a suit.

I fluttered my then long eyelashes, flashed a sexy grin at them and replied, ‘Well one of you will just have to give me the kiss of life,’ as I tossed my mane of hair to one side in the manner of Miss Piggy and marched right past them, anticipating the reaction. Giggling like two teenagers, one of them made the feeble reply that it was the best offer they had had for some time and they were still buzzing as they disappeared around the wall at the bottom and I continued up the stairs, momentarily lifted from my gloom.

Not for one moment did it occur to me that I had just met the love of my life, the man I had been waiting for all those years, the one I never dreamed would come along; all hope abandoned.