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.

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

colostomate-3

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

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.

Cancer and Me – 30 Years On (Part 4 – The Abdominoperineal Resection with Colostomy)

the gorsts and ward 1

I returned to Zambia, still working furiously (as I said previously, being faced with your own mortality really spurs you on) and everything was going smoothly until 18 months later when during a regular check-up my doctor (George again) felt something higher in the rectum. I could feel him flicking his finger against them; enlarged lymph glands.

Fiona and Iain

Fiona and Iain (watercolour)

CANNA LILY

Canna Lily (watercolour)

    

AMARYLLIS

Amaryllis (watercolour)

FLAME LILY

Flame Lily (watercolour)

I had been planning a long trip to the UK to be there for various special events including my elder son’s graduation. It would mean staying in the UK for about nine months and through sales of my artwork (mainly flower studies and child portraits on commission – whatever I could do to pay my debt) I had made enough money for my fare and had already repaid my friend for the previous airfare loan. To placate my husband for being away for so long I said I would also get him a ticket to fly over to see me at Christmas. So this time I was prepared and packed half a suitcase of clothes, the other half of painting materials and off I went.

John's Son

John’s Son (watercolour)

elephant

Elephant (oil)

Marilyn

Marilyn (watercolour)

Children of the Kafue River (oil)

Children of the Kafue River (oil)

Joan

Joan (watercolour)

Upon arrival in the UK I phoned Sister Kay on Ward 1 at Christie’s, explained the situation and asked what procedure I should follow. She said she was leaving to become a tutor, but she would make arrangements for me to attend Dr James/Mr Schofield’s clinic. In due course I received an appointment and after an examination, they arranged for me to have a biopsy under anaesthetic. Good news – the results were negative, but Mr Schofield, the surgeon, wasn’t convinced, saying the pathologist uses a needle on the specimen and it might just have missed the offending tissue. He organized a CT scan and from that was able to see the enlarged lymph glands in the rectum, which he felt must surely be tumours, so a colostomy would be necessary after all – and he asked what were my commitments over the next few weeks? The most important was my son’s graduation on the 7th November. Mr Schofield said I wouldn’t be fit enough to attend if I had the operation then, so if I was adamant about going to the graduation then he was insisting that I be admitted to the ward on the 8th in preparation for the surgery on the 9th. Still I thought about the negative histology report and feared there might be a terrible mistake – a colostomy if the tumours weren’t malignant? Mr Schofield was sympathetic to my concerns and promised to have a pathologist in theatre and would have each lump tested as it was removed, before going ahead with the abdominoperineal resection.

A friend drove my family down to Nottingham for the graduation and directly afterwards we said goodbye to my elder son, as he wanted to remain there to celebrate. The rest of us travelled back to Manchester where I was dropped off at Pete and Dorothea’s in preparation for my admittance to hospital the next morning. (In my lifetime I have made such wonderful friends. As a young girl I wouldn’t have thought this possible as I suffered some terrible bullying right from my first week at school).

Before the surgery I had to have the usual bowel preparation and out came the Picolax. I was horrified, as I knew that after taking the two sachets I would be in no fit condition to have the surgery. I told the sister about my previous experience and she listened carefully, saying she would examine my bowel movements after the first sachet and give her judgment then. A few hours later I was passing nothing but liquid and the sister agreed that the second sachet wouldn’t be required. Joy of joys!

Two stoma nurses came to visit me (the stoma is the opening in the in the abdomen, from the Greek word meaning opening – colostomy when the opening is in the colon, ileostomy when it is in the ileum and urostomy when it is in the urinary system and so on). They were very kind, explained the procedure and showed me the equipment. They assured me Mr Schofield was an eminent surgeon, one of the best in his field. There would me two teams, one working on the colostomy and one excising the rectum. It would be about a five-hour operation. I would be on a drip, have tubes everywhere, a catheter and possibly needing blood. I would be given pain-killing injections. Not to worry about any of it as it was normal. Doctors and nurses explained things over and over again and asked me to tell them my understanding of it. It was time for the op. I was still hoping the tumours wouldn’t be malignant and I trusted Mr Schofield not to do the colostomy if it wasn’t necessary. It was just a straw, but I sure was clutching at it!

I woke in the recovery room and there were nurses at each side of the trolley, the cot sides were up and they were leaning on them, talking to each other over me, not looking at me. The pain was excruciating and I was so cold. I couldn’t move. Panic! Was I paralysed? I desperately tried to attract their attention. I couldn’t make a sound or move a muscle except for my eyes. I flicked them from side to side. ‘Please help me, I’m freezing to death’, but they didn’t look at me and no sound came from my mouth. Eventually they looked down and I tried so hard to speak. By then the shivering had started and I knew I was in shock. They brought more blankets. My teeth were beginning to chatter and I could just mumble, ‘the pain – I’m freezing’, shivering uncontrollably. They brought me what I think they called an Arctic blanket, which looks like tough tinfoil, but I just couldn’t warm up so they decided to take me back to my little room on the ward, as it would be much warmer there. Transferring to the bed from the trolley increased the pain, but they gave me a shot of something, the pain dulled a little and soon I started to warm up and I think I dozed off.

Every movement hurt when I awoke, so I tried to stay as still as possible. My throat was sore and I felt sick from the anaesthetic. As previously explained to me there were tubes up my nose and down my throat and a suction tube to aspirate the fluid from my chest. I kept retching and oh how it hurt! Before going off duty that night the sister (Liz) came to see me. She was a zany little slip of a girl, her long hair coiled up in a French pleat. She slipped out the hairgrips and her auburn tresses cascaded onto my pillow as she lay down beside me. ‘Do you know what they’ve done?’ she asked softly. I shook my head. ‘They had to take everything away, an A/P resection.’ My eyes filled with tears and I nodded, ‘I thought so, as the pain was so intense’. She kissed me on the cheek, asked if I was okay and explained about all the drains and the aspiration tube and said the stoma nurses would be coming to see me soon. It was just two years since the cancer manifested and I’d had the dreaded colostomy. Well, I’d just have to get on with it. I made the difficult, but somewhat inevitable decision to leave Zambia and my husband.

Cancer & Me – Thirty Years On (Part 3 – Brachytherapy – the Radium Needle Implant)

My younger son spent as much of his Easter holidays with me as was possible and we travelled far and wide together, spending several days in London with friends who drove us all around the sights and we also saw Les Miserables from the cheapest seats up in the gods, looking down on the heads of the company, but nevertheless enjoying it (if that is the right word for we felt quite exhausted afterwards). We went up to Cumbria, to stay with another friend, visited Kielder Water, the Beamish Museum and attended a fund raising event hosted by Jonjo O’Neill, the jockey and trainer, himself a cancer survivor. The star of the show was Aldaniti the famous racehorse who had won the 1981 Grand National, ridden by Bob Champion, who had recovered from testicular cancer and the horse had even been nursed back from serious injuries. Bob’s story was made into the film Champions, starring John Hurt.

Aldaniti

Aldaniti

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

I was admitted to Christie Hospital (and Holt Radium Institute, as it was then) in April 1986. Dorothea came over to my folks to collect me the previous evening and I stayed the night with them. Not long after I got to Christies other ex-Zambian friends came over from Chester to visit.

Connie, Me, Jack and Stephen (Dorothea's eldest)

Connie, Me, Jack and Stephen (Dorothea’s eldest)

I was introduced to the consultant in radiotherapy, Dr James and with him I had an immediate rapport. I was quick to notice a segment of one of his eyes was a different colour and I found it fascinating – even though I had seen this before on a friend at school. By some amazing stroke of luck, he had actually done three years at the University Teaching Hospital, in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, so we already had a mutual connection. I felt safe with him and the staff.

Dr James examined me and explained I would be undergoing a series of tests, including rectal washes over a few days. I was to be given a radium needle implant, well, caesium to be precise. He showed me examples and I thought the word needle to be rather a misnomer, as the needles resembled terrifyingly large nails! So, I would be moved to a bed in the corner, which had the radiation sign above it, to remind people I was radioactive. Ten needles would be surgically implanted around my anus, stitched into position and to be left in situ for nearly six days, with me remaining immobile for all that time and visitors only allowed for one hour and could come no closer that the foot of the bed. I’m sure the word brachytherapy wasn’t given to me at the time, but it is so hard to take everything in, that it may not have registered.

I would be on a special diet with no roughage and given medication to make me constipated and I would be catheterised. Each morning the nurses would bring me a bowl of water to wash in, bring me food and remove the tray after I had eaten. They would also bring a controlled drug to fight against infection, which needed two of them to sign for and administer. The needles would have silk threads attached to them, which would be the only visible sign after insertion and these would be taped to my legs and counted regularly just to make sure they remained in position. There would be no other contact from the nurses and I was to lie as still as possible.

Later that day I made a point of wandering down to the children’s ward for I knew that would be the leveller and help me get things into perspective. It certainly did that; children of all ages, bald headed, sunken pale faces, huge eyes, hooked up to all kinds of tubes or machinery – and great big smiles. The tears rolled down my face as I made my way back to Ward 1.

The procedure went ahead as planned and the nurses tried to make me as comfortable as possible. Visitors came and went (Dorothea or Pete most days) and a friend brought my parents in to see me, but I just couldn’t bear the pained expressions on their faces and it was really hard to cheer them up, as by this time the pain was becoming intense as I became quite badly burnt and when I moved the needles would criss-cross against each other. I was told I needn’t suffer, as I could ask for something for the pain at any time and not to worry about becoming addicted, as they would wean me off it gradually. I chose not to have any morphine, but one day I asked for some medication for a headache. And what a pleasant surprise to find the patients were offered a tot of brandy or sherry from the trolley, provided by the Friends of Christies. I looked forward to teatime each day!

Brachytherapy 1

Brachytherapy 2

Photos of the procedure are not for the faint-hearted so I tried to find diagrams that would explain better than I can verbally. I found several, but not pertaining to anal cancer, so these are the nearest and they are with regard to prostate cancer, so at least a similar area!

brachytherapy needles SeeDOS Ltd - HDR MRI Template-Reusable

image from SeeDOS Ltd

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

If you really want to see a photo of anal brachytherapy, I managed to find one here: http://www.thejgo.org/article/viewFile/2694/html/17835

By the end of the six days I was quite badly burnt and the sickly sweet smell of burn flesh very noticeable. As the days wore on and the 132½ hours approached I became more and more sore and very scared of having the needles taken out. I have good healing skin and I knew it would be difficult removing them. Because the time had to be accurate they would be removed precisely at 10.30 at night and a sister had to do it, as staff nurses weren’t qualified to perform the procedure.

That night we didn’t have a sister on duty, so one from another ward had to be called, someone I had never met before instead of one of those I knew and trusted implicitly. By the time 10.30pm and the new sister approached I was in a state of panic, but without justification, because she was just as kind as the nurses who had been looking after me. Upon hearing my concerns she called a doctor, who came and administered an intravenous dose of Valium, which quickly sent me off to cloud cuckoo land! The sister was onto the 7th needle before I came back to earth. From then on it was painful, but far from horrendous.

The next hurdle was to get the old bowels open and I couldn’t leave hospital until then. From not being able to eat any roughage, I was suddenly stuffing myself with fruit, vegetables and anything else recommended. Everything failed! Everyone on the ward was most concerned about me. I would go off to the loo and when I emerged they would ask if I had been successful. Negative! Finally, in desperation I was given a castor oil enema. I had to lie in bed with the foot tilted upwards in order to help the caster oil do its work. When finally we had lift off it was excruciating – the back passage being so terribly burnt, but I felt it worthwhile as I had avoided a dreaded colostomy!

There was a well educated elderly lady in the bed next to me and when I told her the enema had worked she clapped her hands and exclaimed in her very refined voice, ‘oh, jolly hockey sticks!’ I thought that expression only existed in girls’ stories from a bygone time!

I’d been in hospital two weeks and back home at my parents I had daily visits from the District Nurse to ensure the burns didn’t become infected, but there wasn’t much she could do, finally deciding on honey dressings. The burns covered approximately a 4” diameter and by now were oozing pus. Going to the toilet remained a problem, but on the 21st April Charles and Diana were coming to open a sports centre in my town and despite the pain and discomfort I went along to see them, Mum and I were taken to the venue by Dorothea, as she wanted to see them too.

Brachytherapy

Mum and me waiting to see Charles and Diana (bit of a pained expression on my face!).

I was on a three-month air ticket and by the end of that time it was obvious that I wouldn’t be able to sit on an aircraft for several hours, so another friend pulled a few strings with the airline company and got my ticket extended by a month at no extra cost.

Being faced with your own mortality really spurs you on and even though I could hardly sit down even with the aid of a rubber ring (provided by Dorothea), I worked like a wild woman on commissions to try and make enough money to repay my airfare (I didn’t have time to die) and also did a painting for Ward 1, as they had very little on the walls. There was snow on the ground when I was admitted to Christies and the first daffodils were bravely pushing their heads through the snow. I saw that as a metaphor and so painted them and took the picture to the hospital when I went for my first check-up. The nurses got the maintenance man to hang it on the wall by my bed. In addition I framed two prints for them.

Looking back it’s hard to remember which paintings I did just after being discharged from hospital, but I think this is one from that period before I returned to Zambia:

Samantha

Samantha

Some of the staff with the pics I took to Christies:

staff at Christies 1

staff at Christies 2

staff at Christies 4

In the pictures above are Sister Kay, Staff Nurse May and Auxiliary Vera, apologies for not remembering the names of the other two sisters. I couldn’t have wished for better treatment from any of them. Next time it was to be on a surgical ward…

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.

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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!”

Cancer & Me – Thirty Years On (Part One – to Begin at the Beginning)

The realisation that it is 30 years since my cancer first manifested itself has prompted me to turn this into a cancer blog, rather than the general blog it used to be. I shall continue with my occasional ramblings (and sometimes rant) at willosworld

As I am part of that small percentage that has survived (thus far) recurring and metastatic cancer, I feel it might offer some support and encouragement to those currently in a similar daunting situation.

Reviving a malachite kingfisher that had crashed into a window

Reviving a malachite kingfisher that had crashed into a window

My cancer story is long and convoluted, so I shall write it in episodes, as it will be easier for the reader to digest (and for me to write), but a word of warning, it may become, by the nature of my cancers, more than a little graphic and as I am sure you will appreciate, not the easiest of cancers to talk about…

Rambo - a 40th birthday present from friends who thought I needed a guard dog!

Rambo – a 40th birthday present from friends who thought I needed a guard dog!

card 2

I was living in Zambia, with my teenage children away in the UK, my elder son at university and the younger one doing his A Levels at boarding school. It was 1985 and had been quite a year; we had experienced a few burglaries at home, a very dear friend and his companion had been killed in a road accident just outside the town and another dear friend in the UK had died quite suddenly during surgery for cancer of the spine.

My watercolour of Hubert, who died in a car crash in 1985

My watercolour of Hubert, who died in a car crash in 1985

With Hubert's dogs in the aftermath of his death

With Hubert’s dogs in the aftermath of his death

With all the stresses I had undergone that year and with my eldest no longer eligible for free flights from the company his father worked for, it is no wonder I was at a low point in my life. I was divorced from my first husband and my second husband and I were struggling financially. We lived a fairly hand-to-mouth existence with me padding out his income by selling my artwork. Regular airfares were completely out of the question for us – and the boys’ father was more interested in flying out his stepdaughter three times a year, his brother-in-law and mother-in-law regularly, rather than his own son (mutter, mutter, discontent!). I was working furiously and saving towards an airfare in 1987, in order to go to the UK for my elder son’s 21st birthday, his graduation and Christmas.

Over the years I has suffered regular bouts of IBS at varying degrees, so when it increased that year I just put it down to the additional stress. I had been in a great deal of pain and discomfort before my younger son’s Christmas visit and when I developed other symptoms I thought it was time to see my doctor, who referred me to a surgeon. Unfortunately he wasn’t the slightest bit concerned with my symptoms and fears and I was more than a little alarmed when he didn’t even examine me! He declared it was haemorrhoids and didn’t recommend surgery, as, according to him it only had a 50% success rate, so he just sent me away with a prescription for some cream to apply to the affected area.

Going to the toilet had become increasingly painful, to a point where I would have my left arm resting on the washbasin and the right hand would be clawing the wall with my fingernails, sweat and tears rolling down my face and I seemed to be swinging between constipation and diarrhoea. At the time I had a studio in a friend’s garage and one day the urge was so great that I just had to dash to the loo ASAP. I started work at 7.30am and my friend wasn’t yet up and the house door still locked. Unfortunately the urge was so great and the pain so excruciating that I just had to go in her garden – and hoped the gardener wouldn’t see me!

A lesion had developed just at the edge of my anus (visible with the aid of a mirror) and I suspected the worst, but was determined not to let my son know, so that he could enjoy his holiday as usual. I would get back to the hospital just as soon as he left for the UK. In spite of the pain I tried not to show it during the following month, but was probably more demonstrative than usual in showing my love for him and telling him just how proud I was of him and his brother (who was spending Christmas with my parents) and just how much I cared for them.

Me at Christmas 1985

Me at Christmas 1985

Judging by my hand gripping the seat, I'm guessing I'm in pain!

With one of my four rescue cats and judging by my hand gripping the seat, I’m guessing I’m in pain and nothing to do with Torty sticking her claws in!

The school holidays holidays over, I returned to the hospital in January to see my doctor, Indira. By this time I could hardly sit on my seat in the hospital waiting room. Indira eventually called me into her consulting room where she examined me again. She shared my concern – and said I must go back to see the surgeon, but seeing my face she asked if I didn’t want to do this. I asked what would be the point when he was convinced I was only suffering from some minor ailment that could be cured with creams. ‘OK’, she said, shall I ask George if he’ll see you?’ George was a friend – and orthopaedic surgeon, so it seemed highly unlikely that he would deal with colorectal matters. Anyway, she asked me to return to the waiting room and she would call George and see what he said.

A few minutes later I was called back, with the news that George would see me at his clinic on Thursday. He was more than a little disturbed at what he found and told me to be on the ward at 7.30am the next day where he performed a biopsy. I was in such pain when I came around from the anaesthetic as I had been packed like a stuffed turkey. A nurse put me into a warm bath to soften the dressing, but hardly gave it time to do so when she rather brutally dragged it out. I cringe at the recollection, but that was only the harbinger of worse to follow.

George told me to wait two weeks for the results, but 10 days later I received a call from him just after 5pm, though he wouldn’t discuss the histology report on the phone. I knew at once it was bad news and I was to see him the following morning and bring my husband with me! Yes, it was cancer and with no treatment available in Zambia, he instructed me to get to South Africa or the UK without delay; time was of the essence.