Cancer destroys you. It sounds obvious, but it's true. There's the well-known physical aspect of your body turning against you and attacking your organs, but the insidious ways it eats away at you are far more devious than at a purely biological level. It disassembles what it means to be you. Piece by piece, what makes you so uniquely 'you' is challenged and torn down. Quickly you're reduced to the component parts that allow you to exist, and the danger is you become nothing more than a series of blood tests, tablets, injections, appointments and check ups.
When you receive the diagnosis you have to make some decisions, and fast. The analogy I use is the old fashioned idea of a plane or hot air balloon losing altitude, and deciding what to throw out to stay flying. Whatever happened, I had to keep flying. The Stoics had it right. What if you lost everything you held dear? What would truly matter? Quickly enough, you make those decisions. Work doesn't matter. Some people don't matter. Having Sky Movies doesn't matter. That night out doesn't matter. You chip away to the essence of what you hold dear and you protect that with all you've got while you endure this disease. For me it was my wife and my son. That's pretty much it, but it's a lot. And this is what I've found cruellest about cancer.
Which brings me to an important figure in my life. My father. By father, I mean the man who is biologically responsible for me being in the world. I haven't spoken to him in over a decade. But he's important, because to be a good husband, a good father, I've done everything I can to not be him. He left when I was 4, leaving a wife and three young sons. He'd met someone else. I think this wasn't the first time but once is enough. He'd rather be at the pub than with his family. I have two memories of him in my life before leaving. One was him brushing me off when I wanted to share a Mr. Men comic with him in our living room. The other is him packing his bags and leaving. I saw children with their Dads and had an idea of what it would be like to have a man be you idol, your hero, your best friend. I saw women look lovingly at their partners and know they could depend on them. I looked at my father and saw none of that. So I made a decision. I wouldn't be him. With every fibre of my being I'd take care of the women in my life and I'd have a child who would know they could rely on me. I didn't know quite how to do that but I'd try.
And what breaks my heart is that I've failed. I've tried so hard but I've failed. I can't be there for my wife and I can't be a proper father to my son. Every time Ethan has asked me to get on the floor to play with him or wanted his Daddy who was in hospital, it's torn a little bit of my soul away. Kerry and Ethan have been so brave and I'll forever feel I've let them down. I've known and seen the pain of an absent father and I've allowed history to repeat itself. And it just breaks my heart.
That's what cancer does. It destroys what makes you 'you'. I can only hope I can make it up to them and make them proud.
Which is what I tried to do on my weeks 'off' Chemo. We had plenty of happy days out as a family leaving us with plenty of brilliant memories, and although I was wiped out by the end of them, it was worth every minute.
As the rounds wore on two things became apparent - the first was that my hair had dug in like a tick and decided it wasn't going anywhere. Considering the shocking height of my hairline this was a minor miracle, especially combined with the fact that everyone seemed adamant it would go. I had a selection of novelty hats lined up but as time went on it was clear they wouldn't be needed (if anyone is on the lookout for a sombrero give me a shout, by the way), and most pleasingly of all, my world class eyebrows were here to stay, which had stupidly been my biggest concern of all. But to counteract this was the second thing- my blood had a major beef with chemo and having a PICC line.
Karen still wakes up in the night screaming about taking my blood. To use a medical term, it all went tits up between rounds 3 and 4. A PICC line (prick line, more like) should give immediate access to blood. No needles, out it comes, whenever you want it. But towards the end of June my body wasn't having any of it. Karen tried, but no blood wanted to come. Blood tests were necessary to ensure I was tolerating Chemo, so she sent me down the corridor to the X-Ray department to have a check on the line. But this was no normal X-Ray department. It was the X-Ray department run by the Chuckle Brothers and The Krankies.
You know secret camera game shows where the host wears really awful prosthetic disguises? I believe the ghost of Jeremy Beadle was my Radiologist. As I lay prone on the table I saw something shuffle into my eyeline. It was a small elderly man with Mr. Magoo glasses and his nipples tucked into his trousers. Bless, I thought, a geriatric patient has got lost. But then he said hello in an accent originating from somewhere between France and Indo-China and I knew I was in trouble. Before you could scream 'medical litigation' he jumped into things.
I figured things weren't quite peachy when I had to explain to him how the access valve on my PICC line worked. He then got to work as I lay there and thought of England. I was on my back under a giant machine with some old gimmer going at my arm like it was a particularly troublesome lid on a bottle of aspirin. Next thing I know, a syringe fires into the air and clatters across the theatre. Undeterred, old Father Time grabs another and begins pumping away again at me. I can't see what's going on but seconds later some kind of liquid jets up my arm and I begin honking and flapping like a suffocating fish. "Get Karen, get my nurse!!!" I shriek at a pitch reserved for dogs and eunuchs. Karen is hauled in and I mouth 'help me', staring at her boggle eyed like a puppy in a pet shop window, desperate to be taken home. To my eternal gratitude she stayed and showed the radiologist how to use basic medical equipment and the contrast study of my PICC line is over in minutes.
What it shows is a little valve of blood clot at the end of the tube. It's a tiny flap, so when stuff like poisonous chemicals want to go in they can, but sucking anything out like blood seals it tight. Fine, we decide, we get blood elsewhere from now on.
Chemo continues and the patterns maintain themselves - sweating, tiredness, nausea, a few great big Bigfoot poos on Day 5. But about 10 days after my X-Ray shenanigans we hit rocky waters. It's a hot summers day. I'm probably watching tennis in my pants with a fruit pastille lolly.
Let's take a moment to imagine that.
What's odd that day isn't me in my pants but that my left arm is sore and I can't lift it higher than shoulder height. I could swear its a bit redder and chubbier than normal too. I inform Kerry of this and she reacts in her trademarked calm and measured way she has whenever there's a medical issue. Which is to say, goes bleedin' mental. She makes me phone Karen who makes me go in first thing the next day. These bloody women, meddling and repeatedly saving my life. I'm glad Kerry made me take my wedding ring off because by then I've got a serious case of Michelin Man arm, all creepy and fat and read. I believe it's moments away from sentience and trying to strangle me.
To confirm their suspicions and take 10 years off me I'm sent back to see Methuselah in Radiology, this time for an ultrasound of my shoulder. Grandpa Simpson has no recollection of ever seeing me before so spits out some gobbets of wisdom whilst assessing my condition. To whit - "you can't have cancer, you're too young". That's fine then, I'll stop dicking about and get back to work. "Keep smiling and you'll be fine". We knew those bastard pharmaceutical companies were suppressing a cure for cancer. Finally, the nurse with him and starts tittering that I shouldn't have any hair if I'm on Chemo. Suffice to say, they fill me with the joys of spring, especially when they tell me I have a large blood clot, a Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) in my left shoulder.
Karen, who is fast beginning to believe my veins are subject to a gypsy curse, springs into action to whip out Mr. PICC line, ably supported by her husband Karl (who they claim also works at the hospital - I'm not so sure). I lay on the bed, feet elevated, hold my breath, and Karen tugs on the PICC. It feels a bit like a worm wiggling in your arm and needs a sound effect like a swannee whistle, but it's done in seconds. For being a brave boy Karl gets me a sausage sandwich. Almost worth a life threatening blood clot. Not worth 5 of the bastards, though. As always, more on that later.
To make life more of a rollercoaster and to ensure I am forever beholden to the local chemists (oh, alright then, and to ensure I don't die of a heart attack thanks to a dislodged clump of blood getting wedged in my ticker), I'm put on daily injections of Clexane, which thins the blood. You see, Chemotherapy increases risks of a blood clot, as do PICC lines, so 20% of people in my situation get a clot. As I say, I live a charmed life.
Before I know it I'm careening towards my 6th round of Chemo, and around a month before I get a text from Karen.
Tumours like Clarkson are a bit like a factory. Their job is to kill the host. Like all factories they create emissions that can be measured through blood tests, clots permitting. My particular emissions are called the CEA AND CA-19 markers, which were shooting up pre-Chemotherapy. The text told me the markers had dropped by about 80%.
Clarkson may not have died, but his factory seemed to be shutting up shop.
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