Cancer 1 "You have cancer": being 62

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Cancer 1 "You have cancer": being 62

Paul Brasington 2023
Published by Paul Brasington in Good health · Saturday 08 May 2021
Tags: Cancer
I’ve been diagnosed with bowel cancer. It’s early days and the diagnosis needs confirmation, though there’s little doubt. The more important clarity will be around the available treatment, so I’m not quite sure at this stage whether or not my prognosis is good.
I’m feeling positive, though well aware that the next set of tests could suggest a less favourable outcome. If so I’ll have to deal with it as best I can.

But this is why I want to start writing about the experience now. I’m sure there are plenty of other cancer blogs out there, and it’s particularly true that everyone’s tumour (as it were) is unique. All the same one of the reasons I can feel positive is that I do have some previous experience with cancer, not as a patient, but as a close onlooker, and also to some extent in my work as a professional communicator. It’s been helpful to me to have some greater knowledge of possible paths ahead, and if this blog offers useful insight or knowledge to others that will be a good thing (as well helping me to feel purposeful).
There’s a second reason I want to divert this blog. I’ve written quite a lot here about politics in the past, and also about business issues, but it’s certainly true that coming up against your possible demise concentrates your mind on what matters. In these pages I plan to give a continuing account of my treatment and my feelings about it, but on the days when there’s less to say I want to focus on the other things that matter to me more than ever now, reflecting on music, narrative (in film, TV and literature), and where it seems relevant, as a lapsed Catholic on aspects of faith and philosophy. There might still be some political things: after all this is a charged moment in the UK, and there will be things to say about identity, and most obviously the idea of state-managed services like the NHS.
But I’ll start by saying a little bit about where I am and how I got here.

How did I get here?
I’m 62 years old. I’ve not had to spend a night in hospital since I had my tonsils out when I was eight. In this I know I can count myself lucky. I’m reasonably fit. My eyesight has deteriorated in an ordinary way, so I need glasses to read and watch screens. About five years ago I woke up one morning with pain in all my joints, and have been since diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Happily a fairly standard regime of medication has kept any ill- effects in check and allowed me to continue with normal activities, including my other life as a violinist, regularly performing live in a couple of bands (at least until the pandemic put an end to all that).

So really, even now I feel strong and well. It seems surreal to know that in a serious way I’m not. I had no real symptoms: some excessive windiness which felt like IBS and which I put down either to some stress or possibly the side effects of my RA medication (I was going to raise this with the rheumatologist next time I saw him).

But being 62 I was sent a routine bowel screening kit, which revealed some blood. Because I felt well I dismissed this as the result of a pile, but agreed all the same to have a colonoscopy to check it out.

The process of gathering a faecal sample and sending it off is not exactly enjoyable, but if I live now to a normal old age it will be because I did it.

Although I felt well and thought there was an alternative explanation for the blood naturally I worried about what might be revealed. Perhaps the IBS symptoms were more significant
The colonoscopy
I should say too that the colonoscopy itself while undignified (welcome you men to the norms of being a woman) did not prove particularly uncomfortable. The worst of it is the preparation: you have to fast the day before (no solid food from breakfast onwards) and drink a litre of laxative that evening.
I think now I probably had high blood pressure anyway, though I’d also always suffered badly from white coat syndrome (where having the test itself sends your blood pressure upwards) but when I first presented myself for the colonoscopy the readings were so high that the consultant refused to perform the procedure. I had to go back to my GP and get medication for hypertension. The pills worked over the next few weeks, though again the initial readings when I sat down for the procedure were through the roof. By the time I’d been sedated they were back to 123/77.
With all this I’d had a couple of months to think about the possible outcome. It was a dress rehearsal for where I am now, telling myself that everything would be alright, while having to consider that it might not be. Strangely when the consultant turned to me and said that he thought they’d found a tumour it felt like a relief. Clarity matters in these circumstances.
Except that right now I don’t quite have clarity. I know I have a 5cm obstruction in my colon. Because of this they were unable to push the camera further than the first 40cm of the bowel. Although we await the results of the biopsy the obstruction is almost certainly malignant and I have no false hopes about that. The colonoscopy report described this as a Stage 2 cancer (mild systemic). From previous experience I know that cancers are classified in four stages, and that Stage 2 is considered very treatable. But presumably this is a provisional assessment. I have CT scans scheduled in just over a week to give a fuller picture of the tumour and whether it might have spread. I’m trying to maintain a balance of optimism and realism.
Love and loss
All of this has happened in the last three days. I’ve begun to tell people, including my partner Mary, my children, my mother and my siblings. I’m aware that many other friends will only be hearing about this for the first time via this blog. I’m sorry I haven’t told you directly, but then another reason for writing this is so I won’t have to go through the business of explaining myself again and again. If you see me on the street you don’t have to say you’re sorry: just wish me well, because that’s what I want and can still reasonably hope for.
That said I have been moved by the evident love and support of friends and family, and so also feel lucky in having that reassurance.
Indeed our only real experience of death is in the loss we feel when others die, and so far at least the hardest thing has been to see that fear of loss in others' faces, or hear it in their voices. I’m not afraid of being dead (I’ll come on to that later) but seeing that pain in those you care about is not easy.

When I’m 62
I was talking to one of my oldest friends (we met at school when we were eleven), about the difficult age that is 62. To die at this point would rightly be thought of as premature, but it’s certainly not the same as dying young (I’ve had a few friends who did). James said that he’d been thinking about this because we’d reached the point where people were dying in the fullness of age, the beginning of whose careers we could remember. We might feel fit and not much different from the ways we’ve always felt, but perhaps the wonder is that we have actually experienced a lifetime without it feeling that way. I imagine that's how it is for almost everyone. I don’t want to die yet, and I hope I won’t, but if that’s how it has to be I think I can accept it. I hope those who love me will find comfort in that.

I took the picture in the heading just over a week ago, looking out over the Devil’s Kneading Trough above Ashford in Kent across Romney Marsh towards Dungeness. This is my home, and when I took the shot I was still living in the hope that I did not have cancer. That’s had to change, but the beauty of that landscape is still there. With a bit of luck a year from now I’ll be looking at it with the knowledge that I don’t have cancer, but if that’s not the case, the beauty will still be there.

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