Cancer 9: Good news (I think)

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Cancer 9: Good news (I think)

Paul Brasington 2023
Published by Paul Brasington in Good health · Thursday 10 Jun 2021
Tags: Cancer
I’ve just met the consultant, and it is mostly good news, albeit requiring a major operation. I will continue to write this blog, though I’m conscious that for people facing grimmer diagnoses it may be less useful. All the same, I hope that the record of what it is to face such mortal uncertainty will have been valuable, and to that end will include below the reflections I’ve been making in the last 48 hours.

The image is from a performance of the Ron Dunkie Allstars at Canterbury Art College, some time in the late 70s. I still have that violin. I no longer rely on a Barcus Berry Jr pickup attached with blue tack. I touch on music amplification below. That's Rennie Pilgrem's sax, who went on to greater musical things
48 hours to go
These are difficult days, just waiting for the diagnosis, and I hope a treatment plan. I have plenty to do, but it’s hard to feel motivated when I don’t know what lies ahead.
My head tells me it’s most likely that I’ll be presented with a manageable regime of surgery and some follow up. It won’t be comfortable, but I will come out the other side and resume my life.
But then I read a news story about a new treatment for prostate cancer, which indirectly reminds me that however much my bowel cancer should be fixable, thousands do still die from it. It’s not as if I’m just facing something like a glorified root canal filling. I’ve been diagnosed with a tumour that not so long ago would have condemned me to a certain and painful death.

I don’t think I’m taking the latter possibility too seriously, and yet it might be true. I’ve said before I’m not afraid of death, but I would feel the loss of things I had wanted to see, like my grandchildren growing, and the making of a life with Mary in France as well as here in England.

But I can see you might always feel that way, however old you were. I think often of the ending of Geoffrey Hill’s Funeral Music, his meditation on the Wars of the Roses and the readiness to die for a cause.
                                              If it is without
Consequence when we vaunt and suffer, or
If it is not, all echoes are the same
In such eternity. Then tell me, love
How that should comfort us - or anyone
Dragged half-unnerved out of this worldy place
Crying to the end, “I have not finished”.

I wonder at the fear of death. Religion is supposed to be a comfort, and yet if you’re a serious Christian (I can’t speak for other faiths) the last thing you can do is expect eternal bliss: salvation is the undeserved gift of God’s grace, especially if you’re a Calvinist. You might hope to be one of the Elect, but to presume too much would be to secure your place in hell.

That’s always seemed to me a vicious and misanthropic belief. I was raised a Catholic, which offers a slightly gentler vision. Very few might ascend straight to heaven, but the majority, those of middling moral achievement, could expect to serve a sentence in Purgatory cleansing them of their earthly sins. As a child I had a clear vision of Purgatory, picturing it as a vast vaulted hall, dimly lit by shafts of grey light, with the souls of the hopeful sitting out their days on an earthen floor, waiting for their time to ascend. The vision might be a personal attempt to make sense of the nonsense being told to me by adults (the priests and my schoolteachers), and yet I wonder how we can ever come to take these ideas seriously.

As I grew older and more thoughtful I hung onto my faith by somehow turning all this idiotic eschatology into something more abstract, the difference between being with God, and glimpsing God but having to persist without that light. Actually it was more abstract than that. I came to see that all propositions about an afterlife were ridiculous and not worth thinking about, but I hoped that whatever might be in God’s mind it would be for the best, and I admired Christ’s moral teaching (I still do, stripped of the encrustations of lesser later thinkers, particularly the obsession with sex which even on the gospel evidence we have was not something Jesus felt he should specifically talk about). For many years too I would tell myself that the Church was much bigger than me, and that however wrong I thought its teaching (for instance on women’s roles or homosexuality) it spoke of a spiritual dimension I thought was important.

I still think we need to find ways of talking about our sense of spirituality, but we need to do it without making up fairy tales. Divorce and an increasing feeling of untenability parted me from the Catholic church. The strange thing is that religion is supposed to be a comfort in the face of death, but if you take its notions of the afterlife seriously death becomes much more frightening. I realise that for the bereaved it’s cheering to think you might see the lost one again, though if you were like my hedonistic grandmother you might have to fret which husband you’d be reunited with. But when you are facing death yourself nothingness seems like a good (and more plausible) option.
24 hours to go
I’m coming up to the last evening before the prognosis. It’s a beautiful day outside. I’ve not done much apart from drift around the news, have a cappuccino in town, and fix the TV aerial plug thereby solving a longstanding problem. It yields a small moment of achievement in a day when I’m feeling distracted, and want to feel distracted. There are work-related things I should be doing, and practising some things for Saturday’s gig, but again, I think that might wait mostly till Friday when I know what’s going on.
Perhaps I should go to the pub and get drunk. I don’t suppose I’ll be doing that again for a while once they start cutting into me.
… but I didn’t. We’ve had a quiet evening, with a double dose of Motherland on TV to ensure some barbed good cheer, and I’m sitting now with a glass of Bushmills listening to the great kora player Ballake Sissoko’s most recent album, which is suitably lovely, like hearing stars falling in the night.
Though I’m not superstitious I find myself looking out for signs, or at least find them thrust in front of me. This afternoon while practising for the weekend’s gig my venerable Boss ME50 multi-effects box and pedal gave up the ghost. Since it had been a particularly thoughtful gift from my children when my activities as an electric violinist were becoming more serious it had a sentimental as well as practical value. Its failure could be seen as a bad omen, but things being as they are I quickly found the upgraded current model at a good price on the Interweb, and it will be arriving on Friday in time for the gig. So if we are to do symbolism there’s a bigger story to be seen here, of something going wrong and being replaced with a better model.

More than this I made a decision over a week ago that I would start paying more attention to the possibilities of music technology. I have a nerdy side which is knowledgeable about IT in general, but when it comes to music part of me has remained reluctant to move far beyond what was possible with bits of wood, steel and horsehair (and carbon fibre these days in my bow, alongside some basic amplification). Electronics in music are too easily a blunt instrument (as it were), but I know that in the right hands these tools can be useful and even liberating. I’ve promised myself that if I come through what lies ahead I’ll give some real time to the technology and work out what I want to do with it. It’s something to look forward to.
The consultation
I don’t know how I feel. It seems now in retrospect that I was so intent on steeling myself against bad news that when the news is not so bad I don’t quite know how to process it.
In truth the news is good, though delivered in a disconcerting way. Today we finally met the consultant Mr Anwar. He asked me what I knew already. I said I understood I had a 5cm tumour about 40cm up my colon, and had subsequent tests but didn’t know the outcome. He said he didn’t know much more than that but the investigations had found no further tumours and nor had the cancer metastasised. I was thinking "that's amazing, I'm going to be alright!" He was thinking what he needed to say in order for me to sign the consent form for the operation.

Which is to say that I face a major operation to remove the tumour, which will involve splicing together the cut ends of my bowel, and I can then look forward to a full recovery, not least because I’m relatively young and generally fit. I need to lose half a stone if Mr Anwar is going to use keyhole surgery but since I wanted to do this anyway it’s not much of a hardship. I will be leaner than I have been since my 20s. The next month is not going to be easy. I need to be careful about fibre in my diet, and persisting Covid precautions mean we will have to be totally isolated for two weeks before the op. I can expect to be in hospital for around six days and won’t be able to have any visitors. I’ll need about three months to make a full recovery in which time I may or may not need to have some chemotherapy, but the effects of the chemo drugs they use for bowel cancer are not particularly uncomfortable, and I would keep my hair.

Mr Anwar asked for permission to film the procedure, which would be used anonymously in training (one bowel interior looks much like another). He revealed he has a few thousand Tiktok and Instagram followers. I’m not quite sure what to make of this.
As we came away from the hospital I felt numb. Back home and finding myself alone for some moments I was overtaken by sobbing. I couldn’t control it, but I guess it’s not surprising. The last few weeks have been extraordinary.

The next month will bring its own challenges. We’ve pencilled in the 7th July for the operation. I imagine over the next few days I’ll have cause to reflect on what all this means, and then I’ll write about what it means to go through these procedures, as and when I have the strength. I hope it will still make for interesting reading. Right now I’m going to have an early night.

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