The Glow Of The Radioactive Brian

22nd May 2017

Today is the day of the TEP scan as the French call it, PET scan to you and me. What? Oh, okay. It stands for Positron Emission Tomography. My appointment is in the main hospital in Vannes, the Bretagne-Atlantique, for 0845. Up at 0730 for a wash and brush up, nothing to eat as I need to be empty. I have starved myself since midnight. I say ‘starved’ but can you really starve yourself if you’re asleep?
The drive down is under a sky of flat cloud, cumulostratus. The traffic is light and the radio a light background noise. The first distraction is the hot air balloon over the plain leading down to Vannes. I spot its blue/blackness as I come over the ridge, sitting over a field to the right of the road. I suppose one could see the dark coloured bag of gas as some kind of omen, some harbinger of doom perhaps, or as a more vague premonition of something, who knows? I certainly didn’t. The first thing I thought of was the photo you are made to look at through some ophthalmic machine at Eyes R Us. You know the one, the multicoloured balloon hovering over some desert road. The next couple of kilometres of the drive are spent trying to remember if that’s the one that puffs air in your eye. Sadly I could not recall, though I think it was a picture that went through some autofocusing process when you looked into it. The second distraction is the result of inattention. A day before the drive I was trying to think of when I had last been to the B-A in Vannes and which roundabout it was I would turn left at. For some reason I had convinced myself it was the one after the roundabout which had the Clinique l’Oceane on it. You may have gathered by now that despite there being some four types of computer in the house, all connected to the internet, not including mobile phones, I was too stupid (or lazy) to check. Even if I had not checked, what on earth is there to stop me from glancing at the road signs indicating locations. I already knew that both the clinic and the hospital were all signposted, I had made excellent use of them the first few times I’d driven this route. But no, I sailed on, convinced of the route in my head, happy in that slightly euphoric way that seems to come over me prior to a procedure. I know it is nerves, a certain tension within that I attempt to cover with a laissez faire attitude. Mentally I am a bit like the swan gliding across the lake, an icon of serenity, whilst the webbed feet are paddling like crazy underneath. Anyway I strayed too far and had to turn around and comes back. Turns out from the signposts (Huh. Who knew?) that the turning for the hospital is on the roundabout before the clinic. Just to be particularly boring, though it took me a little out of my way, there was no real extra traffic and I did not lose much time. Of course if I wanted to be really boring I could go through naming each and every A and B road number but that would mean googling it and I’m obviously not one for that.
As I travel on toward the hospital i pass by the train station, a low lying atrium of steel and glass fronts the original 19th century building to my left. To the right are a series of bus stops serving the city and surrounding towns. The flat open layout, bookended by a pair of roundabouts, pleases me. There is some magical arrangement of the ordinary that satisfies me, that jibes with me, that warms me. I never fail to feel slightly buoyed driving down this brief road. It may have something to do with the activity there. The 300-400 metre stretch always has people on it, some hurrying for a train, running with their bags or wheeled cases, or sometimes not running at all but doing that hoppy, skippy fast walk that folks do to retain a sense of normality but still get somewhere quickly. Others are the complete opposite, coming out of the station, at the end point of their journey, home at last perhaps, or visiting, looking around for a friendly face, a smile of greeting, a hug. Across the road there are people waiting for buses, some of course are surrounded by their piles of luggage, on the last leg of their holiday return, tired but (hopefully) satisfied with their time away, perhaps on the coast or in the great Midi. Some are doing nothing much at all, glancing at a watch, checking the schedule board again, chatting with mates or, as happened today, a boy standing on the edge of the road whilst his girlfriend posed for a photo. Actually, despite all these things going on I still think it is some effect of the space as defined by the station, the atrium, the road and the stops. The space is calm and open, it speaks of travel but gives no impression of hurriedness. 
A short further stretch of road and I am at the hospital. I turn right immediately and drive round to the back of the grounds where I know the NUCLEAR CLINIQUE is. There’s no doubt it deserves to be written in capitals, after all I am about to be irradiated. Just to be clear the radioactive liquid acts as a tracer so the scanner can see me clearly. I still hold out hopes that I may come out with super powers. Of course, knowing me that could only mean the ability to recognise grammar errors before they occur or that power to explain the infield fly rule without a diagram. I hand my carte vitale at reception and it is swiped as per usual and as per usual fails the first time. The magnetic strip may have problems or perhaps the coppery exposed metal section on the front. It’s always a slight worry as the government issued health card, which identifies you as in the system is, I’ve heard, particularly difficult to replace. The receptionist breathes on her thumb, rubs the golden metal and tries again. Success! There is a small charge, a few euros, something separate from the insurance I have, so I write a cheque. This may be something I can claim back later. It seems when you get nuked, everyone pays.
The waiting room in main reception is pleasantly light and airy and is filled with the usual crop of oldies, red faced farmers in their eighties and blue rinsed old dears in too tight sandals and beige or grey pant suits. Beige, grey or blue are popular colours with old women. With the men it is pretty much always blue, mostly the tough cotton of their overalls and three pockets farmers jackets, or denim, good old durable denim. It also seems to be a law in France you wear brown shoes or boots with your blue cotton. I smile at this thought until, with a small shock, I realise I too am wearing denim jeans and brown boots. I take comfort in the superior style of my boots but I am still a little shaken. A male nurse arrives and I am called. Or, at least I think I am called. I raise my hand, he smiles and I follow him through the automatic doors. He asks me, in English, to follow him down the corridor. Ushering me into his room he begins the prep for a piquer, in other words put a line in my arm for the radioactive stuff. Piquer is the French for sting and it will but only briefly. He puts the strap around my arm and tightens it and unwraps the needle. At this point a nurse comes in to say I am the wrong patient, I am the other Anglais. I immediately pipe up with an apology, without even knowing for sure it’s my fault I’m sat here instead of some other unfortunate, or maybe I was apologising for being British? That’s not always uncommon over here. They exchange some rapid French and he returns to me. Fully expecting to be ejected I rise to go only to be waved to sit back down. He tells me it is his fault for not checking and he smiles ruefully. With the needle in my arm I am escorted to a second waiting room, smaller and windowless with about 10 seats and five people inside. I sit and get engrossed in a magazine on this year’s Cannes film festival. After a few minutes a nurse sporting what the French consider stylish eyewear comes in and asks for M. Morris. Hesitantly I raise my hand, I’ve been burned by being too eager once already and I don’t want another black mark and find the scanner has been turned up to dark toast. A man in the corner jumps up and goes to her. Just as she is to lead him away, she’s asks, “quel est votre prenom?” What’s your first name? He says something that begins with a J and that is clearly the wrong answer. She disappears and I exchange significant looks and raised eyebrows with the farmer across from me. The exchange, all in glances and Roger Moore eyebrow work goes like this:
Farmer (with a raised eyebrow): I think it might be you she wants, you did raise your hand after all

Me (with a small smile of hope): I think you’re right, did you see how confused she looked when he gave his prenom?

Farmer (with a sly nod): Just wait, she’ll be back and she’ll pick you, mark my winks

Me (with a self deprecating grin): I hope so, I’ve buggered up answering my name once already, I don’t want a bad rep.
She returns with the English speaking male nurse, who ignores the other M. Morris and asks me my first name. I tell him, “mon prenom Donald” and he nods and indicates I’m the one to the woman. Smiles all round, except for the first M. Morris who looks cheated.
I recognise the little room from the last time I was here for the same scan. This is where I will get the radioactive tracer introduced so I will glow appropriately when scanned. She sits me down and offers me a blanket, I refuse. As the process for the product involves a wait for it to get around the body there is a bit of a wait and I suppose some of the crumblies don’t deal with this frankly cool room too well.
Segue: I just realised I mentioned this woman having ’stylish’ glasses but did not describe them. They are round glasses in thick black plastic but with a red bar across the top. Basically she looks like Arthur Askey in drag.
Whether the male nurse who put my line in was distracted by the names mix up or just a bit slapdash I don’t know, but Arthurette is having trouble getting a blob of blood from the needle for what I think is probably a blood sugar test with her hand held machine. She wiggles the needle in my arm, presses down on the point of entry and then revolves the needle but no joy. While I wonder whether the needle is not even sitting in the vein at all and I’m going to get stabbed again, she grabs a syringe, fills it with saline and attaches it to the needle’s opening. She draws back on the plunger and a shooting cloud of red fills the syringe. A firm pump in and the saline is injected. She smiles broadly and tips the machine’s paper tip to the opening and it sucks up a drop of blood. A click and a beep and she’s happy. I mentally apologise to the male for distrusting him and miss the jokes she makes about my thick, quick setting blood. It was something involving the word ‘bricolage’ so it may have been about her DIY actions to get things flowing. That or she thinks my blood would make a good glue. After hooking me up to the saline drip, she returns with the robot machine that injects the radioactive tracer. It’s called the Posijet and is a big round cornered box on wheels, it’s sits, whirring ominously in the doorway. Imagine if a rebel alliance committee had made R2D2. Somewhere inside is the NUCLEAR STUFF. She hooks a line to me from the machine, steps behind it and presses a button. The whirring noise increases in volume and I watch clear liquid head from my body down the plastic tubing. Arthurette stays the ‘safe’ side of the machine, checking the display before leaving. The product usually takes about two minutes to go in, twenty minutes to go round the body. Every so often she returns to look at the display.
Once I am suitably irradiated Arthurette takes me to the tiny vestibule to the scanner room, little more than a small space with a door in and a door out and a chair inbetween. Before we go in she shows me the toilet next door and tells me I must pee. As the PET scan will take about thirty minutes they want scanees to go before to avoid embarrassing accidents. I go to the toilet. It is in here that the signs saying you must sit to pee are plastered on all the walls and the back of the loo. The last thing any cleaner wants is to be wiping up radioactive wee. 

I sit. I wee. 

I am ushered into the vestibule and told to remove my shoes and my jeans. Arthurette also points at the chair and tells me to sit. I do not. She looks most disappointed I have not followed her instructions. She closes the door. After a couple of minutes the scanner attendant opens the door and invites me in. I lie down and she tells me how long it will take, how I am to be relaxed and keep still, breathe normally. I nod and she leaves. The scanner makes some adjustments, rolls back and forth, the ring begins its spin. Just like the last time I had this type of scan I doze off within the space of, well I don’t know actually but I’m guessing it wasn’t long. This is not uncommon as they have an alarm to wake you when they are done. It’s a gentle peal of electronic bells. I get up and the attendant smiles and offers me a small packet of all butter biscuits. Standing in a room with a scanner and accepting biscuits in your underpants is a slightly surreal experience. Back to the vestibule and I enrobe. Arthurette opens up, takes me to yet another small waiting room, this time with a small table laden with magazines and two large bottles of water and more small packets of biscuits. The radioactive tracer for the scan detects a form of glucose in the body and as cancer cells use it at a faster rate than normal cells, cancers can be accurately spotted. Whether there is destruction of glucose and a need for returning it to the body via biccies, I don’t know. Either way, they keep you in the waiting room for around fifteen minutes with instructions to eat and drink. Following the army rule, “eat when you can, you never know when you will again” I scoff the biscuits I’ve been given, washing them down with the water then start on the packets on the table. At one point I am interrupted in mid scoff, mouth full and crumbs around my lips, by a hospital visitor who is wheeled in by his ambulance man. As that’s something that comes with the insurance you have there is a large network of private ambulances and taxis to serve the local hospitals. 
After a suitable time Arthurette returns to usher me out. Off I go.

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Breathe In, Tell Me Where It Hurts

Monday, 22nd May, 2017
When I posted my piece on the bronchoscopy on Wednesday, Phylly read it and immediately asked why I had dived into that event, instead of detailing how we had got to this point in the first place. Obviously she was not saying I should go back to 2011 and the initial diagnosis of my tongue cancer, apart from anything else I am adding to the blog I started back then and that covers that whole period, so if anyone cared they could trawl back through my posts here and see all that unfold. No, what she was interested in was the establishment of the need for a new ponction thoracique and of the diagnosis post that. When she said this I nodded wisely and took on board her comments, she kindly laid out a basic timeline of what occurred and then it hit me what was really going on. Far from wanting a clear telling of the story from the beginning, far from wanting me to tell the story in a neat way, she just wanted me to talk about a certain IBD by the name of Dr N.
Back in 2011 and onward, whilst I had my treatment for tongue cancer, the burr that sat under Phylly’s saddle was the IPNs that greeted me at each and every stage of my time in hospital. IPNs, you ask? Impossibly Pretty Nurses. From the first nurse I interacted with post surgery, in intensive care, one of the prettiest women I have ever met, to the lovelies who took care of me on the general ward, and on to the frankly amazing female taxi drivers I had during my daily trips to Vannes for radiotherapy, Phylly was assailed constantly by beauties tending to my needs. I was happy, well, who wouldn’t be? Now, I will come to the IBD in good time in this bit of the story but just so you know IBD stands for Impossibly Beautiful Doctor. Dr N will arrive shortly but first let’s begin at the beginning.
One of the results of having had a cancer, surgery, treatment and an all clear is that you are still regularly subject to having scans, to keep a weather eye on you and alert doctors if there is any change. Brian the snail’s first appearance was the result of one such scan. As Brian was no more than a blob that may or may not be naughty, it was deemed a good idea to wait, scan again and see what’s what. That happened and it was noted that Brian had grown. Consequently Dr S, my oncologist, suggested bringing the Thoracic Department in and that I have a ponction thoracique. Now, I think ponction thoracique sounds a bit like the kind of ride you might find at Disneyland Paris but in English, not so much. In English it is a chest puncture, which seems a little too Alien for anyone’s comfort. Basically you are scanned and, whilst still in the scanning room, you have a hole punched in your chest with a titanium tube, a grabby, cutty probe run down the tube and a piece of the blob bitten off and removed for examination. So I had this done, twice. Now I had those at Pontivy but the results were inconclusive. The next time I met with Dr S I met with two thoracic surgeons from Vannes, a major cancer centre and it was decided I would have another ponction, this time at the private hospital in Vannes. This was all agreed and a date was arranged to meet with Dr N, the radiologist to discuss what was to happen. Phylly and I duly drove to Vannes to the radiology department to meet with Dr N. I am going to show you a photo now:


This is a photo of the model Antonio Borges, he models for the agency MGM. This is NOT Dr N. This is as close as I can come to showing you Dr N without actually doing so. Now you can understand why Phylly wanted me to start this story at the ‘right’ point. The IBD that is Dr N was charming, solicitous, had a good grasp of English and spent time making sure I understood exactly what was to occur. He even made a joke when dictating the appointment letter to his recording machine about us speaking the ‘langue de Shakespeare’. The surprise came later when we found he hadn’t deleted that from the dictation and saw it written in the letter.
Time passed briefly and my lovely friend Dan drove me down to Vannes and the l’hopital Oceane for the ponction. The Oceane is a private hospital and whilst it is a major cancer centre, in comparison with the hospital in Pontivy it is a little dowdy. I guess it was built in the 80s and was probably state of the art then. It is now a tad tired but good for all that. Thank God Dan was there as the process of pre-admission was a struggle. Thanks to my missing it in the paperwork we received I had not filled out the pre-admission form ahead of time and when I was ushered in with Dan to the admissions secretary, a woman in her late 50s who looked like she sucked on lemons but not for pleasure as they were too sweet. She huffed and puffed with annoyance. Faced with the form and her irritated gabbling, I was at a loss. My French is less than great and at its best requires a calm environment, much repetition and patience with plenty of smiling and nodding. It was Dan who saved me, his French so much better than mine. He directed me to what to complete and translated ably her clipped curt words. At the point where I felt a complete failure in her eyes, embarrassed beyond measure I was saved by her rusty grasp of dates. We had arrived on the day of admission but she had missed that and thought I was to admitted the following day. Once she realised her error she became a smiling fawning bundle of apology and the rest of the interminable form filling and signing went a good deal more smoothly. 
A quick ride up in the lift and I was deposited in the ward. I had a two person room but was on my own, having refused to pay for a single. I had a lovely conversation with the ward sister who had a little English and was proud to tell me she and her husband had recently holidayed in Southend. I offered her my commiserations but she didn’t seem to understand. We had a good laugh later when she asked me to ‘put off’ my clothes and I said a) I’m not that kind of boy and b) it should be ‘take off’. She was both amused at my feeble joke and embarrassed at her mistake in English. I could understand the embarrassment more when she told me her husband was an English teacher. I will spare you the tedium of telling you how I sat in a room with nothing to do, suffice to say it would have been better if I’d bitten the bullet and agreed to pay for wifi. Without a book to hand or a screen to stare at vacantly, it is amazing how wrapped up you can get in the comings and goings of cars and people in the car park below my window.
Later I was carted down to Radiology in my bed. I was in the regulation blue papery gown but it’s no problem when you are wearing New York Yankees shorts underneath. The very sweet teenage porter deposited me in the corridor entrance to the department. You’ve seen the picture of Antonio Borges, my stand in for Dr N but you will not appreciate how much more handsome this man is when wearing his blue scrubs, highlighting his beautiful grey hair and his lustrous eyes. Now, imagine all of that leaning over you in a corridor, smiling and letting you know they would be starting soon. I have to admit to a certain moistness.
Once I was wheeled in, I was transferred to the sliding scanning table and instructed to strip my gown to the waist. Dr N ran over what he wanted from me. Would I kindly, when asked, take a breath and hold it until asked to breathe normally? Also, can I please not take too deep a breath, or too shallow a breath? In addition, each time I am asked to take a breath, can I please take exactly the same type of breath? No deeper than before, no more shallow than before? The reason for this is when I take a shallow breath Brian the snail will rise within my lung but when I take a deep breath Brian will drop. Dr N informed me that Brian was a sneaky little snail, positioned like some kind of blobby goal hanger both slightly behind and slightly under a rib, which meant that the ponction would be both at an angle not ideal and also at a distance slightly further than the ideal. I agreed to breathe as exactly as I could for him. He patted my naked shoulder and said my contribution to a successful ponction was vital and he was counting on me. At that moment I hoped against hope that there was no tenting.
First came the scanning. I was slid into the machine’s hole. Above me was a small glass or plastic window where I could see the ring begin to spin. Dr N’s mellifluous voice came over the tannoy and asked me to take a breath. I took a breath. The machine spun. I was asked to breathe normally. I did so. In came an assistant doctor who pulled a monitor into view at the side of me and then marked my chest with a pen whilst referring to the scan’s image. Dots were described, a cross was marked, a silent consultation was made between the assistant doctor and a senior nurse. There was nodding. I lay patiently. Next came the painting of the chest with browny yellow iodine and the laying on of a sheet with a hole. The nurse wheeled over a table and Dr N appeared above me. “Now is time for the anaesthetic, you will feel a pain from the injections but this will be the worst thing and it is over quickly. You may also feel some cold and then heat but it will not be much” He smiled gently and I smiled tensely back. The pain is brief, the prick of the needle, a certain pressure and then a numbness which feels like a clenched fist in my chest. There is some cold and then some heat but it fades. The odd thing about the wait for the injections to fully take effect is that no one looks at you. The ceiling is observed, a watch is looked at, a corner of the room is suddenly of fascination. Without exception this has happened every time. After a minute or two Dr N pressed in the area and asked if I felt anything. “Only pressure”, I said. He nodded and began. He picked up the titanium tube from the table and with a bit of a push, shoved it into my chest. All I felt was pressure and a certain punching noise, followed by a metal on metal sliding sound. Dr N stepped back and was slid into the scanner to check on positioning. I held my breath when asked, breathed normally when instructed. Out I slid and then came the grabby cutty thing. Once again there was a metal against metal sliding sound followed but a crunching clipping noise, all the more resonant because it bounces off one’s chest, rolling through your body. The sound is almost exactly similar to the guns hairdressers use to pierce your ears. Out comes the grabby cutty thing, sliding metal on metal. Dr N leans over me to say not only is he sure that a piece of Brian has been captured he knows that he slid right through. He shows me a tiny clear container with an even tinier bit of Brian floating in it. Now I imagine Brian is sporting a certain piratical air, having lost an eye to the most beautiful radiologist in France. In short order the tube is removed, the area wiped with alcohol and a plaster applied. My bed is wheeled in and the tricky process of transference comes. Because of the risk of a pneumothorax I am now not allowed to move anymore than is necessary. A pneumothorax is when air gets trapped between the lung itself and its casing, the pressure from that sometimes leading to a collapsed lung. My instructions are from now until the all clear I am to remain flat and still. But the transfer has to happen first. I will admit I have attempted this with varying degrees of success three times already and there is no way you can keep your dignity. The bed is lined up with the table, the table itself adjusted to the same level as the bed. Next, watched by two nurses and the assistant doctor I slide across. Well, I say slide, it’s more an inching, crabbing motion while I flap at the papery blue gown and my NY Yankees shorts ride up into my crotch and arse. If anyone can inch, crab, slide, hold onto a gown and pick the inorganic material of shorts out of one’s nether regions and look good, please tell me how. With a guilty jerk I squint around to get one last look at Dr N and then we are off.

Back at the room it is the usual wait for an X-ray to check on whether I do have a pneumothorax and then it’s either leave in the morning or wait for the air to dissipate, whichever comes first. Once I have the X-ray done, wheeled away flat on my back, I am back in the room and staring at the ceiling. Thanks to decent decorators there are few marks, cracks or undulations to distract me from the boredom, so I sleep. My lovely ward sister drops by to tell me she’s off and after that the scariest woman in the world comes to tel me she is my night nurse. Imagine, if you will, the wicked witch of the West with two foot extra in height and a smoker’s cough. She rasps and rumbles in such a throaty bubbly lung type of way, frowning down at me, that I think maybe we should swap roles and she should lie down and have her lungs checked. She speaks to me and the moment I turn my head to face her she tells me off for moving. I. Am. To. Keep. Absolutely. Still. Got. It? She gives me the stink eye and I am scared enough to wonder if a little pee has come out. I start to nod and her expression turns from stink eye to murderous in a flash. I freeze and stammer out a “Oui, madam”. Satisfied she leaves.
Through the night, about two or three times, I am awakened and my blood pressure, heart rate and blood oxygen levels were monitored. A side note on my night in the room, the automatic shutters to the room did not work but thankfully I had remembered to take along a sleep mask and used that. My experience of Pontivy was such that even with the shutters blocking out most of the light, there are too many lit items within the room to disturb you and I assumed Vannes would be similar. Comes the morning and Dr N comes to tell me I have a minor pneumothorax but I am free to leave whenever as it is no problem. I thank him profusely and call Phylly to pick me up.

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ALL THE FUNG OF THE LUNG

Wednesday 17 May 2017

 
Just when I thought it was safe to return to the water…It appears that I have a small lump in my right lung which is malignant. I had already known about Brian The Snail for some time but before it was uncertain whether it was benign or not. Thanks to the last thoracic puncture, where they removed a piece for examination, we know. 

Although I was told a few days ago my mental state about it has not settled at all. Currently I am vacillating between the dread of the phrase ‘lung cancer’ and a stoic ‘it is what it is’ feeling. Part of the stoicism is that I have gone through cancer before, having been diagnosed with cancer of the tongue in 2011. The initial shock of that  diagnosis plus the inevitable examination of one’s life, relationships, possible future have been done already and in some ways, despite successful treatment and the all clear, feels a bit redundant. That’s not to say I’m the least bit blasé about it, I am not. I know it’s apparently one of the ‘good’ malignancies, may involve only some form of keyhole surgery and possibly only oral chemotherapy and no radiotherapy at all but still, it IS lung cancer, the Big C as John Wayne put it. Back in 2011 I wrote a blog about my experience, posted for people to see, got some nice comments. I will do the same this time around, though thankfully for all concerned, this should turn out to be a more brief affair, with limited time in hospital, a shorter recovery period and, fingers crossed, absolutely no crappy liquid food. 

 

My reason for starting today is that the first of the ‘fun’ tests post diagnosis happened this morning, my fibroscopy as the French call it. We know it better as a bronchoscopy. For those who don’t know a this involves putting a long camera tube into my nose, down my throat and then into my lung. It is used to observe the lump and, if necessary, to take a biopsy. Today is the first of three appointments I have in short order around Brian as they are keen to get going on this. By the way, if anyone is unsure why I call my little squirmy lump Brian The Snail, I suggest you ask an adult about The Magic Roundabout. Thanks to some things happening in Vannes and some things in Pontivy, I have more than one doctor’s secretary making and changing appointments for me and despite the best efforts of  my darling wife Phylly, the lovliest Rottweiler I know, there have been mix ups. Currently though, I have had the fibroscopy today in Pontivy, Monday is a PET scan of my entire body in Vannes and Tuesday is a lung function test (could you blow into this bag, sir?) again in Pontivy, before any date for surgery happens.
Just to give you an idea of how much I was looking forward to my bronchoscopy, here’s what I wrote in 2011 when I had one after being diagnosed with tongue cancer:
“We arrived on time for our 0845 appointment and before thirty minutes were up we had all the paperwork we needed and I was being ushered into the examining room by the nurse.  I have a friend with no gag reflex.  Obviously that can pose all sorts of problems to a person but that morning I felt envious of him.  Fibroscopies; I would not recommend them to anyone in France.  When I was in England I had one to check out my hiatus hernia and the hospital drugged me up and turned me into a semi comatose ball of randiness, trying to chat up the nurse while my darling wife was still in the room.  Here, I received oral topical anaesthetics that hardly fit the bill and turned me from almost silent Englishman into a mewling puking retch machine.  Whilst the gastric fibroscopy had me retching constantly the process felt relatively quick; the bronchial, on the other hand was a comedy of errors right from the start.  The doctor in charge seemed gentle but he couldn’t get the anaesthetic into the syringe which attaches to the scope, when he did he dropped the full syringe on the floor.  He got tangled up in the leads to the scope and had to be unravelled by his nurse.  Then the leads were incorrect and they could not get a picture on the screen.  After that it was peachy, as he pushed the scope into my lungs as carefully as he could, whilst I retched.  And retched.  And retched. Although the nurse was supposed to soak up the drool flowing from my mouth most of it washed down my neck and soaked the back of my t-shirt.  An observer referred to it as a ‘catastrophe’.”

 I took myself down to our brand new hospital in Noyal Pontivy, a state of the art regional hospital, all shiny new with medically approved sculptures on green areas bounded by the treatment rooms and wards, a palace of steel struts and glass, gently shaded corridors and a half way decent caff doing good(ish) coffee and a nice line in rectangular jam or chocolate filled doughnuts.  Everyone is super efficient there, the capacity is such that there are no waiting lists, appointments are to be had easily most of the time and, because it is the French, generally no one tells you anything, asks your permission, or believes you need to be consulted. Aside from that, it is great. The bronchoscopy people are on the first floor and when I arrived I was immediately asked if I had signed the two permission slips sent to me. I said no and was given a couple to sign. By the way, about three hours after that exchange I received those two blank slips mentioned in the post. Don’t tell me it’s only the British post that is shit. 

As with most appointments I’ve had in France, I had barely sat down with my copy of Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York before I was ushered into the examination room, a large affair with a couple of monitors on extension arms attached to the ceiling. They were both on but the view via the camera was just of the receptacle it was sitting in, some form of metal cup. The nurse who pointed to where I could put my bag was an attractive black haired woman with a nice smile and a series of dots painted just under her eyebrows. She proffered the usual papery blue gown and she helped me into it and indicated me to lie on the exam table. A woman doctor asked me in English how I felt and I explain in faltering French how the last time I had a bronchoscopy I had a terrible experience, involving much gagging, coughing, tears and retching. Still, enough of when the doctor first saw me… Okay, I never said there wouldn’t be rubbish jokes. She expressed a good deal of interest in when and where the previous exam had taken place and I explained as best I could that I am a functioning moron with no sense of time, history, names or events. She seemed to take this confession in good heart, though I must admit I felt a little hurt at the patronising look that passed between her and the nurse, not that I didn’t deserve it. 

A minute or two later the male doctor arrived, an older gentleman, slim, balding but with some long wisps of indeterminately coloured hair down to his beige shirt collar. He ignored me completely and struggled into a blue papery gown whilst looking at the computer set up in the corner of the room. I could just see the pale blue screen with various icons on it. I few taps from the doctor and…nothing happened. A few whispered curses came from him and more urgent tapping occurred. A moment of silence was followed by more cursing. Stretching my neck down I took another look and saw the doctor, my examining doctor, the man I was placing my lungy trust in today, smacking the keyboard whilst struggling to unwrap himself from the gown he appeared to have screwed himself into. One arm was raised encased, a blue elbow waving back and forth while the other hand was snatching at one of the white ties that seemed to have encircled his throat. My lovely black haired nurse came to his rescue and untangled him. He left, muttering oaths under his breath. A little later he returned with another doctor who imperiously tapped a few keys and brought my records up immediately and pictures of previous scans of my chest. My man grunted appreciatively and they put their heads together to discuss my chest and whisper opinions. After what seemed an eternity I took another look to see what he was doing to see him being carefully dressed by the nurse in a fresh gown. He stood still whilst she draped him in the blue paper and then spun him gently around to tie the tags at neck and waist. He came over and introduced himself as Dr B. He was kind but efficient in his chat with me. He explained he was going to put the camera into my lung take a look and perhaps take a biopsy although Brian is a distance away and may not be reached for a snip of materiel. I nodded and he continued to inform me that while he introduced the camera I would feel the need to retch and cough and I was to try to suppress those feelings as much as possible and to breathe slowly and deeply and remain calm. As he carefully detailed this to me in an even voice I could feel my heart rate increasing, something my nurse noted via the clip on my finger to monitor both heart rate and blood oxygen levels. She patted my hand gently but the best feeling was the weight of her breast against my arm, most comforting. 
Before they got started I had all the fun of the nasal and throat sprays to numb the area. Not only do they taste disgusting they also sting and make one’s eyes water. My eyes streaming, I could just see Dr B approach in his protective glasses. With a hand on my chest he said, “I shall introduce now”. As the memories of the previous bronchoscopy flooded my brain, my hands balled into fists and I tensed up. The length of fibre is coated in black plastic and despite the numbing the sensation of its introduction to your nose is one of cold and of pressure. I have no idea how fast the camera is pushed down but the sense of movement had me immediately gagging against this foreign object. The nurse patted my hand again but all I could feel was the snaking cable in my throat, water in my eyes and my diaphragm hitching in protest. Next came the coughing as my body revolted against this invasion. As I tried to squeeze the life out of the tissue the nurse had given me after my nasal spraying I consciously attempted to relax my throat and allow this to happen. Meanwhile, at each gag or cough Dr B would say in his lightly broken English, “Be quiet, now”. I’m sure this was simply a mistranslation of the French but at each repetition of a cough or gag his voice became more curt, the words more clipped. Eventually it was all over and I was dismissed in short order for the next victim, guided out by my lovely nurse into the rain.

 

 In the next post you will discover the fun of the trip to Vannes and why I will be surrounded by posters telling me I must sit down to pee.

 

 

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The Wheels on the Bus…

Apologies for not posting recently,  I have been busy building dry stone walls for P.  Photos and comments and an explanation to come.

When contemplating the subject for this post I cast my mind back over the past couple of weeks to see what had happened to me.  I searched the furthest, darkest recesses of my memory with my little mental torch.  I found the odd cobweb, some desiccated mouse corpses and a small piece of wood with no discernible function.  What I did not find was any decent subject past a small increase in my ability to taste food.  It occurred to me then that this may be the sign I have waited for to end this blog.  I know there are things to come – the visit with Dr S next month, time to be spent with the dentist and the check ups to assess my freedom from cancer – but it seems like a good point to leave the cancer-only blog, stretch my writing legs and start a new blog with a wider remit.  So that’s what I am doing.

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU

Thanks, so many thanks, must go to Dr S and his team for the fantastic treatment they gave me.  Professional, caring, attentive, responsive and efficient, I can hardly fault them for the care I received. That also goes for the other departments and clinics; from the scanning clinic that gave me such a quick appointment all that time ago, the intensive treatment ward when I had my surgery, the general ward where I recovered initially, the hospital and the clinic in Vannes where I received radiotherapy and Dr D and his hair.

I would like to thank all those who have read this blog, commenting either here or on Facebook.  Your support by those simple acts have helped me enormously.

I would like to thank Sandra and Peter for their long distance but no less valued support, it is good to have sane loving people in your life, they ground you.

Finally, there is no way I could have borne this without the clear-eyed support and love of Phyllida.  She has had my back from the very first.  She has loved me, held me, chivvied me, slapped me and shown me the truth of this – that we are all survivors if we will just see it.

Right, enough of the soppiness! Soon there will be a new blog.  It will be called The Chicken Diaries (www.donaldchickendiaries.wordpress.com) and chickens will occasionally be the subject of a post or two. The subjects will be many and varied, running from philosophical musings to the odd rant and I hope it will be entertaining enough that people will enjoy reading it.  Regardless this is cheaper than psychotherapy.

So, now I turn my back on the cancer that has both blighted and blessed my life this past year and I look forward to both the new and the familiar.  My mind sees better taste buds and some naughty foods to try, sees a return to playing softball and seeing my friends in England, sees wood cutting and copse clearing, sees warm nights and busy days, sees attempts at knowing more than five chords on the guitar and finally sees a time when cancer is just something other people have.

Thank you and good night.

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RubberDinghyRapids, Bro!!

So it seems England is rubbish at rugby as well as football.  There are lots of happy French people here, chortling at the ‘touristas’  and tipping their teeny glasses of red wine at us residents.  I watched the game and no doubt that France deserved it.  What the hell what was happening with the football I just don’t know; it has been quite a while since I have watched England play, they disappoint me so. Anyway, at least we have the cricket (what? really? when was this? oh.)  On the footie front, I think that FIFA should (and this’ll be a money maker, Sepp) create a version of the Euro Vase, a  second tier set of competition for national teams who are a bit rubbish but still keen.  Oh, and it’s about time we were dropped out of the top twenty in FIFA rankings – I mean, really!

The past week or so has been a bit of a trial where I have reached the peak of the effects of the radiotherapy on me.  The burns on my neck you can see below:

 

Is that a pink butterfly? Or a euphemism?

 

It has been raw, tender, and as it has healed with the application of cream, itchy.  My tongue has tenderness on either side, that has also lessened along with the pain at the back of the mouth in the soft palate.  Dr S took a look, along with the dentist and now I am free to try increasingly firmer foods.  Lovely except for the lack of tastebuds.  My estimate is that the earliest they will return is the end of the month.  P very kindly brought back a couple of jars of pickled onions for my ‘pickle day’.  Now I have to decide whether I want it to be pickles that I taste first, in which case I will have to rise of a morning and suck an onion before I do anything else – hmmm.  Dr S prescribed tablets to increase my saliva output that seem to be working okay.  Well there is a little more wetness and I’m not slobbering like a boxer dog, so that’s good.

Generally seeking I am feeling better and better each day, so have started the construction of another wall for P.  I am getting into a construction which is part stone and part slate dividers.  It looks good and lends itself to some stability.  I shall post a photo when it is finished.

The one thing bringing me down a bit is that the Players softball Tournament is under way in Las Vegas.  If it were not for the cancer I would be there right now preppingthe Rookies to play and looking forward to playing mens. I am also missing out on playing some poker out there – damn! In fact, I haven’t played a live game sat around a table for at least a year, maybe longer.  I will keep up with what’s happening at the tournament via Facebook and think about next year.

Popped out to a local bar last night to watch an open music night/jam session; all part of my mental recuperation.  It was good fun.  One guy dominated, obviously a professional at some point.  He played excellent guitar and was a pretty good singer too. The music was mostly early jazz and blues, some swing standards and the odd contemporary (if Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah can be called that).  The others were pretty good too, especially one guy playing the harmonica.  The most useful part of the evening is to be out among people, getting used to people and adjusting to them getting used to you.  The funny thing is I don’t aways notice the looks, because I’m not used to that either.

I cannot recommend Four Lions enough for anyone who has not seen it yet, it is hilarious.  The only problem is that both P and I were in stitches watching the muslim extremists in Spooks last night.  I kept expecting them to eat their sim cards or blame the jews for car parts.

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So, what will my super ability be?

That’s it, finis with the radiotherapy.  Last session today, which passed without fanfare or balloons, part poppers or cake.  The nurse did smile and congratulate me on this being my last ‘rayon’ but that was it.  All that is left to me now is to wonder how the radiation will change me and how much Stan Lee would want to create a graphic novel of my adventures.  I am a fan of spiderman – the comics from way back, not the ‘re-imaginings’, the re-boots, the crap.  Perhaps I will have something akin to his powers; I could be SuperFly!  Nah, too many images of purple flares and afros.  How about Ironicman, always there with a pithy comment or wry observation.  A better option as I don’t have to do anything but be at disasters, crimes or evildoings on time and with a wisecrack exposing the irony in the situation.  Actually come to think of it, two problems – 1. getting somewhere on time is not always my strong point (unless P is in charge) and 2. people could easily get pissed off with some prat with his underpants over his tights snapping one-liners over stolen money, dead bodies, natural disasters, it might seem a tad selfish.  I think I will go with the amazing Laze-O, he yawns! he stretches! he turns over and goes back to sleep! Perfect.

I have a souvenir from my radio, practically thrust into my hands by the nurse when I asked in passing what they would do with it.  The mask I wore for each of the thirty one sessions and had be pinioned to the bench.  P says she thinks it could come from a Star Wars movie and she loves the lilac shade.

It is strange looking at it because it really brings home the fact that this part of my treatment is over.  The feeling is mixed.  On the one hand I suppose I should be glad I have done all the radio now and the next stage, recovery and checks and teeth etc. will now be happening and in a way, yes I am glad…but; for some six weeks I have had a routine, treatments for five days out of seven, an outside imposed routine that I have become comfortable with and I think I will miss it a bit.  I know I will fill the time with other things, there are many things outside of the recovery that need to be attended to: the wood and its management, improvements to the house, helping P with creating the potager across the road, not to mention continuing to write the blog and the other pieces which have been on hold.  Now it will be, apart from the doctor appointments, a self imposed regimen.  Also, perverse as it may seem, some good things have come out of this cancer and I guess I don’t want to lose something that has been useful to me.   Having said that, it will be great to taste food again, open my mouth and move my tongue without pain.

Up until the last week, as I have said before, the effects of the radio have not been that evident, they have been there but they have not impinged as much as I thought they would.  The last three days I have changed my mind.  My ‘bruleed’ tongue is much more sensitive now and I am glad for no more ‘rayon’.  I have a burn mark on my neck now, not noticeable two days ago and the mucous generation has increased.  The obvious change to anyone looking at me are the hairless areas on my face and neck, as you can see below:

Not by the hairs on my chinny chin chin

I had some romantic thought that I looked a bit like Wolverine in his Logan guise (I don’t think I carry black and yellow well) but I realise I look more like an inexpert shaver.  And I’m none too sure about the look in my eye either.

The next things to happen are that I shall visit with Dr S and the dentist to check the jaw and teeth.  I’m hoping That S will pass me fit to eat more solid foods, though I still feel some movement in the teeth area.  I want to ask the dentist about aggressive cleaning of the teeth to get them looking better than they do now and what he recommends re filling my gap – a false tooth or some other option?  I remember a friend having a false tooth, or it might have been a capped tooth which was artificially coloured down from pristine white to match the others in his mouth, I wonder how our American cousins would view that!

Today’s food craving:  A Big Mac.

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I never said I was tasteful but this is ridiculous

So near yet feeling so far… I am three sessions away from finishing radiotherapy! Cannot wait, excited and slightly nervous (why I feel nervous, I’m not sure I know yet – it’ll come).  So, firstly a round up of what’s happening to me –

Although the wires are off I still have stiff jaws and cannot open my mouth as wide as I used to – yes, yes, I can hear all those voices saying, ‘thank god he’s less mouthy!’

I can still feel some movement in my jaw around the empty socket that is my missing tooth, though I am trying my best not to apply pressure.  Side to side movement is a no no.

My tongue shows some sign of possible yeast infection, i.e. a white carpet, eeew.

Both sides of my tongue show blistering and redness from radiation and are sore.

Everything still tastes like ashes or cardboard and I am finding that anything even slightly more than mush irritates the soft palate at the top back of my mouth.

Although I cannot taste anything I am sensitive to heat (as in spice) or strong flavours.  I tried a mint the other day and I couldn’t keep it in my mouth for more than a minute and I am finding my toothpaste almost burns my tongue and lips when I use it.

Despite not smoking anymore, my nose gets blocked at night and I end up mouth breathing.  Added to the mucous build up that occurs with treatment, I am (lovely) hawking up all kinds of crap in the morning and also, to a lesser extent, during the day.

The hairless parts on my face show the paths of the radiation very clearly.  Some redness, a little irritation and some dryness but overall not as bad as it could be.

No more hair falling out from head, so the blank spot remains the same size.

Although I am working (moving wood, building fences etc.) I find I get tired very quickly.

Outside of the above, feeling good.

 

Our neighbours Claire and Anne came over a few days ago and we all went down to our little patch of woods to hunt for mushrooms.  It was great fun.  It’s a light wood, a mix of oak, hazel, willow etc. and runs down the to Blavet, the Brest a Nantes canal.  Bent over in the undergrowth wearing sturdy boots and carrying a stick we searched for ceps etc. in the light, warm September rain.  Claire did a terrific job of being certain of what was what, pointing out colours of mushrooms, types of gills on the underside and identifying the shape of stalks.  I was impressed.  Less so when she said she would be only taking a sample of each to the pharmacist for identification (a free service) and then making soup.  The reason? it only takes a cursory look at a fungi ident website to see there are many types that look pretty much identical, one good the other poisonous.  P and I decided that we would probably not eat any soup that came our way.  As it was, Claire popped over a couple of days later with the basket and informed us that of those we collected almost all were bad for you and those few that were edible you would not want to eat. So soup’s off.

Yesterday P and I went up to Malguenac and the S.P.A . dog centre.  It’s a brutalist building, all concrete runs and metal fronted cages for the dogs.  It also stinks.  We were up there to volunteer to walk dogs from the pound.  They have leads and a special run so you can take them for a walk around the village and/or take them off the lead and throw a ball for them in the run.  We managed to walk four of the dogs before time ran out – you can walk them between 2.00 and 5.30.  The organisation is typically French, you walk up say, ‘I want to walk a couple of dogs.’ they point you to the leads and collars and leave you to it.  No questions, no form filling, no assessment of experience.

We walked the dogs who had not been out for some time (they have a chart of who has been out and who has not) – a boxer, a couple of mongrels and a tiny border collie type.  The boxer was big, strong but essentially placid.  He just loved chasing and returning the ball in the run but had a real problem with giving it up after.  Thankfully it was also a thirsty dog, so I could retrieve the ball while he drank.  The border collie was little more than a puppy and it’s main aim was to get affection.  No idea about ball chasing at all, so I’m guessing it had little time with it’s previous owner.  I enjoyed the process and we plan to go about twice a week – that is until P falls in love with one (or two) and we end up trying to explain to Flynn that he has invited a dog into his house.  Best of luck with that one boyo.

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