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  • Writer's pictureAustin Birks

Bag for Life This Year So Far

Well, as I meander closer to my 99th dose of chemo the week after next and then the big one on December 20th, where I hit the big milestone of 100 doses of chemotherapy, I thought that it might be timely to reflect on my journey with cancer in 2023. It is funny what you forget that you go through, isn't it? And in some ways, it is really useful having the blogs, as they do remind you what joys, challenges, and tribulations that you go through.

The year started with me waking up one morning with a ferocious pain in the small of my back, so I did the decent thing and tried to see if there was anything physical that I could see. In truth, where the pain was located, there appeared to be a mark of sorts. At the time, I mistakenly thought it was shingles, which I have had before, but this was far more painful. Very basic human functions like coughing, or God forbid blowing your nose were extremely painful. Also, laughing could cause pain, so you simply try to stop laughing.

So, after a few days of this and with no improvement, I decided enough was enough and I made an appointment with the doctor, a very nice Asian lady doctor, asked a few questions, and then did some prodding about. In the end, she suggested that I needed to have an x-ray, which was arranged for a week later. So, off to Kidderminster day hospital to attempt to put on one of those backward-tied up smock things. Now, I do not know about you, but these challenges usually create maximum stress after I had previously found myself walking around Warwick hospital with my backside hanging out, much to my humiliation. However, I took the liberty of making sure that a friendly male nurse made sure that I was suitably modest before being let out in front of the great British public.

Fast forward one week, and I get a phone call from the said former nice doctor, "Hello Mr. Birks, we now know what caused your extreme back pain." "Oh yes, doctor," I replied, "and what was the cause?" "You have 3 broken ribs," she replied, and that was it. Simple as that. I simply woke up one morning having gone to bed with no broken ribs, to waking up with 3 and no explanation. Within a couple of weeks, the pain was gone, and normal service was resumed.

My next treat was as a result of changing my medication. The reason for that was simple: my skin infection had started to return, so my friend Doctor Tom had given me some new medication after discussions with the team at dermatology. In truth, that was fine with me; the effect of the skin infection was frankly horrendous. I looked like I had leprosy. At its peak, my arms, legs, back, face, and scalp were riddled with it. I actually experienced once in Tesco Express in Stourbridge, one of those moments. I could see a little lad of about 7 looking at my ravaged boat race when he said to his mum, "What is the matter with that man’s face? It looks horrible." Well, mum did her best to try and downplay it. I just smiled, paid, and slunk off thinking it's time that I did online shopping to avoid any further Beauty and the Beast moments.

Anyway, what I did not know was that changing the medication would have a most profound effect on my mental health and very surprisingly resulted in the most horrific nightmare experience that I have ever had. It was beyond real, and to this day it seemed it all really happened.

In a nutshell, while I was deep in my slumbers, I suddenly found myself being haunted. I can recall it vividly as I lay asleep; my bedroom door opened with the hall light on, there was no one visible, and then the door started slamming starting slowly then speeding up and getting louder and more aggressive. And then I saw it, a large demon was standing there staring at me. In my head, it was completely real, and not, to be honest, I was beyond fear, and then my instincts kicked in and I attacked it physically as it attacked me. The next thing that I recall was waking up covered in blood, or so I thought, but it was not blood; it was actually sweat, although I was convinced it was not. I had never really heard of night terrors if honest, so I did some research, and they are very real. I am delighted to report that to date I have not had any repetition and I hope to God that I never do if honest. Mind you some wag I know suggested that I had been snacking late at night on cheese, but I don’t think so.

Treat number 3 was the very surreal experience of having a very strange reaction to yet another chemical reaction that is called anaphylactic shock. This resulted in my face and hands seeming to expand and explode while my breathing was conscripted significantly. I knew that something horribly wrong. Having also rung Doctor Tom, he told me to get my backside down to the hospital as quickly as I could, do not wait for an ambulance, do not drive yourself, get someone to take you right now. So, luckily for me, my sister Cathy and her husband Steve very kindly drove me to Russelles Hall A and E department, now to be fair I had never been to this hospital.

I took with me my emergency cancer pack as this prioritizes your treatment, so as I stood in the queue clutching my red pack, I was surprised to hear an automatic voice tannoy advising me that anyone who assaulted members of staff would be prosecuted without hesitation. Good Lord, I thought just how dangerous is it in today's modern Accident and Emergency department, to be fair the announcement was repeated every ten minutes or so, which I thought was alarming. After all, if you do not feel safe in A and E, then where can you feel safe? Says a lot about these modern days.

So, what was it like having this reaction? Well, frankly, it was unpleasant and felt out of control. The symptoms were trouble breathing, hives on my face and hands, swelling of the face, throat, lips, and tongue, and dizziness and a sharp drop in blood pressure, trouble swallowing, a rapid pulse, in truth it was a scary experience, but as time went on and I waited to see the doctors, I could feel my symptoms start to diminish, and after one hour when I finally saw a Doctor, I was virtually back to normal, so I was given the all-clear and got myself an Uber home. The doctor told me that it was most likely that I had suffered an allergic reaction to penicillin and as a result should steer very well clear of it going forward, which I have since done, happily with no nasty side effects.

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