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  • Writer's pictureAustin Birks

Cancer And The Snakes And Ladders Conundrum, Or Shake Rattle And Roll!

When I first started writing these blogs back in late 2018, I had absolutely what was going to happen, or indeed what I was going to write about. I was so immersed in the day-to-day newness of it that I simply followed my absurd thoughts with no plan nor reason. I do know that I wanted to make people laugh or at least smile, but I also wanted to share the realities of it, each step of the way. It was never intended to trivialise it because we are talking about fighting a nasty, vindictive, cruel illness, that wants to end your life.

Cancer does not do half measures, it does full on invasion and there is nothing good about any of that.

However, from the outset I wanted to make it a very real and human journey, hence the mood music from blog number one “Any port in a stoma”.

It was never intended to be a rib-tickling belly laugh. No, more a small twist on a subject that for many is taboo, because poo is not your average polite conversation starter at the dinner table. Well, not in my world. However, it is part of the battle and you have to learn to live with each other. If you start off hating it, and resenting it, then believe me, it will get its own back, trust me. You ask anyone who owns one.

But, and I very quickly learned this, you need to have coping mechanisms. Small, bite- size, chunk steps, that you can digest, so that even when they don’t work you can cope, regroup and crack on. Living is a lifestyle choice, but you do not realise it until you are in real danger of losing your life.

Let alone enjoy the luxury of having a style. Whatever style that might be, including of course a Gangnam Style.

So just where exactly do I find myself right now?

Well, let me recap the last 7 days, if I may, which frankly have not been typical, but they are worth sharing for good reasons.

Last Wednesday, November 2nd, I attended the Rigby Cancer Unit at Stratford hospital for what should have been a 4-and-a-half-hour treatment. However, due an infection on my scalp which was covered in a thick grungy crust, which would exude a delightful yellow pus before scabbing itself into Mr Crusty from the Simpsons, meant that the senior nurses and doctors had to ensure that the infection would not impact badly on my chemo. So a few tests, and 3-and-a-half hours later than I should have been, finally at 19.30 hours they finish the treatment and I leave with the last shift workers, with my crypto-toxic cancer balloon firmly stapled into my chest, bouncing merrily around my neck in its blue holdall, like a Saint Bernard dog in the Alps carrying a brandy flask.

Now, my only snag is that at 19.30 I was supposed to be dressed in my black tie at the Hilton Metropole hotel at the NEC with 820 guests for the prestigious Route One Awards, where I was a VIP guest. Now luckily for me, the wonderful good doctor had dropped off my DJ, shirt, bow tie, black shoes, etc. for me at the hospital.

So I did the decent Clark Kent thing, and popped into the disabled loo at the hospital and transformed myself. I then drove to the NEC where I arrived just in time for my starter and had a most enjoyable night care of Tim, Daniel, and the Route One team. I eventually arrived home at 03.30 in a taxi having enjoyed a few fine glasses of wine, oh happy days indeed (Note to self for future reference do not buy a glass of white wine in the late night bar as it cost £13.00, or 3 decent bottles of plonk in Aldi).

The next day, Thursday, I wake up at 11.00 AM quite knackered, where I make my way back to the NEC to attend the Bus Expo and fetch my car. Sadly, I completely forget to take my steroids and as result I take them very late. Now, this is not good, because the steroids basically act like a bucket of Red Bull and vodka on the brainbox. So, even though utterly knackered at bedtime at 11.30, my brain refuses point blank to let me sleep. To quote a classic ditty from the iconic Simon and Garfunkel album “The Sound of Silence” LP from the mid-seventies, which contains the immortal lines “Hello darkness my old friend, you have come to call on me again.” Try as I might, I just cannot go to sleep, much as I want to. So at 04.30 I am watching Walker Texas Ranger kicking baddy butt while I sit there admiring the kicking skills of Chuck Norris. Result: 2 hours sleep.

Friday, a full on day. Now, what I have not mentioned yet is that on the Monday I had cut my right arm. Because the chemo has made my skin very brittle, like paper, initially it was a tiny cut so I put a small plaster on it. A day later in the shower I took it off and it ripped a nice chunk of skin right off, not daunted I immediately put a bigger plaster on it and 24 hours later I did exactly the same, ripped it off and created a much bigger huge wound. Albert Einstein famously said the definition of stupidity is to keep repeating the same mistake. Well, he would have been well proud of me as I found the biggest plaster that I could find and covered as much of my arm as I could, with the absurd logic of well this time I will leave it on longer, what can possibly go wrong?

So on Friday afternoon, when I attend the Rigby Unit to have my cancer bag removed, I casually mention to my friend Jo the nurse that I have a cut on my arm, so being the super nurse she is she says well ok show me.

So, I did, by this time the plaster is nice red colour as the wound has got worse, it was a complete mess. She did not say anything to be fair, she did not have to, but she reminded me of Dad's Army when Captain Mannering would like at Private Pike and utter the immortal lines: "You stupid boy".


She took in a sharp intake of breath just like a car mechanic would when he sees a new clutch opportunity. Let’s get you a proper non-stick bandage - so she did, happy days.

In the meantime, I have a new array of cuts and lacerations appear on my feet and fingers, and for good measure, a large septic infection on the big toe of my left foot that has been festering away since February, even though I have had 2 sets of anti -biotics that did sweet F.A.

So no sleep, lots of chemo, a crusty scalp, a septic toe, lots of cuts just where you don’t need them and generally feeling not great.

So here is what happens next.

It is Sunday afternoon, at about 13.35. There I am standing in front of 11 Karate black belts at my dojo at Enso Shotokan Karate club at my Nuffield dojo. I have just demonstrated (albeit badly, due to the 25 cm blood clot in my left thigh, as well as the destroyed left hip that needs a hip replacement operation) a technique called Uchi Uke Chudan (inside block, middle section) when I feel a very strange sensation, my balance starts to waiver, and I can feel my legs move on their own. Looking back, I must have looked to the lads like a young Bambi, cavorting across the ice, and then suddenly I collapsed, not unlike a mighty oak tree, felled, boom.

When I come to, I am surrounded by the guys and being given firm instruction to not move. Clearly, I thought, (to quote the Bard), something is rotten in the state of Denmark, or to be precise on the floor of Nuffield dojo, Rubery. I have never done that before.

So, I go home and sleep feeling a bit unwell while the good doctor as ever looks after me.

The next day, I noticed that the large dressing on my gammy arm has gone a bright green. The same green as those Emoji sick things that adorn social media. Now, I am no medical man but even I think this is not good.

A phone call to the hospital followed by sending photos and very soon I get my orders: get an overnight bag, get your red sepsis emergency pack and go straight to A&E at Warwick, do not pass go, do not collect £200.00, just get there when you can, as the old song says.

Now here is the thing, in my pre-cancer life, I used to fly a lot and go to airport executive lounges, I used to have these executive cards, Airport Angels etc., what I did not realise, in my innocence, is when you walk into A&E, with a red sepsis pack it is like having priority access. It is a bit like being carried in sat on a sedan chair, while being fed grapes off a silver platter. Mainly, because you are potentially close to death.

Indeed, as I stood patiently in the queue at reception, I noticed that a group of doctors kept appearing to stare at me. I did not know what to make of it but all of a suddenly 3 of them in blues walked over, and went straight to the guy behind me who I did not even know was there. As I turned, he clutched his chest and hit the deck, as he was clearly having some sort of heart attack. Put my septic toe in perspective, I can tell you.

So the lady at reception says: what can I do for you, young man? 5 hours, two comprehensive examinations and interviews later I have 8 penicillin tablets to take every day for 2 weeks, along with 4 ibuprofen tablets, and 1 other tablet, and a special shampoo for my crusty head, and 1 stomach injection every day since March. Frankly, as my dear old mum used to say, I seem to rattle a lot these days but, and here is the key thing, it keeps me alive and kicking.

So, not to be fair a typical week, but a week all the same, and as ever I can only applaud from the wings at the amazing people who are our NHS, truly super heroes, we really should count our blessings that we live in a nation where we receive all of this care. I know that I will never forget what they have done for me and so many other people.

Never Give Up, Never Give In

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