• Austin Birks

Cancer: the best of times and the worst of times

There is a classic line in literature that says: it was the best of times and it was the worst of times. Yes, you get points if you know where that quote comes from. So let me tell you about an ordinary day in my cancer life in 2021.


This morning, I woke up in my bed at about 9am and the first thing that I saw, having not gone to my bed until 4.30am in the morning because my chemo-filled brain was, as usual, full of colour, light, and energy (in truth, a cocktail that for me is both a blessing and a curse) was the smile and face of my lovely partner Yvi. She brushed my face with her hand, told me that she loved me, and told me to go back to sleep. It was the best of times.


Fast forward to 11.03am, when my brain slowly rolled its way back into the world. As I stretched and yawned, I became aware that my right hand which was somewhere on my stomach, felt something not quite right. Something cold, and sticky was down there.


So, I did the obvious thing and pulled the bed covers back. What I saw was a nightmare. My stoma bag had burst open and had spilt all over my stomach, my groin, the quilt, the sheet. It was on my hands, it was everywhere. It smelt appalling, it was clammy, and sticky and it lived up to the famous expression: it was truly was like s... clinging to a blanket, except, I was also the blanket.


Now, you have choices in life, you can start screaming and acting like a fool, or, you can click into gear and sort yourself out. Without hesitation, I went into mode 2, because let me tell you mode 1 is never an option.

Yvi, as per usual, was busy, but I could not help myself; I shouted for her and she appeared to find me naked standing in the bathroom, adorned in my own glorious dirty protest, except I had no cause to protest. As ever, no histrionics, no revolution, just a calm: "Ok, can I help you?" "No thanks babe, I’m OK." As ever, we just seemed to accept and resolve. I knew what I had to do, and in fairness, so did she, which was simply to reassure me and she did. And equally important, she made a rather fine cup of tea. Frankly, all I ever need in any crisis.


Sometimes, when you start the journey with cancer, you have no idea of just how many strange directions it will take you. What I am discovering is that it is like one of those crazy haunted houses that you see at theme parks, where one door leads to another, and so it goes on. That is ok, you need to be resilient and flexible, keep an open mind on every door. Some are harmless, some are good, some are vindictive and cruel. But, and this is the key, you have to treat them all the same, never allow one door to change your resolve or your spirit.


One hour after I had cleaned myself, my bed, my linen, my bathroom, my carpets, my phone rang. I checked the number, it was a Warwick number. That is the hospital where I get my treatment. I answered it. A very nice lady called Polly introduced herself: "Is that Austin?"

"Yes, hello Polly, Austin." "Doctor Peter would like to meet you next Monday at 11.10 at the hospital for a face-to-face consultation. Can you be there?" "Yes, of course." "Thank you." Click, gone.


So, from the best of days at 09.10 with love and kindness from the woman I love, to 11.10 waking up to a disaster of the turd kind, followed by time to learn your fate. Best of days, worst of days, some might say. But not me, no.


What I say is, it is all about doors in the mansion. Some open to good things, some to bad. Either way, you confront, you engage, you accept, you think, you plan and you beat. That is it, no matter what the odds are like (and mine have been desperate on two occasions now). You never give up on the future or the next day, the next sunrise, the next step on that journey of the gift of life. Because trust me, when you nearly lose your life and all the richness of living that goes with it, you will always embrace and cherish it.

So, as I end this day, which had the best of days and the worst of days, it ends as ever with the best of days, ready to start the beauty of living again, even if that means waking up with a stoma bag accident. For me, praise the Lord, I’m alive to live another day. And yet again, as the beautiful old hymn solidly proclaims: my eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.


No matter what you wake up to in life, at least we have the miracle of waking up, after that, everything else is, trust me, a bonus.

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