• Austin Birks

From The Top Of My head To The Tips Of My Toes…No one Knows Where The Cancer Goes….Part 1: The head

I often get asked what having chemo is really like, and my reply is consistent: the chemo itself is actually quite manageable. After 68 doses, I feel reasonably well-qualified to give a decent reply. Of course, it all depends on your treatment, the drugs, the injections, all that sort of stuff. I am now on my 4th different cycle of treatments since I started my first chemo, after my first operation in September 2018, which quite simply saved my life. Weeks after that, I started my first rounds of chemo. I never once felt scared or apprehensive, and I had no idea what to expect, so I simply accepted my lot in life and let the experts do their job, and they have been doing it ever since.

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If I am honest, I never really took much interest in the treatments themselves. I hardly bothered learning their names, let alone what they did, etc. Maybe its a coping mechanism, or I just could not be bothered, but I have never been one of those folk who have to know everything about the medication. I have simply put my faith in Doctor Peter, my amazing oncologist. He knows his profession and every decision taken so far has been spot on. How do I know? Because I am still here; it's as simple as that. One simple barometer when you have level 4A bowel cancer and that is: are you still here and how are you coping with it?


Well, clearly coping very well, thank you. I did two spin classes in the last 24 hours which are both physically tough and I loved them, and tomorrow I will be teaching Karate for the best part of 2 hours, as I’m training my lads for some seriously tough first, second, and third Dan black belt examinations.


This blog, however, is not actually about dealing with the actual chemo. I will happily elaborate exactly on what happens for the either 6 and half hours or 8 and a half hours every other Wednesday at the Rigby unit of Stratford hospital. No, this is all about the side effects of taking chemo, and exactly how that manifests itself. We have in Karate a little simple picture of a man, and it shows exactly where the “atemi waza“ as they say in Japan, or "striking points" are. It is almost like a medical diagram, except, of course, implementing such attacks would involve medical attention, which is slightly ironic.


I thought that it might be useful to give you, my dear chums, a quick guide from north to south, as it were, or from the top of my head down to the tips of my toes. To be fair, these will incorporate the side effects of all the treatments that I have had from day one. So starting with the top of my head, which is currently my most recent issue, I have been struggling with a rather disgusting skin infection that started in March, when two things started to happen at the same time. First, the skin on my scalp stated to become infected in very large disgusting spots that spread rapidly. They itched very badly but if you scratched them, the skin burst and puss would come out. Frankly disgusting. After that, the same areas started to bleed, so when you wake up, your pillow is splashed with blood. At the same time, my hair started to fall out, so Yvi cut it off. I went as bald as a coot (which is incidentally a small bird).


The treatment to cure said baldy head is to apply a regular lotion to the scalp which is what I did, and it worked really well, and guess what, my hair slowly has started to grow back. Ironically though, in the last two days the same infection has come back, so more treatments are needed.


Moving down, my next challenge has been my face, as the same infection that affected my scalp had originally spread to my face. Now, I have never been of those chaps who likes to moisturise their skin. Not for me, I have always been far too blokey for that malarkey. However, when large chunks of my face became infected in a sea of putrid boil-type things, I must confess that it caused some angst. It came to a head, if you pardon the pun. One morning Yvi woke me up to find that a rather large chunk of my face had stuck to the pillow leaving a large bloody mess on my face. More concerning was the fact that this might even end my modelling career. No more Parisian red carpets for me, let me tell you! And absolutely nothing since from Vogue, Elle, or Hello!


The treatment for this leprosy-like complaint was simple, I was given basically 5 different lotions most were paraffin/steroid-based creams, so the warning labels had big cartoons saying don’t go near naked flames. This of course appealed to my sense of humour, as I had visions of inviting chums round for a BBQ and then for purely cheap entertainment purposes, spontaneously combusting as I flamegrilled the Cumberland sausages. Oh how we laughed, well they did, I, of course, had atomised into the Greek salad. One other side effect was the constant drip of said paraffin creams into my eyes and mouth, not pleasant but you get used to it. Indeed, what I would say is don’t knock it until you have tried it. Indeed, paraffin is not as bad as Creosote which I once drunk as a 5-year-old when I came across a bottle in my dad’s shed, looking back I should have utilised it better by licking the garden fence after I had glugged it.


Bit further south is the mouth or as the French call it La Bouche. The most obvious side effect is mouth ulcers. They tend to emerge after day 7/8. My record to date in one day is 11. They are annoying, but yet again Bonjela is a Godsend and after a day or two they are gone.( Note to self do not confuse asking for Bonjela with Bon Jovi when in a chemist shop).


I suppose we should also doff our cap if we are dealing with the mouth, with an old family favourite of chemo side effects, namely nausea, or sickness (my personal favourite nickname is the classic Cockney Rhyming Slang.. Gor Blimey Guvnor, he’s just been Moby Dick….classic). Now, to be fair, some poor souls really get ill and it is horrible. In truth, I’ve had my fair share and there is nothing nice about it, funnily enough though one thing that I have noticed is that unlike alcohol-related nausea (oh yes, been there, done that) the actual sickness is very immediate and you know it is coming. Yet again, there are medications that are given when you get chemo to manage said nastiness, so you simply take the pills.


As I recall the joyful myriad of said unpleasantness, I am very aware that this blog is turning into a novel on its own. It therefore seems apt that I break this journey into bite sized anatomical chunks. There is much more to follow and this will be backed up where possible and not too offensive, with photographic evidence.


The purpose of this blog and its siblings is quite simple, cancer is not kind, it is cruel and it is unrelenting. However, no matter how horrid it can be, the power of the human spirit can be stronger. I don’t believe in sugar coating the realities of living and surviving cancer, but my point is you can fight it. My dear old dad used to say Hope Beats Eternal In The Human Heart, and by goodness was he right. In addition, another man who played a massive part in my life, Shihan Cyril Cummins, 8th Dan, always said Never Give Up, Never Give in, and I most certainly will not.

Join me for my next biological cruise as I embark on the side effects of chemotherapy on the neck, chest, back, and arms, oh yes my friends lots to cover and hopefully now and again to laugh at, because life is too short, and needs to lived to the full., and that is what I do my dear chums. Until next time.

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