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  • Writer's pictureAustin Birks

Reaching The Age Of 61. Not Out... Somehow

Monday, May 3rd, 2021 saw me celebrating my 61st birthday on a day that witnessed some truly wild and inclement weather. Part of me rather fancied the romantic notion that the old, mythical Gods had conspired to celebrate my coming of age with some Viking or indeed Odin-like thunderous tempest, symbolic of such a mere mortals achievement in reaching pensioner status.

The reality, however, was simple: it was just a really nasty storm that came pummelling in from the Atlantic and caused mild chaos quite against the seasonal average, whatever the hell that is, in this climate-changing world that we are steadily managing to destroy.

So, what have I learned, as I meander towards my dotage? First of all, I have realised just how kind and generous people are. I was inundated by best wishes from all mediums old and new, from suitably funny and insulting birthday cards, to over 250 messages on Facebook, from people all over the world.

One of the amazing things that the immediacy of social media allows is that joy of writing whatever you want as soon as it enters your head. Maybe a blessing and a curse depending on what people want to say. But, either way, it allows for immediate communication 24/7/365 anywhere in the world. I was on a Zoom call yesterday with the team in Poland. One of the guys was waiting in a car at a child’s school. The call was joyfully punctuated by the sound of young kids playing in the playground. Laughing and joking in Polish, it just brought home to me the incredible changes in life that I have been fortunate enough to experience in my comparatively long life, given everything that I have experienced.

One of the ironies that having advanced cancer gives you, especially in these unique COVID times, is an ability to take a step back and think a wee bit about this strange but wonderful world that we live in. So, I have decided to review life at 61 with level 4a bowel cancer. A reflective version of two good, two bad, as Match Of The Day celebrate on a Sunday night. So, with that in mind, here goes:

1) Good is being alive to enjoy 61 years after everything

1) Bad is having the most brutal chemotherapy regime I have enjoyed yet. This is my 4th course of treatment and in fairness, it is by far the most challenging. Not only in terms of the 8-9 hours of treatment in hospital every second Wednesday, but frankly the plethora of sneaky side effects that you get added on, free of charge.

2) Kindness and care are really in abundance from all corners of my busy and rich life. From business to Karate and all points of contact in between, people are just nice and supportive. I mean, what else can you ask for?

2) If I had to choose the worst side effect of the treatment, I think that I would have to select the burning of the skin, and the constant flaking of said skin. Sounds revolting and it is. But hey, guess what, you get used to it, ironically that strange sensation when you feel a burning of the skin following by what I can only describe as a snowstorm of flakes peeling off your clothes. Reminds me of one of those Christmas ornaments that you shake upside down and the snow flakes fly all over the place, before they settle down. In its worst manifestation, it has resulted in my face resembling a very ripe tomato, bright red, and with flaky skin and occasional bleeding. It also does not restrict itself to the visage; no, it shares socialist principles of equal distribution: it covers my arms, legs chest and back.

The remedy is a thick cream that has to be applied twice daily. It is clammy and takes time to dry on the skin. If you put clothes onto early, it leaves thick immovable smear that you cannot wash out of your clothes. I have already ruined three t-shirts and two tracksuit bottoms but have now learned my lesson.

3) Being able to live a normal and fulfilling life is without doubt a bonus, and so I do. I am now very active in all my business interests. The joys of Zoom and Skype have transformed the business landscape and now everything anytime is acceptable every second of the day. Indeed, I have been able to chair three Zoom conferences, and conduct numerous Karate classes with as little as two people involved to over 70 across the nation. You are truly only limited by your own ambition, and mine knows no bounds.

3) Another side effect is cracked skin. Hands and feet are the key targets and even more annoying is the ability for each split of the skin are at the most vital points. Truly tiny cuts that debilitate easy functions like opening things. The solution is a rather amazing glue that acts like superglue. In truth, I was quite surprised just how rapid the splits occurred on my feet. All my decades of Karate training had made my feet like oak, or so I thought. Literally, my feet were cut like knife through butter. On occasions they looked like satellite photos of small rivers flowing into estuaries, although it's large cuts on my huge clodhoppers.

4) What has been brilliant in this tough time has been the most amazing and professional medical assistance for whatever challenge that I have had. Every challenge that I have, they have a solution for. It's like playing medical chess: every nasty move cancer or chemo offer is counteracted by a pill, a cream, a plan, all of which means that there is always a solution.

4) A quick heads-up of the other side effects are as follows: a deep sense of fatigue that crops up as regular as clockwork, normally 4-5 days after the Wednesday chemo. In the worst case it lasts 4 days and leaves me nodding off and lacking energy. In addition, this chemo has made me physically sick, but again pills and cures are always to hand. Loose stool movements are also on the agenda but again cures are at hand, as are some serious disagreements with my stoma bag. Won't elaborate too much on that but all part of the game.

5) Positive outcome for me is when I’m not being sick, tired, or having my stoma bag explode in public places, I am feeling fit, strong and robust so I am still able to do lots of Karate, not only on Zoom, but in the gym, and even in my local village hall, which I have been hiring out to train in by myself. In March, during chemo, Yvi and I cycled 600 miles between us to raise money for Cancer Research UK, raising 2k care of the amazing kindness of great people. In one week in March I did 11 hours of Karate in 6 days. My point is simple: no matter what cancer does, I refuse point blank to let it interfere with my lifestyle. I work around it like water. Sometimes you skirt around an obstacle, sometimes you go under it, sometimes over it. Point is: never stop trying.

5) My final chemo challenge is a strange side effect that is a polyp that has appeared up my left nostril. The chemo has resulted in this strange and annoying blip on the landscape. The result is a regular but light bleeding that again looks and sounds awful, but in truth, it is an annoyance, and in truth if I’m honest all these issues are a collection of frustrations and trivial things that got on my nerves. But do I ever complain ? No. Why? Because I’m alive. I should have been dead when I was celebrating my 58th birthday 3 years ago. God above, who can complain about anything when day in, day out, I’m allowed to celebrate the best gift of all, namely the gift of life. Take that any day, happy birthday to me, you lucky man.

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