Tuesday, 30 September 2008

21. Radio Times

Not quite to plan. Hoping to avoid a bog-standard cancer victim interview on Radio 2, I fear I ended up producing exactly that. What about the gags, Steve? The cute witticisms? The slightly off-colour asides? Can we get a little mustard on that ham?

Ok, don’t go crazy, I'm not beating myself up about this, but somehow I felt I couldn’t cut through the familiarity of a radio interview. Too comfortable. Not enough pressure. Everyone was so nice. My edge blunted by cosiness and a bloodstream full of morphine. I didn’t really hit the spot.

Did I even deliver a clear set of headlines?

I’m dying of cancer, but I’m still the same bloke. I choose to deal with this head on. It wouldn't suit everybody.

It’s not about me. It’s about Mary and Dan and Katy and all the things they have to deal with in all their relationships every minute of everyday. How they learn and grow and gather strength. Tough for me? I don’t think so. Look around and see who else is involved.

And what about the wider and widening circles of friends and family and how their lives are moved? Don’t just look in the obvious places. Emotional release comes easy for some people – but the more restrained have feelings too. I can see that now. The most surprising people are affected.

OK, it’s getting late, the pain is coming back, and the broadcast has attracted hundreds of emails I’d like to read. So I’m rushing to prĂ©cis here. I want to be clear – at the risk of being trite.

It’s the little things that count. I’m staying close to home.
Normality can become profundity.
People are much kinder than you ever imagined.
I’m still not angry. What was done cannot be undone. What was missed can stay uncovered.
As the pain worsens, one day at a time can become one hour at a time or even one moment. But let me tell you, even that moment can be enjoyed, if you can get your head up to experience it.
I’ve learned a lot in these past few weeks – and still I’m not afraid.

OK – enough of the potted philosophy. It was a good day. I enjoyed my few minutes on the radio – complete with the statutory BBC taxi that didn’t know where it was going – and I’ve got a load of new stuff to read. But, pain permitting, I want to get home now. Apart from everything else, I’m missing out on the continuing adventures of Rosey Rose The Crazee Cartoon Cat. And that's not to be missed.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

20. The wrong time of day

It all depends on what time of day you call. This morning wouldn’t have been good. In fact, this morning I thought it was all over. Clammy and exhausted, I might even have said so.
With the Fentanyl pain patch boosted from 12 mcg to 100, and the morphine top-up raised from 10 to 25 - plus the inclusion of a bunch of steroids, anti-emetics and the odd tranquilliser - I hoped I'd be feeling the benefit. But it was getting away from me. I thought a new strategy was necessary and Mary called a summit for tomorrow.

But then – in the space of an hour - it all changed. And I had to hit the phones, trying desperately to remember who I’d spoken to in the last couple of days, and saying, no hang on, it’s not that bad, it’s not over yet. Rumours of my death etc… Must go now, I have to interrupt a few grieving processes.

What changed everything was when Doctor Jane arrived to calm me down. We’re not finished yet, she said. There are more weapons in the armoury. More steroids for a start – so they got doubled straight away. Some steroids can be useful in reducing liver inflammation and they also can help to revive your appetite. Within a couple of hours I was microwaving some miso soup Vicky bought me from the local deli. (It’s what ordinary shops sell round here. When they run out of mung beans).

And more to the point – and yet almost as an afterthought – my blood tests had come back from the lab and they were OK. Ah Doctor Jane what a pleasure to see you. Bringing real evidence that if indeed my days are numbered, then they are at least in more than single figures. I hereby grant you a full consultancy, with lifetime tenure.

And so the day is completely rewritten. Heaven knows, this is exhausting. And I’m the least of it. Imagine what it’s like for Mary and Dan and Katy.

It’s Thursday evening now and the morphine-laced fog of the past couple of days appears to be clearing. Now I’ve calmed down a bit, I’m recalling a couple of possible hallucinations. I had a call from the producer of the Jeremy Vine programme on Radio 2, which has apparently taken an interest in this blog. A strange way to boost programme ratings, but OK with me. And I somehow believe QPR won 1-0 at Aston Villa, and not even in HD. Can they possibly be winning in standard definition as well?

Oh, and Paul G wrote after my last blog and said he’s glad he’s not God because he would be fed up with me. But if he was God, he would forgive me.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

19. Spirituality and technology

I’ve always been keen on new technology. I have frequently told my less advanced friends (well, just Bob D actually) that this blog is much better in broadband. It’s faster, more colourful and better written.

And a few days ago I saw QPR on High Definition TV. Rather than go to Loftus Road, I went round to Dan’s flat to watch them on his HD plasma. They won 4-1 and that never happens in real life. (Also, there was no queue for the toilet, and no idiot bellowing obscenities in my left ear).

In one of my previous jobs I played a minor role in introducing new technology to the BBC. With hindsight, both my life - and the lives of my colleagues - would have been considerably improved if my role had been even more minor. Nevertheless, I did what I did, and current occupants of the 24-hour news hamster wheel will have to get their fun where they can. I was planning to discuss this with Mark and Richard S when we had lunch on Wednesday – but we found more important things to say. Credit to both of them, they never once answered their Blackberries, despite their exalted status in the Corporation.

The slowness of technology is one of the drawbacks to life at the hospice, although (I think) I am managing to get most of my emails – which I greatly enjoy. My favourite this week was from a man called Stuart who’d come across my blog while pursuing a Google alert he’d put out on the Chelsea Building Society (mentioned briefly in chapter 5). It must be the first time the Chelsea has been useful for anything.
I have not, however, received a reply – electronic or otherwise – from Prof Cunningham (chapter 2). Well, he’s a busy bloke, but an acknowledgement from his secretary might have been nice.

I came home for the weekend carrying a Tesco’s carrier bag full of drugs. In case you’re passing – and you’re short of the odd painkiller – I’ve got a dozen different kinds, from paracetemol through to morphine, with steroids in between. Plus of course the drugs you take to counteract the side effects of the other drugs. Valda and John came to lunch on Friday – but they stuck to the lamb. Mary cooks it Nigella-style and the only side effect is a craving for more. Rosey the Cat was crazy for it. She turned into an instant cartoon character on first taste, throwing her head around and swivelling her eyes with astonishment, as in, wow, what the hell was that?

It’s back to the hospice on Monday for more drugs trials. Although it looks like a hospital, it doesn’t feel like it at all. There are none of those irritating hospital routines, where people are in and out of your room all the time, asking you questions you’ve already been asked by someone else. Instead, you get a steady supply of Complan, an occasional volunteer to get your shopping, and even – from time to time – a drinks trolley, yes a drinks trolley with real alcohol, like they used to have at the BBC. Well, if you’ve got to go, you might as well go happy.
But most of all, it has the reassurance of a nice kind Irish nurse when you spring up in the middle of the night, brain addled by pain and morphine, convinced you’re losing the plot and you need a great big injection of sedative. You’ll be needing a cup of hot sweet tea, she says, and brings it.

I’m not sure how long I’m staying in the hospice, but in the meantime, I’m one of 392 people taking part in a “study to explore the associations between beliefs and psychological status in patients with life threatening illnesses.” In other words, will I find God before I die? Especially if they give me really strong drugs? I only hope I live long enough to find out. (As I’d really like to know).

In all honesty, I’m not sure that the evidence of me and the other 391 (for statistical purposes) will be of much help, as the survey seems to confuse spirituality with religious belief. But as it sets out to tackle questions that have baffled the world’s greatest thinkers since time began, and as I may not get to complete the final questionnaire, I’d like to give my answers now:
1. No God or gods
2. No religion, thanks very much
3. Mankind is essentially good
4. I’ve had my fair share
5. Imagine all the people… living life in peace…..

If any of this changes in the next few weeks, blame the drugs.

Monday, 15 September 2008

18. Hospice days

I’m in the Marie Curie Hospice in Hampstead. In one of the new rooms. Tastefully decorated in my favourite shade of beige, and complete with excellent room service and hot and cold running drugs of your choice. As a connoisseur of fine hospital rooms, let me tell you this competes with the best of them. And there’s no charge for it. The hospice and all its support activities are a third funded by the NHS, the rest by voluntary donations. Amazing.

Admittedly, the food isn’t all that great but, hey, there’s a microwave oven down the corridor and my diet nowadays consists increasingly of powdered food supplements. These do not require great culinary skills. Just add water or milk for a refreshing drink in any of three flavours: strawberry, banana and wall paper paste. Personally, I prefer the strawberry in the mornings, while the evenings go better with glue.

Oh – and I do have a gripe about the television, an airline type monitor which is difficult to operate before you get your engineering degree. It takes four separate operations just to turn it on, then another eight before you can switch from television to radio. The decision to install it for doped up cancer patients was genuinely brave.

I am here to try to sort out my pain relief. I need to work out a drugs regime that won’t render me unconscious for most to the day. Morphine is very effective in stopping your suffering but it’s also effective in stopping everything else. So I need to establish a balance between taking drugs, eating, sleeping, and going to parties – and you all know how tricky that can be. Also, I had better throw in the necessity to keep up this blog, as my silence on this site has led to (tiny) howls of protest from around the globe.

So, over the next few days I will try to update you all. But first I’ll finish the bit I was writing about the new cat. Ah yes, the cat.
The top part of her face is deepest black, the bottom half brilliant white. Like two halves of a cat stuck together. It makes her difficult to photograph – plays havoc with the autofocus.
We didn’t get her from Cat Woman - as we feared that Cat Woman might move in too. Alison down the road kindly promised to feed both of them if necessary – but we thought that would be pushing it. So we went to the RSPCA where we found eight cats with social issues hanging from the tattered curtains of a front room in Stanmore. Rosey seemed slightly less flakey than the others.

We decided on the name Rosey because post-ironic names for pets simply don’t work. My nephew, James, called his cat Morrissey, which seemed cute until he had to go round the neighbourhood calling out the name, and heaven knows he’s miserable now.
In her own mildly demented way, Rosey can hardly believe her luck. Her improved postal code has propelled her into middle class luxury, complete with daily choice of cat food (wet or dry madam?) and a beautiful fleece-lined bed, which she doesn’t use because it’s cosier to sleep behind the washing machine. She spends most of her day skidding across the floor assaulting imaginary objects. Her speciality is the surprise attack on slow-moving shoes.

I’d like to get home before she turns into a fully-fledged terrorist but I’m not sure how long I’ll stay here. It feels very comfortable and safe, but communications are a problem. The mobile phone signal is very variable and internet access is by mobile dial-up which is v..e..r..y slow. It’ll take ages just to upload this.

Friday, 12 September 2008

17. Slight change of plan

Today's blog was going to be about our new rescue cat. She's called Rosey and probably has some social issues as she was born in Tottenham. But the RSPCA, delighted by the upgrade of her postal code to Muswell Hill, are sure we'll get along just fine.
Unfortunately there'll have to be more about Rosey next time - as somewhat out of the blue, it was decided about ten minutes ago that I should go into the hospice at Hampstead for symptom control. I've been having a few new problems and Tony, the Macmillan nurse, thought I'd be better off being looked at by doctors.
So, don't panic. It's not what you think. It's just an opportunity for the hospice to evaluate me. I'll probably stay there for a few days. And will return to the blog at the earliest technological moment.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

16. Bad days and good lunches

The problem with having a few bad days is that you start to worry they won’t be followed by a few good ones. One bad day, OK. Two, never mind. But three - and you start to wonder. It’s time to start reciting the mantra - one day at a time. Fortunately, everyone agrees cancer does not proceed in a straight line. It’s as unpredictable as the rest of me. The end is not in sight. One day at a time.

The pain kicked in just before last weekend. I’m not particularly scared of pain but it does sort of take the fun out of things. I started to cancel social engagements – a pain in itself. And I saw the pain in Mary’s eyes as she saw the pain in mine. And that really hurt.

But I’m well supported here – by the hospice and the Macmillan nurses and the GP - and by Monday afternoon I’d got a new drug. It’s called oramorph and cancer fans will know it’s on the top rung of the painkilling ladder. Forget your codeines and paracetemols. This is hardcore. It’s so cool you don’t pour it on to a spoon. You suction it with a syringe then squirt the stuff straight down your throat. Fifteen minutes later you go all woosy.

And that’s the trouble with strong painkillers. They’re great at controlling pain – if you don’t mind being rendered unconscious. But, hey, I’m a social butterfly. I need to be out there. Nothing amusing happens to you when you’re spark out for the day. So on Wednesday, I relaxed the oramorph and went lunching in the West End. Best decision ever.

So... I am in a Turkish restaurant just up the road from Broadcasting House, nibbling some bread and hummus, and chatting to Tim and Fiona and Chrissie, and waiting for Rachel and Kav to arrive. (None of the names in this story will be changed to protect the innocent, as frankly they can look after themselves). As we’re sitting there, I spot the frantic figure of Mark, in his usual desperate hurry, about to leave the restaurant. Then he sees me. Unexpectedly. Out of context. And clearly not dead. What to do? He’s madly busy and he can’t stop. On the other hand, if it really is me, and apparently still breathing, then he can’t NOT stop.

So he stands frozen, ashen-faced, eyes like saucers. “Take it easy Mark, you look like you’ve seen a ghost,” said Tim. “Not yet,” added Chrissie, helpfully.

Lunch was great but because much less alcohol is taken nowadays, it only lasted about three hours. In earlier days, it was a minimum of six. And in the very early days (see picture), it lasted until the following Sunday. It was illegal to leave any earlier.

I caught a taxi home and got one of those miserable cabbies who complain that Muswell Hill is the end of the known world. You’ll have to give me directions, said the driver, clearly fed up about leaving central London. Really, I said, didn’t you do the Knowledge? Yeah, he said, but that was 20 years ago. You can relax mate, I said, Muswell Hill hasn’t moved since then.

The following day I was back in the West End for Viv’s leaving party. I like the familiarity of a BBC gathering. It’s nearly ten years since I left the BBC, but the corporation is like an old overcoat you can pick up and wear at any time and always feel very comfortable. That’s why people keep going back to work there – myself included.

Leaving parties are important. It matters how you leave a place – or a job, or a relationship or even the Planet Earth itself. If you leave on good terms, you’ll always have a residual affection for it. So always make your peace. At my own BBC leaving party, I tried to express this with for a suitable quotation. I was hoping for a bit of Aristotle or Shakespeare or Bernard Shaw, but eventually settled for something by Gary Barlow, the blond one from Take That. “Whatever I said, whatever I did, I didn’t mean it.”

I was planning to ask some of the people at Viv’s party to my funeral – but it’s a real snag trying to set a date. Safe to say, if they’re reading this, they’re invited.