When I left you last time, I was preparing to go into James Cook University Hospital for my bowel cancer operation following radiotherapy and chemo treatment.
Now, I am out the other side – having been allowed home after only three nights for good behaviour! Quite a feat as I ended up having open surgery, which can often mean a hospital stay of nine or ten days.
I agree with the medics that if you can, you are more likely to have a speedier recovery at home rather than being trapped in a noisy hospital ward full of other sick people.
This is especially so, if, like me, you are lucky enough to have a caring wife and family nearby.
I can’t pretend it is anything other than a struggle to get back to normal with all the after-shocks from the operation.
But the bowel cancer operation itself went well, according to my surgeon Doug Aitken.
I’ll blog more about that and my survival tactics for the hospital stay next time as well as sharing any tips I am picking up as I try to pull myself back together again.
At the moment, I feel a bit battered, and, anyway, I like to write these blogs a month or so after the action. It helps to give me the big picture and I am just too close to post-operation bodily upheaval just now.
What I want to do here is urge anyone who finds themselves in my position to make the most of the brief ‘weather window’ between the end of the radiotherapy and chemo treatment and the ‘big op’ itself. This period can span six to eight weeks and is there to let patients recover sufficiently for their operation.
But it can be a time of a little apprehension, as nothing seems to be happening.
For me, the ‘quiet zone’ followed the daily grind of getting up before 7am to be at James Cook Hospital by 9am for radiotherapy from Monday to Fridays for five weeks in January and early February.
I remember laughing to myself when I read somewhere that many people miss the daily routine, but looking back I can see their point: It is reassuring to know something is actually being done to attack the cancer.
So when it stops you do feel rather empty, especially if you build up a good team spirit with the therapeutic radiographers. It is a kind of ‘we’re all in this fight against cancer together’ – and then it suddenly ends!
Actually, the radiotherapy and chemotherapy continues to do its stuff for at least a fortnight, and the side effects may be at their most severe at this stage.
Filling the gap
How you fill the ‘quiet zone’ weeks will depend on many things. Not everyone gets radiotherapy and chemo prior to their operation.
But if you do, you are bound to have a few side effects.
I found myself getting very tired later in the afternoons and was very sore from the equivalent of sticking my bum in a microwave every morning for five weeks. I also got blisters on my hands and feet. The soles of my feet were like leather, and I tried all sorts of cream before finding one that worked.
Other people get very sick and lost their appetite.
For me, diarrhoea and related soreness were the worst side effects.
Piled on the pounds
I had deliberately piled on extra pounds at Christmas in preparation for my treatment.
And far from losing my appetite during chemo and radiotherapy, I continued to eat for England.
Glad, I did, as the warnings that my weight would drop away after the operation proved spot-on!
Healthy mind and body
I had hoped to take part in a health and fitness research project with James Cook University Hospital during my treatment to test whether exercise can help recovery in cancer patients, but one of the researchers left and my participation was cancelled.
Still, they had sold me the idea of trying to stay as fit as I could manage.
I used to swim two or three mornings a week, but that was banned as I might pick up an infection. So I joined a gym and despite finding it mind-numbingly boring soldiered on until I found one or two bits of equipment that suited my needs.
My favourite was a sort of static go-kart and I loved seeing how many kilometres I can manage in ten-minute bursts. I could even keep up with twitter at the same time on my mobile, as we weren’t actually going anywhere!
But to be honest, I can’t wait to get into the water once my scars have healed sufficiently and I get my energy levels back.
It is also important to keep the mind active on other things than the treatment.
As I am self-employed and work from home, I managed to keep writing articles for clients and during the radiotherapy period produced my first feature for the BBC education website about the east-west European brain drain and the damage it was doing to countries like Lithuania.
I also started making extensive notes to use in my ‘Cancer-talk’ blog, which you reading.
And I took advantage of the Trinity Holistic Centre at the James Cook Hospital and had a couple of back massages from therapists Louise de Carlo and Kathryn Almond to relieve the tension that can build-up, with the last one being just before my CT and MRI scans.
The biggest restriction for me was venturing too far from the nearest loo. The radiotherapy and chemo had really limited my scope for travel.
I did experiment with a trip to Newcastle for a work-related event at the university, but had to dose myself up with anti-diarrhoea tablets and take a spare pair of pants and trousers – just in case!
It has also meant I couldn’t do my bit to canvass for Labour in the election campaign. I really do believe the NHS is not safe in Tory hands, but I found ‘door-knocking’ for votes near my home with Labour activists both exhausting and risky in terms of distance from a loo. So, I’ve had to watch the campaign from the sidelines and do a few tweets to indicate my support. I hope it helps!
I’ve also become a dab hand at the Skype interview, and anyway it was cold outside and I continued working snug and warm from my little office.
Suddenly, it was April and at last I got a firm date for the operation after more CT and MRI scans – April 14th.
The pre-op check-up a week before was a lengthy affair lasting over four hours and ending with a chat with bowel cancer specialist sister Angela Stanley.
I must admit to feeling a bit depressed when she got out a black marker pen to put a black bob on the skin where a colostomy (stoma) bag would need to go, at least temporarily. (But, as I have said before things can change as I will explain next time).
I ended my pre-op notes for this blog on the eve of the operation, going on a mini-starvation and drinking a powered carbohydrate drink called ‘Preload’ supplemented by Picolax to cleanse my bowel.
And before I knew, it was 7.30am on April 14th and I was getting changed into a gown in preparation for my big day.
Until next time ….
Main photo: Nic with Colorectal Sister Angela Stanley during his pre-op medical