This blog was going to be called “A short story about a three legged dog, and other things” but I decided to change my title to something a bit less obscure. The original title does form a useful scene-set, and as such could benefit from some explanation. For that I turn to the words of Stephen Fry, taken from the Foreword to The Book of Animal Ignorance (Faber and Faber 2007):
“Animals have this in common with each other: unlike humans they appear to spend every minute of every hour of every day of their lives being themselves. A tree-frog (so far as we are aware) doesn’t wake up in the morning feeling guilty that it was a bad tree-frog the night before, nor does it spend anytime wishing it were a wallaby or a crane-fly. It just gets on with the business of being a tree-frog, a job it does extremely well. We humans, well…we are never content, always guilty, and rarely that good at being what nature asked us to be – Homo sapiens.”
Not too long ago, I saw a three-legged dog out for a walk. At first, I didn’t appreciate the dog was scarce a limb. I just witnessed a big, shiny, black Labrador having a magic time with two human companions. Like the tree-frog Fry wrote about, this dog was still jolly excited at being out and about, generally existing, without worrying about what went before. I am sure there is a life lesson in there somewhere.
I am trying my best to harness my inner three-legged dog. Does that sound ridiculous? Of course it does: the last time I checked, I didn’t have a three-legged dog inside me. What I think I am getting at is the desire to get on with life without mulling over that which has gone before. That whole rogue cell-division thing.
Except it really is not that easy. In fact, I don’t think there has been a single day since my diagnosis that I have not thought about testicular cancer, whether that thought has been prompted by: waking up and feeling like someone has replaced my previously healthy feet with ones made of lead, before I remember it is just the neuropathy lingering after chemotherapy; or spotting a simple, well-meaning advert for a cancer charity; or a grimacing pain in my abdomen when I sneeze and one of my surgery wounds protests at the action of my diaphragm; or an article in the press about deep vein thrombosis and the dangers of blood clots; or spotting the chemotherapy induced Beau’s lines on my fingernails; or noticing someone attractive then thinking “Och, what chance would I have anyway, even if I didn’t have mangled genitalia and all the baggage that entails,” then quickly engaging in some gallows humour and remembering that baggage is an area somewhat lacking for testicular cancer survivors; or having an alarm on my mobile go off every 24 hours to remind me to inject blood-thinners; or noticing the patchwork of bruises on my stomach as a result of those blood-thinners; or feeling breathless after a task which I used to find easy and wondering just how much the chemotherapy drug bleomycin has fucked-up my lungs; or having someone ask me a load of questions, or even one perfectly well-meaning question, when I am in a “I really cannot be bothered with this” frame of mind (which frame of mind is, I am afraid, not easy to outwardly diagnose); or when I hear a song lyric that I had never really thought about before and spontaneously burst into sobbing tears that represent a mixture of joy, relief and loss; or when someone makes a throwaway remark about a person having the positive attribute of cojones (occasionally followed up by a sheepish look in my general direction); or one of my favourite musicians sings about someone having bigger balls than almost all of the special forces; or when the predictive text on my oh so smart smartphone predicts when I type “or” that I might mean “orchidectomy” (and the worrying thing is it is sometimes correct); or when someone suggests the break-up of the UK after the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum would be a bit like losing a body part (when I can assure you it really would not, much in the same way as readmitting Eire to the UK would, I confidently predict, be nothing like regenerating a testicle); or a glance at the site where a vein graft was taken from my left ankle to fix a jiggered abdominal vein (as part of a rather long surgical procedure); or some journalist decides to completely unnecessarily describe a political contest using words like “gelding” and imagery involving sharpened shears; or my problematic feet feel freezing when I go to bed at night notwithstanding the close proximity of a hot water bottle, thanks to my new friend neuropathy; or it just pops into my mind, uninvited and completely unprompted. CANCER. It can be quite distracting.
You get the point. Hence why I am really jealous of that three-legged dog. All that said, and despite all my rather sad ranting above, I am actually one of the lucky ones and maybe I should not be jealous of that dog, or indeed anyone else. I still have ten fingers and ten toes (albeit my dexterity is worse than it was), I still have most of my wits about me, and I am still able to write self-indulgent blog posts whilst wondering about whether I should have used an Oxford comma in this sentence.
I had previously hoped to be able to blog about a successful conclusion to my treatment. I suppose that concluding point has been reached, now that I have seen paperwork with my name on it that uses the magic words “in remission” and the pathology of what was cut out of me allowed a surgeon to say (using fancy terminology, like “differentiated teratoma”) that there was no viable cancer left in my system, but that is only part of the story. No longer attacking myself is undoubtedly the biggest part of the story, but the daily reminders continue and the road to recovery, whatever “recovery” means, still has a long way to go. As time passes and my body heals, some of these reminders will go away: the simple expedient of clipping my nails when necessary will defeat those Beau’s lines and the pain from sneezing is mercifully mitigating as days tick by. Some will not go away, but the last time I checked there is no viable alternative to the situation I find myself in. Therefore I press on with life and this cathartic blog post is part of that process.
So, dear reader, what should you take from this post? Whatever you like, and thanks for reading this far. I would offer you two quick lessons from my experiences to date.
1. Unless you are in the medical profession or have had experience of cancer, please do not ever tell a testicular cancer patient that “it’s a good one to get.” Just don’t. You would be correct, of course, and statistics would back you up, but still don’t. You might also be completely underplaying just how deadly the disease can be (the recent, tragic example of Dylan Tombides being in point), so don’t be a jerk.
2. Unless you are a fellow traveller (as I have taken to calling other cancer veterans), please understand that a cancer veteran has an absolute veto on that topic of conversation. There is a joke in there somewhere about crossing the topic of cancer. If someone wants to talk about cancer, they will, but they will do this when they want to. And no, my writing a blog about cancer does not mean I am always ready to speak about it. And yes, that might be characterised as irrational.
I should probably try to conclude this post with something inspirational, especially as I plan this to be my last cancer blog, but I am not sure that I can. Whilst I have found great solace in words at times, there are times when they have limited effect. To bastardise the words of the Ballyclare poet Andrew James Cairns, there’s no point shouting at the world you’ll never change, when it’s what’s inside you’ve got to rearrange. By inside rearrangement, I am confident Cairns did not mean the retroperitoneal lymph node dissection that I had the pleasure of in January, he was probably aiming for something of a reformulation of the proverb, “grant me the will to change the things that I can change, the serenity to accept what I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Thus, with my new-found perspective on life, the wisdom of others and guidance from my inner three-legged dog and tree-frog, my life goes on. It is a bit different from before, but it is not too bad, thanks. And if I cannot demonstrate that with some inspiring words, here is some pictorial inspiration in the form of a smiley face I made from used medication. There might be times in life when all you can do is lie back and think of the chemotherapy, but smiling helps.
My other posts about cancer can be found here.