Friday, December 30, 2011

2011: Annus Horribilus

Well, what a year 2011 turned out to be! As I write this it will be six months since I learned that I have incurable brain cancer.

Let me tell you, nothing prepares you for the shock of being told you have a terminal illness. One day I was a reasonably fit 58-year-old who had never been seriously ill in my life, enjoyed long walks in the outdoors, didn't eat junk food, never smoked and drank only in moderation. I fully expected to live until my 80s - the average expectancy of people in Britain.

A week later and our world had been turned upside down. Within hours of being referred to hospital after complaining of a persistent slight headache and fuzzy vision I had been give a CT scan and told that there was something in my brain that shouldn't be there, something that might be a tumour.

Then I was told that whatever it was, I would need brain surgery, and asked to sign a form to show it had been explained to me that I might never recover from the operation, I might be left in a coma, or unable to speak or recognize my wife. The thought of brain surgery was scary but with no time to even think about alternatives I signed. A couple of hours after that and I was being whisked by ambulance across the breadth of the country in the middle of the night to the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle. There, they made an MRI scan and then performed the brain surgery to remove as much as they could of the tumour without harming normal brain function.

A few days later I was recovering in hospital from the operation, feeling better by the day and fully expecting that I would be home soon and in a few weeks life would get back to normal. Then a grave-faced hospital registrar accompanied by a nurse drew the curtains round my bed, sat down and informed us that the material taken from my brain had been analyzed. It was a brain tumour, and not just any old brain tumour but the worst sort possible (glioblastoma multiforme grade 4) that only one in 40,000 people are unlucky enough to get. I'd hit the brain tumour jackpot. The prognosis was from a few months to  a year, but I would receive treatment to "prolong quality of life as far as possible."

The news was like being punched in the stomach. Nothing in our life would ever be the same from that moment on. And Olga and I, stunned and numb, were left to find our way home to Cockermouth from Newcastle.

Since then, we have been through a whole gamut of emotions. At first, I felt that nothing I did before I knew I had a tumour mattered as much as making the best of whatever time was left to myself and Olga. In that frame of mind I felt that ham radio was a fairly pointless activity and posted in this blog what I thought would be The Final Over.

But I soon came to realize that life wasn't over yet. Because of the need for rest and treatment, Olga and I couldn't just take ourselves off on a world cruise anyway. I needed to be available to see the doctors and go to the hospital. So I regained my interest in my hobby and was soon very thankful for it as gave me something to do during the weeks spent at home, something that took my mind off the darker thoughts I often had.

Learning that I had a brain tumour and that my life was likely to be shorter than I had hitherto expected has made me a different person. I now live from day to day and try to be grateful for whatever each day brings me. I used to be the archetypal "grumpy old man" ranting about the government or other people. I haven't altered my opinions about bankers, politicians and the EU but now I don't waste precious time grumbling about things I can't change.

After I began writing my brain tumour diary one or two people pointed out that it wasn't just me, we are all mortal and we all die eventually. Some people go off to work and die in car accidents or suddenly drop dead of a heart attack giving their loved ones no opportunity even to say goodbye to them.  Others die after long and painful illnesses with months in hospital. We don't know for how long the treatment will keep my tumour at bay. At the moment I'm feeling no pain, just frustration sometimes at not being able to do things I could when I was fit. But I'm at home with my wife and expecting that I will eventually get back to something more akin to normal.

The realization that time is precious means that Olga and I will do things that we otherwise would probably never have got around to. I am lucky that I have been able to give up work and devote my energy exclusively to recovery and recreation. We are both savers not borrowers so we are fortunate not to have money worries - well, not apart from the possibility of a world economic collapse making all of our savings worthless! Being diagnosed with a terminal illness has even allowed me to fulfil a goal I thought I never would - that of retiring before I was 60. Every cloud has a silver lining.

Most of all, I am so fortunate to be married to my wife and soulmate Olga. She has never once complained about the stresses and strains of suddenly finding her husband has brain cancer. She is always there for me, making sure I take all the right pills at the right time and helping me keep my strength up with lots of tasty home-cooked food, fruit and vegetables.

My situation has been harder for Olga to bear than for me. I have always had a bit of a fatalistic view of life - that what will be will be - and a tendency to look for dark humour in a situation. But I only have to imagine how I would feel if the situation was reversed to know how Olga must be feeling. I would be heartbroken to lose her and it won't be easy for her if she loses me.

For Olga, even more than for myself, I need to beat this tumour. I need to prove the doctors wrong and show that you can survive a glioblastoma. I'm optimistic about it. So my one and only resolution for 2012 is to beat the bugger and still be here in a year's time to write about all the things we have done despite my having a brain tumour.

Thank you for reading my blog and for all the messages and cards of support sent by many of you. They have all made a difference and helped us both to feel better about the situation. I hope that 2012 will be a great year for you and not spring any nasty surprises like 2011 did for us.
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