In the Beginning:
In the first few weeks it was a broad diagnosis for me in 2017. The exact flavour of the disease took a bit of discovering – it was a rare form called mantle-cell lymphoma.
So… between a rock and a hard place sort-of-thing!
My story started with a wobbly knee. I was working for the Department of Conservation for a six month period spanning summer in 2016-17. The location was in the West Branch of the Matukituki Valley in Mount Aspiring National Park. The jewel of the crown as far as National Parks go, and the stuff of dreams. If mountains are where it is at for you.
Towards the end of my annual contract I developed a wobbly knee. In New Zealand’s rather rugged Southern Alp this tended to be a little alarming!
So for my last walk out for the season I advised my workmates by radio that a modest rescue by 4wd could be on the cards. But I never did fall over and the mystery of what was causing it was not to reveal itself for a few more months.
Plodding alone down valley in the autumn mist on my way back home, I reflected on the season. There had been huge increase in visitor numbers over the last two years.
So called “front country” tramping had taken off. (the new terminology referring to the easy walks in our back country). And the question arose in my mind, “do I ever want to do this, now exhausting job, again?”
Every day I would interact with lovely people for sure. But front country types tend to be high maintenance (7am until 10pm) – they’re in an environment new to them. They have lots of questions relating to the ticking off of to-do lists (Internet inspired). These were usually about weather timing, and times to get to other huts.
Discovering a lump in my groin by winter, was a bit of a shock! So off I went to my doctor. The first thing I bought up was my wobbly knee, the second the lump. After that the knee got forgotten!
My doctor and I are old friends, so knowing me well he told me the serious truth of the matter, right up front. A blessing – that was what I needed! But of course detail was missing.
I mentioned that after I’d finished my seasonal job with the Dept. of Conservation, that I’d taken several weeks to recover. His reply was, “it’s good that you did!” Or similar. Looking back a few months later,I realised this was an indicator. The disease was not as aggressive as first thought.
How did I feel:
Vulnerable and scared! Solution: Make a determined effort to put these aside and deal with whatever with clarity. With no wasted energy! This to me meant becoming selective about which emotions to entertain. And all the while letting ingrained mountain survival skills come to the fore.
Shocked and even a little indignant – cancer happens to others! Not me… I’ve been living well forever, e.g. lots of hard exercise at times, no smoking, little alcohol and pretty good food. But, opps, how about the sugar habit, and hmm… my emotional health?
Anger for a wee while – like 2-3 sessions of 5 minutes each. Until realising that this takes energy and had a flavour of heaviness. In short useless.
And then out of the blue while driving in town; tears! I wanted/want to be there for my son. 26 at the time – I was the significant, full time, home dad for his first 9 years. We’ve had some endearing and bonding times together.
And holding all the above in it’s grasp for awhile was the “victim” persona: “oh, poor me!” etc. (this in its subtle form, was to merit much deeper examination later)
Feelings of desperation! This manifested into entertaining lots of yoga to the ends of the earth. And then I thought drinks containing baking soda would help (where did that come from?)
One thing did endure though: juice of fresh squeezed lemon juice and water – first thing each morning. I think this came from the Cancer Society. Did it make a difference? Well, if it did it was far from noticeable, but it felt sort of righteous!
But, for the moment it was full steam ahead in the public health system in Dunedin Hospital. Removal of the tumour entailed a surgical procedure, in quick order.
On the left: The old Cadbury Chocolate factory currently being demolished to make way for the new Dunedin hospital.
On a Friday the surgeon rang. I was driving so pulled over. He said, “it’s urgent to remove it as soon as possible, I have a space on Monday, can you be here please? Oh and, you’ll have noted my last name is very much like a popular character in a children’s book series. But I’m not related, and I’m much nicer looking”.
It turned out that one of my best friends, an anaesthetist, had worked with my surgeon, and said he was very good.
And so he was: reassuring words, gown on etc. And I was soon marched into a theatre full of about eight people. They pounced – I was out like a light, before I’d even settled to look about.
I woke up to a welcome tea and sandwiches sometime later. No after affects like queasiness. The technology has come a long way!
A fine needle aspiration and bone marrow biopsy procedures were undertaken (sample too small, and evidence of the disease in my bone marrow. And this later test was apparently right down at a DNA level). Along with bloods (OK), a CT scan (defined locations) and a manual hands-on examination of my immune system and associated places: neck, chest, armpits, groin and stomach – looking for lumps (lots of various sizes).
Each was signed off by the appropriate specialist. I saw the resulting email of collated information – it was very long and reassuringly technical!
🔎 Identification of the flavour of the disease happened within days. Outlining treatment plan options came next. Later too I noticed my knee was better – the tumour must’ve been pressing on a nerve!
Decisions I thought I had to make at the time:
Who to tell, if anyone, and when?
Should I fight the disease like a battle or not?
What, if anything do I need to change to survive?
How best to prepare for the best and the worst?
Who would be willing, and more pointedly able to support me?
What should I do first!
The next post/chapter will be titled something like, “Skiing with humor with those who are now dead”
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