Tag Archives: cancer

Irony and Assistance 

I have always said that as a dyslexic writer I am proof that God has a sense of irony. I was reminded of this last week when my nephew, Hamish, decided it was time to come into the world, This was on the same day that our family said our final goodbyes to my mum, following a long battle with cancer.  In the same week I received a text message from my dad saying, “I am in hospital. Don’t worry I have had a TIA (transient ischemic attack) and am waiting to see the stroke bloke. I feel as fit as a fiddle now though.”

That text sent about a gallon of ice-water down my spine and into my scull and I felt as though my brain had frozen in some kind of ultimate brain freeze. The past 12 months have been a great life lesson in the different workings of the male and female brain. I cannot for example think of a scenario where my mum would have broken such worrying news via text, then spend the following two hours being incommunicado by any modern means at my disposal. My local hospital is something of a grave yard when it comes to phone signal, so is my brother’s house but we will get to that later.
The TIA has meant that my dad is now unable to drive, to put this in context he lives in a comparatively rural area some 5 miles away from me and just for the record, I cannot drive either. I have not inconsiderable levels of support need, usually serviced by my dad arriving at intervals in his trusty Volvo to clean the house, change my bedding and take the ironing away to be done. The absence of motorised transportation has made life very interesting. My dad, the avid walker and adventurer, has now taken to to donning a rucksack filled with ironing to be done and taking it home.
This time last week we decided that we would go and see our new arrival, train tickets were duly booked as was the necessary boarding assistance for the rail travel. We turned up at our local station where I was greeted warmly. I do rail travel quite a lot and the station staff know me quite well; a definite advantage when travelling with a disability and normally alone. This was going to be a relative treat as I had my own onboard, physically able assistant.
We arrived at my brother’s house to discover that the camping bench he had ordered as an improvised shower seat had failed to arrive. Apparently for some unknown reason it had not yet despatched though we were assured that it would definitely arrive the next day. I could not get irate about the absence as I was too excited to meet Hamish.
When I met him, he was perfect. After this we went back to my brother’s newly finished house, a converted water-mill. Bedrooms were on the 2nd floor, the ground floor accessible rooms still have work to be completed so it was down to being carried up and down stairs by my younger sibling. I made him go a bit red in the face, so reverted to the soft-bum shuffle ably assisted by Pumba, the family Springer Spaniel. When I was at the bottom of the stairs I discovered that I had no mobile phone signal in order summon assistance to bring my wheelchair downstairs. Shouting was pointless as my father is hard of hearing. I hit on what I thought was a splendid idea and told Pumba to, “Go and fetch Grandad.” She dutifully obeyed. However, Grandad didn’t take the cue and thought Pumba had just come to play.
This led me to think about assistance dogs, and whether it was time for me to have one. I realised how useful it would be and it was comforting that Pumba would not leave me alone and sat by me until my dad finally came. Very reassuring. I began thinking about this instinctive bond between man and canine and discovered the idea of using dogs in this manner wasn’t new. The most well known use is as guide dogs for blind people which was first tried in Paris in 1780 when Josef Riesinger trained his Spitz to guide him. Johann Klein, from the Bling Institute in Vienna, mentioned guide dogs in his books of 1819 and the first guide dog school was opened in Oldenburg, Germany in 1916 to train dogs to assist war veterans.

Pumba providing encuragemeant half way down
I have one friend with a Canine Partners’ Dog. Canine Partners are a charity that provide assistance dogs for people with disabilities. Faye has found Odile a massive positive in her life, giving her confidence,companionship and physical assistance with tasks like getting the TV remote.

Faye and Odile
From my point of view I have always found dogs to be far more perceptive than humans, seeming instinctively to know when you are sad, distressed or happy; they are not self-conscious and will quite naturally come up to you and nuzzle you as if to say, “I am here, you are not alone.”

 

Advertisements

Meaning and Metaphor: Dispatches from the Front Line of an Illness and Disability

I have to confess to being somewhat neglectful in my blog posting of late. The truth of the matter is that having a close family member with cancer for a while became all consuming, our family has had its normal rhythm disrupted. Several weeks ago I came across an article in The Times about the different metaphors we use to describe illness. These it seemed were most often to do with war. I think for the individual affected by serious illness the war metaphors can become both descriptive and prescriptive, many people have described my mum as tough and a fighter. Both are true of her and in many ways appropriate as she attacks life in general with a type of military precision I have found nowhere else in civilian life. I believe it was Christopher Hitchens objected to this type of description, he felt that cancer was attacking him, not that he was battling the disease. I suppose having a positive mental attitude can improve your quality of life, but I am not sure how much impact it has on the progression of the disease.

Spending a lifetime living in this order and routine I now feel adrift, when cancer a strongly disruptive force unexpectedly landed in my wider family life. The strangest thing was that many things carried on as normal. Cancer is a word that makes you stop and take an involuntary deep breath, the surprise comes when you breath out and and find that all other aspects of life are the same, life it seems still happens. The paperwork generated by my disability, normally so deftly filed by my mother has piled up meaning that my once ascetically pleasing work top has all but become engulfed. For several weeks I felt like I was camping out in my own life, just as when you are on holiday, you get to the hotel, live out of suitcases and experience and do things you would not normally do, so to with the wider family experience of illness.

My life has been ordered and routinised by virtue of the assistance I require in order to live. Every day of my life has its own structure, different activity and mini plan. Cancer has disrupted things on every level. So used to being the subject of medical intervention myself it felt like an odd kind of out of body experience to watch it from another perspective. People are always telling me how much I sound like my mum, now I catch myself thinking she sounds like me. She uses medical lingo like a pro and would rival some of my friends from my special school days, comfortably using terms like PIC line and spiking a temperature. For all my adult life my mum has served me well as a clothing mannequin, while shopping she would try outfits against her body to see if the trousers would be too short as we are the same height. I never thought this role would reverse in the form of the loan of my spare wheelchair and pressure relief cushion, the latter becoming necessary because of a serious reduction in body mass.

We have a deeper and in some way better understanding of each other, perhaps that can only come via a shared experience. I have learned to be less idealistic and judgmental of those who make choices for loved ones based on the information given at the time, and we both know well that medicine can be both miraculous and cruel, tearing to the depths of ones soul on both counts.

Recently I was struck by media reaction to statistics that indicated that over 50 percent of woman and 43 percent of man took a drug that was prescribed to them, most “popular” were pain killers, cholesterol medication and antidepressants. The inference being that we could do without these if we just shaped up and pulled ourselves together. It saddens me greatly that even in the 21st Century it can be inferred that to experience mental ill-heath is a negative lifestyle choice that should be discouraged. Yes such drugs are costly, but like treatments for cancer and heart disease they save many lives and improve the quality of those lives.

Too Much of a Bad Thing

One Sunday night about 18 months ago there was a knock at my door, I opened it to be greeted by a smartly dressed young man. He proffered his badge and informed me he was working to collect donations for a cancer charity. He gave me a statistic that one in three people will be affected by cancer during their lifetime and went on to ask if I would like to donate money regularly to fund research into cancer and its treatments. I responded that I would give money regularly to cancer charities when neurological disability such as cerebral palsy got the same level of publicity and financial backing.

I have to confess, it had been a bad day. I was coming to the end of my battle with Social Services to obtain support to enhance my quality of life, give me a purpose and help me achieve some life goals. Whatever I did, I felt like I was falling through the cracks. I felt very vulnerable with only family members and a bit of private support I was able to fund with my Disability Living Allowance. It exasperated me that people grasped the need to provide good support services and treatment for cancer but seemed to be blind to my situation.

However, three months ago now my political stance regarding cancer charities came back to haunt me in the very worst possible way. My mum, who had been ill for some months, was finally diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. You see the adverts on TV of people falling backwards having been hit by the tsunami of their diagnosis, that’s exactly what it was like. Cancer has always been in the background, like the mist and fog which comes with the onset of winter. The women in my family carry the predisposition to develop breast cancer, lumps, bumps and breast changes all of which were openly discussed. I was almost blasé, when my mum told me that a breast biopsy had revealed a high risk of malignancy and she had decided to undergo a mastectomy.

I have to say mum sailed through the whole thing; applying the same logic and fortitude to her recovery as in the past she had to my physiotherapy, that good old ‘no pain no gain’ ethos. Within a month she was back to helping me with physical tasks and even lifting my wheelchair in and out of the boot of the car, not medically recommended. I have to confess to breathing a sigh of relief as the risk, in my eyes, was gone and the panic was over.

Two things are interesting about the current situation: one, the cancer was a type that was entirely unexpected and two, the diagnosis has led to some odd conversations with my mum. For example, immediately after announcing that she had cancer she told me not to worry as my dad would be able to epilate my legs. This was the first of my personal care issues that she reassured me that dad was going to learn to support me with. I find it fascinating that of all the things she could worry about, leg hair was a priority.

I have now found myself judging mum’s health and wellbeing by whether or not she comments on my posture. Historically she has been like a human spirit level when it comes to how I sit and stand, whether my clothes are on straight and if my trousers need pulling up. When she has been really poorly, this level of awareness disappeared and I thought I would find it restful, but found that I do not. I have resolved never to internally whinge about this ever again.

Similarly, now dad has taken over many of the household chores he has begun to apply his engineering training and logic to various scenarios. He has a complex spreadsheet to help him organise the weekly food shopping, column headings are: item; need it; got it. Despite this he managed to forget the milk recently as they fell off the end of his sheet. Interestingly, mum has noticed that the food bill has inexplicably gone up.

Mum has developed more of an understanding of the necessity for television, the lack of which created a 2 day stand off when she was allocated the 1 bed in hospital where the TV did not work. She had been in there for 7 weeks and felt isolated from the outside world. It proved to me that the little things really do matter.

Once someone close to you has this diagnosis, you feel that it is everywhere. Dad and I went to the canteen at the hospital and the lady at the till asked if she could interest us in a cancer awareness badge, I told dad that I thought we were aware enough of cancer without the need for a physical reminder.

Dad’s car previously used to be an engineer’s mobile office and now routinely carries 2 wheelchairs. It has begun to resemble a patient transport ambulance. Dad is now becoming as conversant with the lingo of hospital as mum and me and has to work out what to do when both mum and I have a hospital simultaneously, which has happened more than once.

Dads are much less tolerant of NHS idiosyncrasies, he will ask the question, “Why is that desk so high?” and “Why are all the bins in this hospital foot operated when half the people in here lack the use of their lower limbs?” Compare this with mum’s perspective that yes, in an ideal world there would be a low counter but we have more pressing issues so, we have to pick our battles wisely.

The transition of moving from mum’s care to my dad’s is taking some adjustment for me. Dad and I are not so polished as my mum but, like many British institutions, we get there in the end.