Cycles and cycling

Yesterday marked the start of Chemo cycle no 6. A fun-packed day involving a picc line insertion (a tube that runs inside your vein from your forearm to your heart, used for chemo drug infusion), an x-ray to check the tube hadn’t gone awry and then a 3 hour Oxyplatin/ flush drip. I was nevertheless stoked to be awarded a bed on this occasion (usually I get stuck with an armchair).

Pretty it ain’t. Swimming and tight-fitting tops are out for a while with this lovely looking appendage hanging out my arm, whilst weekly trips to the nurse to have it flushed and cleaned are the order of the day.

Judging by the look on Sam’s face and the amount of blood on the surrounding paper towels, the insertion of this baby wasn’t particularly pretty either. However, with a vein in my right arm having also thrombosed after just one chemo session, I really don’t have an alternative option. And the good news is having the chemo administered via this means is a whole lot less painful than having the drip go through a needle in your arm.

I’m finding with each progressive session, the shopping list of weird and wonderful symptoms is starting to increase, not to mention the dormouse tendencies. The latest additions to the party are bone pain centralised in my rib cage and increasing hair loss (any products you can recommend, BASES hair team?). But on the positive side, I’m nearly there now – six chemo sessions down and just two to go. And my white blood cells appear to be actually going up rather than down. Just goes to show that a diet rich in fruit & veg (managing to get more of these back in my diet these days) and regular exercise do wonders for your immune system. Meanwhile my other blood counts are well above the critical levels so all staying well there should be no reason to delay my last two treatments on that account.

Enough of cycles and onto the cycling. Despite the rather forbidding weather prognosis, we only had one complete wash-out day in the Lakes (when Sam and his dad went down a slate mine and Ann and I took refuge in the car and read our books/ snoozed). We did however manage to fit in three lovely cycle rides to compliment our two and a half walks.

The first was to the amusingly titled ‘Cockermouth’. This ride marked the elevation of status of ‘Graham the Garmin’ from ‘hated bit of complicated of equipment’ to ‘actually quite useful if you can be bothered to put in the leg-work’. Sam and I don’t like to hold grudges, so Graham’s choice of stupidly steep path that led to Sunday’s epic up Skiddaw was forgiven and forgotten. Being both lazy and foodie snobs – Sam and I couldn’t be bothered with the thought of trekking to Keswick post-ride to pick up the remaining ‘critical’ ingredients for our evening dish of Spaghetti Bolognaise  – we left Ann and Les in our fine choice of café stop in Cockermouth to explore the Sainsburys opposite. Ten minutes later, jersey pockets stuffed with pancetta, mixed herbs and half a kilo of mushrooms (not what you’d find in the musette bag of a seasoned pro-cyclist, well not in this decade at least) we set off for home.

Taken on ride 2, this time to Grasmere

Our next trip was a gorgeous ride from Keswick to Grasmere, tracking the Thirlmere reservoir. Not only was the route extremely picturesque, it was pleasingly flat and involved a nice tailwind on the return leg. Another great café stop was complimented with a trip to the Gingerbread factory. Sadly our 6 piece bundle was exhausted thanks to enthusiastic consumption in Grasmere followed by concerted guzzling on the ascent of Cat’s Bells later in the week, so no souvenirs for friends and family I’m afraid. Ann meanwhile elected to purchase the quite frankly evil (in my opinion anyway) ‘Chilli and Ginger boiled sweets’. Les’ jersey in the picture below provides a fitting visual metaphor for what they felt like in your mouth. 🙂

Ann and Les on the return leg

The final ride of the holiday is best characterised as ‘the least flat flat route we’ve ever done’. After the week’s exertions, the advertised ‘beautiful flat route along the valley from Stavely with a fantastic cafe stop’ sounded quite fitting. It met the brief on two counts but thanks to a wrong turn up a ridiculously steep hill and a missed left turn (we can’t blame Graham on this occasion as he wasn’t turned on until later), the route turned out to be rather more strenuous than we were expecting. However, we were again blessed with a tailwind on the return leg and provided with the perfect excuse to gorge ourselves at the amazing Wilf’s café back in Stavely. Lemon & Poppy seed cake, the obligatory Sticky Toffee pudding and crumpets all round! All in all, a fantastic week with lots of happy memories to stand me in good stead for the fun and games of Tuesday. Sorry alien, you may have turned my life somewhat upside down over the last five months but you ain’t stopping me from having fun.

Unfortunately this appears to be the only photo I have of Sam from the trip. But it does at least go to show that he was an active participant in our cycling adventures and that, yes he is as wedded to his dynamo kit as ever 😉

 

“No more epics”

Such were the wise words of Richard Baskerville upon learning Sam and I were off to the Lake District for a week away. Clearly he knows us, and our tendency to ‘inadvertently end up doing things the very hard way’ too well.

Somehow though, a mere 24 hours later on day 1 of the holiday, we managed to end up doing just that. Waking up to glorious sunshine, we decided to seize the moment and ascend Skiddaw, the closest peak to our cottage, which was just outside of Kendal. However, the particular path we chose to take became increasingly narrow, steep and punctuated with worryingly large drops on the right-hand side. “This isn’t a walker’s path, it’s a goat’s path” exclaimed Sam’s mum Ann as we huffed and puffed, picking our way gingerly up the mountain side.

The Hemmants clad in their walking gear (minus Sam the photographer)

Sadly the worse was yet to come. To get up to the high point looming in the distance, we realised to our horror we were going to have to scramble up a stupidly steep and scarily long scree slope. Achilles burning, panting and chronically overheating (with walking being a fairly new activity in my repertoire I was woefully underequipped on the clothing front compared to the others and hence clad in ‘age 12-13 boys skiing salopettes’ rather than waterproof trousers), by the end we were virtually crawling up that godforsaken slope as it got steeper and steeper towards the top. It occurred to me, as I heaved my way up, that the experience made for a rather good metaphor for chemotherapy. It gets increasingly unpleasant as your body takes a battering from each progressive session and the temptation to run away from it grows, but then when you consider the alternative (letting the alien grow or attempting to get back down a seriously perilous path and undoing all your hard work) then it’s a no-brainer.

Finally, arriving at the top, my ‘ascent fantasy’ of collapsing on my back and catching my breath were quickly put paid to by the marshy ground underfoot and the vicious circling wind. On the right-hand side the peak of Skiddaw loomed, but the remaining path looked disturbingly similar to the one we’d just come up. Good reason prevailed over the drive to ‘mountain bag’ (my sado-masochistic tendencies have clearly been dulled by the chemo!) and we decided to head back down.

Unfortunately the descent proved as stupidly steep as the ascent. (I’d forgotten how walking down a mountain can be just as strenuous as walking up one.) The final kilometre however was a lovely smooth, albeit steep, grassy slope and Ann introduced us to a novel ‘knee-saving’ technique: bottom-sledging. This innovative technique, soon to be patented by Ann Hemmant, involves sitting down on the ground and using the combination of slippery waterproof trousers and arms to propel yourself down the slope, ski-pole style. Classy it ain’t but when your knees are threatening to implode it’s a life-saver! Several hours later and thoroughly battered, the Hemmant clan made it back to the ranch and the day’s achievements were celebrated with tea and cake. And then a very long nap.

After Sunday’s epic, I was too crippled to be able to face walking again in the near future so we went for some nice gentle spins on our bikes – to be featured, no doubt, in a future post. By Friday, equipped with rested legs and a shiny new pair of waterproof trousers, I was however ready to don the walking boots again. This time we went for a route that couldn’t fail to be flat – a circumnavigation of Derwent water. Despite the showers amid the sunshine, it was a lovely walk. Resisting the temptation to join Sam and his dad Les on a deviation via an ascent of Cat’s Bells halfway round, Ann and I continued to amble around the lake-side on the flatter terrain. “No more epics” 😉

Les striding up Cat’s Bell’s peak. At this point, Ann and I were probably sitting in a cosy tea shop knocking back cake.

 

 

Eat, sleep & be merry

Observing Bailey the cat making himself at home on our bed after tucking into his breakfast this morning, I realised that our lives are starting to converge. Five chemo cycles in and my life is increasingly revolving around the three pillars of eating, sleeping and cycling (the last one obviously doesn’t apply to the cat, who reserves his energy for the most critical tasks, namely the twice daily ‘when are you going to feed me?’ dance).

On the eating front, I’ve been excelling myself lately. With the bowel tumour battered into submission, these days I seem to be able to eat much more both in terms of quantity and quality (no more tinned fruit and vegetables, hurrah!). Last night we were treated to a veritable banquet at David and Raewyn Hill’s. Spending my idle hours watching the Good Food channel and contemplating how nice it would be to concoct some of the impressive creations, it was a real treat to be presented with food of that calibre – twice baked souffles, asparagus, homemade bread, an amazing apple & avocado salad and Nigella’s quadruple chocolate cake, yum! (Sadly our oven is in such a state of disrepair that the temperature gauge has parted company with the dial, such that everything I put in there gets nuked. That’s my excuse anyway, the truth will out when the Hemmant brigade help us put the new kitchen in at the end of May!)

I probably deserve a gold star on the sleeping front too. I’d been advised that chemo no 5 onwards would be tough and certainly my energy levels are starting to take a hit. An hour nap and falling asleep on the sofa at 9 in the evening seems to be order of the day at the moment. Whilst it’s frustrating to have lost my ‘duracell bunny’ get-up-and-go, I have to keep reminding myself that I am after all electing to poison myself every 3 weeks and that the little body needs to have some time to take stock and attempt to replenish those red and white blood cells getting blasted along with the aliens. So off the bed, Bailey, it’s my turn!

And then there’s the cycling. My rides these days are shorter, flatter and a whole lot slower than they used to be (and tend to involve more cake than climbs) but when the weather is behaving itself, I’m still managing to get out and about on my bike a fair bit. It feels good to get the circulation going and to enjoy the breeze and the views (and sometimes even the sunshine!) as I pootle along. According to the Macmillan website (which incidentally is the most amazing information source for all things C-related) there are a whole host of positive benefits to staying active during cancer treatment and I certainly feel like I’m reaping them. http://www.macmillan.org.uk/Cancerinformation/Livingwithandaftercancer/Physicalactivity/Physicalactivityandcancer/Benefits.aspx

I like this photo because if you look at the shadows, you can see the hidden photographer, Sam, and myself silhouetted

This weekend we’re off to the Lake District for a week of biking, hiking and gorging on gingerbread and sticky toffee pudding. The waterproofs will no doubt be making an appearance as well.

Another cycle down, three more to go. Like me on my bike these days, I’m getting there, slowly but surely.

 

Raindrops and Roses

Why does the weather always turn crap in my chemo week? Obviously being a stoical Brit I should be used to the weather by now but when you have a post-drip week of weird and wonderful symptoms that disappear when the themometer tips above 13 degrees, you kind of appreciate these things a bit more.

Today the conditions were so disgusting that I shelved my epic walk plans and treated myself to a ‘plus bus’ addition to my train ticket into town. The guys at the ticket gates clearly know me far too well as I was greeted with a chorus of ‘Where’s your bike then?’ as I passed through. As I exited the station, a number 5 bus to Cowley, my first destination of the day, was waiting in the wings. However, as I approached said bus, the driver promptly slammed the doors shut and accelerated off, with a visible smirk erupting across his own face as he did so. After such a blatant declaration of open warfare, I was determined this driver was not going to have the upper hand. Cue a frenzied sprint to the next bus stop, hitting every pedestrian crossing button in sight to thwart the passage of my rival. The plan succeeded and I smugly boarded the bus at the next stop, if a little out of breath and bedraggled from my efforts.

Lady luck has been somewhat lacking this week. Yesterday was chemo session 5 and although it was great to score another milestone on the journey, it would have been nice if the actual chemo part hadn’t been preceded by a 1h30 treasure hunt for a usable vein. After 5 needle insertion attempts and a lot of painful wiggling, my left arm had had its fill of impromptu acupuncture, as had the nurse wielding the instruments of torture. Her superior was called in with the ultrasound machine and it was promptly announced that the vein in my left arm had thrombosed, aka was knackered and in no mood for further chemo. Onto the right arm, which proved similarly challenging (apparently I have very thin veins that like to play hide and seek) but we got there in the end. However by this point the nurses and me were at the end of our tethers and so when they suggested that a central line be put in (basically a tube that runs internally from your heart and pops out of our arm that they use for drug adminstration and something I’ve actively resisted til now) I admitted defeat and conceded this would be a good idea.

The chemo adminstration part itself was fine but Lady Luck had one final trick to play on us. By this point in time it was 13:45 and I sent Sam, who had been waiting dutifully at my side during the pin cushion fun and games, off to get himself some lunch. Sadly the League of Friends cafe had sold out of their superior fodder by this juncture and he was forced to make do with a couple of slightly dubious cheese and egg rolls and I, shock horror, was deprived of my Belgian bun. To top it all off, one of the other chemo patients was stockpiling all the nice varieties of free biscuits (I counted at least 5 packets tucked into her medecine bag)  so the best we could get hold of was a pack of plain digestive numbers. Ah well, you live and learn!

But the overarching good news – the rosy part – is I’ve now got 5 sessions under my belt with only 3 to go, the last one being the 28th June and lots of nice stuff planned between now and then, starting with a week in the lakes in May. Bring on the summer I say!

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Life is sweet

Today’s blog is brought to you by the Belgian bun. For what reason am I bestowing this honour upon this humble concoction of bread, sultanas and icing? Well it has become tradition (I blame Claire Galloway for setting this addiction in motion) for every visit to the Churchill hospital to be accompanied by a trip to the League of Friends café and the purchase of a Belgian bun. Whilst a visit to the hospital tends to be accompanied by less pleasant occupations such as giving blood samples, drinking litres of contrast fluid, having my body pumped full of poison for 3 odd hours etc., the consumption of the Belgian bun is a highlight, something I actively look forward to – a glacier-cherry topped bundle of sunshine in amongst the rain clouds.

The Belgian bun was on stand-by yesterday when Sam and I hit the Churchill for the long-awaited appointment with the consultant to go through my scan results. Waiting for the appointment to come around was hard enough; it was then made harder still by an excruciatingly long wait in the waiting room. After an hour and five minutes (which we attemped to kill by feigning interest in the Guardian food supplement and various trashy magazines) the receptionist sidled up and wrote in big letters on a whiteboard “Dr Weaver running 1 hour late”. No really, we would never have guessed! Another ten minutes later and we finally made it into the consultation room, by this point on the brink of nervous exhaustion.

The news, thank god, was that we’d been anxiously hoping for – the chemo is working and the tumour in my bowel has shrunk ‘significantly’ (words of the consultant). The tumours in my liver have reduced, although not as impressively as the ones in the bowel. The plan of action remains the same – another 4 cycles of chemo to keep on nuking the b*ggers. We were initally a little disheartened to learn that – at least for now – there is no plan to operate at the end of the chemo cycles, which means whatever is left at the end of the chemo will stay in situ. In our naivety, it felt like we were being denied the closure of cutting all the little b*stards out; the idea of having to spend the rest of my life with the aliens still inside, living forever in the shadow of the aliens coming back to life was/ is scary. Facing up to your own mortality is never easy.

However, one Belgian Bun and two very constructive phone calls later (one with Richard Baskerville, super GP, and one with Sam’s mum Ann, who’s gone through the cancer ordeal twice now) we were starting to recalibrate. Whether you get chemotherapied, radio therapied or sliced open as part of your cancer treatment, there will always be alien hanger-oners. Whilst in an ideal world you could just get the hoover out and spring clean all your innards and be done with it, it just doesn’t work like that. The end-game is reducing the cancer cells to a level your body can stay on top of. And hopefully it will continue to do so for a nice long chunk of time – giving you plenty of opportunities to get run over by a bus, fall off a mountain-top, accidently set light to yourself…

Recovering our sense of perspective, we were able to appreciate we’d received the best news we could have hoped for – I am a ‘positive responder’; the chemo is doing its job; the aliens are on the retreat – cause for celebration surely. Unfortunately by this point we were too mentally and physically exhausted to do much besides limp home and collapse.

This morning the sun was shining and despite the fairly horrendous weather prognosis (sadly the BBC weatherman doesn’t share my perennial optimism) I decided to make the most of it. Armed with a double chocolate chip confection from Nash’s bakery, I headed out on my bike to see Peter and Lauren at Shutt Velo and had a thoroughly good ride and natter over coffee and cake.

La vita e bella – life is beautiful and the alien, for all its faults, has taught me to make the most of it. I can say, without irony, this is the happiest I’ve ever been.

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Playing the waiting game

Tomorrow we have our appointment with the consultant to go through my mid-chemo scan results. It feels wrong to be wishing time away but the waiting is agony! Have the aliens bowed under the pressure of 4 rounds of poison? Are we winning?

All the signs point to some degree of positive news: the swelling has all but disappeared;  I can eat bigger portion sizes; I’ve been able to start to eat more ‘real’ fruit and veg… but I’m wary of getting my hopes up too much. After all, I’m only halfway through the treatment and there’s a fair way to go still.

I am very fortunate however in having an amazing support network of friends and family to help me pass the time and fatten me up with coffee, cake and other goodies. This week is dedicated to the letter ‘P’. ‘P’ for pies – apple pie with Richard in Chipping Norton and a fab trip to Pieminster with Roberta and Owen; ‘P’ for party with a long overdue celebration of Sam and my birthdays at Sojo’s tonight; ‘P’ for pouring rain (Nice to know that Oxford bus drivers are as inconsiderate to pedestrians as they are to cyclists. Thank you no.5 for flooring your vehicle on the approach to an enormous puddle and soaking me to the skin.)

One day to go…

“All human wisdom is summed up in two words – wait and hope” Alexandre Dumas

“Patience is waiting. Not passively waiting. That is laziness. But to keep going when the going is hard and slow – that is patience” Anon