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Lift up the T-shirt, what did you find?

30 Jan

Today, I bumped into a person whom I hadn’t seen for a number of months. He’s not exactly a great friend or a passing stranger. I met him over a year ago. Well, actually, he said he recognised me from somewhere and introduced himself. We started talking and from thereonin, every time we saw each other, we would exchange pleasantries and I would get to hear how life was treating him.

In December 2011, I heard that his young daughter had passed away. I don’t think anyone knew how James was coping. All I knew is that he wasn’t himself. As I was working as a volunteer in a charity shop, I observed his behaviour when he popped in and informally monitored his mental health state. After working for so many years in the care sector, I can’t help but assess people and would do anything to help someone in need if I could. I waited for James to approach me but he never did. All I heard through a colleague was that he was receiving Counselling and was on anti-depressants to cope with his grief.
For all his bravado and pleasant conversations, James is a relatively private person. So I owed it to him to respect his space.

As I said, I hadn’t seen him for some time, so when I saw him in the British Heart Foundation charity shop, we took the opportunity to catch up on our news. We spoke briefly about holiday destinations and work. Small talk. Then James said he had cancer. He pointed to his chin and neck and explained he had enlarged lymph nodes, although some people said he “looked like a hamster”. He pointed to his groin and indicated it was spreading. Then he said he had it on his back and promptly lifted his shirt to expose what looked like a large cancerous hole on his back, about the size of a cricket ball. James coolly explained how it first came to his attention. He had happened to be wearing a white T shirt and a friend pointed out that there was blood on the back of the T shirt. James touched the area in question “as you do”, he said and could feel what appeared to be a mole. He then went to the doctor who promptly investigated the mole. James was informed that the cancer may have been lying dormant for about 20 or 30 years and something like stress may have triggered it off. The immune system may begin to shut down and become more susceptible to infection or any other ailment, disease or medical condition, he said.

James said he could deal with it and is fortunate to have adult children who motivate and support him throughout his “ordeals”. He said he could cope with cancer and finds it easy to talk to people about what he is going through. But he said talking about the death of his daughter leaves no room for discussion.

For now, that is a closed door and he cannot bring himself to speak about it. Bereavement, loss and grief are strong emotions and it is shame we cannot speak more openly aboout death and dying as much as we can speak of the other ills of this world…

James said he remains optimistic, lives each day as it comes and is fortunate to have his family and loved ones around him, to support and re-assure him.  For all that he has gone through, I have to admire and respect his  determination and magnitude of inner strength.

Sporadic encounters with James made me feel that all I could offer him is a helping hand if he needed it, an ear if he wanted to speak and a cup of tea if he ever felt the need for informal respite or a break from the emotional and mental toils of the day.

I think that is all I can do.

 

The Learned Kat

 

A Cake for Cancer

6 Jan

Last Wednesday, we went to the cinema. A 30-something man  greeted us and allowed us a free ticket into the film of our choice. Now, this man wasn’t just a random stranger. He is the son of a long term acquaintance, whom I shall name Elle. I have seen him over the years and have hardly managed to speak to him on an informal basis. When we used to see him with his mum, it was only in passing and we barely managed to exchange more than a few words. I think the furthest we got was either an acknowledgement of the head or wave of the hand or a monosyllabic “Hello”.  Over time, we have seen him grow his hair long, cut it short, gain weight, lose weight, move home, start jobs, dress against the latest fashion and trends in his own inimitable way, verging sometimes on what others would call a “goth” or “computer nerd” look, revert to more conservative fashions and just watch him grow into a quietly confident young man.

We only gleaned information about him through his elderly, yet exceptionally active mother. She was proud that he had managed to secure a part time job in a major cinema multiplex. If you go to the cinema on a regular basis, she said, he’d let you in for free as he is allowed special staff allowances and discounts. We didn’t take her up on the offer but if her son did see us at the specified venue, he would insist we went in at his discretion. We would rather not take up the generous offer and pay our own way as I don’t believe in taking advantage of someone’s kind nature.

Anyway, last Summer, Elle informed us that her son had been poorly for some time and they didn’t know what it was. He was going to be tested soon, she said, and hopefully we’d find out. He was tested for testicular cancer and the results were positive. When Elle told us, we were shocked. We knew testicular cancer can affect men of his age, but found it difficult to comprehend how it could happen to him.

We followed his medical and health experiences through what Elle told us was happening in his life. He was having to see the Specialists and Consultants, had surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, on medication and obviously sick leave from work. Gradually, we built up a picture of his progress. Elle informed us he was hoping to return to work soon as he was fed up of sitting at home, bored with the monotony of his routine. He just didn’t want his life to become one long session of hospital appointments and people feeling sorry for him.

We saw him on the bus a couple of weeks ago. I remembered him as being of medium build with thick dark hair. This time, he was looking softer, heavier and rounder than expected. I put this down to the side effects of the medication and treatment he received. He wore a woolly beanie hat. We spoke for about 10 minutes and he explained how he had checked himself during a shower and discovered a lump. He said he’d listened to the GP’s advice about checking balls for lumps and had gotten into a regular routine. He said he had found a lump and decided immediately to see his doctor the next day. So began the series of tests, assessment, medication and treatment. He said he wore the hat as he had lost all his hair but that was nothing to worry about as it’s only hair. He’d rather have his health back than his hair he said with a smile. Throughout our conversation he remained buoyant and optimistic. I couldn’t help but feel his hope and strength. We said our farewells and he reminded us that his  ticket offer “still stands.”

So, back at the cinema, he greeted us with a cheerful smile and said he was glad to be back at work, relieved that he was going to be on a gradual phased return to work process. I asked him if he had received a slice of the Christmas cake I had sent round to his mother. He said he didn’t like that sort of cake but preferred black forest gateaux or similar. I promised to bake one especially for him as he had been so kind and generous towards us. He laughed and said not to worry. In his approach towards us, he was friendly but still remained professional, courteous and polite in manner. He went over to a colleague to get our tickets. Another female colleague greeted him and must’ve said something to him as I overheard his reply:

” I’m okay. I’m at work. It’s not as if I’m going to die. These things can be cured you know!” He came away, smiling and handed us our tickets before seeing to the other patrons of the cinema.

As I said, I don’t really know him too well, but only through what I heard from his mother over the years. But I was so moved and touched by his bravery and courageous words, I didn’t think I had any option left but to bake him that cake I promised.

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The Learned Kat