Jonty Este is a 48-year-old journalist living in Sydney. He was born in the UK and has been in Australia since 1988, spending most of that time as a writer and editor with The Australian newspaper. He is director of communications with the Media Alliance, the journalists’ union, where he specialises in researching and writing about the way the news media is changing.
This is the fourth in an irregular Croakey series about his experiences with cancer.
A pain in the arse: A diary about living with cancer
There is prose and then there is prose – and as far as lyricism, characterisation and dramatic structure goes, the two-page pathologists’ report I received last week would not have had the critics salivating, to say the least.
But for this reader the document was powerful enough to bring a lump to my throat, ending as it did with the word “curative” with the accompanying assurances that affected lymph nodes they had found none, neither metastases, nor involvement of adjacent organs.
In fact: “No evidence of malignancy” whatsoever.
It’s amazing how many times you can read even the most densely incomprehensible phrases when their conclusion is that you appear to have successfully been freed of a potentially life-threatening disease.
My wife Maxine, notwithstanding that she is a former health reporter, was as scuppered at the medical detail as I was, but that didn’t stop our joyous tug of war over the two pages. Never have the words: “nil”, “none” and “not found” been so gratefully received.
And anyway, the surgical registrar did her best to make up for any lack of plotting and dramatic structure in the report itself with her delivery of said document.
Brisk, charming and super-efficient, as she was throughout my stay in St Vincent’s, she took me through my pain levels and medication, while I did my best to read upside down the document she was carrying headed: “Pathology Report”.
“Er … have we heard anything from pathology?” I asked nervously, at which she nodded and said: “In fact, that’s why I’m here…”
“… But first I have to answer this page – I hope you’ll excuse me for just one second.”
And off she went.
A couple of minutes later, as she seemed to be heading back my way, she was waylaid by what looked like two junior doctors, who needed her to answer some questions. Then, as I watched, they were joined by a third interlocutor.
All the while I squirmed.
Then it was time for the ward nurse to take my “obs” – blood pressure, temperature and pulse.
“I think you’ll find my blood pressure a touch higher than normal,” I told her, only half in jest.
As it turned out my obs were normal and my doctor returned with a huge smile to deliver the good news: I am to all intents and purposes cured of this cancer which is highly unlikely ever to return. Barring the minor discomfort of wearing a bag for the next few months to protect the wound in my bowel as it heals, and what is likely to be a short course of light chemotherapy to rule a line under this cure, I’ve come out of this crisis in one (ever so slightly diminished) piece.
It was well worth the wait to hear this and I’ll eternally be grateful to the dedicated and highly skilled team who have delivered me to this happy condition.
One of the great rewards of working in such a high pressure job as cancer surgery must be those occasions on which one is able to deliver unequivocally good news to a patient. Journalists often talk about a “good get”, when hard work or luck delivers them a really good story that no one else has found and I must say I would love to have had more of them in my career.
But what news more satisfying to deliver, albeit to a smaller audience, than to tell someone their lives have been saved?
So after 10 days of remarkably easy time in hospital, I was able to go home on Friday. This morning I returned to outpatients and had 47 staples removed from my belly leaving me with a hell of an impressive scar – the surgeon who performed the operation has something of a reputation for the neatness of his work. And that, apart from some light chemotherapy in the months to come and a far less gruelling operation in a few months to restore normal intestinal service, ought to be an end to it.
There’s a bit of hard work ahead – walking to the end of the road is still a major achievement and I’m going to need every bit of the month of convalescence that I’ve been granted to get back up to anything like full speed ahead. But the hard work has been done and the mental fog which tended to descend every time I thought too hard about being sick will, I hope, be lifted permanently.
But hopefully I’ll have more than a scar to show for the past few months. When diagnosed with cancer and faced with the knowledge that what you have contracted has a “survival rate”, it’s hard not to indulge in the introspection game: what have I achieved, and what do I want to go on to achieve, if – as Christopher Hitchens puts it, “I am spared”.
The answer to the first part of this question is: not enough. To the second – well, I have a month or convalescence to work that out. I’ll put it to good use.
On the plus side of the ledger, I can happily report a crowd of loyal and loving relatives and friends whose support though the whole cancer episode and whose visits during my stay in hospital are blessings hugely worth counting as my best achievement of all.
Suffering Stockholm Syndrome
Hell, said Jean-Paul Sartre, is other people – and for the first few days it seemed as if hell during my stay was going to be represented by one of the folk with whom I shared a room with four beds. It would be unkind to identify this fellow in other than the broadest possible terms, but he was an ageing man whose mental faculties had been considerably impaired – I gathered – by long-term substance abuse and who was bewildered about where he was, why he was there and why he was unable to either drink or smoke.
For a couple of nights he found it hard to settle; he was physically and mentally disorientated and called out almost continuously for alcohol and/or cigarettes through the night until the hospital managers provided for a special nurse to sit with him at all times.
Over the long hours I conjured up a mental image of him as a character out of a Stephen King horror story, his tone turning without warning from wheedling: “Please give me cigarette. Please,” he would beg fruitlessly for hours, to menacing and abusive: “Fucking bitch, give me cigarette now…”
He would lapse at times into his first language, a central European tongue which was identified by one of my visitors whose speaks the language and recognised the phrase “fucking whore”. At times he challenged my inner compassion meter, especially at first when I was hooked up to umpteen tubes and machines and physically very vulnerable, as he would roam the ward trying to get into other people’s lockers on his constant quest for that elusive cigarette.
This is where the patience and skill of the nursing staff still impresses me – he could be relentless, getting out of his chair every five minutes to check that a nicotine fix had not somehow materialised in his – or someone else’s – locker in the short period since he last checked. They were strict with him, but they also comforted and talked to him to help him orientate himself better. One of his special nurses gave him a handful of rolling tobacco and some papers and took him out for a smoke on several occasions, to help him feel a little more like himself.
And, whether it was Stockholm Syndrome or not, after 10 days my compassion meter began to charge up again and I felt for this old bloke, who had had no visitors, whose only pleasures in life were cut off from him and who was clearly only really looking forward with trepidation to being cut loose from the hospital, the thought of which I so relished for myself.
And so I began to quite enjoy his adventures: when he touched me for a small loan to buy a packet of cigs (“Please you will lend me ten dollar for smokes – I give it back tomorrow,” he asked – and I would gladly have done so but for the fact that I had no money in hospital, which I explained to him as gently as I could. “Or maybe twenty?” he assayed, hopefully.)
We all relaxed more around him – he was “good” to the extent that the authorities were considering removing the special nurse, until – on my last evening inside, he caused quite a stir by lighting up in the ward, an event that so recalled the indomitable spirit of Randle McMurphy in the Cuckoo’s Nest that it caused more amusement than outrage among us all.
I picture him now – and hope he’s got a cigarette and someone to smoke it with.
Disclaimer: Please note that Jonty is telling his own personal story; if it raises issues for you or yours, please talk to a relevant health professional. Please do not make any health decisions on the basis of what you read, either in Jonty’s series or in the comments that readers post, without seeking professional advice. I will also ask someone from the cancer field to keep an eye on the posts and readers’ comments, in case any further or qualifying information is needed.