Five things about Autoimmune conditions and me

I’m not an expert in this field but I’m trying to understand it as best I can. In much the same way that I set about researching information on my particular form of cancer, I’m now researching and learning about autoimmune conditions. I have them and they run in multiple generations of my family. Since none of my affected relatives are here to tell me about their experiences, I’m trying to piece it together myself. It’s a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack but so far I’ve discovered five things:

1. How many people are affected?

It’s difficult to find accurate figures on the number of people with autoimmune conditions. Estimates vary considerably. The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association suggests 50 million Americans – more than twice as many as the National Institutes of Health suggest. That’s a significant difference. Most sources seem to agree women are more likely to be affected than men – that holds true within my own family. Overall, the prevalence of autoimmune conditions seems to be rising. As yet no-one really knows why.

2. How many autoimmune conditions are there and how are they diagnosed?

There are many autoimmune conditions – at least 80 to 100 and despite research, they can be difficult to diagnose. For some people diagnosis is made by accident when assessing a seemingly more obvious illness. That happened to me. For others, diagnosis becomes a process of elimination – which means undergoing many different tests to rule out common or more obvious causes until such time as a less likely cause is deemed the culprit. As a patient, this can feel frustrating and traumatic in equal measure, especially when the outcome always seems to involve more tests. This happened to me too. Fortunately my GP is not in the habit of passing things off as a virus or post-viral fatigue.

3. Does it run in the family or are the conditions linked?

With my scientific hat on, it looks likely certain autoimmune conditions are linked. Having one in the family might mean other members of the family can have the same or similar conditions. Having one condition myself might generate a greater likelihood of having another… Or not… because autoimmunity seems to be another a very complex area of medicine and quite poorly understood unless you specialise in this field. My level of science doesn’t extend to anywhere near the expertise required to get to grips with all of this. Even if it did, our propensity for focusing on specific diseases or groups of symptoms makes it possible to miss subtle links – hence the turbulent experience of diagnosis via a process of elimination.

4. Is it worrying?

None of us wants to be or feel unwell. Having unexplained and debilitating symptoms is worrying. Having test after test without any clear answers becomes far more worrying, even for those of us who’ve been through countless tests, treatments and operations before. Without solid answers, the hamster wheel of tests can eventually lead to self-doubt, questioning your sanity or convincing yourself you’re imagining it all. I only escaped this downward spiral because a very dear friend with CFS had similar experiences. She isn’t insane and hadn’t imagined her chronic and very debilitating illness, but for years an array of professionals told her there was nothing wrong, even when she could barely stand or stay awake.

5. Has it changed things?

It’s said with age comes wisdom and I’d like to live long enough to be wise. Surviving a very aggressive cancer didn’t grant me wisdom but I do think quite differently about life. My health dipped suddenly a few weeks ago and a plethora of tests ensued. It’s autoimmune, not more cancer. In my world almost anything is better than more cancer, even if it isn’t great. Pre-cancer I’d have ignored this latest health thing in favour of work. Now I have a more considered approach. Of all the rogue genes in my gene pool, ‘nine-lives-of-a-cat gene’ isn’t going to be one of them. I’ve spent enough time in hospitals to absorb the fact life is fragile. So I’m giving up the career I’ve worked my socks off for over the last 20 years because simply being here for my loved ones for as long as possible is more important to me than anything else. My work has been a buzz and somewhat addictive; stretching, fun, full-on and frustrating, usually in that order. I’ll miss that I’m sure. But in 2019 and for the first time ever I get to take a proper break, take proper care of myself, and get on with the business of living instead of simply existing.

If life zooms by like a bullet train, people along the route become a faceless blur. Why have a family album full of blurs when pausing for a while is all it takes to stay in focus, and experience the detail in full HD…?

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Close the door, keep walking

Close the door, keep walking

Wherever you are, whatever your situation, I wish all readers much happiness, love and wellness for everyday of 2018, these are life’s greatest riches and I hope you find them in abundance.

2017 was a difficult year for us. Although there were some high points, there were also terrors. The kind that bring sleepless nights and frantic days. We learn from all experiences, the good and the bad, but last night we pushed the door firmly closed on 2017.

The wonders and possibilities of 2018 are most welcome because the last 365 days have been a long, hard slog. Though the desire to wipe away the past is strong there are tributes to pay and deep gratitude to note before moving on:

  • For the medics who helped J survive meningitis and J’s will to recover from a very traumatic experience
  • For my father who continues to help others and spares little thought for himself
  • For our journey to the furthest reaches of Norway and our once in a lifetime experience of the Mirrie Dancers
  • For friends and family across the globe, and loved ones lost but never forgotten
  • For food, clean water, warmth and shelter – all so easily taken for granted yet still beyond reach for far too many
  • For life, however long it lasts, because every day is a day further from cancer. This year will be my sixth post-diagnosis.

This new year has barely started but it comes complete with some significant milestones for us, big events that will shape the future in ways we can’t fully imagine as yet. It also comes with lots of blank canvas, new days ready to receive whatever memories we chose to paint there. We are a family of three, and all three of us have brushed with death at an age that is far from being “old.” So as we continue this journey we remain optimistic about the possibilities that lie ahead. There is much to explore and too little time to grumble along the way. We know now that wherever the path takes us, we’ll make the most of it and keep walking on. It is, in every sense, a happy new year.

Hopes for the New Year

berries

2016 has come and gone. There were a few health hiccups for me along the way but nothing compared to the amount of grief and suffering in the world at large.  Now 2017 is here and already people are committing atrocities, inhumane and yet so tragically human. My hopes for a peaceful new year will just have to lie dormant for another 364 days and see what 2018 brings. Something tells me it’ll be much longer before we all wake up to find our planet free from strife with every vestige of humanity behaving as truly civilised. I live in hope though, as I’m sure many others do.

Since world peace is well beyond my capabilities, my hopes for 2017 are considerably smaller and more intimate.  While many people have been enjoying the Christmas break, work, study and revision (a lot of revision) have been the order of the day for our family. So my first hope is that those of us who’ve been working get a break and those of us who’ve been revising pass our upcoming exams and settle in to our placements for the year ahead.

My next hope is that my friends and family stay happy and healthy in 2017.  Last year was something of a trial for most of us and in the end we weren’t unhappy to wish it goodbye.  None of us is equipped to deal with too much death, despair and difficulty in such a short period of time.  I know I’m still a bit worn down by it all so a less eventful year on the bad news front together with positive physical and mental wellbeing for all of you is my wish this year.

The last of my hopes for 2017 is a personal one because this year marks the 5 year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis.  If I sat down to write all the things that have happened since June 2012, the challenges, the bête noir, the unending uncertainty and the sheer weight of it all I fear I might lose touch with my sanity.  So instead it shall stay in the past where it rightly belongs and I shall hold hope that health-wise, 2017 is incredibly, remarkably and boringly uneventful for me.  Because uneventful means the likelihood of a reoccurrence, whilst never fully extinguished, is considerably diminished from June onwards.

Whatever you leave behind from 2016 and whatever you hope for from this new year, may health and happiness be your faithful companions in 2017 too.

A regrettable winter

My mother died twenty years ago this December 2nd. I remember it clearly for several reasons. Her death was unexpected, she’d almost finished chemo following another run-in with cancer. Cruelly, she was in hospital receiving treatment for chemo-related complications and everyone thought she’d be home for Christmas – she wasn’t ready to give up and nor were we but none of us got what we’d hoped for. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on your viewpoint I was there when it happened, and now, 20 years on, the violence of her death still plays vividly in my memory with full technicolor and time stretching slow motion despite my best attempts to erase that fateful winter day.

In the early years following her death seasons of the year blended one to another, life continued but the gap she left behind was all consuming. Christmas, which had always  been one of my favourite times of year, became desolate and hurtful. My memories consisted only of my Mother’s untimely death and the actions that had consumed me in the period leading up to her funeral. I spent many Christmases in the wilderness, caught between bereavement and bewilderment. It is not a time I would choose to relive.

Roll forward twenty years and I’m still here, and still filled with sadness about my Mother’s death. It’s no longer acutely painful because as humans I suppose we’d cease to function if anguish and torment stayed so raw for so long. Today the feeling resembles a blanket of numbness, the kind that comes with Novocain. You know there’s a lot of pain beneath but on the surface it’s no longer perceivable. Somehow  you know it’s a trick, because the numbness is transitory and the pain might resurface when the Novocain wears off. So you hope it never wears off.

For the longest time just thinking about my Mother conjured images of her death and nothing else. It’s taken two decades for other, happier memories to creep back in.  My Mother was never a moaner. Throughout her illness she never asked “why me.”  During her sickest, most challenging days she always had more concern for others than she did for herself.  Generosity of spirit was one of her greatest characteristics and something I learned a great deal from.

Twenty years on my relationship with my Mother’s death has shifted from one of desolate unhappiness at her early departure to one of gratitude and profound joy for the time we spent together. Of course I’d have wanted her to have 80-something years on Earth instead of the 40-something she achieved. I’d have wanted her to enjoy many more happy years with my Father and live to see her grandson grow into a young man with a passion for helping others and a talent for medicine. Winter 1996 snatched all of those things and more away from us. But times change and winter is no longer such a regrettable time of year. I remember happier times, times spent with my Mother making Dundee cake and Brandy snaps,  decorating the Christmas tree and wrapping presents. Her death was cruel and untimely but her loveliness and warmth live on, timeless and unchanging.

Summer 1993, Mum, J & me

Summer 1993, Mum, J & me

 

 

 

Remembrance

 

Maple tree, Clun

“It has been said ‘Time heals all Wounds.’ I don’t agree. The wounds remain.  In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens.  But it is never gone.” Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.

It’s been a long while since my last post to FEC-THis. Summer has come and gone, Halloween and Guy Fawkes too.  My country remains perplexed by the decision of the majority of its people to say goodbye to the EU. The same confusion now looks set to grip the US. The catalyst may be different but the root cause seems similar and all the while, pestilence, war, famine and death continue to spread their wares throughout the globe. Tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday, a day when we remember those who have sacrificed themselves to secure and protect our freedom. Over the years many millions have sacrificed yet our freedom remains fragile and we continue to live in troubled times.

It’s good to remember but sometimes it’s good to forget.  Or at least try.

So much has happened since I last wrote here, some of it good, some of it not so good. Pre-cancer levels of health and wellness continue to elude me. Simple things like opening jars or bottle tops are more challenging than they might otherwise have been.  Running, climbing (stairs, steep paths, hills) and dancing are all possible in my head but  unimaginably taxing in reality. Reading, reasoning, analysis and deduction take effort when not so long ago they were entirely effortless.

Life is full of compromises and treating cancer to secure more days on Earth has, at least for me, meant sacrificing many things that came easily before.

Being sad or mad about all of this seems the most natural course of action but those emotions take a lot of energy and no amount of rage or sorrow has ever been able to change the past.  Like the deciduous trees shaking off leaves in readiness for winter, weaving rich carpets of amber, bronze and gold, the last few months have been a time of  reintegration. Time to be in the moment, no past and no future, no wraiths from yesterday or castles in the air of some mythical tomorrow. The trauma that was, the scars that are and whatever might light the way or lurk in darkness along the road ahead, none of it matters. It is what it is, no more and no less.

I began this journey because I needed to save my life, but I wasn’t saving it for me. Putting food on the table and a fire in the hearth for those who depend on me has always been the driver. Four years on, I finally realise my overwhelming sense of duty and responsibility for others is nothing short of a Herculean task – one that my tango with cancer leaves me ill-equipped to complete. So I’ve decided Herculean is not for me, whether that’s capturing the Cretan Bull, bringing back the Mares of Diomedes or simply being the person everyone expects to make everything alright.  In an earlier life this decision would’ve left me riddled with guilt, and plagued with thoughts of failure and defeat. Today it brings a gentle air of comfort, long-awaited tranquility and reprieve.

This weekend I’m remembering all those who sacrificed for my freedom and how very grateful to them I’ll always be. In a small and quiet way I’m also remembering myself.

 

 

 

 

21 scars and all out of love for sloth

Just when I thought it was reasonably safe to put the operating theatre behind me…

2 out of 4 news scars, 21 in total

a bunch of symptoms showed up with plenty to contemplate. Upper right quadrant pain before breakfast, at random points through the day and resistant to over the counter pain-killers. An intermittent feeling of fullness beneath the ribs or a hard area towards the sternum, with pain, sometimes radiating to the right shoulder blade. After a run-in with grade 3 HER2 positive cancer, metastases couldn’t be ignored. The only way to find out was further tests. At the end of last year yet more blood tests and another ultrasound ensued. There are protocols around ultrasound and the sonographer isn’t usually at liberty to say anything but on this occasion he was more forthcoming and said the liver looked normal. I guess he knew no-one wants the thought of liver mets hanging over them like the darkest of dark clouds.

The source of the problem was identified quite quickly and completely non-invasively: a large gall stone.

Fast forward six months and there are four new scars to add to the previous seventeen littered around my torso. Although these are small in comparison to some of the cancer-related scars the after effects of gallbladder removal (laparoscopic cholecystectomy) have been more painful and recovery seems slower. Perhaps it’s because my body was already a human pin cushion and there’s only so many holes that can be made through a single belly button without repercussions? Strangely the scars in the area where the gallbladder used to be don’t hurt and the one in the midline, just below the sternum, is barely noticeable but the belly button and whole lower abdomen is another story. Maybe that’s because it’s been used before for other surgeries or maybe it’s because this surgery involved pumping carbon dioxide into the area leaving my whole abdomen distended like the alien in alien autopsy. Almost a week on and it is still out of shape.

In the recovery room where it took some time to recover (and was a little worrying at first) they showed me the offending gall stone. Just one but of sizeable proportions and certainly enough to have caused all the previous symptoms. The consultant came to visit on the ward and said “it was nasty in there.” I’m still not sure exactly what he meant and didn’t have the heart to tell him it felt pretty nasty living in here post-surgery too. It’s the one time when I’ll gladly declare opiates have been my friend.

Since parting company with the gallbladder and its unwelcome occupant all the unpleasant feelings and malaise thought to originate from there have gone away. Early days but with luck those problems are gone for good. As for the scars, they are healing well. (That purple stuff is medical super glue and it flakes off in 5-10 days.)   One of the worst things about surgery is recovery. It can’t be rushed which means being careful, nothing strenuous and giving things time. But time is precious and aside from piling on pounds when I sit around, every day spent in inactivity feels like an opportunity missed. It’s frustrating. Twenty-one scars in a 30 x 50 cm area is more than enough so hopefully this surgery is the last. Precious days are passing and I’m all out of love for sloth.

A slog more than fight

Until my mid-teens ‘fight’ meant one of three things:

  1. Squabbles between siblings – verbal, physical, but more often than not both.
  2. Altercations between kids at school, rival gangs, or the heavily inebriated having the kind of night they’d completely forget by morning.
  3. Boxing – where men knocked the stuffing out of each other for money in the name of sport. Female boxers were strongly discouraged at the time.

Since then ‘fight’ has taken on some extra meanings:

4. The role the armed forces conduct and lay down their lives for when politicians, fanatics, dictators or megalomaniacs fail to address their differences peacefully and revert to Neanderthal tactics. Clubbing one’s rivals is a proven solution tried and tested over many millennia.

5. The thing people with life-threatening or terminal illnesses are supposed to do, especially people diagnosed with cancer.

As a simple soul I’m ill equipped to explain why a proportion of humanity continue to pursue theological, political and ideological power-games that lead to more serious and deadly forms of the altercations witnessed in my childhood and teens. It must be something only despots truly understand.

I know a little more about the expectation to fight cancer than I’d ideally like and unfortunately its the kind of knowledge that once incorporated is impossible to forget. The language of cancer is frequently the language of war. People fight cancer, battle with cancer or wage a war on cancer because they are fighters, warriors, or even assassins. On some occasions  people win their cancer fight, but rarely is that completely guaranteed. On other occasions we’re told they battled bravely and courageously but sadly passed away. In real terms cancer is a win:lose scenario but whatever the situation, the language of cancer is full to the brim with fighting talk.

Perhaps societally we find it easier to deal with cancer if we say it’s something people fight. Fights can be won so when someone fights cancer there’s a chance they might win. This in turn can help make it a less frightening prospect for everyone else. School sports events conditioned us from an early age to know the winning team is always where it’s at so we rarely hear talk of people giving up, refusing the fight or waving the white flag of surrender. Giving up just isn’t the done thing, we must stay strong and keep fighting. There’s no glory in coming second, we have to win!  When people die (and lots of us will die from cancer) we hear talk of remaining courageous to the end. Perhaps this too is a means to make the truth easier to bear because someone else just lost their life to a disease we barely understand and still cannot prevent or cure.

I don’t like violence and never fully understood how anyone could fight with themselves so the language of cancer has never proven particularly helpful for me. Like it or not cancer is a bunch of our own cells that proliferate forever – cells that somehow manage to step outside the normal circle of life. Cancer is me, albeit an aberrant version. We are all different and for some people fighting analogies might be hugely helpful. For me the whole cancer thing is more of a slog.

Slog:

  1. to work hard over a long period especially doing work that is difficult or boring.
  2. to travel or move with difficulty, for example through wet, sticky soil or snow, or when you are very tired.

Dealing with cancer has taken considerable effort from me and my medical team. From diagnosis to current day I’ve been fortunate to receive nine separate surgical procedures designed to eradicate cancer, deal with the unwanted after effects of previous surgeries and do as much as possible to prevent any return of a disease with a high propensity to spring up elsewhere. In parallel chemo and monoclonal antibody therapies took place over a period of 10 months, again with the aim of preventing reoccurrence so that I might go on living my life in the quiet, peaceful way I’ve come to enjoy.

My cancer journey to date has taken four years, almost 15% of my adult life. In real terms this is very little – for some people including my own mother, aunt and grandmother it took much more.  I will always be grateful for every extra second gained through the expertise and determination of my medical team because without them my chances were slim to non-existent. Together we have now done everything possible to help me remain cancer free. Only time will tell if it’s been enough.

I haven’t been fighting for four years, I haven’t been brave or courageous and I don’t feel like a warrior. I faced a situation with few options, underwent gruelling treatment with unintended consequences and continue to rebuild my life, including everyday things like walking and working memory. I’ve been unrelenting for four years, enduring and tenacious, and I often feel tired and decrepit. I keep pushing myself hard because I want to do the things I could pre-cancer. Sitting here waiting or wishing for their return isn’t going to work.

In the time it’s taken to walk this cancer journey so far I could have walked around the Earth twice. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to be here and largely in one piece but that’s not enough because I’m not old enough to be decrepit. When I can once again walk more than a few hundred yards without days of painful repercussions, when I can go up stairs without grasping the handrail for fear my knees will give way and when I can read a book when tired and not have to re-read it next day I’ll be completely overjoyed.

For me this cancer journey continues even though the cancer itself appears to be gone. It’s much more a slog than a fight.

Credit: CRUK

 

 

The daily prompt – Fight.