Although I have the utmost respect for scientists and all things scientific, my life choices are almost always decided in the heart, not the head, and this has generally served me well so far. But what if the choice relates to health and well being? What about when it comes down to life and death?
A little over a fortnight ago, after an entire weekend of talking through the options, Mags concluded that maybe six cycles of chemotherapy was enough. The constant fatigue, the increased regularity of low platelet counts, the pins and needles in her fingertips and a frightening episode of atrial fibrillation. All this at the halfway point. What shape would she be in after twelve cycles?
At the outset, the oncologist made clear that the regimen would be particularly ‘intense’, and if Mags could complete all twelve cycles, that would be great, but he’d be happy if she only managed six. On decision day, what we were looking for was a proven scientific reason to carry on. Complete the twelve and increase your chances of a good outcome by a certain percentage figure. That kind of thing. But the coldest fact of all was that Mags was in what one registrar called “an evidence-free zone”. Figures may be extrapolated from trials done with bowel cancer patients, but no such trial had been conducted for pancreatic cancer patients. All they could offer was an acknowledgement that bowel cancer patients receiving the same chemo cocktail did as well on six cycles as those who had twelve.
So the upshot is no more chemo for the foreseeable. But a few weeks to allow the body to recover and regain strength before a scan in mid-January.
As Mags sat with her back to our lounge window on the morning of that oh so important consultation, two magpies flew straight towards us, only swooping up to perch on the gutter (we’re on the first floor) at the very last second. In the absence of science, a line from an 18th century superstitious rhyme may be regarded by some as no credible substitute. But sometimes the heart says, “That’ll do. Hold on to that.” And we obey, gladly.
Once upon a time I took a keen interest in politics. But it’s amazing how a vision of building a better world for all can shrink so dramatically, it barely figures in your life anymore. I mean it’s still there to a point, like a tolerable stone in your shoe. One that occasionally causes you to break your stride and wiggle your toes, but never actually makes stop and shake out your footwear. These days our bigger picture is so crammed full of detail, the irrelevant stuff has been pushed out to the edges where it sets solid to form a frame of sorts.
Mags is halfway through her chemo, and has been tolerating the toxicity of the treatment reasonably well. But just over a week ago she collapsed twice. A GP arranged an appointment at the surgery for an ECG. I know the qualities of her heart better than anyone, but the medics are only concerned with pulses and physical functionality. To each his own.
We were all set for a quick check up, then home for a cuppa, but it was not to be. “There’s something a bit funny going on here,” said the doctor, holding a print of beats and rhythms out in front of him. “We have to get you straight to A&E. I’ve called an ambulance.”
So, a bumpy ride to hospital, with blue lights and sirens, and a six hour stay in the resuscitation room until things had settled down, courtesy of doctors, consultants and two magic pills.
The latest cycle of chemo was held off due to a low platelet count, so everything is up in the air at the moment, as it is with so much that’s going on in the wider world. Local and global uncertainty. At least Mags now has firm appointments with people who specialise in fixing things. An A&E doctor told us that cardiologists, rather like oncologists, are renowned for having a singular focus.
It’s a comfort to know that Mags is in good hands, even though the nation’s heart is palpitating and various ideological malignancies continue to spread with alarming aggression.
The title of this post may well have become the working title of a longer and more detailed account of our lives since Mags’ diagnosis. Wasps, because of their frantic efforts at our window this summer, trying to get to the other side of something they could feel but couldn’t see. Dragonflies because often when Mags has been sleeping I’ve watched them in numbers, sprinting and glinting with apparent purpose, before drifting and floating on seemingly random trajectories. Looks like I’ve discovered my inner insect, an undeniable fragility that manifests in the shadow of that which has the potential to squash me.
It’s doubtful that the account will ever get written, not least because I would always be conscious of the story titling towards me, how I’ve been affected. And that’s not the way it is, by a long way. It’s about us, two ordinary people like countless others who have had their entire existence turned upside down by cancer. It’s about vulnerability. That which is shared and that which is experienced individually. There’s a wonderful piece I read just recently by David Whyte. Well worth a look.
I want to avoid telling tales of what the oncologist describes as “bumps in the road”. They are already well documented in countless personal stories. The various online forums are littered with them, unsurprisingly. People posting in the hope of reassurance and, in turn, readers reassured by accounts that make them feel healthy by comparison. I’ve left all forums now because I found them, overall, to be depressing. Always the threat of something weighty that might flatten me in an instant, activating my inner insect once more.
So, before I buzz off, here are some positives. Mags doesn’t need to see the dietician any longer, her surgeon is happy with his handiwork and doesn’t want to see her until June 2020, and we don’t need to monitor blood sugar levels anymore. Mags has a lovely counsellor via a local cancer support charity, and we had a very long meeting with our wonderfully bubbly GP this week, that ended with something rarely prescribed: a big hug!