Losing it

Last Saturday was the first anniversary of a very dramatic moment in my life.

Probably not as earth-shattering as TAbbott ever saying something worthwhile, not to mention believable.

Definitely not as staggering as Yoda losing his power to split infinitives.

But on Saturday, July 30th 2011 at about 7pm, my smug world as I lived it came to a crashing end.

I’d cracked the cap on a luscious bottle of Patrick of Coonawarra  ‘Reserve’ cabernet sauvignon 2002 to gauge its further cellaring potential and raised a tasting glass to my anticipating lips when a wave of revulsion swept over me and the glass returned to the table unsipped.

I’d lost my appetite for wine.

To be fair, it wasn’t entirely unexpected, but hope sprang eternal. Over the previous few days I’d turned off coffee, tea and almost anything desirably edible as the cumulative effects of radiation therapy and chemotherapy began to weigh in. And I’d lost my voice for good measure. Cancer treatment does that.

I was nine days into a seven week course of daily radiotherapy and weekly chemotherapy to treat a grade 4 cancer that had recently appeared and finally began to understand some of the advisories I’de been given by various staff at the William Buckland Radiation Centre at Melboune’s Alfred Hospital.

It all began just a couple of months earlier when I was reviewing the results of a prostate cancer biopsy with Assoc. Professor J2, my radiation oncologist at the Melbourne Prostate Institute. The results showed a marked increase in number and potency of prostate cancer cells over the previous year’s biopsy and I was with J2 to explore all treatment options at the suggestion of my Urologist at the Alfred Centre, Mr J1.

Maybe one day I’ll post about the amusing turf war over my arse conducted by my Urologist and Oncologist. I’ll call it “A Tail of Two Jeremys”.

But I digress…

During the consultation I introduced J2 to a lump that had developed in my neck over the past two weeks to indicate that cancerous prostate cells may have migrated to what I thought was a lymph node. “That’s not a lymph gland” muttered J2 as he peered down my throat, “but it looks suspiciously like a cancer. Let me consult my colleague who specialises in these things, after all my major thrust is the other end”.


Enter protagonist #3, Professor Sid. Sid takes care of the ‘top half’ and is William Buckland’s specialist in cancers of the head and neck, as well as all round chemotherapy maven. Sid’s impromptu visit precipitated a bewildering round of Xrays, CT and MRI scans, ENT interviews, swallow tests, facemask fittings  and dietary plans over the next few weeks that arrived at the conclusion; “It’s a grade 4 cancer on your left tonsil, and it’s got to go”.

So, on Tuesday, July 19th at precisely 1pm I presented at WBRC for my first daily radiation therapy treatment.

I was reintroduced to the plastic mask moulded to fit my head. The mask is placed over my face when I’m laying (topless) on a metal platform and clipped to the platform to prevent any head movement. About ten minutes are devoted to ensuring my head and body are aligned in the perfectly correct position then the radiation team leave the room and the zapping begins.

Seven minutes and 30 seconds later it’s all over for the  day. Go get dressed and come back same time tomorrow. Back on the tram and the 15 minute rumble back up Dandenong Rd to home.

That was the routine Monday-Friday for seven long weeks. Except for Thursdays.

Thursdays were special. Thursdays included chemotherapy as well as radiation therapy. And I don’t like chemotherapy. Not a bit.

Very simply, Chemo works by attacking and killing cells that divide rapidly, and in conjunction with radiation, speeds up the killing process. Cancer cells are a classic example of fast-dividing cells. Other examples are in hair follicles, taste buds and salivary glands.

That’s why the appetite went AWOL. The combo of chemo and radiation targetted at my neck pretty much guaranteed that taste would go. Quickly followed by the ability to produce saliva. And a couple of chunks of tonsorial splendour found their way down the shower drain as well.

My chemo was applied intravenously, through a drip canular inserted into a vein in the back of the hand. It’s preceded and followed by a flush of saline solution and is accompanied by other stimulatory chemicals. For about 36 hours after the treatment the stimulants kept me active and upbeat. By Saturday the stimulation had worn off and utter fatigue took over.

A typical chemo session would last from 10am til 4pm, more or less. This had to be interrupted at 1pm each Thursday for radiation treatment two floors down and I’d have to wheel my drip stand to the lift. After being pumped full of saline and evil chemicals for three hours, a nature break would be a necessity along the way. As it’s a two-handed exercise I would invariably disturb the canular or drip tubes, causing the inbuilt alarm to trigger.

Each Thursday at around 1pm I would present at the radiation ward reception accompanied by the annoying sound of the drip monitor alarm, to be turned off by one of the nursing staff. At least they all knew I was on my way.

Over the weeks my appetite had disappeared, making nourishment a problematic issue. The cancer treatment had slapped down both taste and ability to easily swallow, thanks to the destruction of salivary gland cells. At each bi-weekly meeting with doctors or nurses I was weighed. After four weeks my weight dropped from around 87kg to a svelte 79 kg, causing both Sid and my dietician a small measure of alarm.

Personally, I was pleased with the new slimmer Me, but Sid wasn’t having any of it. I had to gain weight, or at least maintain the 79kg status quo, or I would be force fed with a tube down my throat. Gaining weight was a pretty tall order when absolutely nothing appealed. The dietician issued a bulk supply of dietary supplements and suggested I try smoothies with as much fatty content as possible.

Down at the ‘fresh food people’ we scoured the fridges for full-fat cream, yoghurt, icecream and custard (I couldn’t face the prospect of actually making any). I also found circular trays of what they laughingly promote as profiteroles.

For three weeks my daily diet consisted of a cream/yoghurt/icecream/custard/sustagen/milk smoothies and cheap, tasteless and entirely faux profiteroles. But I still managed to keep Mitch fed with more-or-less edible dinner most days.

The joys of cancer treatment. I won’t mention the side effects on my prostate cancer that enjoyed the thrill of the weekly chemo but didn’t get the killer punch of the radiation.

I ‘ve weighed myself every morning for years, and I knew my weight was still dropping, causing me to wear the heaviest clothes I own stuffed with all manner of weighty objects each ‘weigh-in’ day. I’m sure everybody saw through my ruse and were just too embarrassed to highlight my efforts, but at least I was spared the hose-down-the-nose routine I’d noticed on a couple of fellow outpatients.

The cancer treatment ended in September and I recuperated for six weeks. My voice recovered almost immediately and taste and appetite began to slowly return about three weeks after the final zapping. I was heartened when my repulsion turned to ravishment of a burger with the lot and a real beer at a mate’s place just four weeks after the program finished.

My enjoyment of wine returned at about week six, and now the only ingredient I’m still antsy about is chocolate. Dry mouth syndrome persists (probably forever) so I must have ample liquids with a meal. Poor me, I’ll just have to suck it up …

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