Category: NHS

The Unwelcome Guest: Celebrity Endorsement

The Unwelcome Guest: Celebrity Endorsement

Since I last posted: Stephen Fry has fessed up, George Monbiot, the writer and environmental activist, has outed himself and now Bill Turnbull, the former BBC Breakfast host is in on the act. Prostate cancer gets the full celebrity endorsement as all the poor bastards have it; proving that PC is nothing if not democratic.

When I meet people who I may not have seen for a while but who know about my condition, I gauge four different responses.

  1. I’d like to make it implicitly clear, without mentioning the subject, that this is something I feel very uncomfortable about and I don’t want to talk about it.
  2. I kind of want to talk about it or sense I should, but feel uncomfortable raising the subject.
  3. I’m concerned about you, so tell me: “How are you getting on?”
  4. I’m concerned about you, want to know how you are getting on, want to know what kind of treatment you are receiving, if the side effects are awful and what the prognosis is.

Let me say right away that every response is just fine. If you don’t want to talk about cancer as it gives you the heebie-jeebies I completely understand. It can give pleasant banter a savage blow to the head. Instead, let’s chat about playing guitar in a rock & roll band, when Wenger will finally leave Arsenal, how wonderful Aimee Mann is or the relative acting merits of say Jennifer Lawrence or Amy Adams. Dammit I’ll even talk about Donald Trump if we have too and yes, I have read ‘Fire and Fury.’ If you don’t want to talk about prostate cancer, then neither do I.

As to the second response, I can usually sense when someone is not sure whether cancer is a subject that should be raised in a social situation, so I raise it anyway but make it clear I’m not going to bore on about it. People usually want to know why I first went to the doctor (I had blood in my urine), how I’m feeling (Just fine thanks, I don’t plan on collapsing over the finishing line any time soon) and are you still able to drink? (Yes, and mine’s a large one) People are so dear, I’ve never been bought so many lunches and drinks, so thank you.

My response to those who come right out and ask me how I am is pretty much the same as the above, but with a little more detail. I went to the doctor because I had blood in my urine, but that’s gone away, so thank god I got checked out because if I hadn’t it would now be spreading and the two things we all know about cancer are:

a. We don’t want it.

b. If we’ve got it then let it be small, insignificant and localised.

Health note: (ignore the next couple of paragraphs if you are of a nervous disposition) I then assume the serious face and tell the guys to go get their PSA (Prostate-specific antigen) checked. It’s just a blood test but gives doctors an inkling as to whether you might be in trouble.

My PSA is quite low at 2.61 and a few years ago doctors may have left it at that, which would have been a mistake, but my Gleason Score, which grades the cancer, is quite high at 7. This is me: Gleason score 7 (4 + 3). I’m told most of the cancer cells found in the biopsy are likely to grow at a moderate rate, though some look likely to grow more slowly. It also indicates, as does the MRI scan, that most of the cancer is retained within the prostate, with just a small section attempting to break on through to the other side. I could now go on to tell you about the glories of having a biopsy but as you’ll probably never need one, I’ll leave it there. Put it this way if a prostate biopsy was rated on TripAdvisor, it wouldn’t get many takers.

And so finally to the person (rare in my experience), who wants the full enchilada, the whole story. Frankly, if they want it, they get it. It doesn’t really become me to be coy and reticent when here I am blogging to all-comers about my predicament.

I tell them about my treatment: no prostatectomy, which is the removal of the entire prostate gland, as a tumour is too close to my rectum for safe cutting and hacking. So, I’m on hormone jabs to shrink the tumour until September when the guest will be blasted with radiation in an effort to encourage the little bastard to check out. I could tell you about the side-effects of hormone therapy, but I think, dear reader, you have suffered enough. And frankly they are as nothing compared with the side-effects of being sixty-three.

The Unwelcome Guest – Test Drive

The Unwelcome Guest – Test Drive

Back to Guy’s Hospital cancer centre for some more tests. They seem to have an animal acronym fixation here, so today it was both a PET scan and a CAT scan. I thought about asking if I should bring Rusty but I guess they’ve heard that gag before.

For those who have had the fortune never to visit Guy’s cancer centre, and I highly recommend you keep it that way, it is a bright new building with airport style displays often telling you your appointment has been delayed but ultimately which consulting room you should attend. Fortunately, there are no signs for departure gates.

Architects Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners and specialist healthcare architect Stantec designed the building which as it says on the website is based around a series of ‘villages’. This is when you realise the whole 14-storey block is suffering from AED or Acute Euphemism Disorder as we doctors call it. There is the Chemotherapy Village and the Radiotherapy Village. As my friends will tell you I’m not much for the countryside but I don’t remember the Chemotherapy Village nestling in the foothills of the Cotswolds.

What I do think they should have at the cancer centre is a bar. I quite fancy swapping cancer related anecdotes with my fellow sufferers while getting on the outside of a bottle of Jack Daniels. And given everyone’s condition, smoking shouldn’t just be allowed it should be positively encouraged. ‘Smoke ’em if you got ’em’ should be the watchword at the Radiotherapy Bar. It would really help with the whole Villagey atmosphere they are trying to create.

The persistent patient

I’ve never been seriously ill before, so the experience of being an NHS patient is new to me. I have no doubt the care that I’m getting is second to none, Guy’s is rightly called a centre of excellence, but I’m learning there’s more to being a patient than just turning up on time.

The hospital is large and has many consultants so you don’t form a relationship with any one doctor. I’ve seen a different consultant on every visit, without exception they have been great, but you don’t get the personal touch.

In my experience comms is where they fall down. On several occasions, I’ve received letters inviting me to an appointment, after the consultation has taken place. Not a problem because I’d nailed the appointment on my previous visit. I’ve also had appointments booked that I didn’t need. Your appointments may be in several different locations and you may, for example, need to fast before a blood test. I’m in email contact with a nurse who helps me sort all this out as getting through on the phone is difficult. Keep notes, keep a diary and keep on track.

At other times, I’ve been in waiting rooms with perhaps 50 other patients all waiting to see a doctor. In this situation, I check the name on the badge of the person at the desk, say hello using their name, and If I’ve not been called half an hour after my appointed time I go back to the desk and ask very politely when I will be seen. Now, if English is not your first language, you are of a retiring nature, or perhaps you are old and not up the struggle, it is possible you will get lost in the system.

Screaming and shouting will get you nowhere, but quiet persistence will. Being a patient means looking after and looking out for yourself.

Doctors have a great mordant sense of humour. At one point I was banging on to a consultant about how both my parents had died of heart attacks at quite a young age and how I’d always assumed I’d be having triple heart bypasses and the like and with no history of cancer in my family never thought I’d be a (baby) boomer with a tumour. The doctor thought for a moment and said well Jim just to put your mind at rest you’re still far more likely to die of a heart attack. Thanks doc.

The Unwelcome Guest

The Unwelcome Guest

You may have wondered what happened to this blog and whether I’d disappeared. In short no, I’m still here, but just before Christmas I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, so as you might imagine that rather got in the way of writing humorous essays on London. But more of that in a moment.

Around sixty years ago god was checking the paperwork to see who was out for delivery and luckily it was me. The big man paused and looked at his notes, muttering to himself: “Well it looks pretty sweet for Jim Charles Preen. British, born to middle class parents, gets a decent education, the good things are programmed to rain down upon him. Well, lucky for him but what say we redress the balance occasionally?”

Of course, god was right. Well he would be, wouldn’t he? Extraordinary things have rained down upon me, but that didn’t stop him from having the odd laugh.

Sideburns, beards and moustaches

Growing up in the early seventies was a pretty hairy time, I mean literally. Hair was everywhere, it touched men’s shoulders for the first time in 200 years and sprouted luxuriantly from sideburns, beards and moustaches. Just take a look at that old devil Peter Wyngarde, what that man couldn’t do with a smoking jacket and an industrial set of whiskers.

This all made a deep impression on my teenage version and I’m: “Where do I sign up?” Hair was grown down to my knees, brushed and occasionally washed, that is until I was 28 and like the second in line to the throne it all fell out. Bald as a billiard ball. Score 1, god.

I always loved music and was introduced to jazz by my dad at an early age. He brought home a walnut encrusted gramophone that sat self-importantly in our living room. It came with LPs that displayed its stereo capabilities. My dad and I sat between the two speakers mesmerised as ping pong balls shot from side to side and trains trundled from one speaker to another. Hi-tech sixties heaven.

The New Frontier

Then came the albums or LPs as we called them. The covers were almost as good as the music. The Dave Brubeck Quartet gave us the soundtrack to President Kennedy’s New Frontier with modern art on the album sleeves and modern jazz deep in the grooves.

Oscar Peterson wore his pianos out playing more notes than seemed humanly possible. Chet Baker melancholy and bleak and who I thought when he sang was a woman until I looked at the beatnik cool album covers. I danced to them all and love them to this day. But here’s the rub I’m now quite deaf and struggle to hear those beautiful sounds in the way I once did. Score 2, god.

Now in my sixties; the knees are gone, the hair’s long gone, the hearing’s gone and I live in constant expectation that my cock will drop off. Men of my age are in what some call sniper’s alley. What was that, that went whistling by? A stroke, cardiac arrest, so many interesting possibilities. Up until now they have all missed their target, but not now, now I have an unwelcome guest.

In similar circumstances, when he was diagnosed with cancer, PJ O’Rourke said: “I looked death in the face. All right, I didn’t. I glimpsed him in a crowd.”

I’ve been diagnosed with prostate cancer, it’s treatable, manageable and just possibly curable, but cancer can be a slippery bastard and demands to be taken seriously. In fact, the worst aspect of the diagnosis is that right now it’s hard to think about anything else. I didn’t expect a cancer diagnosis to be so damn compelling but at the same time so boring. Thanks god, score 3.

So, what is a writer supposed to do with this information? Well write about it I suppose.

I’m being treated with brisk efficiency at the Guy’s Cancer Centre at London Bridge. Actually, I favour brisk efficiency as if nurses and doctors show their softer side I’m likely to get teary and embarrassing. But being in the NHS mix is interesting and while there have been many cancer memoires by writers far greater than me, I’m inclined to draw the curtain back a fraction on my experiences. Don’t worry I’ll keep it light. Well that’s my intention, let’s see how it goes.