Wednesday, May 2, 2012
A funny thing happened on the way to the microwave…
Somebody once quipped that at Massey Ferguson they don’t talk about the Grim Reaper—they call him the International Harvester. But whether we call him Reaper or Harvester or use any other of his myriad names, he’s not a character we want to meet any time soon. In an episode of Midsomer Murders the inimitable DCI Barnaby and his trusty sidekick Gavin Troy had just visited an aged-care nursing home and Troy came away horrified. “Who’d want to be ninety?” he asked. “Anybody who’s eighty-nine,” said Barnaby.
Yet, once in a while we get a wake-up call and realise that Mr Reaper is looking at us ... and he’s smiling.
I had one in 2010.
My PSA levels had taken an alarming leap when I had my scheduled check-up in April and the doctor wanted to do a biopsy of my prostate. It was done under anaesthetic and was over even before I realised that I’d been asleep. Then there was a delay of a few weeks before the result was known.
During that time one of my sons rang to ask if I had the result of my autopsy. He probably meant biopsy, but perhaps he was just getting a bit ahead of himself—he may have been planning how to spend his inheritance.
When the results came through I learned that there was a small but fairly aggressive cancer and was referred to an oncologist.
I was lucky. Of the alternatives available—surgery, chemo, or radiation therapy—it was thought that RT would do the trick and I was sent to Westmead Hospital for the treatment.
Despite the comment of one of my older friends that it was a waste of time (he said that at my age I’d probably die of something else before the cancer could kill me) I found the experience mostly pleasant.
The waiting room was the best I’ve seen in recent years: it’s comfortable and bright, with fruit juice and a beverage bay freely available. The medical and ancillary staff are friendly and almost unbelievably cheerful. Everybody gets treated well and, as a result, the patients are equally friendly and supportive of each other. I asked one radiologist about it and her simple reply was, “We love what we do.”
On my first visit I was measured and tattooed. I’m sorry to say that the tattoos aren’t grinning skulls or pretty girls—they’re just four tiny spots that allow the beam to be precisely aligned during treatment.
A couple of weeks later the treatment began—thirty-seven sessions spread over about eight weeks.
I was placed on an adjustable couch under a linear accelerator, the area to be treated was exposed, and I was carefully manoeuvred so that I lined up exactly with the beam. Then everybody left and the equipment was operated from a personal computer in the next room. In my case the treatment consists of six bursts of about five seconds each, and then it’s all over—a total of five minutes on the table. It's a bit like being defrosted in a microwave!
There can be side effects and those are different for different people. In my case, the prostate became further enlarged under the radiation and, given its location, it caused problems for functions with which we would prefer to have no problems. Fortunately the medical staff are always on hand to assist and, apart from a scheduled weekly appointment during which a doctor makes sure that you’re OK, you can ask for help at any time.
There are four units at Westmead and each one treats about forty patients a day. That’s a whole lot of people getting a great deal of help—and, in spite of that, the cheerful words and friendly smiles never seem to fade.
There’s one mystery I was unable to resolve. I never met my oncologist. Every time we had an appointment he was somewhere else and I was interviewed by one of his associates. I’ve come to the conclusion that, like God, we hope he’s out there somewhere keeping an eye on things, but we have to take him on trust.
The patients are really special.
Some of us were fortunate to have a cancer that could be treated easily and with a high probability of success. Others were much worse off and I met people who knew that their treatment wasn’t working. Their courage was humbling. The children were the hardest to cope with. During my treatment period there were a three year-old girl and two boys (six and seven) receiving treatment. Death is a lot easier to face when you’ve had a good life—those kids and their parents should never have to think about it.
There's a reason for sharing this experience with you.
Cancer is frightening and when we meet it unexpectedly it's natural to have all kinds of negative reactions. Sometimes not much can be done, but more often it can be treated. I’m well into my seventies and for years I put off getting my prostate checked and ignored the possibility that I might be affected. Fortunately my cancer was found in time.
Why don’t you think about getting yours checked so that you’ll be in time too?