Monday, 27 February 2012

No chocolate aeroplane required

So Baldy Bain, as it turns out, did go to Spain.

My ingrained post-Presbyterian work ethic - you're off on the sick, you're not supposed to be enjoying yourself - rebelled a little, but after being signed off for a further three weeks for radiation recovery I decided to take my own advice and go on holiday.

So as I write this, Clare and I are sunning ourselves in the gentle low-to-mid 20s of Gran Canaria. It's very nice, thanks.

I usually regard hotels as places to sleep, not really to be revisited between breakfast and midnight, but since I'm weirdly gubbed at odd times of the day and have to break off from whatever I'm doing to go and sleep, Clare insisted on going for a cut above my norm, a hotel with a pool with sunloungers and a room with a balcony. Which was nice of her, I thought, as I paid for it.

Still, it is very pleasant. The journey here, not so much.

We were told at check-in that we were facing nearly four hours of a delay. We were early, too, having for once actually more-or-less taken the advice to check in two hours in advance. This isn't, for me at least, necessarily a problem. For someone who is otherwise fairly easily bored, I'm quite good at dealing with Airport Time, that weird twist in the fourth dimension that only occurs in transport hubs, in which minutes stretch to hours and yet hours truncate to seconds, sometimes simultaneously. I have a stoic mode which allows me to wander through this with a certain sense of calm, as others are twitching and pacing around me.

Except when those others are whistlers.

We went for something to eat, and stretched that out for two courses, drinks and a newspaper. Fortunately, for a Saturday, it was quiet, so we weren't chased out of the table. But I couldn't settle. The waiter, you see, was a whistler. 

So we wandered to the place where our gate would eventually open and settled onto those weirdly hard and flat seats Glasgow Airport has had installed for its passengers' incremental discomfort. There was a whistler there, too. Possibly more than one, or maybe he was just moving about a lot. Perhaps he was a Wandering Whistler, some kind of semi-mystical being doomed for some forgotten Biblical-age slight to wander the earth for eternity, irritating people. I don't know. I couldn't get a fix on him/them. But he/they were there. Just within earshot.

Apparently you can't report men whistling in airports as terror suspects. I personally think that if tweeting a joke about blowing up a tiny airport in the Midlands can get you remanded in custody, then whistling around the departure gates of a hub the size of Glasgow International should be a one-way ticket to Gitmo. But it seems the law is not behind me on this one.

What is it with whistlers? I can only assume they realise they're not entertaining those around them, so there must be another reason for this social aberration. Possibly they think they're sending out a message that says "I'm a cheery, chirpy chap", although, frankly, it just reads as "bastard". More likely, it's just a shrill, repeated, "Look at me! Look at me!" with a desperate subtext of "I don't care if you think I'm an arse, just look at me! LOOK AT ME!"

I don't know. I merely think there's scope for a new type of airport animal, here. In the same way dogs are used to sniff out drugs and explosives, I'm suggesting using something with a few more legs to deal with whistlers. A crack team of funnel-web spiders could, I'm sure, be trained to pick up on the vibrations of the passing whistler and drop onto him from the ceiling. The downside to this is that even with the world's most venomous spider, the minimum time from bite to death is 15 minutes, and the perp might continue to whistle through that period, or at least scream inconsiderately. Which is why you'd need a squad of spiders. The upside is that the airport would also save on fly-spray.

Anyway, ulcerous fuming and sotto voce swearing kept me occupied until the plane arrived, after which the journey itself was uneventful. Basic 757, no obvious chocolate used in its construction. No obvious leg-room, either, but at least we were at the back of the plane, which meant we could slam our seats back with impunity and no screams of outrage from behind. It's a generally a good place to sit; planes rarely reverse into anything.

Thomson's had thoughtfully handed us a couple of £5 vouchers on the announcement of the delay, each of which we found translated pretty much exactly into a gin and tonic on the plane. Four and a half hours, another couple of these, a game of travel Scrabble and a chunk of a novel later, and we were in Gran Canaria.

I like it here. Las Palmas is a nice city with a pleasant old quarter as well as its own beach up-town on the isthmus. The dunes of Maspalomas are a short bus-ride away for the more serious sun-seeker, too, but I'm happy enough in the city. I have to watch the sun, anyway - what with my current follicular deficit and the fact that I must be one of the few winter-holidaying Glasgowegians to take his own sunburn with him (another little side effect of the daily head-zapping), I'm tied to a regime of hats and factor 30.

That, the fatigue, and the stack of medicines on my bedside table keep me reminded that not all is entirely well. But otherwise, I feel more relaxed than I have for perhaps three months, and that's welcome. I think the fatigue is lessening, too, so I'm hoping that by the end of this little break, when I have a final week at home then a return to work, everything will seem pretty much back to normal.

I could do with that.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Getting a head

There is a baleful presence in my hallway; a pale, twisted Munchian face hovering just below the ceiling, soulless and blank, glowing slightly in the reflected half-light and staring eyelessly across the room, open mouth screaming silently into the void.

It is, of course, the Orfit mask which until Thursday was used to strap my head tightly to the zapping table at the Beatson, lest the death-rays miss and burn out 1982 instead of cauterising some tumour cavity. Since it's tailored exactly to my head and of no use to anyone else, the nice people at the radiation station let me take it home after my final session.

"Are you a mask-keeper?" they asked, leaving me briefly nonplussed: 15 years of internet use has left me aware of a number of memes and special interests I'd never have guessed at on my own (I mean, who'd have thought cat-breading was a thing? Seriously, Google it) and with a sense that it's best to answer these kinds of questions carefully. But I guessed this one was pretty specific, so I cheerfully agreed and we did a swap: I got my mesh model of the Smith skull in a Morrison's bag (which caused some interest and possibly some brand damage on the bus back) and the radiographers got some Marks & Spencer's biscuits and a big box of Quality Street.

Always give nurses and allied health professionals biscuits and sweets. Apart from being a nice gesture, these people work very hard, often under quite trying conditions (the long shifts, the general public, the specific public) and they do it with an amazing level of skill, charm and compassion. And you never know when they might next be shoving metalwork into your arm.

I'll tell you, though, the mask's a creepy bugger. So Clare has already shoved it way up high atop my teeteringly over-stacked bookshelves, just under the ceiling where it's least likely to terrify guests, unless they look up. And there it will remain until I can work out what to do with it.

Apparently some people like to smash their mask up as a kind of end-of-treatment ritual. I suppose that might be cathartic, a vengeance on the cancer and the uncomfortable treatment it has necessitated, but I see the mask as an ally, a trusty tool in the counter-cancer campaign, so I feel quite benevolent towards it. I feel like being more creative than destructive.

Here are the ideas I've had so far…

Scarecrow: the radiographers told me one guy is already doing this. It's a good idea, and we do have an allotment, but it's in a wind-tunnel that has so far minced an entire greenhouse, so the chances of someone somewhere on the southside waking up one morning to a mesh-form model of my mug pressed against their window are unacceptably high.

Hanging basket: there are already quite a lot of plants and flowers in my close. Packed with pansies, the mask could add that interesting medical theme you just don't get in communal stairwell horticulture.

Cress farming: shove some damp cotton wool under the scalp, sprinkle with a packet of seeds, and in a few days the Orfit could have the haircut I currently can't. And in a colour I've never tried, too.

Bust of Ozzy Osbourne: the former Black Sabbath frontman is shorter than me, but he does also have quite a large head. I think I still have a long black wig and some round-framed shades I bought for a Sixties-themed party to complete the look. The head will remain hollow and inanimate, but then have you heard Ozzy try to speak recently?

Evil bedside lamp: a low-watt red bulb inside, and the mask could add that whole Church of Satan look that most modern bedrooms lack. Eerie to sleep next to, difficult to read by, but it would keep the cats off the duvet.

So what do you think? Here's what the mask looks like, as snapped by me in my kitchen. All suggestions gratefully received – just add them as comments below.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Incurable romantic...

See me? See true romance? That's me all over, by the way. This is a day for lovers, so obviously, I took my partner up west.

Yep, today I and my beloved have spent St Val's at no fewer than three centres of medical excellence around Glasgow's leafy G11 and G12 areas: the epilepsy clinic at the Western ("you're fine, see you in six months, keep taking the Keppra"), then to Gartnavel to the Clinical Research Unit at the Beatson for bloods, and to the Tom Wheldon Building – effectively part of the Beatson – for the daily head-zapping.

Makes you pure poetic, so it does.

Blood samples are red,
Temozolomide's blue,
Except when it's green.
And it quite possibly comes in other colours too. I think it depends on the dose.

After weeks of dotting in and out of Gartnavel, with its huge campus and (mostly) shiny-shiny modern buildings, the Western is a bit of a come-down: scary traffic access, little parking, and a general sense of cramp and dilapidation. Which is why, I assume, they moved the Beatson up to Gartnavel.

There are some shiny buildings at Dumbarton Road, and some lovely old ones – not least the magnificent Maggie's Centre in the gatehouse, although I can't help feeling the double-helix statue out the back is rubbing it in a bit under the circumstances – but the poor wee epilepsy unit is stuck in a peeling wooden shed that wouldn't look out of place in war films. The people inside are exceptionally nice, informative and very professional, and you'd think the NHS could at some point stretch to having their hut painted.

Anyway, Clare and I are now back at the Beatson's CRU for the longer part of the day, which comprises the now-monthly double whammy of nippy-itchy intradermal jags I get into the same well-worn hole in my leg as part of my vaccine trial, followed by a four-hour sit-about just in case I go into anaphylactic shock. It isn't likely, but if I'm going to do it, it's much nicer to have medical emergencies in well-equipped, comfortable hospitals than most other places. Take it from someone who's done the full fally-jerky-cracky-ribsy thing in the office; this is a lot better.

So it's been a day of wine and roses throughout. Apart from the booze and flowers part, obviously, both of which are frowned on in hospitals these days.

And we did get to have a wee picnic, once I'd been bled, zapped and jabbed: bottle of something fizzy (water, sadly), king prawns, chicken legs, wee sausages, nice cheese. Quite pleasant, really, if you ignore the fact that it was all in the middle of a cancer ward.

Adding to that general sense of well-being is the knowledge that, after tomorrow and Thursday's sessions, I will have no more radiation blasted through my head ever again, and no more chemo to stomach for nearly five weeks.

I am being constantly warned that post-radiation tiredness will set in at some point; maybe immediately, maybe two or three weeks later. I'm already shattered for a period in the middle of the day, so I may already be experiencing it. It varies according to the individual, and there's no real way of knowing how it's going to hit.

But I'll deal with that as and when. I've been in one hospital or another almost every weekday since the beginning of December, and while I have always had the utmost respect for our health service, and that has only grown since this whole episode began, I'll be delighted to see the back of it for a while.

I'm not giving up on the fundraising, though; this little blog has so far generated in excess of £2500 for the Beatson (including gift aid and a generous bung from the Herald & Times Group Staff Benevolent Fund, which might not be showing in the total yet) and I'm keeping it going. The NHS supports treatment, but this money goes to research, development and extras for patients – the stuff that will keep saving lives and making them more bearable. They can't really get enough, so if you like the blog then show your appreciation to the Beatson on my JustGiving page.


Friday, 10 February 2012

Feeling light-headed

Baldy Bain, went to Spain

The old playground rhyme goes.

In a chocolate aeroplane…

Not the most practical of modes of transport, but let's go with it for now.

When he got back, he broke his back…

I'm surprised he made it at all, what with the confectionary-based aircraft and everything.

And that was the end of Crackerjack.

Sadly, it wasn't. When this little ditty was the standard method of greeting a new haircut in a schoolchum, Crackerjack was still an institution with the firm hand of Michael Aspel on the reins, and five-to-five on a Friday remained something to look forward to. Had it ended there, it would be remembered fondly. Unfortunately, the full horror of the Stu Francis grape-abuse years were still to come, possibly part of the same national decline in standards which led to the Baldy Bain rhyme itself being abandoned in favour of simply chanting "baldy, baldy" and slapping the freshly-trimmed about the scalp until concussion set in.

If you didn't get any of that, it's because you're either too young or too old. So for those who aren't down with the memes of a 1970s primary education, the point is this…

My head's cold.

After a few days procrastination, last night I dug out the super-duper, 18-length, swivel-headed, cut-your-own hair clippers I bought at the weekend, set them to 5mm, handed them to Clare and asked her to get on with it.

The first pass wasn't massively successful. It was an improvement, insofar as it took away the patchy comb-over look I'd been cultivating, but it still looked a bit odd. The problem was that across the patches of scalp where the radiation has gone in and out, only the once-luxuriant, so-brown-it-was-nearly-black hair has leapt screaming from my head; the straggly insurgent greys have decided to hang around to see what's happening next, giving me a weirdly unbalanced look with a pretty stark line between my normal dark thatch and its thinned-down grey neighbour. Trimming this down to a half-centimetre had only really served to throw it into sharp relief.

I looked like a suede badger.

So we set the trimmers down to 1.5mm and had another go. I think this is better.

At this length, the grey isn't really visible, so the overall effect isn't any less medical than before, but at least it looks more alopecia than cancer, so I suppose that's a sort of an improvement. The only way from here is full cue-ball – or, in my case, bowling-ball – but I'm going to stick with the two-tone Dralon look for a bit, even if those tones appear to be black and invisible. It's been a long time since I've been under any delusion about being in any way pretty, so I can stick this for a few days to see what happens. I just have to remember not to wear my white Ben Sherman polo shirt, so I don't look like I've escaped from This Is England.

Thing is, I now have only five more radiation sessions to go, including tonight's. Next Thursday is my last, so it might all start to grow back after that, dark hairs and all. Even if it comes back grey, as long as it's of similar thickness to the rest, it'll be OK. Maybe even a bit exotic.

Meanwhile, there are pros and cons. On the downside, I still look a bit diseased, lying down is an oddly jaggy experience, and the leather sofa on which I like to conk out in the middle of the day is cold on my scalp. But on the upside, I'm sure I can now do some pretty inventive stuff with Fuzzy Felt.

And, now I think about the old rhyme, maybe I should go to Spain. Specifically, the Canaries, where it's nice and warm at this time of year. If I'm going to be gubbed and sleeping half the day for three weeks after the zapping stops, I can do that just as well on a sun lounger. It's a thought. Although I think I'll stick with a standard, low cocoa-solids way of flying there.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Hair we go, hair we go...

So I bought some hair clippers at the weekend. The radiotherapy-inspired hairloss is now starting to look a bit, well, medical; the time may have come.

The thing is, I'm getting quite close to the end of my treatment. Next Thursday is my last head-zapping, after which my hair may well start to grow back. So I'm a little reluctant to take the plunge.

Here's the scenario:

From the front - things don't look so bad, possibly because I have a freakishly large head which is hard to take in all at once from close up. My left side and top appear fine, my right side a bit oddly thin, like normal male-pattern baldness which has for some reason slipped a bit.

From the left - I look completely OK. I think there is a spot of thinning behind my left ear, truth be told; it's likely, since that's the way out for the cosmic rays which are beamed in from the right on a daily basis. But my hair was trimmed in there, anyway, to balance up the post-surgical regrowth on the right (read Hair today for the story of the full horror of that haircut), so it's not obvious.

From the right and from the back – all starting to look a bit like I'm an in-patient at Huntingdon Life Sciences, I'm afraid. No part is entirely bald, but it ranges from fluffy behind the ear to just a bit comb-over higher up. And the line is stark, from full-growth to straggling grey with no blending.

So the options are to leave it all well alone, go for some kind of all-over evening-off, or perhaps try something more exotic.

To be honest, I'm quite keen on the first. I'm old enough to be sufficiently lacking in vanity just to simply ignore it. However, I am starting to notice people's eyes drawn irresistibly to the uneven baldiness and the now very-visible operation scar, and I do like to pass anonymously. I can and do wear a hat when I'm out at the moment, but I hate wearing it indoors, even in shops, and I'm sick of having to empty it every time I go to put it on.

So, the second option, perhaps. Well, as I've said before, I have nothing against the Kojak look. But it only really works well when you're thin or black. I'm neither: in fact, as a bit of a natural chunky monkey recently enhanced by a steroid appetite, I have a vague worry I'll look like an Essex stereotype replete with cranial scarring and toast-rack neck. On the other hand, I love ska music and have some quite nice Ben Sherman gear and newish Doc Martins, so I could trim down to suedehead and go for that look. That might be interesting. Or life-threatening.

The third option? Well, I could shave in both sides for a bit of an Eighties indie thing, but I hated the pale wet tossers who did that back then, so why would I want to join their ranks 25 years after the event? I could go a step further and try the baby Mohawk but, again, it's a bit Eighties and old punks need to have an air of commitment I'm going to lack. 

And there is a more modern approach – I have noticed that the youthful aficionados of hippity-hoppity music are much taken to carving asymmetrical patterns and perhaps the tag of their favourite crew into their cropped crowning glory: I'm thinking something a bit like corn-circles, with the Radio Four logo on one side.

Think it'll work? All suggestions gratefully received.