Chapter 40: Happiness and Concordant Coastlines

“Happiness can exist only in acceptance.”
George Orwell

After two weeks of cabozantinib and dexamethasone things are still going remarkably well. I have an appointment with Dr. Wheater today to see how he thinks I’m doing but I’m confident he will be pleased with my progress as my energy levels remain high, I’m constantly ravenous and my exasperating night sweats are gradually decreasing. Indeed, I’m feeling reasonably hopeful that the cabozantinib is doing its thing, but best of all, I’m feeling rather happy at the moment.

Whilst I’m on the subject of happiness, I got a message on Facebook Messenger the other day from Dr. Dean Burnett, author of the best selling book, The Idiot Brain. I’ve known Dean for a few years now, we have acquired a rather agreeable habit of bumping into each other at science festivals. Dean mentioned that he is currently writing a new book, coincidently on happiness, and I presume from his familiar witty and erudite neurological perspective. I called Dean up on Skype to find out a little more. He is currently writing about happiness at various stages of life including end of life and whilst reading my cancer blog he thought I might be able to help out with a few thoughts on happiness at the end of life. Hopefully I can so I jotted down a few thoughts on happiness to send off to him. Dean has reworked some of my comments into something a lot more articulate for part of the final chapter of his new book, but I hope his publishers don’t mind too much if I publish some of my original comments on happiness here while we wait patiently for my next clinic with Dr. Wheater.

When I was told that my cancer had come back and spread and that it was inoperable and terminal, happiness is not the emotion that best described how I felt. I felt cheated. I was only 49 and there was so much more I was looking forward to in life, especially after working hard and getting myself in a relatively comfortable position in preparation to enjoy my retirement. I never felt particularly angry or that I needed to blame something or someone, just a deep sense of unfairness at the universe’s complete and utter indifference to being, and I have to admit, a certain amount of self pity for a while too. I am however well over a year on from being given my 18-month sentence and I’m actually feeling quite different about things now. In theory I should be feeling worse, if the initial 18-month estimate on my life expectancy is accurate, I should only have a few months left to go by now, yet I’m feeling happier and more optimistic now than I was last year.

Although I think my new daily drug drill has been the catalyst for instigating the return of happiness, I think there are many other psychological and physical factors that are also key to my happiness. I have been off sick for the vast majority of the last year, and whilst there are days when I’ve been in a lot of pain and couldn’t motivate myself to do much, there are many more days when I am able to make the most of the fact that I’m off work and enjoy my time at home with my wife and family. One of the things I initially felt cheated out of was my retirement. I’d always had a bit of a fear of dying before I retire and not getting those relaxing months and years of lying in and just doing whatever it is you fancy doing all day. Since being off work sick I have in effect almost had a year of pseudo-retirement, so I’ve not entirely missed out after all, and hopefully there’s still a little more to come. I’ve had some splendid long hot days sat in my garden, I’ve had plenty of lazy and relaxing walks along the river bank with my dog, I’ve been able to listen to my records and I’ve been able to watch all five days of the first test at Lords without worrying about having write up this week management report or complete a cost/benefit analysis on suitable software test automation tools.

Another of my concerns when initially diagnosed was not seeing my children fully grow up and have their own children. My time off work has also meant that I have been fortunate enough to spend a fair bit of time with my children recently and even if I don’t see them married and ultimately settled I know they will both be absolutely fine. My son has now happily settled into his first term at Loughborough university, there was a point when I thought I might die before even knowing which university he would attend. My daughter is now in her final year at Durham university and as my health is currently holding out I’m quite optimistic that I might even still be around to see her graduation ceremony at Durham Cathedral next summer. An event that seemed too distant to even set my sights of when I was first diagnosed. I may well not be around to to see everything that I wanted to, but I have seen more than enough to be secure in the knowledge they are both doing so well and have great futures ahead of them.

Without wishing to sound to immodest, I also always had a sneaking suspicion that I was quite well loved by one or two people. Having terminal cancer has however demonstrated to me beyond doubt that I am in fact loved by a great many people, friends and family alike. People often don’t bother to tell you this to you when they don’t think your about to die. However, when your life is in the balance people seem to make a much greater effort to tell you what you really mean to them while they still can. Many people have said some extremely nice things to me over the last year and this also makes me very happy.

My illness has also made me book holidays and do things that I probably wouldn’t have bothered doing otherwise and may well have put off indefinitely. I’ve had more holidays and weekends away in the last twelve months than I had the previous five years and I’ve not had the stress of the work I was leaving behind, or coming back to, to sully my holidays. I’ve even finally been to the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides this year to buy myself some tweed, I’d been meaning to do that for decades.

At just 50, there are many more things I’d have liked to have done but I can nonetheless look back at and feel very proud and happy at the way in which my life has panned out. I have no regrets for any of the major life decisions I have made which also makes it easier to come to terms with my ultimate demise.

Finally, of course I have no fear of death itself to offset my happiness. Fortunately, my mind has remained joyfully unpolluted from the nonsensical notions of whimsical afterlives and a righteous religious reckoning featuring my divine sentencing by a rather jealous and egotistical deity. My happiness is therefore not impeded by the inherent and wicked Christian fears proselytised into the uncritical minds of those simply seeking solace from the realisation of their own ephemerality.

I finally hear my name called and I shuffle into the clinic to see my consultant oncologist, but alas it’s not Dr. Wheater today. I talk my substitute oncologist through my last two weeks and as she is happy that I am progressing well on my current medication. She prescribes me another two week’s worth of drugs and books me back in for another appointment in a fortnights time so they can continue to closely monitor me. As things are going so well, I ask if it may not be possible to prescribe me a month’s worth of chemotherapy and steroids instead. She is unhappy to do so without checking with Dr. Wheater and nips off to interrupt him with my question. When she returns, she says that Dr. Wheater would prefer to just prescribe me two week’s worth off drugs and then check on my progress again. It certainly seems as though he may still be anticipating more intense side effects from the chemotherapy than I have had so far, but I’ll worry about that if and when it kicks off.

In the meantime, I’ve got yet another holiday to go on. At he beginning of the year we booked a rather nice thatched cottage on the Devon/Dorset border with our friends Anthony and Lorraine for our annual October half term week get away. However, following our less than successful trip to Lindisfarne in the summer and my subsequent operation and painfully slow recovery, I was worried that I’d be in no fit state to actually make this holiday. As luck would have it though I’m feeling rather chipper at the moment and quite ready for a change of scenery and, assuming that I don’t suddenly break out with a load of chemotherapy side effects, it appears as though we may have actually timed this holiday a little better this time.

After two months lying about on the sofa doing precisely bugger all, I’m delighted to discover the following week that my body has not entirely packed up after all. My legs are a little reluctant to get over a few of the more awkward styles but after an experimental dog walk on the first day of our holiday, it turns out that I’m able to walk a little further than I had expected. We are therefore able to schedule a busy week of visits to local attractions and delightful walks along the Devon and Dorset Jurassic coastline gathering a few fossils on the way. I’m even well enough to make the spectacular cliff top walk from Lulworth Cove to Durdle Door on an absolutely stunning hot autumn day.

Durdle Door, Dorset
My week away has reminded once again of how important it is to make the most of my remaining time, so whilst things are going well I’ve booked up a few more excursions including a stay at a rather nice castle in Durham so we can pop up and visit the girl, another cheeky down trip to Cornwall to see my old friend John and, best of all, a few days in Disneyland Paris when my children both come home from university just before Christmas. Bring it on.