“Bloody hell Miss, your leg is huge!” Clearly, this was going to be another one of those lessons that I would talk about over lunchtime in the staffroom! Little did I know that this was a story I’d be retelling many times over the next few months.
Turning from my place in front of the whiteboard and glancing down at my right leg, I addressed the rather ‘vocal’ student, “Erm, yes, I know, thanks! It’s because of the old lady Arthritis in my left knee isn’t it – it means that my right calf is now rather ‘hench’!” I do like to keep up with new words, my attempt to give myself a bit more cred’ with the students I teach.
“Nah Miss, it’s grown bigger since I started in your class in September,” it was now February, “I think you’d best get to the Drs.”
After promising to make an appointment, I was finally able to get back to teaching the lesson.
Seven months, two ultrasound scans and an MRI later, (very inconvenient things, MRI’s – you have to remove piercings AND they can warm up tattoo ink but thankfully old 1980’s style tooth fillings are not affected!) I’m back in the staffroom on the second day of the new school year, making phone calls home to reassure parents that their sweet little Year 7’s are still smiling and, dare I say it, even seem to be enjoying finding their way around, when I remember that I need to call the hospital eighty five miles away to get the results of the biopsy I had had on the last Thursday of the summer holidays. A summer that had been spent researching and reading everything I could about these very common soft tissue tumours and the incredibly rare cancerous version called Sarcoma.
“It’s malignant,” the nurse told me, “You have a Myxoid Liposarcoma, but it will respond well to treatment.” Hugs went around the staffroom as I hung up and what a huge sense of relief I felt – OFSTED were expected to arrive any day – phew, at least I’d escape that!
Arrangements were then made for my treatment to begin the following week; five weeks of radiotherapy, weeks of resting as things began to shrink, followed by surgery and weeks of recovery. Oh, and the bonus card – free prescriptions for the rest of my life! I’m determined to put in as many years as possible now!
Whilst driving to my first appointment with an oncologist I felt a sharp pain in my right calf, the first time I had felt anything untoward in that leg since I knocked it when I was getting out of bed one morning at least three years ago – I had simply avoided getting out of bed that way again – my immediate thought was ‘Oooooh, Charlie doesn’t like the fact that he’s been found out! He’s decided to put up a final fight!’ The name Charlie then stuck – somehow it was easier to deal with if I gave my unwanted hitchhiker a human identity. So, I sit down in a small room, at a hospital forty five miles away from home, with my assigned oncologist, and she asks, “Do you know why you’re here?” Hang on a second, did she really just ask me that? Was she for real? It must be a trick question!
“Erm,” I hesitated, what was she expecting me to say in response? Best just go for the direct answer I suppose, “Because I’ve got cancer?”
More questions followed and it became clear to my oncologist that I’d read every single scrap of information that I could find – she was impressed to say the least – apparently the majority of people that have received ‘it might be cancer’ or a confirmed diagnosis of the ‘Big C’ simply bury their head in the sand and are led by the specialists. I, on the other hand, wanted to know the worst case scenario so that I could prepare – good news would then be a bonus and, if it was all of my worst fears rolled into one, I would at least know what I was likely to up against.
Back home, I told my two teenagers that I would be getting a free NHS tattoo – perhaps a series of dots around the area so that the therapy radiographers would know where to zap – my intention was to join the dots and have ‘cancer woz ‘ere’ tattooed graffiti style – it would, of course have to be punctuated properly, and perhaps even spelt correctly as I do, after all, teach English! I have no idea why the kids didn’t like the idea!
The following week I was back at the hospital, measured up and fitted with a boot thing that would stop me from moving about during the zapping process. Finally it was time for the tattoo! I was actually quite excited! It was all over and done with in the blink of an eye – I looked down at my knee where I had felt the needle pierce the skin, all I had was a single blue dot that looked like a blackhead spot! Tattoo idea completely ruined by the National Health Service!
Tattoo idea number two soon began to grow in my mind – a gravestone with the words, Rest In Pieces Charlie etched on it. Yes, I’d named the cancer – well, he’d been there, lurking around in my calf for at least three years until he was ‘found out’ by that fabulous student of mine! Off I went to book in for the inking session, passing by a newsagent and glancing at the front page headline of a newspaper – ‘REST IN PIECES’ it said – that was the line I wanted to show that ‘Charlie’ had been well and truly obliterated – but this RIP was in response to the gravestone of a very well-known 1970/80’s children’s tv star being smashed up after the stars terrible crimes had been discovered. Thank you so very much to The Sun, idea number two well and truly stymied. I’m pleased to say that tattoo idea number three was successful! Three funeral lilies – my favourite flower, and also quite apt as they would signify the demise of Charlie – in a roughly tied bouquet, with the word Charlie at the base of the stems, taking up most of my outer right calf.
Halfway through treatment I decided to find out what Charlie might look like – he was a myxoid liposarcoma – Google really does know everything! Obviously lipo means fat – as in liposuction. Now, I realise that I am a woman of size (the polite way to say fat), yet, from the knee down I am actually quite thin! The cheek of it! As for myxoid – this is the really gross part – it means mucus – yes, as in snot – I’d had a huge bogey growing in my leg for the last three years! Think of the poor surgeon who was faced with a monster bogey as he opened up my leg!
Was left with a very impressive wound – after all, I had lost a chunk of gastrocnemius muscle the size of two fists – ran the length of my inner leg, from knee to an inch above the ankle – held together with thirty two staples as it healed.
Getting up from my armchair just five weeks after surgery and I notice a puddle on the floor, bottom of jeans are wet and my leg, that had been steadily swelling since the surgery, felt much less ‘tight’ – yep, the top centimetre of my scar had popped open due to the volume of lymph fluid that had collected in the cavity and had been unable to drain away through my tissues as they had been knitted together into a solid mass by the radiotherapy. I was so scared! Back into hospital four days later as major infection had set in. Eighty five miles away from my two teenagers, who were left to fend for themselves, my brother and his family and my friends. Three weeks of hospital confinement and isolation. The longest three weeks of my life. Odeama was by far the worst thing to have to come to terms with as it would affect me on and off for the rest of my life and, to me it was something that only affected old people – I was just forty two – far too young for a lifetime of surgical stockings!
Here I am now, back at work (minus the rogue bogey), anticipating the arrival of OFSTED and having to juggle work, home and cancer fatigue. A long-time friend that has lived in New Zealand for the last ten years, left me a comment on one of my Facebook status’ that referred to the tiredness, ‘Kia Kaha,’ she said, ‘stay strong.’ ‘A Maori saying that was the message that was sent to the people in Christchurch after the devastating earthquake of February 2011’, that she said, seemed appropriate for me as I am ‘the strongest woman (she has) ever known’. That touched me greatly, hence the tattoo on the inside of my arm – to remind me of how strong we human beings sometimes have to be.
If there is a lesson to be learnt from this story , it could be; ‘smile in the face of adversity’ or as the Americans say ‘if life gives you lemons, make lemonade’; the Scouts and Brownies ‘always be prepared’; to add a slightly different meaning to Sir Francis Bacon’s ‘knowledge is power’ or, for me personally, the lesson is this – Teenagers sometimes do know best!