The sofa saga

I remember the day very well, we were up at stupid o’clock, anxious, nervous, more than a little scared. Thursday December 19 2019 was the day Noel was to have surgery to be rid of that Bastard Cancer. We knew it was going to be a long day. I decided to buy a sofa.

There was a certain method in my madness. For a start, sofa-buying would be a distraction. Noel was to be in surgery all day and I didn’t want to sit around fretting and eating Marmite flatbreads, my binge of choice. Oh my goodness they are crunchy Marmitey heaven, I polish them off a box at a time and hide the empties in next door’s bin, I don’t think she notices, I bury them under the empty dog treat packets.

There was also the post-surgery recovery which the consultant had warned us would be long and require a lot of lying down. Not one to mince words, he told it how it was and it, meaning the surgery, was serious. Noel would need to rest a lot, but on the upside, with all that running, climbing, skiing and healthy eating, he was good protoplasm to work with. Seriously, he said that and it’s now his LinkedIn tagline Noel Akers, Programming Guru – Good Protoplasm to Work With.

What better aid to recovery, then, than a luxurious, squashy sofa, long enough to take Noel’s full 6ft 1in as opposed to our 20-year-old sofa which wasn’t? He could ligg around all day, ministered to by the cats, and me of course. Something lovely to come home to.

So I hot-footed it from the hospital to John Lewis who, according to my extensive research, had some most excellent sofas on offer. OK, so the research wasn’t extensive, I looked on the John Lewis site and saw one I thought would fit Noel.

I could have ordered it online, but where’s the fun in that? I wanted the full sofa shopping experience with swatches and bouncing on the cushions, followed by something tasty and expensive in the cafe, like we used to do in the old days, the days before lockdown. Turned out they didn’t have my sofa on display, so there was no bouncing, just a swatch book to fondle and make my choice. Ten minutes later I was in the cafe, our bank account several hundred pounds lighter, looking in vain on the menu for Marmite flatbreads.

It turns out sofas are made to order, with a lead time of 12 weeks. Ah well, I thought, Noel would still need to to ligg around, it would be something to look forward to as he started his recovery squashed into our old two-seater. But then lockdown and no-one was going anywhere, least of all a delivery driver with our sofa.

In the meantime Noel recovered, he didn’t need to lie down, in fact he got a stand-up desk to do his programming. That’s good protoplasm for you. I forgot what my rather expensive purchase looked like, couldn’t remember the colour, lost the order and receipt and even wondered it I’d dreamt it. I was also slightly worried that it wouldn’t fit through the door.

Finally, six months to the day after the order was placed and on our 20th wedding anniversary it arrived, fitting neatly into the place vacated by the old sofa and now looking like it had always been there. It came with a free mug, in a box, in a cushion, I have no idea why, it’s an upholstery mystery.

Noel can stretch out on it, so can I, so can the cats. It’s fabulous. Marmite flatbread anyone?

Noel's return to parkrun..

We were sitting on the sofa the other night, Noel ranting at something or other on the TV, me multitasking my social media habit, one cat perched precariously on my lap, the other doing what he does best, ignoring us. Noel took a rant break, smiled (yes, smiled) and said he felt like someone who’d been ill, but wasn’t any more, normality was returning, it was time to parkrun.

Noel’s last parkrun was May 18 2019, he ran with me, but he wasn’t feeling himself, something was definitely wrong. A couple of weeks later we knew what it was and the Bastard Cancer journey began. From then on there was no running and very little walking as our wonderful, magnificent, peerless NHS did its bit, first zapping, then chopping the Bastard Cancer out and now healing.

Throughout that time he’d volunteered at parkrun when he could, supported from home when he couldn’t. I would send him photos from the cafe where we would have our post-parkrun coffee. Looking back, he was ill, very ill, but he isn’t any more, he’s now someone who was ill. He’s back and he’s bad.

We suspected that parkrun days would be numbered for everyone as the insidious Covid-19 started to shut down the world around us. So last week he put on his running kit, scraped the none-month-old mud off his trainers, dusted down his barcode, and stood with more than 500 others on the start line at Woodhouse Moor.

We set off together, with Noel intending to walk, though determined to have as much distance in front of the tail walker as possible. Progress was slow, incredibly slow as everyone wanted to welcome him back, everyone wanted to ask how he was, because that’s what happens at parkrun. He even ran for some of it and admitted it felt good. I was smiling so much I thought my cheeks would fall off, though I also wanted to cry, it was very emotional for so many reasons.

It was a personal worst for Noel, though way ahead of the tailwalker, but he didn’t care, this was what he had been looking forward to for so long, a return to parkrun.

This week there is no parkrun, there won’t be one next week and for weeks to come, it’s necessary to combat the global pandemic of Covid-19. But it hasn’t stopped us getting together virtually with our parkrun pals, me the extrovert blabbering away on the video conferencing, him the introvert watching on. We’ll be running, not a parkrun, because that would be stupid, but running somewhere locally, then having a virtual coffee with our parkrun pals. It won’t be the same, at the moment nothing is the same, but it doesn’t take away the fact that Noel isn’t ill any more and he’s parkrun ready when the time comes.

Getting back to normal..

Noel with the model S.E 5A

It’s surprising how far a curse carries and by curse, I mean pottymouth exclamation following a mishap. I find outdoors is best for full-on swear-spreading, making use of the acoustic qualities of, for example, the local woods, preferably with a quarry for the sound to bounce around before coming to a full stop.

My running mojo has been all but dormant for these past few months. I’m fine with solo running, just me, my musings and the mud, but with Bastard Cancer taking up far too much of my headspace and energy for the last nine months, to be honest it’s been a struggle to just function. Though I could still swear.

Thank goodness Noel is getting back to normal. Chemoradiotherapy and surgery are behind us and there’s thumbs up from the Kick Bastard Cancer Up The Butt team of consultants, specialist nurses and associated clinicians, who have prodded, poked, excised, tested and pronounced the cancer gone and the healing process well on the way. Though he does keep announcing his arse hurts, but I think that’s just to get attention. Best to ignore him.

It’ll be the summer before he will be running and climbing again, and unless we head south, very far south, there will be no skiing this year until the winter. However, he’s doing amazing things with Raspberry Pis (he tells me they are amazing, I can’t see how something the size of a matchbox can be a proper computer if it doesn’t have a screen and a keyboard). He’s building model airplanes with care and patience, even when the cats jump in the model box, and, a sure sign that normality is returning, ranting. There are tirades galore, usually aimed at our buffoon of a prime minister and his acolytes, and the fall-out from everything Brexit. Noel is a magnificent ranter, making excellent and creative use of expletives, I’ve missed those exclamations at the TV over those long months of treatment when he wasn’t quite himself. Life was too quiet. Welcome back, Noel.

With a spring back in my step, I’ve scraped the mud off my trail shoes and hit the local Calverley woods. Yes, I actually hit them, hence the cursing. The poor fellow walking about a dozen dogs and carrying two dozen poo bags heard me before he saw me. My swearword of choice is ‘shiiiiiiiiiiit’, and the ‘t’ bounced off the walls and trees, scaring the dogs and requiring more poo bags.

I managed to go down a hole and twist my ankle, it hurt. It hurt so much it required a double ‘shiiiiiiit’. I had to find a sturdy branch to support me, one of the many on the floor after the recent storms, and started to hobble my way back home, feeling very sorry for myself and uttering the odd expletive.

But somehow, as I made my way through the woods, life didn’t feel all that bad. Yes, I’d be out of action for a couple of days, yes my ankle now looks like something from Picasso’s blue period, but considering how shit the past few months had been, overall, it was fine. By just walking back through the woods, I had time to see a woodpecker, nuthatch, jay and any number of robins who helped me on my way with their cheery song, or maybe they were just laughing at the wingless creature with the odd gait. I smiled at huge clumps of snowdrops and tiny daffodils pushing their way through the earth. And I picked up litter.

That’ll all do very nicely, thank you, because life is getting back to normal for us, it’s a new normal, a different normal, but it’s our normal. And Bastard Cancer can go and do one.

Oooo Matron…..!

When I was a lass, you could get a fine and dandy nurse outfit from the toy stall at Dewsbury Market for half a crown (that’s 12.5p in new money and about £2.25 today….). It came flat-packed complete with white apron, neat little upside-down watch with the time permanently at ten to two, or was it twenty past four? The blue cape had a red trim, and cardboard hat with a red cross on the front. There were even elasticated little white frilly cuffs that seemed to have no practical use at all as my arms were too skinny, they just fell off them.

The most disappointing kit bit was the little plastic first aid box full of plastic bandages. They looked like dried-up sausage rolls, but not as much use. It had various bottles which wouldn’t open and an eye bath. What eight-year-old nurse EVER used an eye bath? I added a needle and thread from my grandma’s sewing kit, a couple of sticking plasters and swiped a pair of nice, sharp, pointy-ended scissors from the kitchen drawer, in case I needed to perform surgery. My dolls had a constant look of fear on their faces.

It was all very well and kept me amused, but it wasn’t as good as my football kit. And given the choice, I’d rather have taken the professional footballer route that nursing. Nothing wrong with nursing, but football’s more fun and lucrative if you make it as a professional. That was never going to happen to me, I was an enthusiastic dribbler but terrible kicker. Much to the relief of my parents and my dolls, I opted for journalism, so I could report on health and football, which seemed much easier.

Nurses uniforms have definitely changed over the years. The outfits are far more practical, with no capes or frilly cuffs in sight, and of course trousers for all. Hatti Jaques would be scandalised. I imagine the toy stall at Dewsbury Market must have to have a special section for hospital wear now.

Too many years and dress sizes have gone by to hunt out that old uniform, although I’m sure the frilly cuffs would fit now. But I have had to reprieve my nursing role for one very important patient. The Bastard Cancer has been shown the door, but there’s a lot of healing to go on. Stitches to knit together, wounds to heal.

Without going into too much detail (though I do have photos) Noel has a wound that needs packing dressing regularly. I have to confess that the first time I saw it I nearly fainted, but was then fascinated as I could see deep inside where there were little men and women filling the hole and making it better, at least that’s what it looks like, maybe I was hallucinating. Noel is delighted that he can’t see it, and has declined the offer of looking at the photos, even though I’ve offered.

Mandy, the wonderful practice nurse at our local surgery has been very attentive, and gave me an armful of dressings, packing and even a pair of sharp scissors, to do the necessaries at home, should the need arise.

Unfortunately for Noel, before that need arose, we had an unscheduled trip to the surgical assessment unit at Jimmy’s. Units like this are extensions of A and E, with referrals from GPs, and registrars doing the consultations. There’s ten hours of my life I won’t get back as we waited for the infection or no infection verdict. They came down on the no infection side, thanks to George, one of Noel’s registrars from his last stay. The relief of seeing a familar face, knowing they know you, was immense, especially when it started with a ‘So what brings you back here, then?’ said with a smile. I wanted to hug him, so did Noel.

By coincidence, the letter from the oncologist arrived that day, which confirmed the ‘no evidence of nodal metastases’ (it hasn’t spread) and ‘clear circumferential resection margin’ (they’ve cut the bastard cancer out and thrown it into the fires of Hell). So this little hospital trip felt minor, if inconvenient. Three steps forward, one step back, but still progressing.

We’re back to packing and dressing now, with Mandy doing the main work, but Nurse Anne is ready and waiting, fully trained, fully equipped, with proper plasters and funky blue gloves, but sadly without the nurse’s uniform. Maybe I’ll have a trip to Dewsbury Market – for old time’s sake.

I hope I never see you again..

I hope I never see you again,’, she said it with a smile and she meant it. The oncologist shook Noel’s hand and wished him and his cancer-free lymph nodes farewell. The day had suddenly got better by one million per cent and a major celebration was in order, preferably involving chips. I’m cheap to keep.

Of course with Bastard Cancer you can never say never, but that 20-minute conversation with Dr Cooper was as good as handing him a badge saying ‘Cancer Free’.

We had stepped into the hospital earlier with some trepidation. A phone call from the booking service on Tuesday had summoned us for a meeting two days later with no explanation as to why. Noel didn’t bat an eyelid, I had a mini meltdown.

I don’t think there’s one day since June 24 2019, when the consultant told us, ‘it’s bad news, I’m afraid’ that the word cancer hasn’t been in my thoughts or on my lips, usually preceded by ‘bastard’ and sometimes, when I was low on my swearing quota, ‘fucking bastard cancer, the bastard’.

From June until December, the journey has been about surgery, zapping and poisoning the tumour and then more surgery to remove the shrunken tumour. Now that surgery is done, we hoped that the journey would be smoother, a road to recovery, picking up running shoes, climbing harness and eventually skis, though that will have to wait until next season.

The pathologists have done their bit, scouring the homeless tumour for bad cells. Of course they found bad cells, that’s why they were cut out, but there were none where they shouldn’t have been. None. They had removed 20 lymph nodes and they were clear. CLEAR. Ha ha, take that, bastard cancer.

So the meeting was to tell us that there was no need for any more chemotherapy. I couldn’t believe my ears, I was in danger of grinning so much my head would fall off. Noel was in mortal peril of actually smiling, it doesn’t happen very often, but this merited a twitching of the corners of the mouth. Hey, make the most of it.

Even though the weather was dull when we went in and when we came out, it seemed somehow brighter. The multi-storey car park glowed inside and didn’t smell of wee. Our every turn to the exit was a pleasure. Life was good. Life is good.

Noel fancied something a little more exotic than chips, as far as I was concerned he could have what the hell he wanted, it was his day. So off we went to a favourite haunt, the Mill Kitchen at Farsley where he had cous cous (so good, they named it twice), broccoli and tomato salad with frittata, while I tucked into a power waffle with quinoa and chia seeds. Tomorrow we’re having chips. But there’s the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that……..

Kindness kicks Bastard Cancer’s butt

Noel and the chocolate Santa

It takes a lot to prise Christmas chocolate from a child’s hands, hey, it’s hard enough for an adult, but sometimes it’s better to give than receive, and that’s just what young Dominic did.

Dominic is the son of a colleague, now friend, who heard that Noel had spent Christmas and the new year in hospital. While the rest of us were tucking into our turkey (vegetarian options are available, but not as alliterative) Noel was nil by mouth, they couldn’t even add any flavour to the colourless liquid that was going directly into his veins.

There was no Christmas pud, no shots of something warming, unless you count the morphine, and definitely no chocolate. In fact it was more than ten days before he tasted proper food. The small carton of unbranded yoghurt he had for breakfast on the 11th day was officially the best he’d ever tasted. For the next few days, everything was the best, even the stewed tea, though Noel likes his food and won’t hear a word against the meals he was subsequently served at Jimmy’s.

But no matter how well you’re treated in hospital (and he was treated VERY well), it’s not home, and Christmas there isn’t the same. To a youngster, that must be the worst news in the world, especially as there are no chimneys for Santa to come down.

Dominic was quite sad when he heard that Noel, who he didn’t know and has never met, had a food-free Christmas. As he took down the decorations, instead of scoffing the chocolate Santa, he asked his mum to give it to Noel, along with a few other sweets.

It’s this sort of kindness that has helped this Bastard Cancer journey a little easier. So many friends and friends of friends have offered help, we’ve had meals made, errands run, shoulders offered to cry on, cards with silly messages, piles of books and magazines and toys for the cats who of course took one look at them and walked the other way. Cats, eh?

We’ve been on this journey six months now. I’ve said before that it’s not a battle, because it’s not a war, though I do like to talk about kicking Bastard Cancer’s but, especially making use of very naughty swear words, it just makes me feel better! But we’re not fighting, winning or losing, we’re moving on and looking forward to new adventures in our lives and the Bastard Cancer can go and do one.

Thank you to everyone who has been and continues to be kind to us. We’ll take that kindness and pass it on to others. That’s how it works.

parkrun volunteering..from a hospital bed

The wonderful thing about parkrun volunteering is that even when you’re not there, you can be there.

Since soon after the Bastard Cancer showed its fat ugly face (the bastard), Noel has been missing his weekly parkrun at Woodhouse Moor, but fortunately not his parkrun friends. He’s been in hospital over Christmas and the new year, already feeling better for having the damned tumour taken out and dealt with.

As parkrunners know, this time of year we reach Peak parkrun. As well as the usual Saturday 5km runs, there are extras on Christmas and New Year’s Day, in fact January 1 is the only day of the year you can run TWO parkruns.

As Run Director on New Year’s Day it was also my job to sort out the results. We actually broke our attendance record that day, 748 runners all wanting to know how well they’ve done on the morning after the night before. That’s quite a job. Fortunately, Noel is a whizz with results processing and even more fortunately, there’s very good wifi at Jimmy’s. And seeing as he had a bit of time on his hands, he offered to do the results, from his hospital bed.

I arrived fresh from my run, bearing the mud-stained kit bag full of all the parkrun equipment. I don’t think any of the staff noticed the mud… The beeping of the various medical machines was drowned out by the bipping and beeping of the timers and scanners as Noel uploaded them to his laptop, waved a magic wand and, hey presto, the results were done!

Noel volunteered to volunteer, it’s something he loves doing and he loves parkrun. He’s very much part of the team, the quiet one behind the loud one. He’s missed being there and everyone’s missed him, I can’t even begin to tell you how how much I miss him when he’s not there. In fact he’s had so many messages of support and encouragement from the parkrun community since he started this Bastard Cancer journey he’s been humbled and overwhelmed and so have I.

He’ll be home soon and wants to get back to parkrun as soon as he’s able. He’ll start with volunteering, but it’s the running he really wants to do. Lucy, the specialist colorectal nurse, confessed she’d not been to parkrun for some time, but said she would be there for Noel’s return to running. I strongly suspect she won’t be the only one.

Hit it with sticks, bastard cancer

parkrun #300 Thanks to Julie Haddon for the photo

When the consultant asked if we had any questions, I had one. What, I wanted to know, would happen to Noel’s Bastard Cancer when he cut it out? Because I’d very much like to give it a piece of my mind.

First of all, I’d like to ask it what the hell it thought it was doing, throwing its cells around inside my husband who eats healthily, exercises, has never smoked and hardly drinks. Naturally there would be swearing and name-calling, all from me, various configurations or bastard and fucking, it wasn’t going to get a word in edgeways. The bastard.

I’m not a violent person, but in this case I would make an exception. I had well-advanced plans to hit the excised tumour with sticks. Big whippy sticks that will whoosh and swoosh as they they smash the cells. I’d knock it about a bit, knock it about a lot, smash it against the wall, scrape it off, jump on it in my massive, heavy ski boots, hear it squelch, wrap it up in a copy of the Sun and burn it in a bonfire on the allotment. The bastard. That’d learn it.

Of course, this was only playing in my head, I said no such thing to the consultant, he had better things to do with his time than listen to my rantings. He had a long day ahead and at the end of it, the bastard cancer would be gone. Cut out, thrown into the fires of the allotment, for all I care.

It was a major operation, consultants don’t mince words and they don’t sugar coat messages, thank goodness, we want reality, not fantasy. So when he said it was a Major Procedure, then we listened. It would take a full day, he gave us the details, which would have been fascinating had it not been for Noel being the subject. We met the plastic surgeon, who with the best Irish accent ever, told us what she would take from here and how it would be put to good use elsewhere. These people are amazing.

The consultant called me afterwards, late into the evening to tell me how it had gone. It had gone well and the bastard cancer was chopped as far as he could tell. There were no nasty surprises. He didn’t swear, I did it for him, at that point I told him about the hitting it with sticks thing, but it was only in my head. There was a collective sigh of relief as social media passed on this good news. So many friends were holding their breath too.

It meant Christmas this year was very different, Noel woke up in hospital on Christmas Day looking like he’s been hit with a plate of spaghetti, there were wires and tubes everywhere. His Christmas dinner was in one of those tubes, no matter, we’ll enjoy the solid, tasty version together as soon as we can.

The one thing we always look forward to doing together is running the Christmas Day parkrun. It just happened to be my 300th, so I dressed demurely, OK, so I put on as much colour as I could find, then added lights, and ran it for Noel. Afterwards, I headed over to the hospital, making sure not to trail Woodhouse Moor mud into the ward.

My Christmas dinner and entertainment (I won a prize, I like prizes!) was courtesy of one of my many parkrun friends who have been the kindest, most supportive, best of the best friends during this bastard cancer journey. The journey continues, another couple of weeks in hospital and recovery will be six months at least.

Noe’s specialist nurse is a parkrunner, she’s not done it for a while, but promises to join him on his comeback parkrun. Now that’ll be a great day, I might even make it swear-free.

Surgery school

Noel does his Surgery School homework…..chocolate….

Packing our newly-sharpened pencils and clean jotters in our satchels, Noel and I skipped off to school, an exclusive school where the class was very small and, more importantly, tea, biscuits and a spirometer were on offer.

It turned out we didn’t need the pencils and jotters, but the spirometer came in handy at the Surgery School, which is a pre-surgery talk-through-the-scary-things session run by colorectal nurse specialists at St James’.

Even if you’ve had surgery before, a theatre appointment with the surgeon, anaesthetist and their teams can cause a wobbly bottom lip and wobbly other things. There’s so many unknowns, starting with where to park, right through to the conundrum of whether or not to wear your best knickers (that’s a ‘no’, the surgery package comes with free net knickers and matching gown)

The colorectal nursing team found they were being asked the same questions by anxious patients, so decided to put all those questions and answers together into one place, and make sure it was a little while before surgery.

That place was a classroom in the Sir Robert Ogden MacMillan Centre where, cups of tea in hand, prepared by the volunteers who had already given us a warm welcome, we joined two others who are having surgery next week for Surgery School.

Of course it wasn’t like being back at school, but there was definitely homework. The physio told us how to get and keep in shape, the dietitian what to eat and how to put on weight post surgery (Noel liked the chocolate and ice cream options) the pharmacist advised on dealing with pain and Ann, the lovely nurse who had pulled it altogether gave us some of the details we needed to know. What a brilliant idea.

As well as the homework, they were all given a spirometer, which looks like something from a Mouse Trap game, with tubes, balls and cylinders. It’s to help practice deep lung-filled breathing.

Noel has surgery on Thursday to remove the Bastard Cancerâ„¢. I understand they’ll be testing him on what he’s learned at surgery school and that marks may be awarded. He’ll have plenty of time to improve his score and maybe send the little ball from the spirometer into orbit as he’ll be in hospital over Christmas and the new year.

I will of course be taking festive cheer from Chez Akers to the hospital each day and making sure Noel’s doing his homework. There’s been a request from Heidi to be smuggled into the ward so she can have a massive fuss, as Noel is her favourite, she just about tolerates me, but I think that will mean detention, and no-one wants to stay in hospital any longer than they have to, no matter how lovely the staff are. And they are lovely.

A message on my coat

If clothes could speak, what would they say? It turns out my newly-repurposed coat is as potty-mouthed as I am, and has a few choice words about Bastard Cancer, though it’s a bit more subtle about it.

I didn’t set out to make a sweary coat, I was just casting around for ideas. The beautiful blue wool-and-cashmere coat I’d bought from Reiss many years ago was taking up space in the wardrobe, waiting to be worn again, but always passed over in favour of a something else. Being a Yorkshire lass brought up on waste-not-want-not, I couldn’t get rid, it had cost me a pretty penny. It would come in, one day, I told my frugal self.

That day came this week. In a flurry of creativity I took my dressmaking shears to it and the coat became a jacket. Obviously I couldn’t stop there, it had to be almost unrecognisable from the original, a bit like one of the Great British Sewing Bee challenges.

Creativity needs a spark, a message or both. My underlying vexation with Bastard Cancer surged to the surface after a lovely friend died from the bastardy bastard. Just what the hell?

Sue hadn’t let it get in the way of living her most wonderful and fun-filled life. I didn’t know her well, but when I did spend time with her, I was a happier person for it.

She’d carried on running at parkrun and all the local races we all love to take part in. When she couldn’t run any more, she walked, when she couldn’t walk, she had a sporty wheelchair with go-faster stripes, and smashed the Leeds 10k in July, pushed along by her friends who laughed all the way. You couldn’t help laughing with Sue.

My original plan was to add patterns to my new coat in coloured fabric, but the news of Sue, along with Noel’s ongoing cancer journey and many others I know of, made me want to send a message to the bastard to f*ck off. Naturally I didn’t want to offend unsuspecting coat-readers so jumbled up the letters and sewed them on, taking care to make sure that they didn’t inadvertently spell other profanities. I think I managed.

It was finished in time for Sue’s funeral, so I wore it with my Climbers Against Cancer hat. I think she would have approved.