A cautionary tale – facing mortality and the work-life balance

Back at the end of July last year, the day before we set off on our annual summer road trip to our house in the Languedoc, my wife, who had left for work a couple of minutes earlier rushed back into the house to tell me that her car engine was on fire! Not the best of news to hear especially as it was her car that we had booked on to the Chunnel and Car Train ๐Ÿ˜ฆ  As she had only got a couple of metres I volunteered to push it back into the parking bay, a task initially hampered somewhat by the non-release of the handbrake. To cut a long story short, and not to dwell on the exchange between my wife and I, the car was safely re-parked and my smaller car pressed into service for the trip to our French house. 

I had, in the throes of pushing the car felt something โ€˜popโ€™ and developed a pain in the mid-thoracic region, which I initially attributed to a strained muscle.  The pain was still with me two days later when we arrived in Paris to drop our car off at Paris Bercy Auto Train terminal and enjoy a couple of days sightseeing. I also started to feel a bit tired and my appetite was not as healthy as it usually was when facing French cuisine.  By the time we reached Vinca my appetite was a mere shadow of itself and I was feeling distinctly weak and feeble (feek and weable as we say in the family).  I also noticed that (those of you of a nervous disposition might want to skip this bit), my stool looked like molten tarmac.  I concluded that it wasnโ€™t a strained rib or a muscle causing me pain, but an upper gastro-intestinal bleed.  Having being brought up in a household where going to the doctor was a last resort* and despite having a pretty good command of French, I felt that my medical French was not up to discussing my bowel movements, so decided to give it aa day or two to see what happened. Sure enough after a couple of days my appetite returned, the pain had disappeared, my stool was normal and I no longer felt dizzy after climbing the stairs.  I told  myself that everything was fine and enjoyed the rest of our break.  Three weeks later we were back in the UK, and after a bit of internal debate I broke the habit of a lifetime and booked an appointment with my GP.  After listening to my story, she referred me to the local hospital for an endoscopy to see what might have caused the bleed. I wonโ€™t dwell on what an endoscopy is like, but if you do have one I recommend that you take up the offer of the sedative ๐Ÿ™‚ The endoscopy revealed that I had Barrettโ€™s oesophagus, (caused by years of untreated acid reflux**) and a suspicious area from which the consultant*** took a biopsy.  It turned out that I had early stage oesophageal cancer, which came as a bit of a shock.  I was initially booked in to have my oesophagus removed, which as he said might seem to be like taking a sledgehammer to crack a walnut but would give me pretty much close to a 100% chance of being alive in five years time. These are odds with which I am willing to live ๐Ÿ™‚

My consultant surgeonโ€™s sketch of my cancer and of the proposed treatment, which involves massive thoracic and abdominal surgery.

I was scheduled for the operation in early January but then the surgical team decided that as it was early stage that they could try a less invasive procedure and go in via the mouth and pretty much scoop and suck the tumour out. This would involve a much shorter time under anaesthetic and only a day or so in hospital. This seemed a good idea to me and so they went ahead and removed the tumour.  I had a week or so when it was incredibly painful to swallow anything solid; chocolate mousse, panna cotta, rice pudding, mashed potato and mince were fine and soup as long as it had no tomato in it.  I also managed to lose a kilogram, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a weight loss programme. I was then supposed to be monitored frequently to check that all was well, but along came the dreaded virus and I wasnโ€™t scanned until August when, despite having no symptoms, it turned out that the tumour was not only back, but bigger (4 cm).  The surgical team decided that the best option would to be put me on pre-operative chemotherapy. They decided on quite an aggressive regime (FLOT) as I was, surprisingly fit; one of the disturbing things about my cancer is that I have had no symptoms.

My chemotherapy details.

To facilitate this I was fitted with a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC line), which was quite an experience but totally painless.

My apparatus โ€“ I was surprised at how quickly it became a part of everyday life, although unfortunately I developed a blood clot in my sub-clavian vein, which means injecting myself in the stomach with tinzaparin soiudum every day.  This is, or so  I was told, quite a common side-effect of the PICC line.

The overnight infusion pump โ€“ the main problem, where to put it when in bed, under the pillow, tucked next to your tummy orโ€ฆ.

As I mentioned earlier, the tumour has not caused me any discernible problems, the treatment, in particular the chemotherapy, has, although I have been fairly resistant and not needed the extra anti-nausea tablets or those for constipation and diarrhoea. I have, however, suffered considerable hair loss, most of my head hair, except for the grey ones fell out within the first three weeks so I am now left with a grey fuzz.  My very bushy (and not very popular with my wife) eyebrows are a shadow of their former selves, my famous entomological beard is almost non-existent and my nostrils have no hair left at all.   My body hair, in the main, is still there, although my armpits and my scrotum are as smooth as smooth ๐Ÿ™‚ The biggest physical effect was a reduction in my energy levels which meant that my lunchtime walks became much shorter as the chemotherapy progressed.  Now, after five weeks without, I am back to my usual walking speed and distance (5 โ€“ 7 km daily, with the occasional 10K thrown in for good measure) and hopefully, am now in a robust enough state to deal with the rigours of my imminent surgery.

Before moving on to my work life balance I must thank all the NHS staff I have encountered over the last year or so, whom despite being grossly overworked and underpaid, have been unflaggingly cheerful and helpful. I am especially grateful to the specialist staff of the Lingen Davies Chemotherapy Day Unit for their exemplary care and attention and for inadvertently, providing me with an entomological bonus ๐Ÿ™‚ We are so lucky to still have a National Health Service that is relatively free. We must look after it.

Bonus entomological display at the Lingen Davies Chemotherapy Day Unit, Royal Shrewsbury Hospital.

I am also grateful to family, friends and colleagues, some of whom are also friends, for their support during these trying times.

I wrote about the academic work life balance a couple of years ago when I semi-retired, so this seems a good time to revisit the subject.  I wrote that I hoped reducing my hours would have an equivalent effect on the time I would spend on the bits of the job that I dislike such as administration, marking, and committee meetings. Unfortunately, except for a couple of committees, nothing really changed, except that my workload allocation went from 113% to 105% :-). Before the virus, changed all our lives, I had adopted a working pattern of 100% at the university for a term, then a month in France at our French house, then back to the university for a term and then back to France and repeat. This had the advantage of keeping me away from the office and putting me in a completely different environment in which I was able to work on my alternative projects โ€“ the books. Covid and my treatment has of course, changed this and I have been confined to a single location, which has meant me trying to remember not to do office work (albeit remotely) two days every week, which is not as easy as it seems.  It did have an unexpected bonus, much more time in the countryside and the opportunity to get closer to Nature, something I hadn’t being doing as much of as I should have been. As the end of summer approached, I decided that the time to retire officially would be when I became eligible for my state pension in March 2021, and, not without some qualms, submitted my retirement forms accordingly.   If the university feel fit to offer me a new part-time contract (nothing has so far materialised), I would be willing to accept it as long as it involved no administrative role or the setting and marking of exams and assignments, the three things I hate most about academia. What I have missed enormously is the contact with the students and the opportunity to stand in front of them and expound, or should that be profess, about entomology to a live audience.  I hope, that one day, in the not too distant future, I will be able to do so again.

Wish me luck and I hope to be back on line sometime fairly soon.

I’m out the other side – seems to have gone wll, but I am a bit sore and two weeks ahead of hospital to look forward to

*my sister almost died of meningitis when she was two, because my father thought she just had a bit of a temperature

**if you suffer from acid reflux more than once a month, I recommend you to go and see your GP immediately

***coincidentally he did his PhD at Imperial College at the same time as I was Deputy Director of the Graduate School of Life Sciences and Medicine, so I will have judged his poster at the annual postgraduate colloquium. This may, or may not, be a good thing ๐Ÿ™‚


Filed under The Bloggy Blog

28 responses to “A cautionary tale – facing mortality and the work-life balance

  1. Holly Root-Gutteridge

    I’m so sorry to read this! I hope the hospital gives you amazing care and that your recovery is as swift and comfortable as possible. Wishing you the very best.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Amanda Tuke

    Wishing you all the best with your surgery and a speedy recovery.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lydiaarnold

    Very best wishes for a full and speedy recovery, and for the restoration of all balance.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Humphrey Crick

    So sorry to hear this Simon – what a complete pig. But I hope you keep up your blog because it is (a) amusing, (b) unfailingly interesting and (c) expands my mind into areas I don’t normally think about (that sounds selfish, but I will have the temerity to say that I bet all your readers find that) – and we can also give you our implicit support. Huge best wishes and I’m sure you’ll beat this thing. Humphrey

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Humph, will be doing my best – I have a couple in the pipeline to work on (once the anaesthetic wears off) while I am in hospital ๐Ÿ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

    • daughteroffanji

      Thank you so much for sharing this, Simon. I know it canโ€™t be easy overcoming such a horrible disease but your open and optimistic attitude I find incredibly inspiring. Anyone going through a similar situation will take great comfort from that.

      Iโ€™m sending you all the good luck vibes humanly possible! Keep us posted.


      Liked by 2 people

  5. Laline Paull

    Dear Simon
    By chance I read all my emails today and am
    So glad I saw this – shocking – and I send you all my best wishes for recovery. Wonderful post notwithstanding the gravest content.
    Kindest regards
    Laline Paull

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thansk for sharing Simon, best of luck with the surgery and hope to see you back on the blog soon!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. My gosh, Simon, this is quite an ordeal. It sounds like you’re getting the care you need and that you’ve got a healthy set of priorities. Best wishes for a rapid and full recovery!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Kelly Papapavlou

    Good luck, good luck, good luck, good luck….Warm wishes for full recovery and many thousands of daily walks to follow.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thanks for sharing this frank account. I hope it all works out for you, but it sounds scary — for you and for those who heed the warning. Not at all what you need at the moment — or ever!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Marlies

    I knew that something was the matter, but not what exactly. This is quite a shock! I hope you’ll have a speedy recovery, Simon! I’ll keep my fingers – and toes!- crossed for you!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Hope the surgery goes well, Simon, and very best wishes for a speedy recovery.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Glad you are on the road to recovery! A cautionary tale indeed, that we must all appreciate daily how dependant we are on our good health. Amelia

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Oh wow! That’s quite an experience – here’s hoping that you have a full recovery. How does the quote go: “Getting older is not for the weak” or something? Take care, stay safe, and let us know how you go.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Jim Kirby

    My very best wishes for a full recovery to your overworked self

    Jim Kirby

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Very best wishes for a full recovery Simon.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Thank you for sharing your story and know that you have people / science fans all over the world sending you strength and wishing you a speedy recovery!

    Liked by 2 people

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