vickygoestravelling

my journey to health and well being via exotic destinations


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in which we attempt to encounter two types of ray

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Orange trees in the garden

Cyprus sojourn a great success from the moment I was wheeled off the plane. Despite the weather being less than kind – only two out five days sunny and warm – we had a lovely time. One day we went up into the mountains and found an eccentric tavern hidden down a side street which had a huge display of whisky bottles and where we feasted on delicious moussaka, watched by a funny little dog.

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Sitting by the fire in the taverna

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Thats what I call a moussaka!

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Spoiled rotten!

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They were empty, dear reader!

On another we braved the inappropriately-named Malindi Beach Bar for oysters and the grilled squid with the Chief of Staff of the Cyprus Peackeeping Forces, an old chum of Penny and Mike’s. A rainy day even found us in Zara buying sweaters!

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Mike and Penny with the loyal Sugar in the hills

Penny and Mike are perfect hosts, from the kettle in room and four varieties of tea, healthy breakfasts and lunches made from the freshest of Cyprus fruit and veg, the roaring fire and a fine array of champagne and wine. Their house is set in the hills, just outside Limassol, which is a grey and messy sea-side strip of a town, rather down-at-heel at this time of year. The Russians are all gone, apart from in the Four Seasons, where we went for dinner one night. Friends Roma and Mariana had stayed there a few years back – was reminded of this as they cooked me a wonderful supper the night before I left. The girlfriends are rallying round!

Before I left, we celebrated two other significant events, Tommy’s 26th birthday in the heavenly Singapore Gardens, and a visit to Little Lou’s Bench with her dear friend Cara.

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Birthday boy!

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Vibernum, hellebores and other flowers form my garden; Cara decorated in Louise’s favourite colours, form Columbia Road

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Cara

The week was full of coincidences: on the way out at Terminal 5 I bumped into an old friend Roger Hooper, a wildlife photographer who had been with us to Mana Pools. He was a useful and charming bag-carrier. On the return flight I sat next to a woman and we got chatting, as you do. Turns out she was half Chinese, brought up in Malaysia, had lived in Barbados, now lives in Cyprus, but had worked in Deloitte, her daughter had worked for the previous Black Rod (as was Mike), her husband and family are Jewish but, most strangely of all, she was in recovery from lymphoma and as going to London for treatment. We had a lot to discuss! To cap it all, yesterday as I waited for my abortive – yes, see below – radiotherapy treatment, the man next to me had a brother living in Pyrgos, which is the very same village in Cyprus where Penny and Mike live.

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View from bedroom window

I come back refreshed and revived and ready for the start of the six-and-a-half week slog. To take my mind off it, and because my juicer and Riverford veg boxes had arrived the previous day, complete with Seville oranges, I spent the morning making marmalade. I had only just bottled the last jar when the taxi came…

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Rays!

As usual everyone at the Marsden nice and kind. After my start-of-treatment briefing, I waited and waited (hence the conversation with my neighbour, also waiting. The most common question seems to be ‘what time is your appointment?’ I was asked this three times…I have decided I am going to fill this time profitably: I have re-ordered my daily Guardian to be home–delivered; and I am going to suss out who all the people are being treated. Very little English was being spoken, which I thought was interesting, as this is the NHS, not a private hospital. Although there are one or two private patients – not the norm – such as myself.

By the time I am invited into the room, we are running 40 minutes late. I put my leg in the cast and Kirsty and Anisha explain that they will align everything, test the machine’s movement radius (it has to go round and under my leg to zap it from several angles) take some photos and then ping! The treatment itself is 7-10 minutes. Sounds OK, think I. How wrong could I be? After admiring my pedicure, we make small talk including, Me: ‘How many leg sarcomas do you see?’ Answer: ‘This unit only deal with limb sarcomas so we see many, from all over the country’.

So an hour later, I am wondering if they have ever seen anyone with two legs before, as they cannot work out what to do with my good leg – we try the spongey mats (no good as they can’t align the machines through them properly), next two different stirrups, which remind me of visiting the gynaecologist, and then senior radiographer supervisor Mary is called into consult. Whisper, whisper, whisper…meanwhile my leg is firmly clamped into the vice-like cast and I am trying every variety of yogic breathing I can recall: ‘observe your breath’ I keep saying to myself, ‘in 1,2,3,4,5; out 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10’. To no avail. My leg is on fire. Glad I took the tramadol, even though it doesn’t seem to have worked!

Finally they admit defeat and I am asked to wait outside while they consider the options, while not lessening the efficacy. This includes re-planning the whole treatment. ‘How long will that take? I’m booked to go to Singapore on 21 MArch,’ I wail. Nadir.

Mary re-appears after 15 minutes, having seen Dr Aisha, who said ‘She has a flight to Singapore’. Phew – we are on the same page! It is now 5.15, two hours after my appointment time. In fact the treatment plan does have a Plan B (why they couldn’t find it on the system is a mystery), which involves zapping me from a different trajectory so the good leg is avoided. They will do this tomorrow at 3pm in order to get time to re-calculate everything. So bang goes physio and probably my weekend pre rush-hour escape from London to Doctor Fi’s for the weekend.

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Just in case you missed Pickle

 All I can think of in my frustration and misery is the large G&T waiting for me when I get home. But joy of joys, there is the added bonus of a gorgeous bouquet from friends Anthony and Carrie – she has had radiotherapy too (and the rest) – but now well and happy, and knows what a girl needs to cheer her up! The evening only gets better; other friend Philly and Sandra arrive with a four-course meal: home-made soup and smoked salmon, followed by cod with spicy lentils and a Pavlova! They announce a competition to see what you need to do to get a blog mention. Well done Ladies!

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Flowers and my marmalade – organic of course!


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in which I get measured up for my cast and try to look on the bright side

Thought we needed to see Pickle again

Thought we needed to see Pickle again – where else but on my lap?

The past 10 days have been rather depressing, waiting for things to happen. I feel like I’m in a waiting room – for death. Morbid I know but limbo land is no fun. Two weeks for radiotherapy to start and another three months until the first scan, which will indicate whether the cancer has spread. And in trying to maintain a brave and smiling outward face while struggling with inner fears, the bigger things can be put in perspective but it’s the little things that get blown out of proportion and are very upsetting. So if I ever explode at something minor, it’s not that thing that is the problem, it’s the wider challenges I am facing.

On the plus side, I have been doing some nutritious cooking (Tom Yam soup, steamed chicken, fish curry, and now about to go Japanese) and have been to the movies twice (12 Years a Slave and The Railway Man –  see what I thought on http://www.vickyatthemovies.net). I also had a moment of inspiration and exchanged my lovely red-hot mini for a slightly newer, automatic mini cooper. But black and not so dashing. Today I drove to the hairdressers at the O2 centre, where I had some good therapy: thank you Joe and Eli! Mani/pedi next week!

The metallic black mini Cooper 1.6

The metallic black mini Cooper 1.6

My friend Cindy in Mumbai has sent me a book on yoga for cancer, and I am determined to learn how to meditate and do some simple poses. I think it will help. My physiotherapy – Pilates – is energising and I now have my own wobble board and special exercises to add to my sit-ups and weights. It’s quite hard work though; Tommy was most amused when he took this picture.

On the wobble board!

On the wobble board!

My mobility is improving daily and the pain is diminishing, so I have almost stopped taking the tramadol and paracetamol, only taking any when I feel pain. But for some reason this week I have been getting exhausted and energy levels are low. My weight seems to be going down and then regaining the 55kgs, whatever I eat. I find this worrying. Of course I am angsting about the impending radiotherapy, and now the little insidious niggle of the histology results and the mental picture of those nasty little cancer cells whizzing round my body. It’s all about keeping my immune system high so I continue with the healthy diet and exercise; I’m sure feeling down doesn’t help though. I am learning it takes (too much?) energy to be upbeat, cheerful and superwoman. My new resolution is not to let anything or anyone annoy me. Challenging!

Two appointments at the Marsden this week to make the cast for the radiotherapy and then to do the scan and make the aligning tattoo marks on my leg. The cast is necessary to keep the leg in place so that the rays can be directed to the exact sites for treatment. I go into the ‘mould room’ and lie on a flat operating table; I feel like a fakir on a bed of nails! Then my leg is elevated but only supported by the ankle, and they heat up a large sheet of plastic in a bain marie, which emerges like a giant gelatine leaf, and which the technicians then press round my leg until it is a snug fit. All sorts of adjustments are made and then a wait for it to harden. Meanwhile my leg is in agony as there is no support for it and of course I have no calf muscles so the quads are in overtime. They make a small spongey cushion to place just above the knee to help, but it’s not terribly effective. Sadly I am not allowed to photograph.

Back the next day for the scan. By the way all these appointments run on time. Another cheery bunch of staff. Back on the bed of nails, but with a large scanning machine and my instrument of torture is fitted. Oh dear, it needs adjusting! I am dreading they may have to re-make it but, no, they can heat it up and stretch it. It is then stuck down by Velcro to the plastic sheet with an outline of my measly leg drawn on it; more Velcro has been attached to hold the mould in place. Simple but clever. But all this fiddling around is taking its toll and my leg feels on fire, and we haven’t even begun the scan. By this time, I am wracking my memory for my yoga breathing (alternate nostrils) and counting and observing my breath to try and make the pain go away. It passes the time at least.

It’s not over yet though, as they have to make a couple of tattoo marks to align the cast. Blob of black ink followed by some scratches – not at all painful, although they have to re-do one of them. At last, it’s all over, 45 minutes later. I’m told that the treatment won’t be as long. I hope not, as I don’t think I could take that pain daily for 6 ½ weeks!

My pin-prick tattoo, with remnants of marking pen

My pin-prick tattoo, with remnants of marking pen

To add insult to my injuries I get ripped off by the cab home; and when I go on the C11 to my physio, no one gives me a seat! Wah!

On a positive note, to counter all this misery, I have booked myself to go to Cyprus for 5 days – air miles in business class – to stay with lovely friends Penny and Mike, who will pamper me and cheer me up. She has been through it all – surgery, radio and chemo – so knows where I’m coming from.


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in which we talk radiotherapy

We have dates! Went to the Marsden yesterday, all by myself, armed with a stick so I look disabled and people steer well clear. Saw the lovely Dr Aisha Miah, who remembered me from the last visit. She is a tiny, but very reassuring, presence; someone you can ask all the nagging questions. Like the one about the hotspot in my groin lymph glands that the PET scan had picked up and I have been angsting about, knowing the cancer cells could have travelled. No need to worry, sarcoma cells do not become lymphatic cancers; if they do spread it is to the chest/lung and liver (not sure quite how reassuring THAT is!). So my next scan will be in April and then three-monthly thereafter.

Next Thursday (16th) I go to have my leg cast made; then Friday a localised CT scan of the leg so they can position the ray machine correctly. Then start properly 30 Jan, though I am hoping she can bring this forward a few days, so I can escape to Singapore for a couple of weeks before coming back for Easter and my first scan. Each session will take 30 mins. For the first 5 weeks they will irradiate the whole leg, and the last week and a half they will notch it up a bit to concentrate on the sarcoma area to zap any remaining tumour cells.

I have signed a consent paper, which is rather grim reading.

Intended benefits: improved survival; prevention of recurrence

Serious or frequently recurring risks:

Acute – skin reaction (redness, tenderness, breakdown…severe discomfort); tiredness, oedema (very likely)

Later – permanent skin discolouration; thickening of skin; impairment of joint/limb function (esp. knee joint) fracture risk; secondary cancers; lymphoedema.

She says I will need wide trousers to prevent irritation – so a visit ot Primark in Oxford Street is called for! Help! and lots of aqueous creams…

So not much to worry about then!

We had a giggle about the Prof’s views on training women doctors: I was interested to gauge her views. She said, ‘I told him he had better wear shin pads in addition to full body armour’.

*                 *                *

Meanwhile, to help me prepare and boost my immunity and general well-being,  I have started doing free weights and sit-ups in addition to the physio. I am also working my way through a lovely Chinese cookery book of recipes especially for cancer patients. Luckily we have a TCM shop (traditional Chinese medicine) just down the road for foxglove root , hyacinth bean seed and the like.

I am also walking unaided: last night went to 12 Years a Slave  – by bus! – and walked up the road to the Chinese restaurant; I can do the half-mile aller/retour to England’s Lane  to do shopping, and I have just traded in my sexy red mini Cooper for a rather less glam second-hand metallic black automatic. Arrives next week. So I intend to live as normal a life as possible during my incarceration in London for treatment.

Pickle loves to  rub her face against my legs. See how form the front my calf looks almost normal!

Pickle loves to rub her face against my legs. See how from the front my calf looks almost normal!

I was reminded of the fragility of life last week (as if I needed reminding). On the way to Geneva airport we saw the most terrible accident; a white van with all windows blown out, children’s toys, bikes and sledges scattering the road and bank, and the family dog – a beautiful red setter – being stroked by a paramedic. It was the only living thing left at the site, but not for long.  It raised its head woefully to look right at us while the vet sent him to sleep.

I am haunted by the image of that family: one minute returning from a lovely Christmas holiday, car packed with presents; the next and their lives are forever blighted.

All the more resolved to make the most of it.


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In which we greet the New Year with some good and bad news…but lots of hope!

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Ross ski touring with Tommy, Dents du Mid in the background

New Year’s Day

 I greet 2014 with renewed hope and vigour! 2013 played a very curved ball in injury time as up until November it had been a great year for us with the move to Singapore and all the travelling to exotic oriental places.

Only a few days left of mountain magic and then back to London, histology results and radiotherapy. Wah! And Ross departs for Singapore so I will throw myself on the mercy of all my dear friends to accompany me to physio and radio. A roster has been suggested. Volunteers please!

On the plus side the wound looks good. New Year’s eve saw me tackling the cable car and lunch at the restaurant panoramique at the top with the Mitchell family; not only great to see them but to get two consultations for the price of one: David is one of Britain’s top vascular surgeons and knows the Prof, while Anne is a GP, so lots of comfort about how the pain will be bad, it’s normal, and then healing will take up to two months. A peek at my leg in full view of the sunbathing crowds causes some raised eyebrows!

With Ann and David Mitchell at the Croix de Culet

With Ann and David Mitchell at the Croix de Culet

However, this little expedition knocked me out and I had to retire to bed for a couple of hours; so exhausted that was fearful that I would not see in the New Year, which kicked off with apero for 25 or so chez nous…champagne and canapés, foie gras and sauternes, all brought by friends – Fenwicks, Poolers, Serikoffs, Huguette et al. My brother and his girlfriend who is having a little boy in May, are also here, and it has been wonderful getting to know Melanie and see how happy they are. New life for a new year.

Sasha flanked by Melanie and me on NYE

Sasha flanked by Melanie and me on NYE

We tottered up to cousin Christine’s for main course: Diego and Diane have prepared hams, and Tommy and Olivia have made sweetcorn and courgette gratins, all delicious. It is a beautiful clear night and we stream out on to the balcony on the chimes of midnight as the sky explodes in a flurry of brilliant fireworks, which illuminate the Dents and rain down green, purple and red over the village. The beacons atop the peaks are lit and dominate the skyline as red dots. The sky is full of lanterns bobbing upwards.

Tommy with Christine and Katie Pooler

Tommy with Christine and Katie Pooler

The Youngies: Charly, Olivia, Tom  and Katie

The Youngies: Charly, Olivia, Tom and Katie

Then Ross, Tommy and Tom Pooler light our own Chinese lanterns, which soar up, up and away in an orange glow to meet Louise whose spirit is with us this night, in the mountain air and in the effervescent glow that lights up the sky. The stars twinkle down on us as we stand, me in my bare feet (kills the pain I say when told I’m mad), and exchange New Year hugs, kisses and warm embraces of dear friends willing this to be the year that I regain my health. If the power of positive thinking and vibes could cure cancer then I would be clear! So much love is humbling and I thank you, all my friends, for it and the support over the past couple of months and for those yet to come.

One of our lanterns winging its way to join Louise

One of our lanterns winging its way to join Louise

I am sorry that the last blog sounded so bleak, but writing is part of my therapy, and like an exorcism…once captured in black and white the negativity is out of my system, leaving room for happier thoughts.

Let’s hope that 2014 is a year of health and healing for all of us, filled with the love of friends and family.

Mitchells, Fenwicks, Cattells, Olivia & George Stoy

Mitchells, Fenwicks, Cattell boys, Olivia & George Stoy…Dents…NY Eve

6  January – Histology Day

Finally the dreaded day arrives, and Dr Fi and I assemble to see the Prof. The past few weeks have been rather unnerving, not quite knowing, yet fearing, today’s meeting.

Dr Fi is in fine form: the Prof has been busy writing for the Daily Mail on why he believes the NHS should stop training women doctors (they go part-time and it results in fewer doctors etc etc). Red rag to a bull, but she promises to zip up as the meeting is about me…

The good news is that the Prof got the clearance, as in margin,  on the tumours, ie better than he expected. However, he confirms what both Fi and I already suspected, that it is a stage 3 and – here he brings his chair round the table and sits next to me, boy this IS serious – they found the tumour within a ‘large vein’.

Gently he explains this means it may have already travelled as tumour cells migrate via the blood. However, there is no point in doing anything until a scan in April as new sites will not show up until the cells have grown enough to be visible. As Dr Khong said, the cells are so microscopic at this stage, they are impossible to identify. So it is going to be a long haul. But I think I knew all of this even if I didn’t share the anxiety, so I don’t feel shocked, weak at the knees or nauseated. Just resigned and even more determined to live life to the full. As Prof says, we just have to hope that I will be lucky.

On the other hand, I am hugely cheered by his admiration of my mobility.  Him: ‘You can start going up stairs properly now.’

Me: ‘I’ve been doing that for 2 weeks already.’ I am doing far better than he expected. But he gives me a stern talk on being too ambitious as a fall downstairs (which I can’t manage yet, one foot after the other) would be dangerous.

Him: ‘Have we finished the medical bit now?’ Cue for media discussion; we always end our sessions talking about journalism.

Me: ‘Yes.’

Him: ‘ Did you see I had two articles in the Mail last week?’

Me: ‘No – these are the ones on female doctors I assume. I bet you’ve had some interesting feedback. I’ll read them and give you mine if you like, but I am a feminist you know!’

He gets all excited and writes out how to find them online; he slides the paper towards me, then deftly removes the duplicate and gives it to Fi: ‘Would you like to read it too?’

Fi: ‘No thanks. I promised Vicky I wouldn’t say anything as I am here in friend, not doctor, capacity, but I have read them and I disagree completely.’ There follows a lively exchange of views, friendly yet feisty as only Fi can be… Finally he asks Fi, ‘Do you know Penny? (another of the monstrous regiment of fierce women…and a good mutual friend of all of ours). This confirms that the Prof likes women like us, despite what he writes. He wants to keep me on as his patient: ‘I keep the ones I like’.

And now home, cat on knee, contemplating the long road ahead of living with cancer. Next stop: radiotherapy, first appointment Friday.

Dear friend Hilary and I on NYE

Dear friend Hilary and I on NYE