Weird after-effects

I’m 100% over cancer.

Except of course, I’m not. I don’t know if I ever will be.

It affected me in several ways: as a medical emergency, as a psychological shock, and as a variety of minor changes to how I feel, who I am, and what I can do.

Medical stuff

The medical emergency part was fine. I wasn’t unsettled or concerned. There was pain, but there was also pain medication. And I took the view that everything that could be done was being done.

So I wasn’t too worried, because you should only ever worry about things you can change. And within 6 weeks the medical aspect was over.

Physical recovery

In the immediate aftermath, everything was wonderful. The birds in the trees, the kids playing next door, the feeling of rain on my face. Life was grand.

I struggled to move for a few weeks, but then suddenly one day I could do a sit up or two, and before you know it I feel more or less fine. It’s about 10 months since the operation, and my scar-area still feels a little odd. Slightly bruised, and slightly numb too. But physically I’m back to normal.

Side-effects

I’m taking part in the trial of a new drug, which is a smart chemotherapy that targets cells which mutate into the cancer I had. It’s shown a lot of promise in people who have the cancer, and now they want to try it on people who don’t, but who are at risk of it coming back. That’s me. So I take the drugs.

There are side-effects, but not terrible. My hands and feet ache. I sometimes get headaches, but not noticeably more than I used to. One of the side-effects is that the drug makes your skin itch, so to counter this there’s a steroid in it, which makes it difficult to keep weight off. I have to watch the biscuits (which is a problem when you’re addicted to HobNobs).

I found out today that I’m not allowed to go to Kenya. The drug reduces my resistance to yellow fever, and a vaccination would be useless. So I’ve had to cancel a trip that I was looking forward to. It was only business, and only a few days, but I’m disappointed. I’d been dreaming of an African sky.

Psychological stuff

I’m not immortal. I think boys believe they are, and even though I’m 41 now I still retained that sense that life would just bounce off me. That feeling has gone. I don’t tiptoe through life in constant fear, but I’m aware now that shit happens. Injury and sickness are not just abstract ideas now. They feel very real.

And I’m going to die. This is different from simply not being immortal. The immortality thing is a feeling that I have a certain vulnerability. When I say “I’m going to die” I mean that inside me, at the back of my head, there’s a clock ticking. It’s going all the time. It’s reminding me that a year ago I thought for a while that I was on my deathbed, and that a whole army of regrets swarmed up around me.

I don’t want to regret anything. I want to grab hold of life and shake it up. I find myself frustrated and saddened by people who do exactly what I wanted to do a year ago – sit on the sofa after work, and forget about the world.

I’m aware that this makes me a total hypocrite. A couple of years ago I would be happy to get drunk or stoned, and lie around all day watching TV. I still like to lie in bed longer than I should, especially when it’s cold outside. But that’s a definite pleasure in itself, not the refusal to do anything else. As soon as I’m up I want to make the day count.

Oddly, people who know me say I’m much happier and more positive about life since the cancer. I thought I was happy before, but apparently I’m full of beans and smiles and action today. Who would have imagined that illness, vulnerability and intimations of doom would make a person so happy?!

Am I a sociopath?

In an earlier post about my strangely numb reaction to cancer, I jokingly suggested I might be sociopathic.

It’s been pointed out to more than once: I often seem to have a very low level of emotion. I just appear to breeze along, making crap jokes and singing little songs to myself. But when the shit hits the fan… I make crap jokes and sing little songs. I even do it when coping with tough times, illness, personal crises, arguments and fallings-out.

So. Am I a sociopath? Am I really utterly unfeeling? Is it weird that I’m not even having an emotional reaction to the accusation, I’m just pondering it and writing a blog? Probably!

Maybe I’m broken inside.

But I don’t think so.

It’s tricky to discuss because of the age-old “platform problem”. There’s a great discussion on this subject in the life-changing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s about how some people respond to surface (Robert Persig, the author, calls these people “Romantics”) and others think more about what’s going on underneath (he calls these “Classics”).

To a Classic person, a Romantic is flimsy, lightweight, shallow, obsessed with packaging and surface and gossip, and unable to do proper assessments of the important stuff in life.

To a Romantic, a Classic is cold, callous, obsessed with nerdy things, unfeeling, uncommunicative, and doesn’t have any appreciation of art or beauty or loveliness.

Both sets of people are equally wrong and equally right. But in order to talk about it you have to stand on one of the two platforms: Classic or Romantic. And just by standing on a platform you immediately offend the other set of people.

The problem is exacerbated because on the one hand we have Classic people, who are unlikely to get offended (or even see the point of being offended) by the words used to describe them. They’ll hear them and analyse them, but won’t feel any offence.

But on the other side are Romantics, who are more likely to take offence, even if the words used are no more offensive than the ones they use to describe Classics. It’s entirely normal to be a Romantic, and to have a strong experience of the surface meaning of the word. A Classic hears “calculating and emotionless” and writes a blog discussing it, with references to source materials. A Romantic hears “hysterical and over-emotional” and gets hysterical and over-emotional.

See? Even when I try to avoid the platform problem, I still use terms which are bound to offend some people. Totally unintentional. But try talking about this stuff without using those terms!

Thinking about this made me look back on moments when I really should feel something. If I felt something, then I’m not a sociopath; I’m one of Robert Persig’s “Classics”.

My dad died. I should feel that, right? The hospital had phoned to tell us we should hurry to his side. I knew that probably meant he was already dead. That’s how they do it; they don’t tell you over the phone, they get you to come to the ward urgently.

I picked up my mum and took her with me. When I got there my brother had already arrived, and was crying. I didn’t cry. A day or so later, when I was sorting out clothes for him to be buried in, I bawled my eyes out.

Does this make me a sociopath? Or does it just mean I (entirely subconsciously) recognised that everyone in the room needed someone to do the tough stuff, and so I boxed my emotions up until the pressure was off? I think the latter.

I can think of other instances:

My disappointment at losing a job, which I had to control because I needed to act fast to secure another.

My anger at being mugged, which I had to control so I could focus on defending myself against 3 attackers.

My genuine fear in the middle of the night about a week before my cancer operation, when I had lain awake for hours listening to Alzheimer’s patients singing at 4am, and considering how debilitating chemo might be. Not death: that seems easy. But a tough life, that’s really hard to face.

Did I feel these things? Damn right. But it’s part of who I am to be in control of emotions, not – and this is the platform problem again – not a victim of my emotions. Not overwhelmed by them.

It’s not a trick or a strength. It’s not a boast, any more than you can boast about being tall or having big feet. You don’t wake up every morning and practice being 6’5″, it’s just who you are. And my controlled emotions are who I am.

And if that hurts people around me, then I feel genuine sorrow, but you’d never know it to look at me.

Evolution in a nutshell

It’s pretty simple.

Do you look exactly like your parents? I mean, literally identical? You may have your mum’s nose, and your dad’s ears, but you’re not a carbon copy. You are different.

What happened there, you see, is evolution. You were created by mixing two sets of genes, and the result was something pretty similar, but not exactly the same. You may have the colouring of your parents, or if they’re tall it’s quite likely you will be too. But you’re not literally identical.

It’s called mutation.

Now multiply that by a few thousand generations. Bingo. Evolution. And the earth has been here for 4.2 billion years, with life for the last 2 billion. There’s been plenty of time!

“Ah”, I hear you say, “I accept that evolution might make humans have darker skin or be taller, but it can’t change a mongoose into a squirrel”.

Let’s imagine a herd of grazing animals on the grassy plains of Africa. They’re a kind of antelope. Just as with humans, there is some small variation between individuals. Some are taller. Some are weaker. Some have better eyesight. It’s only a tiny difference, and most of the time it doesn’t count.

Then a lion attacks. The antelope with the best eyesight sees it first, and runs into some trees.

The taller one has longer legs, and can run faster, and he heads out onto the plain.

The weaker one gets eaten.

The antelope with the good eyesight hides in deep undergrowth, and meets another “good eyesight” antelope, and they have kids. This continues for many generations, with the eyesight getting better, and the animal getting smaller so it can hide in bushes. In time, you have a Dik Dik. Huge eyes, tiny body, timid.

The antelope with the long legs ran onto the plain, where there were taller trees. He met another tall antelope, and they had babies, who inherited some of the features of their parents, including being tall. The tall babies survived when a drought came, because they could reach leaves that were higher up. Over many generations, the trend was for the antelope to get bigger and bigger. Zip forward 200,000 years, and you have a giraffe.

In the meantime the lions are also going through an evolutionary arms race. Getting faster, stronger, smarter. One species pushes the other. Different environments produce different results.

It’s called Evolution, and it’s the truth.

Intelligent design.

Some people say “OK, we believe evolution happens” (because frankly, to deny it is like denying the sun exists). “But”, they say, “it’s happening because God directed it according to His intelligent design”.

And my answer to that is: the laryngeal nerve.

The laryngeal nerve is a nerve which goes from the brain to the larynx, and helps with swallowing (and in animals that can make sounds, it controls vocalisation).

It first developed in fish. It took the shortest route from the brain to the larynx. In a fish the heart is close to the brain, right up behind the gills. So the nerve travelled down from the brain, went behind the heart, and then to the larynx. Note it goes behind the heart. That was the shortest distance.

When fish evolved onto land (something the lungfish is still doing today, evolution fans) they needed to be able to move their head in new ways, so they could spot predators. So they developed more of a neck, and that meant some of the organs got pushed down into the torso. Including the heart.

The laryngeal nerve still went behind the heart, but had to take a longer route. It’s much easier to adapt something than to scrap it and start again, so that’s what evolution did: it just kept extending the nerve in each generation, tiny change by tiny change.

Every land animal, dinosaur, lizard, bird, mongoose, bear, whale, cat and human has evolved from those early fish. And in every one of us, the nerve that controls our swallowing and vocals starts at the brain, leads down the neck, wraps around our heart, and back up again to the larynx.

Even the giraffe. A 22 foot long nerve to pass a signal to the larynx, which is only 4 inches away from the brain.

Intelligent design? If that’s as good as God gets, He’s not intelligent at all. And that’s not a design. That’s the result of unplanned chaos.

The truth is, evolution is random and uncontrolled, and only has the appearance of being “designed” in the same way that the water in a puddle fits perfectly into the depression in the ground. Nobody designed the water, it just works that way because of the laws of physics and chemistry.

Similarly, nobody “designed” a Dik Dik, it’s just the best solution for the environment it’s in. Change the environment, and the animal changes too.