Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Keep on Keepin' On

"Relatively low survival rates for lung cancer mean that despite high incidence rates there are fewer patients alive who have been diagnosed with lung cancer relative to the other major cancers". A quote from the Cancer Research UK website, which discusses a new report they commissioned on the importance that lifestyle plays in whether you develop cancer or not. Sobering reading, as ever, although I take cheer from the fact that the long-term survival figures for lung cancer only went up to 2006 and 2008. I hope that for people like myself, those figures have changed as the new targeted drugs have been introduced. Why do I hope? Because I need the encouragement. I need the belief that lung cancer is not just a one-way ticket to the Big Sleep. I need the role models, the people out there, still alive. The people who still have the occasional tipple or iced bun, that say "This is how I will live my life, how I will fight the demon inside me". My lead oncologist is a glass-half-empty person in her assessments, but I guess that you would be, wouldn't you, if you had to go to work every day doing what she does. But...

...Attending the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation's advocate's conference in Manchester recently I met and saw numerous examples of people still here, still carrying on the good fight. To quote the movie "The Road": Carrying the Flame. But what makes some people live, some die? Is it luck, determination? In my own case I see it more as good luck and timing, tempered with a stupid inability to realise the seriousness of the situation. I plod along from day to day, trying not to think about the bigger picture. When things change in my health I see it/them as the next in a row of challenges to face, to do my best at dealing with and hopefully beat. But if it doesn't work out like that, let's take it as it comes. All you can do is to do your best.

Another day, another Wainwright, something to be thankful for.
Recently I've been reading a book that my father bought me, entitled "Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why" by Laurence Gonzales. A catchy title maybe not, but an interesting read as it seeks to rationalise why people live in survival situations and why, to put it simply, others don't. Analysing anything from fighter pilots crashing to mountaineers making the wrong decision, it seeks to outline the mental states which people can utilise to survive when the brown stuff hits the fan. Over the next few blogs I'll try to distill some of it down into readable chunks, but for now here's the concluding paragraph from a list of twelve key factors which have been shown to help survivors, which I felt was pertinent food for thought:

12. Never Give Up (Let Nothing Break Your Spirit)
Survivors are not easily frustrated. They are not discouraged by setbacks. They accept that the environment (or their business climate or their health) is constantly changing. They pick themselves up and start the entire process over again, breaking it down into manageable bits. Survivors always have a clear reason for going on. They keep their spirits up by developing an alternate world made up of rich memories to which they can escape. They mine their memory for whatever can keep them occupied. They come to embrace the world in which they find themselves and see opportunity in adversity. In the aftermath, survivors learn from and are grateful for the experiences they've had.

Rich memories. A place that I return to when the need arises...

Wet AND dirty - perfect! Purdey clocks up another Ennerdale peak
I would never want to be grateful for having cancer or some of the experiences I've had, but as I mentioned in my last blog you do get to see people at their best and worst – and maybe that is an experience worth experiencing...

Monday, 28 November 2011

Where Have I, You, Been?

It seems so long ago that I was out walking through the Spring leaves and writing about the beauty of that, but now it's six months later and the leaves are blowing on the ground and the light disappears by five o'clock - plunging the world into an eerie, grey, winter landscape.

So, where have I been? Why has the blog been so quiet? Well, as some people might have guessed: Plunged into a world of greyness, a world of illness, debilitating sickness. Returned to a world of hospital stays and visits, seeing and meeting people at their best and worst, spending every day dreaming of the outside world, of my old life, of the life that I used to have before it became taken over by one word.

There were times, as I clutched the walls, spasming, unable to walk, unable to lead a normal life, that I began to question the future, whether I really wanted any part of it, if this is what the future held. But I would get to go home for a week, before having to return to the kind nurses, who would stroke my head as I vomited once more. Angels one and all. The demon inside me fighting to take over, take control, take away me. Naomi ever beside me, so strong, so brave, even in the dark hours, that still linger.

In hindsight would I have had endured the radiotherapy to my head, that made me so sick, that made me want to die? That seemed to take me to another level of sickness? Would I have endured the trip to Plymouth for neuro-surgery, that left me feeling like an extra from Hans Christian Anderson - two horns being all that's left of my struggle to stay well, to stay alive, to stay in the world. Of my time on a ward where people hit themselves to take away the pain, both mental and physical, a world where rationality had gone. Well, that's the dilemma of illness - of the fight every day, every moment - to keep on, keepin' on. When the soul feels empty, sometimes it's easier to give up, to stop fighting. But I just can't do it, the fight goes on, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute.

But let me not take pity on myself, wallow in the grief of a life no longer my own, for I know that I am lucky to be here, to be able to kick the dog (if only proverbially), annoy Naomi and walk amongst the beauty of the world. Okay, getting up the stairs is a struggle, so my dream of climbing Mont Blanc has gone out the window, but when every day is a challenge that maybe is enough in itself.

Naomi and Purdey take a break
Back in July we went to the Lakes for a week, which was a disaster - my illness preventing me from living the life that I wanted to, the start of a process still continuing. We did manage two days out on the fells, back amongst those beautiful hills, that keep me sane when all around me is falling to pieces...So here are a few pictures of a happier time, but one that's hopefully slowly returning, even though it maybe in a way different to how I'd imagined things.

Wasdale's Middle Fell, looking to the Scafells.

My favourite view, as it was the nation's.

You can't keep a good dog down, or out of the water.

So, the start of my blogging again, I'm sorry that it's not been an easy read. But it's not been an easy six months, as it's not easy living with cancer, that is the reality. Let me start to write again, to try to regain a voice. Please carry on reading and let me know what you think.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

A Walk on the Wild Side

It truly has been a beautiful Spring here on the Devon and Dorset border, with the slopes of the hills blanketed in flowers and the woods resonant to the sound of the world coming back to life. There's been times when I try to capture the sunlight beams shafting through the trees, or the sun shining through the hedgerows – but simply fail every time to capture their true beauty.

Epye Down with its beautiful rolling hills, just outside of Bridport, is one of our favourite places to go walking. A great circular route is to walk via the Secret Garden Cafe down to Eype Beach, then back up to Thorncombe Beacon. On one day the sunlight was lighting up the woods and leaves in a simply stunning manner, like fairys had alighted on the Bluebells, leaving a magical essence of light.

There's magic afoot in the woods at Eype Down
We tried shooting the light coming through the leaves, but failed miserably. I sometimes feel that maybe that's the answer why, that the only way to see the world is to be out seeing it for real. To capture it would ruin the magic, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Courtesy of Hugh Stoker, West Dorset's answer to Wainwright*, I have been out exploring the beautiful West Dorset countryside which sits on our doorstep. Every one of Hugh's walks takes my breath away, with their surprises at every turn. A walk I expect to be ordinary turns out surpassing my dreams, with its rolling meadows, the unexplored woodlands. The farms where time has stood still, the farm machinery rusting in the hedgerows hinting at an agricultural hey-day long past.

We are blessed with a multitude of long-distance trails around our home: The Monarch's Way, the Wessex Ridgeway, the Liberty Trail, the East Devon Way. All of them seem to pick out the best of our local countryside. One of mine and Purdey's recent day walks was to start at North Chideock, walking part of the Monarch's Way. It was one of those days where the sunbeams filtered down onto an ancient path, a ridgeway route used over the centuries; The holloways (or hollways) of Dorset, that Robert Macfarlane has written about so beautifully. Once again, the camera simply could not capture the day's beauty. Like a secret tunnel of light leading to something beautiful, the only way is onwards...

In the words of Bilbo Baggins, "The Road Goes Ever On".

Purdey questions why we have stopped
*Hugh Stoker was a local man, living at Seatown (home of one of our favourite pubs, The Anchor), who self-published in the mid to late eighties a series of guides to local walks in Dorset and East Devon. I discovered my first one in a bookshop on Honiton for £2, but they're readily available on ebay for next to nothing. I can't recommend them highly enough, with every walk being a joy.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

We're still here...

This was a piece that I wrote last night on returning from a Battle of Britain veteran’s signing event held in Farnborough. Everyone can draw their own inspiration from the valiance of our airmen throughout the second world war, with their stories of heroism, courage and camaraderie. Harking back to a time when the best of British was not just a catchy phrase thought up by an advertising man to sell cheap sausages, but when it genuinely did reflect a ‘better’ time of ideals and upheld virtues. Of the courage of a man ready to get into the cockpit of a plane, maybe never to come back to earth, ready to sacrifice his life. This is what still strikes and inspires me, because for me it has a parallel to the short butterfly life of the cancer sufferer, whether the person lives for six months or years, they blossom into life then fade away in memory. It is men like Tom that give me strength, a trait that these men possess so strongly beneath their now frail exteriors.

An old man sits alone at a table in a room now empty, which just minutes ago had reverberated to multiple voices, outstretched hands and looks of hero worship. But certainly this man would never call himself a hero, to do so would seem wrong, to discredit those whose voices can no longer be heard – whether extinguished long ago in his distant memory, or in the recent years of old age, it matters not. The brotherhood of service was then, is still now, as his elderly colleagues shuffle off for a well-deserved lunch and rest.

As he sits in that bare moment I want to go over to talk, to put into action that day, that moment, that I’ve dreamt so long of. But here, in a meeting room at a hotel next to a busy dual carriageway I stand rooted to the spot. Has the morning’s work of signing the endless conveyor belt of books and posters thrust his way exhausted the energy of an old man, or has it brought back those memories that seem so vivid, so real, so not of seventy years ago? In the same way that I can feel the visceral emotion of the lasers and the smoke of the warehouse balcony, the confusion of the club, can he still remember the roar of cannon, smell of glycol, and the taste of fear?

Like a line of ghosts, they are just still present in our world, just still faintly visible to the eye. So frail, so hard to hear, so hard to reach out to; What can I ask, what can I say? Even now I don’t know what would have been right. I wish that the right words had been there for me to say, but they weren’t. But now I can: Thank you Tom, Geoffrey, Peter, William, Bill, Bob, Nigel and Tony. I’m glad I met you, you are there for me when the days are dark.

People often tell me that I’m brave, I don’t know why. “I’m not brave, I’m just trying to stay alive” is what I always say, like something heard whispered from a ghost passing by…

Wing Commander Tom Neil, DFC, AFC - who flew Hurricanes with 249 Squadron
from North Weald during the Battle of Britain. His book "Gunbutton to Fire" is a
classic of its type, as is Tom himself. A kind-hearted and noble man who I count
myself lucky to have met. This picture is copyright of The Independent website.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Training Walks Part Three

I wanted to finish off my blog of last week, which detailed my time in the Lake District getting in some much needed training walks for Mont Blanc. Not that I'm imagining that walking up a few sub 3,000ft 'fells' is going to in any way prepare me for what climbing a 15,782 feet snow-capped monster will be like. It was more of a tester week for myself, to get back out into the mountains after what had seemed an interminably miserable winter; To see how I would fare walking a moderate distance, every day, for a week.

As mentioned in last week's blog, the weather threw everything at me in a week: Snow, torrential rain, horizontal rain...and unbelievably beautiful, blue-sky sunny days. The sort of days that you really are glad to be alive. Everything seemed crystal clear, ultra-defined, with an extra sense of heightenment. They're the sort of days that I remember as always being the best when I used to surf a lot, where the air seems to possess a shimmering quality, where you feel its rawness as you breathe it in.

A mountain that I'd long dreamt about: Causey Pike, North-Western Fells.
17/03/11. A day of horizontal rain and piercing wind.
Not the best day to be attempting a short, almost grade one, scramble!

Another peak of a similar fascination: Hobcarton Pike, or Hopegill Head.
The latter being the OS name, the former Wainwright's.
Whatever, a beautiful, but long, walk from Stair over Ladyside Pike.
With yet another hand-to-rock experience, which I wished had been longer.

From Hopegill Head or Hobcarton Pike the way westward over Whiteside.
A walk we'd tried to do in the snows of last winter, but failed miserably.
18/03/11. Another beautiful day in paradise.

Longside Edge, the way to Skiddaw. Derwent Water in the distance.

The red, dome-like summit of Skiddaw. Still a way to go yet!

Skiddaw South Summit, looking towards the North-Western and Western fells.
Very, very cold, with a biting wind. Not the time to be taking in the view.
So that concludes my pictures of my last Lake District, although we're hoping to get back soon - my health permitting. Until next time, thanks for reading.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Training Walks Part Two

Living in the beautiful place where we do, on the East Devon and Dorset border, we're blessed with an abundance of beautiful places to get out to explore when the sun shines.  Even when it doesn't there's beauty and subtlety in the rolling hills, the cliffs, the pebbled beaches, the woods – whether they're covered in sun or cloud, their mood can sometimes accurately mirror my moods and lift them when they need to be. The looking at a map to find somewhere new to explore can often lead to a gem of a walk, unexpected and unknown. A walk down through the meadows of Thorncombe from Coles Cross this week brought such a surprise: On the map it looked plain, but in life it was anything but. It spoke to me of the pastoral idyl of Hardy, unchanged but very much loved.

With the arrival of Purdey I have to get out, to release her from the monotony of a life indoors. Her sad eyes follow you endlessly, as she waits patiently. But once we are out I am glad that we are, that she urged me to follow her back into life. I would lie if I said that things were easy at the moment. My aches and pains have returned, plunging me into doubt as to why they have returned to plague me once more. My bones hurt, mystery burning sensations too. My head hurts behind my eyes. But I'm still free to see the waves break on the shore, to see my dog frolic in the sea once more.

The setting sun at Charmouth, a wet dog, a glad heart all

I have always held a special place in my heart for the Lake District, a place visited from when I was very young, dragged protestingly up mountains no matter whatever the weather. The stories of our journeys up snow-bound ridges in the depth of winter, ill-fittingly equipped, have passed into legend, as have the memories of sore feet and heated tempers. It is place that I return to for solace, to be amongst friends – those beautiful rolling fells. Whether I will finish my Wainwrights or not I don't know, but I'm a third of the way through now, so I can look around and can see where I've been. The names that I adore so much: Blencathra, Glaramara, Sail, Grasmoor, Helvellyn, Ladyside Pike, Wasdale, Ennerdale. They are places that I return to, to escape to in my dreams.

The North Western Fells from Red Pike, the High Stile Ridge, Buttermere.
A walk that I've been wanting to do for a long time, it didn't disappoint.
13/03/11: Red Pike, High Stile, High Crag.

One of those mountains in the previous picture, Whiteless Pike, on the descent from Wandope.
14/03/11: Grasmoor via Lad Howes, Eel Crag, Wandope, Whiteless Pike, Rannerdale Knots.

Just over a month ago I was lucky enough to get to the beautiful Borrowdale valley for a week on my own, to walk amongst the hills with my thoughts. Beautiful blue skies, snow on the tops, drizzling rain and cloud – all in a week – but all welcome. Concentrating mainly on the fells in the Buttermere and Newlands Valleys six days of walking yielded another twenty two Wainwrights, but more than anything it gave me the hope that maybe I will get to Mont Blanc, if not to the top to get there at least. If I just can keep on walking...

Another fell that I've wanted to climb for a long time, Fleetwith Pike.
16/03/11: Fleetwith Pike (pictured), Grey Knotts, Brandreth, Haystacks.

The same mountain, Fleetwith Pike – the view from the top.
A fun climb with a few interesting sections of hand-to-rock action.

I'll be adding another post with further pictures of the rest of my week shortly.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Blogger Down - Latest Post Missing

Some sort of Gremlin attack has occurred at the Blogger headquarters, they must have sprinkled water on some of those cute furry creatures or something. Anyway, the upshot, amongst a general state of panic here at Piper Towers, is that my latest blog and all my comments have gone missing. It will appear in a Google search, but can't be opened. A bit like Naomi and chocolate, there one minute, next thing it's gone. Apparently the dog did it. Even though it will kill it.

“Ummm, I just love a small piece of chocolate now and then”
Anyway, back to harassing the Blogger technical staff.