Karate and cancer. Update number 4.

So, the battle continues. Nearly six months down the line and like many things in life, this journey with the Big C continues to be one step forward and well, frankly, one step back. 

Let me elaborate if I may. At the start of February, I was invited to meet with Carol, a senior manager at the Stratford hospital cancer ward. I thought that I was popping in for a chat, but as it happened, it was a bit more than that. Carol is a really good people person, given the really tough nature of the world that these amazing medical staff live in, day in, day out, where they work exceptionally hard to keep people alive. However, sadly, given the nature of cancer, death is a reality, and not everyone survives. A fact these heros deal with week in, week out. We chatted about the usual this and that which people do and then formalities over, Carol got down to business. She showed me a graph on her PC that recorded my white blood cell count from when we started my treatment to now. 

Truth is that the results were not good, they showed consistently low readings, and on two occasions, the chemotherapy treatment had been delayed. In addition, she explained that after discussions with senior consultants, they had concluded that my bone marrow after chemo failed to produce enough white blood cells. Apparently I suffer from highly-sensitive bone marrow. To be fair, this is probably the only time that I can ever recall being described as sensitive. As you can imagine, this immediately grabbed my attention. So what does all this mean, I asked. Well, there are several issues. Firstly, I needed to change my treatment and start again from scratch.  In addition, it will need changing one of the two treatments that I have previously been having. The idea is that treatment number two will not only require killing the cancer cells but it will also require a secondary treatment designed to stimulate the bone marrow to produce more white blood cells. Part of this required nightly injections in the stomach. To be honest, when she told me that, I must confess I had a bit of a moment. I suspect that in a previous life, I must have either been run through by a sword, or bayoneted. Bottom line is that after decades of being regularly punched hard in the stomach in Karate training, and never batting an eyelid, the thought of injecting myself in the stomach was hard to digest.

In addition, Carol also pointed out that if this treatment did not work and the cancer returned, then chemotherapy treatment would not be an option. This also required a bit of mental adjustment; in my head, post diagnosis of having cancer, I deliberately decided that the idea of dying was not allowed to enter my head, so it did not. Now, being realistic, it was actually a tad closer than it was. Now, dont get me wrong my mantra of ‘Never Give Up, Never Give In’ has not altered a jot; however, as Carol rightly pointed out, a balance needs to be struck between optimism and realism. Luckily, I have always applied this philosophy to my own circumstances. The first treatment took place a little over 2 weeks ago. Usual plan - blood test and PICC line clean on Monday, then if all good chemotherapy for 3 and a half hours on Wednesday. Except this time after completing the treatment, I was given a plastic container that basically contained more chemotherapy that would be infused over a 48-hour period. However, the logistics were a challenge, as the device had to be kept basically at head height to ensure gravity would flow south into the artery. The simple solution was to pop it into my hoodie - genius, I thought. Sleeping however was a whole new ballgame, as naturally, when you sleep and you move, this caused the PICC line to snag, nearly pulling the darned thing clean out of my arm. Also, simple things like standing up become more complex as you forget you have the thing attached and it falls down, etc. The new treatments also included new side effects; these include significant tingling in the hands, face, and especially fingers when you venture into cold conditions. I recall Marty Pellow from Wet, Wet, Wet, who famously crooned that, he “felt it in his fingers, and he felt it in his toes” from the classic ditty ‘Love Is All Around Us” which back in the nineties spent what felt like two years in the number one spot. Well Marty, let me tell you, mate, I certainly did feel it in my fingers and my toes, and well painful it was, too. Another bonus is acute pain for 30 seconds when biting anything. It feels like sharp objects being punctured into the jaws, but it only lasts less than 30 seconds, then all is fine. On the subject of inconvenience, the joys of the stoma bag continue to shape daily life. On the positive, I was given a little plastic card for my wallet, that exclaims that I have cancer and I need priority access to public toilets. In truth, I am highly unlikely to ever consider a scenario where I pulled out my card, marched to the front of a queue of people and announced that I have a card that means that I can push in, and use said facilities. Of course, I am far too English to even think of pushing in to a well-ordered queue; it rebels against every fibre of my being to break ranks and interfere with the age-old tradition of fair play and doing the decent thing. No, I would rather dig in deep and take my chances of getting to the loo in time to engage with the whole stoma bag changing routine. 

In fact, thinking about the previous Marty Pellow poptastic reference, I was trying to think of a pop ditty that would be appropriate for the aforementioned bag. After much searching, I stumbled across the classic seventies disco classic, warbled in public by Sarah Brightman, the one time girlfriend of gargoyle-faced Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber. My slightly altered version would have her singing ‘ I lost my heart to a Stoma bag Trooper”. Admittedly, not quite true to the original where she lost her heart to a stormship trooper, but close enough given the subject matter. Duty compels me, dear chums, to advise that I have been training regularly in the dojo, trying to keep my own standard at the right level and also teaching and doing gradings at other clubs. My biggest problem is the sharp pain in my left foot and consequent swelling that I get post chemo, but you simply need to adjust, and while I cannot at the moment engage in jumps in katas like Kanku Sho, etc, you simply work around it and improvise as required. 

In truth, my Karate training has been a massive boost in dealing with cancer and it will remain at the very heart of my determination to overcome this challenge. After all Karate is all about perfection of character, a lifelong quest but one worth fighting for. OSS Austin Birks, 5th Dan, Chief Instructor, Enso Shotokan Karate Club, Cancer Patient, and proud owner of a public Toilet Priority Access Card.