Cancer, love and rat-like cunning

BACK ON COURSE: Playing golf and being among friends feels like a blessing for journalist Kevin Norquay.
Kevin Stent

BACK ON COURSE: Playing golf and being among friends feels like a blessing for journalist Kevin Norquay.

What to do when cancer strikes? How do you keep the mental ghosts at bay? A new book looks at journalist Kevin Norquay's journey with cancer, through the eyes of his wife Karen Nimmo, a writer and clinical psychologist.

'Fish Pie is Worse than Cancer' is, like the cover says, a story of love, hope and rat-like cunning. It shows how a shock cancer diagnosis affects an ordinary family - the emotional trauma it wreaks and how to cope with it.

In her author's note, Nimmo writes, "Doctors go after cancer physically - with scalpels and drugs and radioactive beams. They're good at that, yet it just isn't enough if you want to survive the emotional turmoil as well as the march of the mutant blood cells."

BACK ON THE FAIRWAY: Kevin Norquay and Karen Nimmo.
KEVIN STENT/Fairfax NZ

BACK ON THE FAIRWAY: Kevin Norquay and Karen Nimmo.

In this raw and insightful book, Nimmo outlines the sort of mettle it took to cope, and the lessons learned along the way. Here's an excerpt from where it started for Kevin, Karen and their family.

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It began nine months earlier with a twinge in his back. A twinge, which morphed into a stabbing, lingering pain that for medical insurance purposes we wanted to claim as an accident, except there hadn't been an accident. There was no trauma, no strain, no clear point of origin. It was just a dull ache that roared up then receded like the tide, tricking us into thinking it was simply the product of a dodgy golf swing.

ON THE BEAT: Kevin Norquay in a media scrum around Labour MP Parekura Horomia in 1999.

ON THE BEAT: Kevin Norquay in a media scrum around Labour MP Parekura Horomia in 1999.

He went to a doctor. Then another. He had examinations. He had x-rays.

Nothing.

Bad posture, possibly. A high pressure job. An office chair with poor ergonomics.

He did core-strengthening exercises with anatomical names: the single-leg abdominal press; segmental rotation; quadruped extension. We renamed them, laughing: The Alligator roll. The Flamingo stretch. The Bonking Dog. The pain went away. Then it surged back, white hot, forcing him to pace the house through the early hours of the morning. Some nights he couldn't lie down, snatching sleep as he sat upright on the sofa.

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"It's nothing sinister," one back specialist said, inhaling $300 and rubber-stamping a few sessions of physiotherapy.

"Poncy git," Kev said, dismissing the specialist's manner and his findings. "I was just another wallet walking in the door."

But something was wrong. He was tired all the time. He fell asleep between arriving home from work and dinner. Then again after dinner. He began to cough, hacking like an old man in the mornings, a dry bark that wouldn't shift. At night he'd sweat, not always, but his pillow gradually stained yellow. His stomach burned with acid reflux.

More medical appointments for symptoms that played Hide n Seek, each of them daring each other to present at the same time to fill out the picture. They refused: as his stomach problems flared, his backache retreated. The cough and sweats came and went, mounting fatigue was pinned on the demands of a stressful job and our busy lives.

Then one Saturday he went for a walk, a test for leg muscles he kept saying were losing their power.

"I'm wading through cotton wool," he said, stumbling in the door. "I can't feel my feet hitting the ground."

The next day he couldn't stand up long enough to poach eggs. He tripped on a cushion lying on the floor because his feet wouldn't obey his brain's orders to lift them. Extra-strength painkillers couldn't stifle the pain in his back.

Even then, the registrar at the emergency orthopaedic clinic indicated he was being dramatic, yanking and twisting his legs, applying pressure to his back until he gave in.

'Argghhhh," Kev let out his breath. I jumped back, startled, he was normally uncomplaining about pain.

"It's not life-threatening," the doctor said, crouching in front of us, yawning. "You just need to manage your pain medication better. Here's some codeine, take it regularly. Come back if it gets worse."

He ripped a sheet off his prescription pad, stood up and turned away. Kev and I stared at his back wondering how we were going to get all the way down to the car park.

By morning I had to help him out of bed.

He winced with pain as I eased his shoes on. I floored the accelerator through the city to get to Wellington hospital. In the Accident and Emergency wait room, I called my clients for the day and cancelled their appointments. "Small family emergency," I said. "I'll be in touch to reschedule."

"Fine with me," said one woman, who had been addressing her procrastination issues in therapy. "I'm happy to put things off for a while. Take all the time you need." She laughed at her own joke and I smiled.

"Kevin Norquay," the nurse called, and I forgot all about work.  

In the examination room, people wearing navy blue scrubs were walking faster, talking faster. There were more tests, bloods and urine, x-rays, rapid sign-off for expensive scans, spinal taps, probes.

More doctors, each wave of a higher rank than the previous one. More questions. An uneasy feeling they were showing way too much interest for it to be a slipped disc. Must be a really complicated nerve compression, we thought. Or perhaps a bone problem?

The diagnosis came at nightfall.

The lights in the ward had been dimmed; Kev lay alone in his hospital bed, heavily dosed with pain medication. As his eyes shuttered, a doctor he had not seen before appeared in the doorway of his room: a young man in a long white jacket, pouches under his eyes. He wore a hospital identity tag but he didn't introduce himself. He didn't mention cancer. He just stood at the side of the bed and threw all the other scary words together in one sentence.   

"Tumour…malignant…spine….paralysis."

Then the kicker: secondary. The medical way of saying the cancer had spread.

For a few seconds Kev wondered if it was all some kind of sick joke.

It wasn't. A joke would have been welcome.

The doctor left.

Kev fell back on his pillow, the course of his life forever altered.

This extract was taken from the new book, Fish Pie is Worse than Cancer: A true story of love, hope and rat-like cunning.

Available from Amazon and Trade Me, with $5 from every book sale going toward help with the psychological side of cancer. 

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