A mild touch of the cancer: A column of two halves - as David Downs receives his test results
Author and comedian David Downs shares his experience with cancer in this series 'A mild touch of the cancer'.
It's a column of two halves this week. As I type, I am awaiting the results of the test I did yesterday which will tell me if the cancer is completely gone, or if a few pesky cancer cells have decided to stay on and party a little longer.
The test result is another major milestone for me – down one path is the end of treatment, and a return to 'normal'; and down the other path is another series of treatments – this time with radiotherapy. By the time I finish writing the column, I should know the answer because my doctor will ring with the results sometime this afternoon.
It's a funny feeling, being in limbo, waiting. It must be like what politicians feel after the polling booths close and before the election results come in, or before they find out the Russians have rigged the results. It's the real-world equivalent of Schrodinger's cat – the famous experiment where they lock a cat in a box next to some radioactive material and for a while it's both half alive and half dead. Or something like that, I only did first year physics and thought it was rather cruel to cats. Apparently, it was only a thought experiment, so not a real cat, or a real box, but I still think it was mean.
Schrodinger was more of a dog person. And a psychopath. DAVID DOWNS
Speaking of cats and radiation though – the test I am waiting for was another CT scan, or CAT scan depending on your preference. In fact, it was more than a mere CT scan, like many cats it was a pet, in fact a PET-CT scan. I now know why the radiology zealots are so keen we use the acronym 'CT' instead of 'CAT' because otherwise yesterday I would have had a PET-CAT scan. Entertaining, but perhaps somewhat dismissive of its importance.
The scan I had is properly known as a 'Positron Emission Tomography – Computerised Axial Tomography' scan – although now that I see they have repeated the word 'Tomography' in the phrase twice I might start calling it a TOM-CAT scan, mainly to annoy the zealots. I suspect that what happened is someone had a bet with the guys at the scanning machine manufacturing factory that they could make up a silly word and have it used lots, and so now doctors and other people who should know better are saying the made-up word 'tomography' 6 times a day while Benny from welding collects $20 from his workmates at smoko time.
Anyway – my PET-TOM-CAT scan is like a super version of the scan I had a couple of months ago that revealed my tumour had shrunken to the size of a sausage. Now, after 4 more rounds of chemotherapy, the enhanced test is designed to see if there is any cancer left in me. It's a more extreme test, mixing together the imaging of the inside of my body from the CT scan with a new thing – radioactive sugar!
And this time I mean it, they injected me with radioactive sugar yesterday, it's like I ate one of Spiderman's barley sugars. The reason for the sugar is that this test will be able to tell what cells and structures in the body are consuming the most energy, which they can then use to see things that are much smaller or harder to see on a CT scan. They are giving my cells a radioactive sugar rush.
In a healthy body at rest, you'd expect to see lots of cellular activity in the brain (for most of us…), and this would 'light up' in the scan and be the brightest thing in the image. If there is cancer in the body though, this shows up even brighter as cancer cells consume more sugar and burn energy.
Simply speaking, with the PET-CAT-CT-TROMBONE scan, the doctors want to ensure that my brain is the brightest thing about me. Good luck with that.
Any bright spots anywhere else mean bad news, and that I'd have to have radiation therapy to kill those active cells – beams of radiation shot through me into the over-active cells.
This private hospital also went nuts with the power sockets. An electrician's dream. DAVID DOWNS
I did the PET scan at a private hospital in Auckland, where they have the specialised scanning machine – it's longer, larger and heavier than the other CT machine I was in – indeed, you could say I had some heavy PETting. See what I did there?
In a similar way to last time, I had to strip off and don a light gown, only this one was flasher than the public hospital ones which are made of sandpaper, and it made me look like a Jedi knight.
Again, I had to lie down on a slab thing which they could then send through the machine, only the tunnel it went through was much longer, and it reminded me of a car going through the Mt Vic tunnel in Wellington. When I go through I always have an unstoppable urge to honk the horn, just as I did yesterday as I whizzed through the machine. Luckily, my chemo-ridden body was able to comply and sound the horn as I passed through, making a pleasing honking noise. At last, a benefit to my side effects with a nice reverb.
The pleasure was short lived, however, as the machine stopped at the end and then pulled me back through the tunnel backwards. Wow, they really need to do something about the emissions fumes in that tunnel.
A PET-CT Scanning machine and the fastest way to the airport. DAVID DOWNS
Before they put me into the machine they asked me if I was claustrophobic, which I denied; some of my best friends are claustros. So they merrily tied me to the slab and fixed my arms to my sides with Velcro, before leaving the room with a cheerful 'See you in 20 minutes, try not to get too radioactive'.
I soon found out that I might not be worried about small spaces, but – like many people I suspect – as soon as I lose the ability to move my arms, I develop itches in strange places. Places I would normally scratch casually, with impunity (although not in polite company) were inaccessible and therefore decided to act up as if a tiny ant was dancing a jig on my skin.
Quickly, the inability to scratch my nose became my primary concern and the longer the test went on the more it drove me crazy, not being able to get to it. I suspect the reason the doctor is taking so long to ring me now with the results of the scan, requiring me to blather on to you all, is because right now there are a bunch of specialists looking at my PET scan results trying to work out how my nose can be so much brighter than my brain. I blame the radiation.
Still, the test eventually finished (and after a damn good scratch all over), I was told that I would remain radioactive for another 4 to 5 hours, and in that time I should avoid being too close to pregnant women or children. I assume they meant to have a comma in there, clarifying that I should avoid pregnant women and avoid any children, so to give them the benefit of the doubt, I refrained from hugging ANY children, not just the pregnant ones. Better to be safe than sorry.
I did try to use The Force while I was radioactive to see if I had special powers, but nothing floated. Probably the best thing I did was find an old undeveloped roll of film and try to get my radioactive rays into it, but the results of that test may also take a while – mainly while I find a photo shop that still deals with actual film, I think they have all converted to digital and make their money by selling memory sticks to tourists.
So… I wait. I wait for the test results, and so must you. Probably for a shorter period than me given you can simply skip to the end of the column, which I will write after I have talked with the doctor, and find out if I need to have radiotherapy or not.
It's this helplessness and powerlessness which I imagine most people struggle with. The physical and emotional impacts of cancer are heightened by this feeling that cancer is something that happens TO you, that it's an external malevolent force acting with its own will. The inability to even control things like the timing and nature of the treatment is disempowering.
As I've written in these columns before, I feel fortunate to have a positive disposition, and my wait will only be a couple of days, but I also feel that nagging worry and I can see how it could spiral into negative thoughts and for some people, exacerbate the pain and suffering of the cancer. Again, I will say that having a long term illness is as much a mental battle as a physical one.
At the moment the celebration is not so much image 1 as image 2 or even image 3... DAVID DOWNS
RIGHT! It's now two hours since I wrote all that and in that time the doctor called me, I talked with Katherine, rang my mother and texted my mates. Such is the natural order of things.
The result was… mixed.
The good news is that the tumour, which was the size of a small volleyball a few months ago, and a sausage just a few weeks ago, is now gone. It's shrunk out of existence; way to go the chemotherapy!
However, the test also showed something else - possibly something new. The doctors aren't sure what it is, it's a 'something', about the size of a Jaffa near my adrenal gland, which (probably like most of you) I keep near my kidney. It lit up brightly on the PET-CT-ETC scan, which as mentioned is not a good thing. It shows the Jaffa-size thing is active and likes sugar, just like a real Jaffa.
To work out what the 'something' is, I will need to have another biopsy – I'm an old hand at them, no bother. Not sure when it will be – more uncertainty - but if I can beat a volleyball into submission, I'm sure I can deal to a Jaffa.
So for now I will keep the champagne in the fridge (ok, on the shelf at the supermarket) and have something else instead. As always, I will keep you informed with progress and hopefully we can roll that Jaffa down the aisle soon. Thanks for all your support and encouragement!
David Downs has been, at various times, an author, radio and TV actor, comedian and public speaker. With careers in TV, IT and now the public sector, where he helps New Zealand companies grow internationally, David lives in Auckland with his wife and three teenage boys.