A lot of shit has happened in the last month or so, since I was first brought into hospital, so I’m going to try and bring you all up to speed on how everything started etc. as quick as possible. That way it’ll be a lot easier for me to give an account of my experiences as they happen, without having to refer back to things that happened months ago to just to fill in plot gaps like a lazy self-referential sitcom *cough* *How I met your mother* “Oh this cough? Nah that’s just the cancer… which I almost definitely contracted from watching How I Met your Mother.”
First signs of illness
*NB* I would like to preface this subheading with a small proviso:
This is a rough recollection of my symptoms over the past few months, so don’t freak the fuck out if you have a few that are similar to mine. However, if you are consistently picking up illnesses for a few months, it may make sense to talk to your GP about getting a referral to A&E, as this will undoubtedly be the quickest route to your diagnosis for reasons which will be discussed throughout this section.
While I was only admitted to hospital about a month ago, I first started feeling ill on New Year’s morning, which, obviously, most of us would attribute to the sheer amount of poison we threw into ourselves on the session the night before, but to be fair, if you’d suggested to me that it was cancer right then and there I would’ve well fucking believed it. I had a pain in my kidneys and my body temperature was off so, anyway, after I was still feeling like shit a few days later, I went to my GP and I was put on antibiotics, I felt a bit better and got on with my life.
I still wasn’t feeling 100% though but it didn’t really bother me. It often takes people a while to feel completely normal again after a minor illness and college can really take it out of you so I didn’t think too much of it. Then, around February, I started getting sick again, worse this time. My body temperature was completely fucked, I was constantly shivering, just couldn’t get warm or cool enough. I started getting night sweats which progressed to the point where I would have to change the sheets on my bed every night and still wake up feeling like I spent the night with R.Kelly.
At this point, some of the lymph nodes in my neck started swelling up to the extent that it looked like I had a second spine growing up one side of it. I went back to my GPs office, where I was put on another course of antibiotics and bloods were taken. Same as the last time, I felt a bit better after a while but still not 100% and the spine of lymph nodes on the side of my neck remained.
My initial bloods were also lost somehow in the testing lab and I was still feeling run down. Surely enough, I ended up back in my GPs office, where it became clear that I had some sort of underlying illness that was causing all of these other infections, as well as the spine on my neck. It was determined that I most likely had glandular fever and a second sample of bloods was taken for testing.
But before the results of my second sample came back, I started to feel a bit more run down than usual and my mam decided to bring me down to a swift-clinic in Dundrum. I explained my situation to the doctor and he wrote me a referral to A&E, the thinking behind this being that it made more sense to be admitted to hospital, where all the relevant specialists are in the one place and test results come back much faster.
This is not to suggest any degree of negligence on behalf of my GPs, who have been nothing but excellent. The fact of the matter is that, unfortunately, in my own experience, admin in Ireland is just shite and there are many bits and pieces of information, often important, that slip through the cracks. Again, this is not to suggest any degree of negligence on behalf of administrators. My own mother has worked in admin for many years and works her arse off every day. The problem here is the existence of a system, which fails to safeguard against potential fuck ups and allows such failures to go unnoticed for days, often weeks. Human error is natural, nay inevitable. Systemic errors, however, can be easily identified and solved by putting in place safeguards to combat such fuck ups. Hence, these systems should be held to a far greater degree of accountability and scrutiny.
Either way, things will inevitably be done quicker when everybody involved in the process of diagnosis is in the same building, hence the doctor’s referral to A&E.
*NB* If you’re a student wanker like me (I am) and enjoy reading academic texts (I don’t), you can check out Professor Lucian Leape’s analysis of how systemic errors are largely responsible for the vast majority of individual error in the context of medicine here. It’s in a very different context than that discussed here but still somewhat relevant.
But enough of me shiting on about admin…
The doctor at the swift clinic briefly, yet as bluntly as being stabbed by a pair of crayola scissors, suggested that I might have Lymphoma. This was the first point at which someone had suggested that it might be cancer and that freaked me the fuck out. I was screaming internally; “Why the fuck would he suggest that it *might* be cancer, the stupid fuck?! What possible use could I have for this information?! Why would you tell someone they might be dying when there’s no tangible evidence to suggest that this is definitely the case?! I’m going in for tests anyway, could you not have just waited until they came back and then tell me for definite, instead of leaving me hanging in the fucking dark here, wondering?!”
While I do still hold a great deal of that sentiment with me, it occurred to me a while later, after finding out more about lymphoma, that this wasn’t necessarily such a scary diagnosis after all and that the doctor was merely desensitised to it. The survival rates are through the roof, for christ’s sake! I can now see that it was just so normal to him, as it should have been for me and, indeed, all people who have to deal with cancer in their lives; be they a potential patient, a sufferer or a close friend/relative. We all deserve to have the same calm mentality as that doctor had, as opposed to this knee-jerk reaction, triggered by the mere mention of the word “cancer”, which makes your mind instantly jump to the worst possible outcome of this situation; “Holy shit, death is an actual possibility here.”
I understand that the survival rate for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, especially in young people, is generally very high (most sources seem to suggest that it’s well over 90% for young men), and that an “Oh fuck!” reaction may well be warranted in a case where the rate is less favourable. The point I’m trying to make is that the instant, terrifying, Pavlovian reaction upon hearing the word “Cancer” is not helpful in any way, shape or form and that we need to smash these negative connotations in order to change this line of thought from “OH FUCK, OH FUCK, OH FUCK, I MIGHT DIE!” to something more along the lines of “Ok, so this may be cancer. How bad is it? What treatment is there available? What can we do about this right now?”, so that we can calmly assess the situation in an objective manner and analyse it for what it really is.
Anyway, I eventually got over this, dismissing cancer as an improbable worst-case scenario. Jaysus, I was some fucking thick.. 😛
A&E – Admission
The next morning I was admitted to St. Vincent’s Hospital, just down the road from me. I caught it at a good time; all of Friday night’s drunken casualties (if any) had been cleared up and I was seen within half an hour. After wee bit of time waiting on a trolley, it was decided that I was to be kept in for tests over the weekend, even though test results don’t come back until Monday (Because people don’t get sick on weekends, right?). Again, this is not a negative reflection on St.Vincent’s Hospital, who have taken extremely good care of me. It is merely a reflection on the state of the healthcare system in this country and the need for additional funding in this department.
After settling down, I was brought into my room for the night and they took my vitals/weight etc. It was at this point that I realised just how much weight I had lost since Christmas. My appetite was completely obliterated for months and I was visibly skinnier, yet it hadn’t bothered me too much. I had put this down to the fact that I had stopped working out, due to injury.
Rapid weight loss didn’t seem so scary to me; during my last run working at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I somehow managed to lose about 5kg within the space of a month on my patented fried haggis and buckfast diet. But when they weighed me this time, I was shocked to see that I had lost about 9kg since Christmas. While this is a terribly excessive loss of weight, I have no doubt in my mind that this was drastically mitigated through self-medication with cannabis.
This is another point, which I want to dedicate a good deal of writing to in future posts. I don’t want to conflate a number of issues, such as access to medicinal cannabis with other arguments regarding regulation, decriminalization and harm reduction, so I’ll try and keep this short, to the point and directly in reference to my own personal situation;
- Cancer completely destroyed my appetite and, at many times, self-medicating was the only viable option for me to be able to eat and survive.
- Self-medication is not preferable and, while cannabis is undeniably safer than most chemicals that we put into our system on a daily basis, there are inherent risks associated with putting any unregulated/untested substance into your body. We need to have legal access to medical cannabis, not just for the sake of convenience (In this day and age, anyone can pick up a bag of untested, potentially adulterated Cannabis with one phone call), but so that medical professionals can properly assess its use, so that the same rigorous regulations for other medications can be applied to ensure quality standards for this medicine and to ensure that patients are not ingesting poison. I’m not trying to say that Cannabis is inherently safe, on the contrary, further scientific study and regulation is needed in order to ensure that it is used safely and responsibly, like any other medication.
- You cannot possibly fathom the immense amount of strain that cancer can have on your mental health until it affects you/you’re loved ones. As someone who has been treated for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and anxiety since I was 15, I have built up a number of coping mechanisms, which allow me to function on a day-to-day basis without the need for medication. However, I have been pushed to the very limits of my mental strength over the past month or so and, at times, cannabis provided me a moment of relief, which allowed me to relax and consider my situation in an objective and calm manner. These little moments of calm meant the absolute world to me and I have no doubt that, without them, my attitude towards my situation would not be so positive. Everything happens so fast when you’re forced into a situation which necessitates you to consider your own mortality and sometimes all I needed was a moment for everything to slow down so I could come to terms with my situation, let my mental guard down and cry.
I’m not saying that cannabis is some miracle drug and that it will automatically work as well for others as it has for me, just that it is worth investigating the immense potential for cannabis to be used to combat mental health disorders, stress and the side-effects of chemo, such as nausea, vomiting and diminished appetite, to name but a few illnesses.
By raising public awareness of my own use of medical cannabis, I hope that this will help other people in situations similar to mine. Using a medicine that has not yet been regulated in Ireland can be isolating due to the stigma around illegal drug use, however a recent RTÉ poll found that 79% of the Irish public support the legal access of medical cannabis. This is a conversation worth having in contemporary Irish society. It’s 2016 for feck sake!
Help Not Harm are an organisation campaigning for the legal access of medical cannabis through GP prescriptions to ensure stringent medical standards. If anyone would like to join the campaign they can do so at helpnotharm.org
If you would like to take some sort of action right now, you can sign this petition right here.
Thank you all for reading! I have the draft for my next post or two sorted already, so you won’t have to wait as long as you did this time. Have a good one and feel free to get in touch with me through this, social media, carrier pigeon, telepathic thought sent by creepy warlocks or whatever you usually use, I’m always happy to hear from y’all.