I had my meeting with the doctor and he noted my hair had fallen out. When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade, if life happens to also give you sugar as well. Looking back I figure I saved almost a hundred Czech Koruna, that’s around eight New Zealand dollars, on shampoo.
“Your eyebrows will fall out too,“ Doc H. said genially. Jesus, really? I thought. I wondered where the indignities ended. How would I navigate my way through the world without eyebrows? A magic marker could work I supposed, for expressing emotion. It would have to be a whiteboard marker, a permanent marker would get too confusing, as lines of emotion were criss-crossed over my brow, people would think I was schizophrenic.
I was sitting in the waiting room one day when a guy around ten years older than me came in an sat opposite. Dear God, I thought, he has no eyelashes! The cold fist of reality punched me in the stomach again. He’s me, I thought, only I don’t know it yet.
My eyebrows lost their integrity by degrees. At the end I had roughly half on each side. The hair on my chest likewise came out, or rather thinned out; I’m not a particularly hairy man anyway. The hair entirely on one side of each leg fell out. There was a perfect line down the middle that was curious. I showed Doc H.
“We aren’t sure why the chemotherapy affects the hair follicles,“ he said. I didn’t really care to be honest. I wore a hat, it wasn’t because I felt embarrassed to have no hair, I think I just didn’t want to keep catching myself in reflections and being reminded, so to speak, that I had Cancer. It sounds odd, I know, as though one could forget, but in a way you can. If you recall despite how advanced and serious my condition I had no symptoms. My current life and death struggle is a silent game. Outwardly I look remarkably healthy due to the diet I follow, so it was and is still difficult to reconcile how physically good I feel with my actual condition. My situation was a curious one consequently. I felt like a fraud. The chemotherapy I was been given, which the doctor stated was very strong, had little side effects. I was a little tired, later sores formed i my mouth, if I cut myself it took longer to heal, my body in general felt more sensitive, especially my fingertips after the first infusion, this was quite unpleasant, but nothing compared to what I was expecting and fearing.
Around this time I was put in touch with a man roughly my own age in NZ who had been diagnosed at the same time as me with the same stage 4 in the right lung. The idea was we could support each other. Sadly this man died last July. His experience was every bit as bad as they say Cancer and chemotherapy treatment is. He experienced everything I was supposed to, but due to a statistical anomaly, as my Oncologist put it, I was having only a mild reaction to the Chemotherapy. As grateful as I was I couldn’t stop thinking about the people, some I knew personally now, who were really suffering. It was doing my head in. I asked the doctor why the Chemotherapy didn’t make me sick.
“You’re occupy a place in the extreme minority,” He said, when I pushed him as to how this is possible he merely shrugged, “You are lucky.“
Luck is a curious word to associate with Cancer. I wasn’t only lucky, I was filled with a gratitude I had never experienced before. Though my future is not as clear and certain as I might want, and the same goes for everyone I know, what with cosmic trams and buses waiting around every corner to mow you down.
Why am I lucky? Why aren‘t I suffering? Why did I cough up blood one time mere months before the Cancer would have gone terminal? Why does my Cancer have a good prognosis, and why did I get the one with a good prognosis? These questions mostly have no answers unfortunately. I have a terrible analytical mind, it is always asking why, why, why?
Funnily enough I didn’t bombard my Oncologist with questions. The truth is they don’t know much about Cancer anyway.
“How long would the cancer have been growing in my body?“ I asked Doc H.
“Many patients ask this question,“ Doc H. Said, “I tell them it is better to concentrate on going forward and not to dwell on the things leading up to this point.“
Sound advice, none of the questions nesting in my brain were really important anyway. I had Cancer, that was all that mattered, and I had to beat it.
In February, between my first and second infusion I decided to get away for a few days, somewhere where there was ocean. It didn’t have to be warm, just show me the sea, I wanted its power to envelop me.
I booked a ticket to Venice, quite short notice so I had to change flights in Brussels. On the way back I would have half a day in the Belgium capital, which was beautiful, but after Venice it was, through no fault of its own, underwhelming.
It was around 15 degrees when I arrived and while there I had a few days of clear blue sky and a sun I hadn’t seen in weeks.
Venice is a short flight from Prague, even if you go via Brussels it took me a few ours only. I booked the ticket only a few days before I went and the price was around 4000 Koruna return, that’s around 250 NZ dollars. I would be lucky to fly from my hometown of Invercargill to Christchurch, around 500 kms, for that price. This is one of the great things about living in central Europe, there are so many opportunities and travelling to the east or west is roughly equidistant. The sheer load of flights keeps the prices down. New Zealand is a wonderful country but due to its geographical isolation and low population, flying inside the country is costlier than flying to Australia generally, and Aussie is 2000 kms away, roughly the same distance as Invercargill to the coast of Antarctica, and yes there are Penguins and they have even been known to casually wander up the main street of coastal towns.
Do Penguins get Cancer? Sharks don’t apparently, but Sharks as a general rule don’t get run over when crossing the street either. If it‘s not one thing it’s another out to kill you it seems.
Anyway, enough about NZ.
I need not overly sing the praises of Venice and no doubt my trip there in February made the difference to my enjoyment of the place. I have heard in summer it is impossible to move and I could well imagine. The older canal part of the city is not so large and many of the streets and alleys and bridges are quite narrow. I found two days was more than ample to see this part of the city. I love taking photos, and I took hundreds of Venice, of which perhaps one was original, let us say. In a place as iconic as Venice taking an original photo is quite difficult as every picture I took, there was a much better version of it on the internet.
It was enough just to walk around and become immersed in the history and the atmosphere. The architecture is breathtaking, and the sheer tenacity of building out in the middle of a lagoon, using millions of tree trunks, sunk beep into the mud where the mud and water, as I understand, petrifies the wood, making it stronger over time. The scale of Santa Maria Della Salute church alone is mind boggling, standing on approximately 1,106,657 wooden stakes, each measuring 4 meters..The tree trunks were brought in by boat from the forests of Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro. Laying the foundations took just over two years alone. Perched on the water the Santa Maria church beggars belief in its sheer size and architectural beauty.
On the second day I took a boat out to Burano, the outlying island famous for its small canals and brightly colored houses. I sat there and stared out at the sea. The place was virtually empty, the only sign of life an occasional tourist wandering around or a local hanging washing in a courtyard.
I can’t remember exactly when I noticed everything was glowing slightly, my eyelashes had fallen out too, so my days of fluttering them at girls were over for the time being. Eyelashes evolved to keep grit out of our eyes and to spread airflow evenly across the eye in order to keep it moistured correctly, too much and your are blinded, too little and your eyes will be itchy and irritable. Well eyelashes clearly also developed to act as miniature hat brims for our eyes, regulating the light. Without them you may notice a subtle glow to the world, giving it a slight dream like quality.
When you think you are going to die, and don’t, every day afterwards is like walking in a dream.
I have lived and worked in Prague for eight years as an English teacher, including for Canadian Medical.