Changing the conversation about work and cancer

Moving Melvyn: a cautionary tale?

Our regular contributor, Harmer Parr, provides us with the latest news on Melvyn the Melanoma.

‘The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough’ (Rabindranath Tagore).

Shortly after our summer move from Norwich to just outside Cambridge (just inside is now for the super-rich), I was walking the dog in our new, local wood (new to us, there in the Domesday Book) when I was surprised to see a simple, upright stone memorial in the middle of the trees. It was just a large slab of stone, remembering the premature death of a 25-year-old, and it had the above reflection. The more I thought about it, the more it grew on me.

We’re all familiar with the ‘taken too soon’ feeling often expressed after an early death, but this epitaph seemed to take a different tack. It’s a somewhat fatalistic take on life and death. Our current Twittersphere has its own more prosaic take: ‘it is what it is’. Life is what you get, and it’s best to view it in as positive a light as possible, which is what this epitaph does. This poor lad got what he got, but why not focus instead on what he was and what he achieved? He was obviously very well loved.

Of course, the problem with fatalism is that it can underplay the role of human agency. The French writer Denis Diderot picked this theme up rather nicely in his book ‘Jacques le Fataliste’. Early in the book Jacques and his servant are travelling by horse across open countryside when the servant sees some bandits approaching fast on the horizon. ‘Quick, master!’ says the servant. ‘Let’s hurry to that inn before they catch us’. ‘No’, replies Jacques, ‘if they’re destined to catch us they’ll catch us anyway’. The servant dashes away, Jacques remains and is comprehensively mugged and robbed. As you can imagine, that’s just the beginning of the story.

Around last November, after months of lockdown and almost no contact with our children and their children, we decided, like Jacques’ servant, to shake ourselves up and move. Norwich is a lovely place once you get there, but as any traveller knows it can take less time to travel from there to Norway than to anywhere else in England. A work colleague living even further east, in Lowestoft, discovered that his quickest way to our conference in Birmingham was actually to drive to Norwich and catch a plane to Amsterdam and then to Birmingham. A half an hour quicker than the equivalent rail journey.

We’d lived in Norwich for 25 years, so cutting ourselves adrift was not easy. Solicitors ensured that a move that should have taken three months ended up taking nine. Our chain looked straightforward. We sold our house quickly, found another, signed all the papers and waited for action. Two months, I remember, were consumed by a ‘Local Authority Search’. When it finally arrived, it contained two startling facts: we were not allowed to build a tower more than 45 metres high in the garden or put neon signs on the front of the house. These were crushing blows, but we decided to proceed anyway, abandoning our hopes for a casino with its own landing pad.

Five days before we were due to move, a solicitor further up the chain made a startling discovery. Unfortunately, setting his alarm clock for five days before the move proved insufficient. Having only been on the case for six months, he discovered that a freehold on the property he was selling was owned by an old man living in a remote location in the Philippines, and that old man had to sign in person. ‘Remote location’ was an interesting concept. A cave in the mountains perhaps? Or maybe a mud hut in the jungle? I need to explain to any Philippinos outraged by my view of their doubtless lovely country,  that I knew only two things about it. First, that they speak an unlikely sounding language called Tagalog, and second, that Imelda Marcos, the former President’s wife, needed over 2000 pairs of shoes. This suggested that the terrain might be somewhat rough and inhospitable for the intrepid team trying to track down the elusive old man.

We did eventually move, on the two hottest days of the year, or apparently any year up to now. We immediately replaced tracking in our imagination through impenetrable jungle to trying to track through the even more impenetrable jungle of contacting firms and utilities to tell them of our move. We learned two important facts: when a website says ‘contact us’ it means you can’t, and although your phone call is exceptionally important to the people you’re phoning (it must be because they tell you so every ten seconds) it’s not so important than anyone needs to answer it. I also checked the meaning of ‘exceptional’, because when I was a child it meant ‘unusual, out of the ordinary’. I scoured my dictionary to find out if it can also mean the opposite, as lines are now “exceptionally busy” all the time. I was so beguiled by their soothing tones that it took me a week to wonder if these firms were maximising their profits by employing as few phone answerers as possible. Obviously I banished such a cynical thought.

An ongoing medical drama merely added to the delights of our move. My immunotherapy treatment involves a six-weekly injection of a wonderful drug called pembrolizumab, and then CT scans every six months to see if Pembro is still keeping Melvyn the Melanoma under control. I’d taken part successfully in a trial to see what would happen if I stopped taking the drug, and I was off all treatment for 18 months. However, my January scans suggested that Melvyn might be getting frisky again, and further scans indicated there could also be a blood clot in my liver.

When we moved, I was still waiting for the MRI scan to know if there was indeed a clot, so I had to travel back and forth between hospitals before I transferred finally to Addenbrookes. Gill, my wonderful consultant in Norwich, managed the whole thing for me, getting the scans done wherever they could be done most quickly. It’s almost worth getting cancer in Norwich so that you can have Gill as a friend. She phoned to say yes, there was a clot, and from now on I would need blood thinning tablets. I’d been stabbing myself in the stomach with syringes pending the decision on the clot, and it was rather a relief to move to tablets. My stomach was yellow with bruising, but my technique may not have been the best. Someone helpfully pointed out that it was meant to be injections not bayonet practice. Clem the Clot has now been added to the dramatis personae in the quest to kill me, and he must be satisfied with all the attention he’s getting. Melvyn might be sulking, so I’ll have to keep an eye on him. Subterfuge is his hallmark. Lurking is his speciality.

What, you may be wondering, has any of this got to do with the fatalism versus activity debate with which this article began? Well, in a nutshell, we think in hindsight that we’d got into a bit of a rut in Norwich, and the first discovery when you uproot and move is that all those things you used to do without thinking you now have to think about. Mental activity increases one hundredfold. Failing memory adds to the excitement, because when you’ve cracked a new procedure, you have to re-discover a week later what you did last time. When I was a teacher many years ago I had classes that I’d call the ‘new every morning brigades’ because they never remembered what we’d done last time and we had to go over it all again. Now, as a belated punishment, I’m a fully paid up brigade member.

While there have been many difficulties to overcome, we feel very positive about our move, which has been full of new experiences and excitement. When Comberton Under 12s conceded two goals in injury time last Saturday I was of course ‘sick as a parrot’, but a late goal for the under 8s put me back over the moon. My delightful bike ride to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital has been replaced by a tortuous Park and Ride excursion to the massive Addenbrookes, but the challenge of sorting out how to do it and then doing it successfully provide good mental stimulation. In fact, all this brain activity means that, in the queue of things trying to put an end to me, the odds on dementia have lengthened considerably, to the competitive Melvyn’s great relief.

Having a butterfly brain means, of course, that the quote at the start of this article had a particular resonance for me. Cancer is never a welcome bedfellow, although it does get you to the front of a lot of queues, and in Norwich you do get to meet the incomparable Gill. My 19-year-old brother was killed in the Falklands War, so I’ve always felt that any years I get beyond what he had have been a tremendous bonus. Whatever happens now, yes, I have time enough, and yes, I’ve been damned lucky to have this much.

Harmer Parr