Jonty Este is a 48-year-old journalist living in Sydney. He was born in the UK and has been in Australia since 1988, spending most of that time as a writer and editor with The Australian newspaper. He is director of communications with the Media Alliance, the journalists’ union, where he specialises in researching and writing about the way the news media is changing.
This is the fourth in an irregular series about his experiences with cancer.
There is prose and then there is prose — and as far as lyricism, characterisation and dramatic structure goes, the two-page pathologists’ report I received last week would not have had the critics salivating, to say the least.
But for this reader the document was powerful enough to bring a lump to my throat, ending as it did with the word “curative” with the accompanying assurances that affected lymph nodes they had found none, neither metastases, nor involvement of adjacent organs.
In fact: “No evidence of malignancy” whatsoever.
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It’s amazing how many times you can read even the most densely incomprehensible phrases when their conclusion is that you appear to have successfully been freed of a potentially life-threatening disease.
My wife, Maxine, notwithstanding that she is a former health reporter, was as scuppered at the medical detail as I was, but that didn’t stop our joyous tug of war over the two pages. Never have the words: “nil”, “none” and “not found” been so gratefully received.
And anyway, the surgical registrar did her best to make up for any lack of plotting and dramatic structure in the report itself with her delivery of said document.
Brisk, charming and super-efficient, as she was throughout my stay in St Vincent’s, she took me through my pain levels and medication, while I did my best to read upside down the document she was carrying headed: “Pathology Report”.
“Er … have we heard anything from pathology?” I asked nervously, at which she nodded and said: “In fact, that’s why I’m here …
“… But first I have to answer this page — I hope you’ll excuse me for just one second.”
And off she went.
A couple of minutes later, as she seemed to be heading back my way, she was waylaid by what looked like two junior doctors, who needed her to answer some questions. Then, as I watched, they were joined by a third interlocutor.
All the while I squirmed.
Then it was time for the ward nurse to take my “obs” — blood pressure, temperature and pulse.
“I think you’ll find my blood pressure a touch higher than normal,” I told her, only half in jest.
As it turned out my obs were normal and my doctor returned with a huge smile to deliver the good news: I am to all intents and purposes cured of this cancer, which is highly unlikely ever to return. Barring the minor discomfort of wearing a bag for the next few months to protect the wound in my bowel as it heals, and what is likely to be a short course of light chemotherapy to rule a line under this cure, I’ve come out of this crisis in one (ever so slightly diminished) piece.
It was well worth the wait to hear this and I’ll eternally be grateful to the dedicated and highly skilled team who have delivered me to this happy condition.
One of the great rewards of working in such a high pressure job as cancer surgery must be those occasions on which one is able to deliver unequivocally good news to a patient. Journalists often talk about a “good get”, when hard work or luck delivers them a really good story that no one else has found and I must say I would love to have had more of them in my career.
But what news more satisfying to deliver, albeit to a smaller audience, than to tell someone their lives have been saved?
So after 10 days of remarkably easy time in hospital, I was able to go home on Friday. This morning I returned to outpatients and had 47 staples removed from my belly leaving me with a hell of an impressive scar — the surgeon who performed the operation has something of a reputation for the neatness of his work. And that, apart from some light chemotherapy in the months to come and a far less gruelling operation in a few months to restore normal intestinal service, ought to be an end to it.
There’s a bit of hard work ahead — walking to the end of the road is still a major achievement and I’m going to need every bit of the month of convalescence that I’ve been granted to get back up to anything like full-speed ahead. But the hard work has been done and the mental fog that tended to descend every time I thought too hard about being sick will, I hope, be lifted permanently.
But hopefully I’ll have more than a scar to show for the past few months. When diagnosed with cancer and faced with the knowledge that what you have contracted has a “survival rate”, it’s hard not to indulge in the introspection game: what have I achieved, and what do I want to go on to achieve, if — as Christopher Hitchens puts it, “I am spared”.
The answer to the first part of this question is: not enough. To the second — well, I have a month or convalescence to work that out. I’ll put it to good use.
On the plus side of the ledger, I can happily report a crowd of loyal and loving relatives and friends whose support though the whole cancer episode and whose visits during my stay in hospital are blessings hugely worth counting as my best achievement of all.