Munros since diagnosis #176 and #177
12:00 – Geal-charn (M278), 3009ft, 917m
14:15 – A’ Mharconaich (M179), 3199ft, 975m
Chemotherapy is a serious rollercoaster. No more than ten days ago I wanted to curl up and die, today I climbed two Munros.
This cycle was worse than the last. Although the effects of the poison itself were less intense, they lasted longer, and although I thought I would be better prepared, they hit me differently, and challenged me mentally much more severely than the last time, leaving me struggling to find any will to carry on. I still struggle also to find the right words to describe the experience; I can use phrases like burning mouth or flu-like symptoms or feeling poisoned or whatever, and I can employ many colourful metaphors, but none captures the sheer brutality of chemotherapy intervention. There is something profoundly unnatural about taking a body to the point where it is unable to protect itself, and it does not matter that this happens in order that fast growing cancer cells be wiped out. It is as if this is an experience that only ever precedes death and that is perforce not commonly recalled or put into words.
As with all unpleasant or difficult to endure experiences the best way of getting through them is to remember that they will pass, that everything changes. The effects of chemotherapy are no exception, they are predictable and well documented; even although every body reacts differently, everybody can expect to feel progressively worse during the beginning, reaching a peak, after which a growing sense of improvement towards something like good health. The devil is in the details though. During this cycle I found it more and more difficult to hold onto this idea, to see the future as better than now, not to be overwhelmed by the hell of the present and to contemplate just succumbing to it all, giving up.
Although I have found that writing often focuses my mind in such a way that the physical challenges of chemotherapy are sidelined, during this second cycle I found myself also coping with the emotional residue of writing about the intellectual journey behind the subtitle of the blog – Mindfulness, Munro bagging and cancer. This I thought might also link together my polemics and help readers understand a little better where I coming from. Perhaps the text managed to do this, but it left behind a plethora of internal conflicts, furies and resentments. Also during this cycle I lost a friend to cancer and attended his funeral. After which I got myself into a terrible state reflecting upon my own demise, imagining the grief of my nearest and dearest, regretting the many things I should have done or said in life, and beating myself up about all the things I certainly should not have done or said.
As I headed into the third cycle, I was not been able to shake off much of this, despite at the end of the second achieving a condition of apparently improved physical health and capacity. Although of course I remained determined.
A trip into the hills at the end of the second cycle was always on the cards after the success of last month’s walk up Meall Cuaich, and as always Martyn was keen to facilitate. Eva and Richard also expressed a desire to join us – for they too had lost their friend, had been at the funeral and needed to reflect upon their loss. They brought along their friend Kate who was aiming for her first Munros – always fine to share with another the first experience of getting to the summit of a mountain. Our two vehicles drove into the carpark at Balsporran at exactly the same moment.
On the way through Drumochter, having caught up on stuff, but without once mentioning Brexit, Martyn suggested we listen a podcast given by Gils Fronsdal. This was a most engaging piece about putting into practice the power of now, of translating wise words about living in the present into actual conduct, by following two simple strategies; concentrating on only one thing at a time and completing tasks before starting anything new. This was the basis for the most meditative day out in the hills I have ever enjoyed, which was made all the more special by the fact that five humans and a dog were present to experience it.
We left the car park slightly after ten. The start of the walk is flat, but the path rises quickly up the northern shoulder of Geal-charn. After only twenty minutes I began to feel more tired and challenged than I had either expected or wanted. I told my companions about this and said that I would probably have to take many breaks today if I were to make it at all, that I would tell them whether or not I thought I would get to the second summit when and if I got up the first. Everybody was fine with this arrangement, but as always my determination to finish what I start spurred me on. We stopped for elevenses by some rocks looking out over the A9 corridor and then again not far shy of the summit, breaks which were sufficient for me to gain strength and realise that I would be able to complete the two summits just so long as I took my time and rested up at the right moments.
Coming out onto the high flat ridge of the summit we saw immediately what makes this little mountain rather special – the views down the length of Loch Ericht, of the mighty Ben Alder and over into the Laggan wilderness. Particularly pleasing was being able to see the summits of all four Geal Charns. The highest of these, in the high Laggans, lay in a direct line of sight with the summit ridge; the next, two lumps to the north, between Beinn a’ Chlachair and Creag Meagaidh, and the last somewhere in the hazy gloom on the horizon, ever so slightly west of north – although it has to be said that there was considerable discussion amongst the party about whether or not this mountain was actually visible, and if under clearer atmospheric conditions it would be visible. When I looked through my monocular I was sure I could see it, but others had their doubts and my camera was unable to pick it out.
Unambiguous though were the views of the mountains on the other side of Loch Ericht – in particular the mighty plateau of Ben Alder. We did not stop at the summit for more than a few minutes and walked on towards the bealach where we briefly picked up an ugly estate track scoured into the hill to allow access to grouse butts on the eastern slopes of Loch Ericht and briefly contemplated bagging Beinn Udlamain because it seemed so close by – but only briefly.
We left the estate track to return to the walker’s path up the side of A’ Mharconaich and found a place for a late lunch beside some rocks looking down Loch Ericht. The dense waterlogged air of the morning had given way, but the cloud was now much thicker above us leaving fewer gaps for the sun to penetrate. The air was still and warm.
After lunch we walked past the summit of A’ Mharconaich to the edge of the plateau where we investigated the cornice hanging under the lip before descending along the ridge.
Coll has a habit of getting far too close to edges for the comfort of his human companions, but he always keeps an eye on his master, who sometimes lags behind to take photos and contemplate the views.
The full sickle shapes of A’ Mharconaich’s cornices became more visible as we descended the mountain. These are a familiar sight to anybody who regularly travels southwards on the A9.
As we rounded the corner of the hill and emerged onto the long slope of the northern shoulder, views to the south opened up past the bulk of the Drumochter hills, towards Scheihallion and Glen Lyon.
In the opposite direction, emblazoned on the steep southern slope of Geal-charn, strangely shaped screes seemed to spell out a message written in an ancient script or to depict fantastic animals and birds.
Before we left the mountainside, we stopped one more time. For maybe fifteen minutes we sat, all of us, in complete silence, resting and eating in preparation for the final descent, each contemplating things to come, our journeys so far or engaged in meditation. This was a special moment. Even Coll joined in.
We arrived back at the carpark just after four, taking the total time for the trip to not much more than six hours. A very presentable performance considering I harboured doubts on the way up about whether or not I would make it all.
As I write, I am already into day two of the third cycle. This one kicked in hard and fast, sending me to bed yesterday with the hope of restful, healing sleep. But it did not come and the knowledge that these hellish feelings of being poisoned and of having my body taken to its absolute limits, will pass, became again utterly irrelevant. I now know from direct experience exactly why people often refuse chemotherapy and why those with any medical experience are more likely to do so. Another four of these cycles? It seemed like too much even to think about as I craved the peace of unconsciousness.
But then this morning I had a conversation with my clinical nurse specialist during which she explained that no staging scans will be necessary because my PSA value has dropped so much. I reminded her that I still did not really want to know any numbers and she of course respected this. But my wife, listening to the conversation, indicated that she wanted to talk, privately, when I had finished. After she hung up, she was clearly very excited, asking if I really did still not want to know about my PSA, gesturing that it had dropped rather a lot. So I relented, although I emphasised that for the moment I still did not want to know how high it had been at the point when I was admitted to hospital with spinal cord compression.
So … and here comes the good news … as a consequence of this battery of medication, the blasts of focused radiotherapy I received at the end of last year, my positive attitude and my continuing dietary discipline, my PSA is now below baseline level. Normally a man of my age can expect to have a PSA value of between 4 and 7. Mine is now down to only 2.4, which means that the disease is getting a sound kicking, that active cancer cells are being wiped out and cleaned out. Two point four. Unbelievable!
With this knowledge, I believe I will be able to endure the coming cycles. It will be simply a matter of focus, of concentrating not on how unnatural this feels and how unbearable it is, but on the fact that I appear to be getting better. After all, at the end of the first cycle I climbed one Munro, at the end of the second I climbed two; in fact thus far I have been feeling progressively better each time I emerge into the recovery phase of the cycle, an experience which parallels the decline in measured PSA.
On the way down the mountain, Martyn suggested that at the end of the third cycle I will have to now climb three Munros, to which I replied that this had already crossed my mind, but that I did not want to push my luck. We’ll see. Maybe there really is a message in the screes.