December 2017, and the Christmas party season is in full flow. Everywhere I look are scenes from some hilariously awful Dickens pastiche: revellers squeezed into warm pubs; joyful chatter spilling out on to the street; the sound of carols and the scent of mulled wine in the air. Its as if I am peering in at it all through frosted glass, wishing my own Christmas could be as carefree.
Instead, I have spent a morning turned on my side on a hospital bed while a nervous-looking young doctor works up a sweat attempting to force a long needle into my hipbone. He needs it to go deep enough that he can suck out some of the marrow inside, but my tough bones are making life difficult for him.
I dont feel so tough. My wife and I spend the next fortnight anxiously waiting for the results. Results that should confirm why my body is behaving in unexpected ways: the unusual infections; the crushing fatigue; the old jeans that suddenly slip off my waist.
Christmas is never a nice time to feel alone. Yet, despite the fact I am surrounded by loved ones, that is how I feel: terrifyingly alone. The emotions of the season get warped and amplified. I attempt to go to one party, see a friend who is going through her own hellish time, and we both sob on each others shoulders for five minutes straight. Everything feels raw and heavy. My little girl is not even 18 months old, and I love her more than anything but I find it hard to even be in the same room as her. Its all too much.
If Christmas has lost its religious meaning, then it hasnt for me. I try praying for the first time in about three decades: Er, yes, it has been a while sorry about that but could you just help me out with this one thing? I promise God and Santa Ill be all sorts of good if things turn out OK.
My results arrive on 22 December. There is a wait in a hospital corridor that is still too triggering to think about properly. And then a doctor calls me in, sits me down and tells me that I have a rare blood cancer called essential thrombocythemia, which sounds like some cult artist signed to Warp Records in the 90s (the doctor doesnt say that bit). There is no known cure. But dont worry, he says, its manageable. I just need to take some aspirin and keep an eye on it. You will lead a normal life, he says. My wife tells me my face instantly changed colour, the pallid grey lifting for the first time in weeks.
My little girl throws up all over the seat when we pull out of the drive, and it doesnt even feel slightly annoying
Its a strange gift, receiving blood cancer for Christmas. In some ways I preferred the Mr Frosty slushy-making kit I got when I was eight, and maybe even the Scalextric that never quite played out the way you hoped it would from the adverts. And yet what the doctor is telling me you will lead a normal life feels like the biggest and best present I have ever received. Queueing up to be discharged, I let wave after wave of euphoria run through me and think to myself: This has to be the weirdest cancer diagnosis ever.
A day later, we pack up the car and head off to my parents. My little girl throws up all over the back seat as soon as we pull out of the drive, and it doesnt even feel slightly annoying. We laugh. Life is good. That Christmas, for the first time since I can remember, I am truly happy; just living in the moment. The light seems brighter and more beautiful. I notice dew drops on plants and the smell of fresh air. I hug my wife and daughter even more tightly than usual.
All this relief is not to last long. In the first week of 2018, I attend a follow-up appointment and am told that, sorry, they hadnt seen all of the bone marrow samples before. My condition is, in fact, developing into a much more serious disease called myelofibrosis, which needs treatment.
A week on from that, I turn up at the hospital, steeled to start chemotherapy. But there is worse news: a team of specialists have discussed my case and they believe I am at high risk of developing acute myeloid leukaemia, a swift and deadly cancer. They recommend you have a stem cell transplant, says the doctor. I ask when. As soon as possible. If I can find a match on the stem cell donor register, then I will be dosed up with drugs so intense that my entire immune system will be wiped out; then a strangers cells will be fed into me and we will all cross our fingers and hope that my body doesnt reject them. The chance of survival and the disease not returning does not seem to me to be all that much better than 50/50. Even if it all succeeds, the recovery process will be long and gruelling.
I spend the next few weeks in a state of catatonic depression. Or do I? Because I am somehow getting things done: I organise a will, I arrange a sperm bank visit (the transplant, even if successful, will leave me infertile), I cry myself senseless writing a letter to my daughter in case the worst should happen. I also drink all the good bottles of wine I had been saving for special occasions. A bottle of Domaine Dujac Morey Saint-Denis 2012 on a Tuesday night with defrosted Quorn chilli not the pairing Id had in mind, but saving it for the future seems silly.
Through all the gloom I see something with startling clarity. I realise that what Im mourning is not so much my old life before all this started a life of pointless anxieties, petty rivalries and overthinking but rather the carefree, optimistic version of life I had briefly glimpsed over Christmas. And yet no sooner have I understood all this than the chance to enact it has been snatched away. I feel like an old professor who has finally unravelled the mysteries of the universe with his dying breath.
Over the next few months, something happens that I still find hard to believe. I am transferred to a new hospital with a more specialist team on the case. There are more blood tests and scans, and another long needle is forced into my hip. And then I get another gift, this one in time for Christmas 2018: my condition is not so serious as I was led to believe. It appears to be a peculiar version of a peculiar cancer caught somewhere between the relatively benign essential thrombocythemia and the more concerning myelofibrosis. But it is stable, at least for now, with no signs to suggest it will progress any time soon.
I like to think that this year I have made good on my promise to live like I did during the Christmas of 2017. My outlook has certainly changed. When people ask how, I always say the same thing: that its great to get older. The idea of panicking about a milestone such as my imminent 40th seems so ridiculous now. Instead, just think what a privilege it is to be able to get there.
I am more present for my family these days, and less consumed with things I cant control. I have returned to the volunteering role I thought I didnt have time for; I have got fit; I dont let work define my happiness; I am kinder to myself. I have bought lots more nice wine to replace the nice wine I drank with defrosted Quorn chilli.
Do I still get annoyed by delayed trains, lost keys or the fact my daughter is taking half an hour to put on a pink tutu, the only item of clothing in the house that shell wear? It would be a lie to say no. But the second I think: But youre not quite likely to die any more, the problem disappears. I am, undeniably, a happier person.
I still have a malfunction inside me and I still have to think about it every day. Its hard not to my spleen, inflated with excess blood cells, gently nudges against my ribs like an annoying acquaintance who would hate me to forget that all is not quite right. At some point in the future and not even the best doctors can predict exactly when the disease might whirr into life and start scarring my bone marrow, turning it into a barren wasteland that can no longer produce enough blood to keep me alive. Im hopeful that science will find a fix before that time comes. There are encouraging signs on the horizon. And if not? Well, these days I try not to dwell on the future. I am here, instead, for the present. I am alive. I am alive with the spirit of Christmas.
MPN Voice provides information and emotional support to people diagnosed with a myeloproliferative neoplasm
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