The truth about recovery

Gideon and SircaI’ll be the first to admit I got it wrong.

My oncologist did say. Very clearly. The radiotherapy will continue to work for another two weeks after I’ve competed the actual radiation. Then, I’ll start to recover.

And there was me, within a week of finishing, dusting myself down, thanks very much, I’m off to the Tour de France, with a spring in my step, treatment finished, full of life.

Ding ding. A few minor blows landed, but round one to me.

We’ll it didn’t quite work out how I thought. You’ll be glad to hear, I’m sure, that my backside troubles quickly cleared up after I’d shared them with the world on these pages.

(Though not so glad as I am to finally get the subject off the front page of this blog.)

But after I left Chris Froome and his buddies heading south out of Normandy, and I came back to England, I really started to feel the negative effects of the treatment.

When I hit London, nearly two weeks after I’d had my last radiotherapy session, I felt suddenly floored. The radiotherapy hadn’t been the problem. It would be the recovery that would do the damage.

Whatever had powered me on my bike to and from the hospital during the treatment itself, and then around Normandy during the fortnight afterwards, suddenly left.

I could do little but sleep. The nausea returned and I was back on the liquorice sweets. Kicking a football around with my kids left me useless after five minutes, needing a moment to catch my breath. My skin felt heavy on my bones, my limbs a deadweight. Motivation levels were at a low.

Recovery didn’t mean getting better. It meant the need to recover.

The energy I’d normally used for daily life (which admittedly for me was generally quite sporty) must have been redirected to my head, to repair all the damage the radiation had caused and perhaps to create healthy new brain cells.

It was a rubbish week, so it was one for which I was very grateful we’d arranged to be staying with the in-laws. The childcare, cooking and chores were shared, or taken away from me completely. Tolerance was high for the poor lad who – wiping his brow – just needed another wee rest from the heat.

There’s no sign yet of hair in the patches where the radiation came in and went out of my skull, but there are odd stripes growing back following my last clipper cut. Once again, I started to look like I’d made a poor attempt at one of those sculpted haircuts the Portugal footballers had during the Euro Cup Final in Paris.

On a whim, I dragged myself to a Turkish barbers to see what they could do. A full, wet shave of my whole head was the only way forward.

I’ve never been one for Champney’s and nor am I a fan of allowing another man so close to my throat with a knife that sharp. But the full treatment of a proper Turkish barber was an unexpected pleasure that came just when I was feeling quite low.

The shaving of my hair was just the prelude. Then hot towels were wrapped around my head. I was given coffee. A shoulder massage. Then a hand massage. Then that strange thing where they light a taper, and tap the side of your head with the flame to singe the hair out of your ears. Then a choice of moisturisers and aftershaves. I came away smelling like Lush, and pampered like an old queen.

We couldn’t avoid the subject, of course. I mentioned that my hair was all buggered up because I had just had treatment for cancer. Then the two barbers and I had a lengthly and respectful conversation about my illness, and the lung cancer of one of their dads, the treatments, the effect on the wider family, the knowledge that – whoever we are – we will always be chasing life, never in control.

OK, it was only a hair cut. But it felt important to share common ground with two guys who couldn’t have been more different from me: ethnicity, religion, prosperity, whatever. It felt human.

Over the following few days I started to feel better, and I needed to sleep far less. Now I finally think I’m back to just being tired simply because we have a baby who’s waking in the night because of the London heat.

I can confidently report, this time for real, that my recovery from radiotherapy is complete. Running to my oncologists’ timescale, not my own.

The challenge is what to do next? I have 10 days before I start chemotherapy. Should I try to use that time to ride my bike, get some fitness back, drop some of the weight I feel sure I must have put on while in France, at the in-laws, and in recovery? It’ll take some motivation to pull on the lycra, I have to admit.

Or do I just assume that as soon as the needle goes in, I’ll go back to being knackered all the time and any gains I make now will be for nothing.

I’m itching to get started on something, anything, because I don’t want chemo to be the only big thing on my summer/autumn/spring to-do lists. But I know that the chemo may well exclude me from doing very much just as soon as it gets underway.

I’ll have ten days chemo, followed by four weeks recovery each round. For six rounds. But I’m not quite sure, now, whether recovery will be the easier or the harder part.

Same old story: I can’t commit.

Maybe this. Maybe that. Maybe the other. We’ll have to see. Let’s get the first round over with, then we’ll know. Or perhaps we won’t. What about? Oh, sod it.

I’m already bored of chemo, and I’m not even started yet.


  1. Beautifully written as ever: I sighed at the hot towels and jumped at the ear hair singeing!

    A suggestion of what to do next: a project that I am undertaking this summer. Spend some 1 on 1 time with each of your children. Not because of the uncertainty of your future, but the certainty of theirs. Our little ones seem to be growing up and will soon begin to grow away. I’m on the downhill stretch to finishing my last ever mat leave and am trying a little mindfulness when it comes to the kids: less rushing, more exploring – enjoying the feel of a little hand holding mine.

    1. I was going to suggest the same thing Ali – and my kids are much older than yours or Gideon’s. One is currently in a hired convertible in Europe somewhere with his dad for a couple of days, and I have just got back from a hiking weekend with another. When you have 3, the time is so pressed and you don’t get to know them and their individual changing personalities if everyone is always together, or apart. Even just a walk or a nice lunch out with one of them can be brilliant for both of you. You don’t have to be ill to do it – just valuing what you have and respecting that life for all of us is uncertain and comes without guarantees.

  2. Well done Gideon, I suffered from bad fatigue after finishing the radiotherapy (Oct 2012) and have just has another beasting from stereotactic radiosurgery, would be easy just to lay back and coast. There are some good materials available from MacMillan about energy levels, but most seem to quote the spoons tale. You might find that your sleep patterns change and the exercise doesnt seem to help. I know its all over the web but I have shifted to a low carb diet which has upped my energy levels certainly over longer durations, There also seems to be some evidence that fasting prior to treatment weakens tumours and makes them more susceptible to treatment. I find that I can push through the fatigue though I was advised not to, my whole exercise world has changed post tumour.
    Good luck with anything you turn to and dont let em grind you down!

    All the best,


  3. Gideon,

    I would Just chill out with the kids and keep your strenght up for the chemo. But then maybe I should just shut up and you do what you want to do! It is a shame you cannot have the pills rather than jabs. It is easy to take them at home.

    Re your hair: just to put a dampener on things. Your hair may not fully recover. Mine is still not completely there even after all that time since we met in Paddington but hey – short hair is en vogue. I might go and have that Turkish option myself, hair or no hair.

    Cheers mate,

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