Just sometimes it feels worthwhile

I work in a support role for a trust dedicated to research into breast cancer. A large part of my work involves entering patient data into a national breast cancer register. This is an important research and policy-making tool.

Massive advances have been made in the last 20 years thanks to research, in which the participation of breast cancer patients is a vital component, even if they do not benefit directly. Death rates from breast cancer have halved. If the cancer is detected through screening (i.e. the cancer is found earlier when it is smaller and much less invasive), there is a 98% chance that the patient will still be alive in five years. Other improvements include less drastic surgical procedures, better drug treatments and improved quality of life for people living with breast cancer.

These are the things to bear in mind when entering the data of a patient who does not have good outcomes. I have to take a break when I’ve entered one too many patients who have presented with metastatic breast cancer and can only be offered palliative treatment.

But this week I entered the data of a patient whose experience made my heart lift. At 94, she presented with a self-detected lump, which turned out to be a breast cancer. The clinicians were reluctant to refer her for surgery immediately, given her age and other medical issues. One does not get to 94 without at least some complicating factors! However, after they’d done several further tests, they offered her an excision (much less drastic than a mastectomy). She made an excellent recovery and five years later, after annual check-ups and screening, is cancer-free and has been discharged from the breast care service. On leaving after her final follow-up, she left a donation for the trust at the reception desk. A good outcome indeed!

Sounds vs noise

I did my favourite Raglan walk today – through the Bryant reserve, along the beach and then back to the bush track that takes me to the lookout, where I snapped the photos above. One of the delights of this walk is the sounds – the boom and crash of the waves, the cries of the gulls and the calls of the birds that frequent the bush, the sighing of the trees in the breeze – which is why I don’t emulate those who walk with headphones plugged into their ears. Most of the human activity is muted – the occasional shout of a child finding the water colder than they’d expected, people one passes on the track saying hi, the slap of a surfboard hitting a wave. But today, the high-pitched whine of several jet-skis could be heard even above the sound of the surf. They set out at speed from the Manu Bay jetty, accelerated along a stretch of coastline and then performed noisy U-turns before heading back the way they’d come. They repeated this several times, with no discernable purpose apart from going as fast as they could, making as much noise as they could. On my way back to the track I passed a couple sitting on a bench overlooking the beach far below. I have often sat there myself, enjoying the view and listening to the waves. But this couple were playing music from some sort of portable device – why is it always music with a repetitive beat and inane lyrics (she asks judgmentally)? And then there are always a few people who fail to remove their dog’s droppings, which is not noisy but noisome for others using the track. It was a relief to get to the lookout and enjoy the quiet of the bush all around, watching the silent surfers below and the silent paraglider above.

Hope …

… springs eternal, or so they say. It has been difficult to be hopeful during a Covid-19 Delta lockdown and then another vile terrorist attack in New Zealand on Friday. It is tempting to say, along with die-hard pessimists, that things are bad and getting worse. But on my walk today, I saw this – a pohutukawa tree about to burst into flower – and suddenly I felt hopeful. In New Zealand the red pohutukawa flower is synonymous with summer, sea and sand. So along with the perhaps misguided optimists, I look forward to freedom from lockdown, summer and the season of goodwill to all.

Transcendence

Here in New Zealand we’re in lockdown so I am home all day. I have work to do, which I often do accompanied by RNZ Concert on the radio. This morning the I heard Tchaikovsky’s Andante maestoso from The Nutcracker played by Simon Trpceski. It is an evocative piece that replayed in my head all day. When work was over for the day, I poured a glass of wine and looked up performances of the grand pas de deux online. Watching Misty Copeland and Sterling Baca dance to that uplifting and haunting music made me forget everything – the lockdown, the anxieties it causes, the strangeness of working from home for days on end, the worry about family and friends during a pandemic – and I was reminded of how the sublime blend of the music and dance has the power to transcend ordinary life. (I’ve ‘borrowed’ the image from the New York Times)

Another bend in the river

I resigned from my job this week, having accepted another. Around the middle of March, I will move on yet again. While I am excited about the new opportunity (as a research assistant for a cancer research trust), there are always reservations about leaving what you know and have become used to. And as always, it’s those people you’ve got to know, like and respect who are the hardest to leave. I have few regrets about the work itself, which was routine and repetitive. The thought that I will be stepping off the treadmill of scheduling meetings, organising agendas and catering, taking notes while others drone on endlessly and then writing up coherent minutes is liberating. I am under no illusion that the administrative nature of the new position will be very different, though I hope the significance of the research being undertaken will make being a small part of the team feel worthwhile. I have not had a career and have worked either part-time or in what I call general-dogsbody roles, which could never have paid all the bills. But if you’re supporting others to achieve important gains, you feel some measure of job satisfaction. That is why I’ve always enjoyed the copy editing and proof reading that helps graduate students achieve their higher education goals and go on to what one hopes will be brilliant careers, which improve their lives and our society as a whole. Too idealistic? Perhaps, but one has to keep dreaming that what one finds around the next bend will be fulfilling.

Peace amidst the chaos

Opito Bay (Coromandel, North Island, New Zealand)

Today in Washington DC, armed protestors stormed the Capitol and disrupted the normal business of their democratically elected Congress at the behest of the outgoing President.

There were 7,200 new coronavirus cases in Arizona.

1,041 people died from coronavirus in the UK.

Northern Ireland’s food supply chain was disrupted due to incorrect or absent Brexit-related documentation.

More than 50 pro-democracy figures, who have the best chance of winning legislative council seats in an upcoming election, were arrested in Hong Kong.

Te Waikoropupū Springs

Near the town of Takaka in Golden Bay (South Island of New Zealand) are the Te Waikoropupū Springs. Though we’ve visited Golden Bay before, we hadn’t seen these spectacular pools. They are very close to optically clear water, with visibility to 63 metres, and are surrounded by native bush with prolific bird life. Alerted by his distinctive call, we saw a grey warbler flitting around in foliage right beside the walkway – this is the closest we’ve been to this tiny elusive bird and it was thrilling. It is easy to see why this place has been a taonga (treasure) for Māori since they arrived in the area over 700 years ago. It is also wāhi tapu (held in high cultural and spiritual regard) so there is no contact with the water at all – you just look, listen and marvel.

Cable Bay

On a recent visit to the top of the South Island, we went to Cable Bay for the first time. Though it was the middle of a New Zealand winter, which is often grey and rainy, we were there on a gloriously clear day, as you can see in the photograph. As we edged our way along the narrow road to the bay, we came across a couple persuading a pair of cows into a paddock – apparently the cows were in disgrace because ‘they’d already munched their way through Grandma’s garden’. When we got to the bay and parked on the shingle, we noticed two more people bundled up against the cold wind, sitting on canvas chairs holding fishing rods. Then we put on our jackets, scarves and beanies and braved the elements ourselves, walking up the steep incline to read the information board. The bay was the site of New Zealand’s first overseas cable link – via Australia – and was opened in February 1876. It revolutionised the lives of settlers who could now get a message to their families in Europe in four days, instead of the six weeks it took a letter. The cable station operated till 1917, after which it was moved to the North Island, at Titahi Bay near Wellington. I’ve just checked the track details on the DOC website and noticed an alert – the track is closed for lambing. How much more Kiwi could it be? Cows, fishing, lambs and splendid isolation!

Too good to be true

There is an old saying that if something seems to be too good to be true, it probably is. We recently spent a night in an off-the-grid eco-cottage where there was an outdoor bath. The cottage, which has both gas and solar panels but no electricity supply, has hot water and a hose to run it into the bath. However, we were there in July, which in New Zealand means it’s cold and wet. Getting up to cottage involved driving along muddy farm tracks and up a steep incline, which requires a four-wheel drive vehicle. Once we were in the cottage and had the fire going, there was no way I was going to take a bath in the open air! Fortunately there was a perfectly good indoor shower with a plentiful supply of hot water. It was a lovely experience having our dinner in front of the fire before getting into a comfortable warm bed. Then waking up to the sunrise turning the valley golden – as you see in the photo above. Perhaps we should go back in the summer when the prospect of an outdoor bath while drinking in the glorious view is much more enticing.

Freewheelin’

Bicycles for hire – Penang, Malaysia

We took up cycling during lock-down thanks to the gift of second-hand mountain bicycles by a friend. It was liberating to ride around mostly traffic-free country roads during those restricted weeks and it reminded me of the feeling of freedom a bicycle can bestow. It’s also true that you never forget how to ride a bike – I hadn’t ridden one for at least 40 years but had no problem at all, except for getting the hang of all those gears! We went for a ride this morning after a long break. And it seemed to me that the slogging up hills and the freewheeling down the other side was a metaphor for the ups and downs I’ve experienced recently. New Zealand has all but rid itself of the coronavirus and we’re at level 1, which is normal life but with closed borders. This has been cause for great satisfaction among the five million of us who live on these beautiful islands in the south Pacific. We’ve gone back to work and re-connected with family and friends – so good it feels like freewheeling down the hills on my bicycle, wind whistling past and sun on my face. But I’ve also experienced loss alongside family and friends – Jackie who lost Trevor, Simone and Ollie who lost Rachel, Rosanna who lost Chris and Jo who lost Jonathan. These sad losses have irrevocably changed lives and seem unbearable for those left behind. Lying awake in the long watches of the night thinking about them feels like slogging up an endless hill in the rain. It is almost always the first thing I think about when I wake in the early morning, wishing that sympathy could change anything for any of them.