Crime writer Reg McKay reveals his battle with cancer.
DEAD man walking? Who me? It's not that I'm unused to the threat. There have been enough grumpy gangsters, tormented torturers, murderers and paedos all muttering those words at me. Never mind gruff-voiced anonymous phone calls.
I pay no heed to them, but this was different. This was more than personal. This was real.
It started with my arm that morning. My right hand had been bothering me for weeks.
It had gone weak, limp, useless.
A trapped nerve the doc said and put me on the waiting list for a hand surgeon. A bit of a disability for a full-time scribbler no longer able to type, it was getting on my wick. That was all. Then that morning it went mental on me.
A judder in my fingers moved up my forearm to my shoulder until it was thrashing about like it was demented.
The same useless arm had taken on a life of its own.
Gerry, my wife, somehow got me in her car and rushed me to the A&E at the local Royal Alexandria Hospital in Paisley.
In the motor I couldn't hold my arm down and it was smashing against the dashboard, slapping Gerry on the side - hard. If you can recall Peter Sellers films, think crazy Dr Strangelove on speed. This was some trapped nerve.
As quickly as it had started its shenanigans, my arm quit them 30 seconds from A&E. But no way was I turning back. Demented arms need exorcising.
Even early on Friday morning, A&E in Paisley is busy with casualties littering the cubicles and corridors. A busy triage nurse didn't look me in the eye once. Maybe my black leather jacket hurriedly slung over the black vest led her to make assumptions? "I'll just book you in under minor injuries," she declared. Injury?
Minor? My arm's mad dance had left me too knackered to argue.
A sweet-mannered doctor saw me in minutes. Within half an hour I was being X-rayed and scanned. The NHS failing? Not on my shift.
Four hours after we'd entered the hospital we were shown to a room and I knew there was trouble coming. Not a booth but a quiet, private space. A bad news bubble and one with two cops hovering at the door. I hoped they were loitering there for someone else. How bad could this news be?
"I'm sorry," said the poor doctor. "I have terrible news. You have a tumour at the top of your lung."
As Gerry quietly wept, he added: "Then there's the tumour in your brain." Looking me straight in the eye, he repeated: "A tumour in your brain."
That's when I asked: "How long do I have to live?"
"Six months," he replied, "if that."
He could have said six days or six weeks, it made no difference tome. No fear or dread over came me. The truth is I felt nothing. I just heard and consumed.
I wondered if it was the same for other people when told they're about to die? I suspected not, but I was about to learn a great deal from others in similar situations in the next few weeks.
"You've known for a while there's been something seriously wrong, haven't you?" the doctor said. He was a kindly man so I just looked at him and didn't scream: "No, I bloody didn't."
I could have added: "One duff hand equals two tumours?" It seemed so unreal.
Only three months before, I had had a full medical check, including a brain scan.
Everything had been clear. Now I have tumours? But he was a good man, so I kept my thoughts to myself.
With Gerry composed, I thanked the doc for being candid and caring and we took our leave. The corridor was empty of uniformed polis. They must have heard the conversation - those walls were paper thin.
Outside, the car park was busy with visitors. As soon as we started driving, I realised I'd been thinking too much and feeling too little, but not the way you might think.
To be blunt, I needed to pee. What would I do? Walk back up that steep hill?
Go back into that place? Would I hell. Gerry pulled the car in close to the edge, where there were bushes, and I stood and relieved myself as citizens milled around behind me.
Not my kind of behaviour but as I stood there I prayed that some busybody would pull me up. I was just about angry enough for them. What would they do? Kill me?
On the way home we made a stop. I needed a heavy dose of steroids and the strongest painkiller they could prescribe - the one junkies use when their smack supply dries up.
It was near closing time but we found a chemist and Gerry went in to collect the goods. As I sat in the car thinking and smoking, she was taking too long. In the shop, she had burst into distraught tears.
She's my woman and strong and she still went through hell. What if she had been a frail, elderly, lonely or poor person? Could she even have afforded the prescriptions, never mind got to a chemist on time?
Then there's the grief.
Minutes after being told I was about to die, it was clear tome that those with the least suffer the most.
The next two days were a haze of thinking, talking, cuddling and planning. I was overwhelmed by the need to organise things - my will, funeral, gifts to friends, letters to my loved ones.
Is this a man thing where we want everything to be neat and tidy? The second day in I looked at Gerry. Two years before she had developed breast cancer. That month, she was due her second annual check. It had been the most important thing in our lives until my diagnosis. I'd forgotten about her. I sat alone in my study, where for 10 years I had written books about the horrors of humanity, and thought about my wife. I sat there and wept for her.
From that minute, self-pity went out the door. What a waste of a life. I was going to spend every second living my life to the full with the people I love. It is the only way to be. The only way to live.
Then there are the books I'm writing, including the one that will wipe the smiles off the smug faces of those pleased to hear of my doom. The real deal, warts and all.
Too much to feel and do to mope. Thank God it only took me two days to buck up.
Telling a close friend you are about to die is much harder than being told you are about to die. Making sure loved ones knew became top of the list for Gerry and I.
All were different. Sweet heart Margaret's big heart broke. My singer-songwriter pal, young Raymond Meade, cried gentle tears then asked for a fag. Youngest brother Tich headed back from his home in Australia, Gav and Kat from Canada. Big Tony Higgins made me laugh.
THEN there were Catholic candles, Protestant prayers, even a Mormon service and a Japanese woman cutting a ball of string. None of which I believe in. All of which I am grateful for.
Gerry's family arrived with pots of food - all cut small. When you lose the use of your good hand there's stacks you can't do - write, sign your name, brush your teeth, do your buttons or cut up food.
Within hours of being diagnosed I'd made it clear - no one was going to do anything for me, especially cut up my food. "Sorry, I'm thrawn," I apologised.
"He's a pain in the arse," Gerry interpreted. No one argued, they just brought small food in huge quantities. A true gift of life - after all, who wants to cook when they are dying?
There was a lack of contact with doctors for the next few weeks. It didn't bother me.
If I was going to die, the less time spent in hospitals the better. It bothered my loving wife though and as days and weeks passed, it began to feel as if I was No Hope Joe.
Then came the tests. So many scans, I was on first-name terms with the staff. Then a biopsy. Isn't modern medicine wonderful?
We've all seen on TV how they do biopsies using pinhead cameras. It's all scientific and pain free - isn't it? Aye, sometimes.
The tumour on my lung was right at the top and had mixed in with the cords and controls to my arm. I had a trapped nerve, right enough, but the tumour had trapped it. Rather than cut into my brain - thank the wee man - they took a biopsy from my lung. This meant bypassing the zigzag of tendons and nerves where the tumour is enmeshed.
Have you ever been zapped by the electric mains? Now imagine being zapped high on your back on a nerve that travels all the way down to your fingertips and lasts for five seconds. Imagine it again and again.
An uncomfortable hour? I've had better.
But did I regret it for an instant? Something that could prolong my life? I'd have done it again in a blink.
Outside Gerry was waiting for me, eyes full of laughter, having been chatting to another patient. She had been oblivious to what was going on with me. That's the way I liked it. Three weeks after diagnosis, I had my first meeting with a cancer consultant and a top man he is. Gerry and I turned up for the meeting suited and booted. Within a day of the news, I made a statement: "Standards. We have standards and these standards will not be dropped no matter what life throws at us."
So, it was Armani for me.
I EXPECTED to be told the worst. Maybe six months would turn to six weeks. Maybe I'd already lived half my life expectancy since that first visit to hospital.
Did I care? Of course I did. Could I do anything about it? Of course not.
So, I communicated with this doctor the way I always do with forthright questions, an open mind and as much humour as I could muster. No one was going to look at me as Tumour Man. The doctor was talking me through the tests. He wasn't getting my one-liners - he called it black humour, I called it survival. Then he mentioned: "Germ cell cancer."
It took a few minutes for the big golden coin to drop. I might have germ cell cancer and, if I did, it was eminently treatable. There was a problem. Some of my tests indicated germ cell, some indicated lung cancer. My body was confusing them.
As Gerry said later: "I could have told them that. Your body has been confusing me for twenty-odd years."
It seems that some cancers - devious little bastards - mimic other cancers. That could be the case with me.
Germ cell is hormone based and often comes from the gonads. Or as Tam Cowan would say, your baws. This didn't make me smile. Getting your gonads scanned is weird. With more KY jelly being used than in your average brothel you feel - nothing.
When I was told there was nothing wrong with my gonads I wasn't surprised. I'd been checking them all my life - men should.
Either I was part of a small group with non-gonadal germcell cancer or it was a mimic job. There were two more tests before they would make their minds up and one gave me the heebie-jeebies - an MRI, raising my fear of enclosed spaces. A crime writer feart of being closed in? I know, OK.
A brief chat with my highly supportive GP instantly produced a prescription for Diazepam.
"One of these an hour before will sort you," he said.
Aye, so it would, as well as space me out for two days. Did I want to sacrifice some of my precious time in an altered state?
Fifteen minutes of terror was far more acceptable. It turned out to be 15 minutes of rest. My fears were unwarranted.
The MRI indicated I have two brain tumours - apparently just as easy to treat as one. Fair dos but how are they to live with?
There was better news. A blood test had changed. I was about to be treated for germcell cancer. I had just been thrown a chance, no matter how slim.
Dead man walking? Me? Maybe, but as long as I'm walking I'm living. And kicking. Watch this space.
'I sat alone in my study, where I had written books about the horrors of humanity and thought about my wife. I wept for her'