|Lochgoilhead, under 'The Steeple'|
I moved to Lochgoilhead – a small village nestled on the shore of a remote tidal loch in the Western Highlands of Scotland – just a couple of weeks after my awakening.
Being six miles from the nearest A-road, accessible only by a one-car track that twisted over a mountain pass, it was the most tranquil place I’d ever been, surrounded by some of the most breath-taking scenery I’ve ever witnessed. The peace seemed a perfect match to the harmony I’d discovered within.
I worked in the canteen of a Scout Association outdoor activity centre, living on-site in staff quarters, at the foot of a 1,250ft mountain called The Steeple. It was minimum wage, washing dishes, pots and pans and sweeping and mopping the floor, but… and for the first time ever in such a position… I really enjoyed going to work each day.
As well as a great crew in the kitchen, there was an excellent team of Scout instructors – both senior and trainee, as the centre was also an instructor training facility - who also lived in the staff block. They were generally a bit younger than me, but such a friendly, generous and positively charged bunch of good, good people – even the guy in the room beside me who occasionally complained because my coughing (and once, typing) was keeping him awake at night.
The kids who visited were another source of positivity. For many of them, it was their first time away from home without their parents. I reminisced the excitement of the legendary ‘Four Day Trip’ that I went on with my school when I was ten-years-old, and knew they must have been having an amazing adventure in their stay there.
It actually made the job rather humbling. Although they wouldn’t remember me directly in the years to come, they would always remember Lochgoilhead, and with my work in the kitchen, I was part of the mechanics of making sure those kids had enough energy to get through their day, to take part in all the activities the instructors were taking them on and to squeeze as much enjoyment from the experience as they possibly could.
Added to that, I’d adopted a walking routine, hiking a few hundred feet up the mountain to a place called Scout Rock – a crag with character, used by the centre for abseiling and rock climbing – and I’d sit at the base of it and just watch the world (and catch my breath).
It wasn’t long until I realised I’d lost a lot of weight, which was just an added bonus to everything else going on in my life. I’d been a bit of a chubster on first arrival, but after just a month or so, I’d really trimmed down and toned up. I hadn’t been dieting or planning to; it was just the result of increased activity and regular exercise.
I was so happy… after literally decades of not being so, I just was. I felt so alive.
Then I had a strange day…
I’d gone deaf in my right ear a week or so earlier – I presumed because of a build-up of ear-wax, which I’d had once before – and after hoping it would clear up with olive oil and spraying hot water in my ear every shower, it started to hurt, so I made an appointment at the local medical practice.
It was my day off, I seem to remember, and there were no kids staying at the camp, so it was very peaceful. I walked up to the clinic my usual happy self, optimistic that I’d have a quick ear syringe, then I’d be able to listen in stereo again. I’d always worn my iPhone headphones when walking up the mountain, and I missed the completeness of the music while not having two full-functioning ears.
I went through almost immediately to see the doctor, sat down and told him what the problem was. He had a quick inspect of my ear with his pointy-shiny ear-inspection instrument and told me that it wasn’t wax, but an infection. He wrote out a prescription of antibiotics and that was that – sorted in literally two minutes flat.
I thought I may as well get my money’s worth from the appointment slot, so I then told him about a pain I was having in the top of my right foot. It had been giving me trouble for longer than the ear and made me limp at times… although it wasn’t swollen to the touch, it felt like it was…
I took off my trainer and sock and he lifted my foot up and had a good look, then said that it was probably just the change in my life, from not standing up all day at work, to standing up all day at work. He suggested that even if it were an infection of some sort, the antibiotics he’d already prescribed would clear it up. Otherwise, I was to get some ‘support socks’, like runners, rather than pensioners use.
I was very happy indeed that I’d got a bonus ailment out of the way, and was just about to pull my foot back and re-sock and re-shoe it, but he didn’t let go. He was looking very closely at something else.
“This worries me, though…” he said.
He was looking at my second toe – the one beside the big toe – and the black mark on the tip.
“How long have you had this?”
He’d pulled a swing-armed lamp closer and was studying the blemish intently. I told him it had been there for maybe a month or two… though I’d actually seen it more than six months earlier.
After further inspection, he said he was going to arrange an appointment at the local hospital – with a dermatologist – for a biopsy.
Even at that point, it wasn’t a concern. I was smiling… a bit surprised that something totally unrelated to the ailment I made the appointment for was now taking us past the scheduled timeslot.
I put my sock and trainer back on at last and gave him a cheery “Thank you!” and readied to leave, but he asked me to sit down again… he said he wanted to talk to me.
There was real concern in his face as he explained what he believed the mark on my toe was – which until that point, I believed was just a mark on my toe.
He said he was ‘almost certain’ it was an acral lentiginous melanoma.
The word 'melanoma' stood out.
Then I realised… he was giving me ‘the cancer talk’.
He told me not to worry myself too much (I should have suggested he didn’t tell me about my cancerous toe if he didn’t want me to worry too much, but was quite subdued by that point), but he was going to arrange an ‘urgent referral’ to the hospital, so I could be seen at the very earliest opportunity.
I nodded a lot and listened, but most of the words didn’t sink in. He was very kind and we spoke for maybe another 15 minutes about what would happen next.
Even the receptionist had adopted a ‘bedside manner’ tone by the time I spoke to her about the referral… the doctor must have phoned her the moment I left the room and asked her to begin the process while I was walking up the corridor to reception. It all seemed very urgent indeed, which was quite troubling.
She reassured me that the hospital would be in touch within a few days, and then the appointment with the dermatologist would likely be within a couple of weeks.
After picking up the antibiotics, I went outside, and started to shake.
That was pretty shitty news for anyone to spring on me… let alone a doctor… someone who I should have been able to trust!
I went into the surgery with ear-wax and came out with cancer.
(Continued in Part Two)