Yesterday I received a missive from the National Health Service, inviting me to participate in its Bowel Cancer Screening Programme, designed to catch the disease early ‘when successful treatment and cure is more likely’ [it says here]. Screening is apparently offered every two years to those aged 60-69 who are registered with a GP in England and they are also starting to extend the age range to those aged 70-74.
Apparently, I am informed, within two weeks I shall be sent a test kit with full instructions, which – I am glad to learn – will be ‘simple to use in the privacy of your own home’. I should then follow the instructions and return the kit in the ‘reply paid’ envelope … and I will then get the results within a fortnight.
We all have to reconcile ourselves to mortality at some point – or, at least, try to. For those who haven’t had to confront it earlier in our existences through the death of a loved one, relative or friend, there is a stage at which the drip-drip-drip of inevitable ‘Chinese water torture’-style facts of life coming home to roost increases in frequency, as if some invisible chap in charge of the tap has been told to open it further.
Writing as someone in his seventh decade, I can assure those far younger than me that there is nothing particularly sinister or depressing about being asked by your doctor about parts of your body that – he or she now believes – should be coming to the end of their natural life cycle, even if the whole isn’t (quite) yet.
I remember once going to a private dentist on Shaftesbury Avenue in London and, apart from reacting to his first sight of my cavernous gob with the classic line “You’re a fighter, aren’t you?”, he did also stop me in my tracks somewhat by commenting, in general conversation, that what many people didn’t appreciate sufficiently was that human teeth were only designed to last forty-five years anyway.
(I think his next point was to the effect that this was a very good reason why we all ought to look after them as best we could, but cannot absolutely confirm this from present memory).
The general thrust to get in mind is, of course, we should all accept that – as we get older – bits fall off, hair stops growing in certain places and begins growing in others, aches and pains increase and things that in the past that we took for granted would work, don’t always do so quite as well as they once did – or indeed, sometimes at all.
The point is that, sooner or later, something is going to get us.
If the Number 11 red bus, or a spectacular air crash coming into land at Tenerife when arriving on a package holiday doesn’t do so, we may have to accept that a stroke, a cancer, or some other kind of complication may do the trick. Because, as sure as eggs are eggs, something is going to – that’s life.
This column is about marking how an oldie like me notices the little absurdities and complications of passing time as it gradually inflicts itself upon the ageing human body. No doubt some of the medical facts and indignities will be tough to read about but, hopefully, ‘putting myself out there’ may help others come to terms with the self-same issues.
A couple of years ago, my octogenarian father received his copy of very similar NHS missive to mine received yesterday.
Inevitably perhaps, the very concept that he should ‘capture’ and then sending samples of his bowel movement product through the post was a principle that he found a degree of difficulty in getting his head around. “They certainly never did this sort of thing in the 1940s and 1950s …”, as he put it.
However, after some gentle pressure from the family he agreed to have a go.
A couple of weeks later, I went to visit him and asked how he was doing.
“Not very well”, he said, “… to be honest with you, I’d had some seafood the day before I was supposed to begin my course [of sending samples in], which didn’t seem to agree with me … and, since I felt it would have been easier to capture what I was producing in a bottle rather than on the end of that spatula-thing … I was too embarrassed to do it.”
About a month went by before the subject came up again, just after the August Bank Holiday. My father’s reply to my inevitable question was that, again, he’d had a complication or two.
“With the weather for the Bank Holiday predicted to be scorching, and the very real threat of a strike of postal workers going ahead, I just didn’t want to risk a large bubble-wrap envelope full of shit with my name on it sitting in the Mount Pleasant sorting office over the three-day weekend in that kind of weather …”