Archive for October 2010
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I’ve got a fantastic bunch of friends, and we love each other dearly.
So when, one of our group, Lisa, discovered she had thyroid cancer earlier this year, it hit us all like a warp-speed bowling ball at an unsuspecting stack of pins.
Lisa treats her body like a temple. She’s a fitness addict and personal trainer, who spends most of her life in the gym, whether it’s training herself or helping others achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Lisa and my other friend James had got together and decided to launch a fundraising campaign for Children with Leukaemia — planning to run both the London Marathon in April and the New York Marathon in November. At the time of the London one, they’d raised a staggering £3000.
Lisa had found a lump in her neck in February and was in the middle of a barrage of blood tests and biopsies to find out the cause. But being the trooper she is, she pushed it to the back of her mind as she went into her final phase of training for the event, which she finished in a very respectable 4h 59m.
Here she is, fresh as a daisy at about mile 20:
Four weeks later, she was in hospital having the right side of her thyroid taken out — her biopsies had detected abnormal cells.
The irony was worthy of an Alanis Morissette lyric. She’d run the Marathon to raise money for cancer — with cancer.
To say this was a smack in the face is an understatement. Lisa dedicates her life to the pursuit of fitness and health, both in herself and in others. Can you imagine how it feels to have the body you’ve worked so hard to take care of and keep healthy, suddenly go renegade on you? It’s like the ultimate betrayal.
Lisa’s also self-employed, and couldn’t work for her entire recovery period — ergo, the cancer screwed not only her health, but her income as well.
And it didn’t stop there. Six weeks after her first operation, she was back in again to have the other side of her thyroid removed, after the tissue from the first op showed not one, but two different types of cancer. Six weeks after this, she underwent a week’s worth of radiotherapy treatment at the Royal Marsden, during which none of us could visit her. She also had to isolate herself for nearly a week after she was discharged, while the radioactive isotopes broke down enough to let her have human contact again.
A while ago I wrote about the reality of having HIV. I was with Lisa for most of her hospital appointments, and suddenly found out what it must have been like for my friends and family when I was diagnosed.
Here I was, shoe firmly on the other foot, being slapped around the chops by the harsh realities of cancer. This time it was me watching a friend go through something awful and knowing I could do fuck all to change the situation.
The people from Macmillan Cancer Support have been there for Lisa throughout, giving invaluable advice and support, and even arranging money to help cover the rent she could barely afford while she wasn’t working. In short — they’ve been a godsend.
Despite her (and our) joy that she’s finally in the clear, Lisa’s gutted she’s not able to run the NYC marathon. The hospital’s said it would be silly to put her body through a gruelling training programme and a 26.3 mile run when it’s still recovering from such an ordeal.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way. James is still running in New York, and is continuing to raise money for Children with Leukaemia. And swooping in to run in Lisa’s place is our dear friend Simon. He’s like the proverbial knight in shining armour (or in his case, glittering spandex *sniggers* *ducks*).
Not content with completing Berlin Marathon just a few short weeks ago, he’s decided to also run NYC for Macmillan in a show of support for Lisa, and, as he’s only just taken on the challenge, he’s got a way to go to hit his target.
Now, I’d like to think I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t ask for much. This isn’t one of those blogs that exists solely to flog a product or service, or gain marketing leads. But I’d like to ask something now.
Please sponsor Simon and James. The New York Marathon is less than two weeks away (November 7th). Their links are at the bottom of this post, and even a couple of quid would be brilliant (but save some cash for sponsoring me for London next year!)
Cancer can strike, anytime, anywhere, as my group of friends found out all too easily. People don’t start thinking about things like cancer till we, or someone we love, is staring it in the face. But here’s a little factlet for you: Did you know that around 80% of postmortems reveal active cancer cells? Food for thought, no?
It’s charities like Macmillan and Children With Leukaemia that help people survive not just the physical, but the mental impact of the disease.
So next time you see someone huffing and puffing their way around the park, take a second to consider why they’re putting themselves through it. In most cases — as well as trying to better their distances or time — they’re probably also facing another challenge of raising £2k or some other massive amount for a worthwhile cause.
And as James said to me at the weekend: “Every time we runners get an email through saying we’ve been sponsored — even if it’s just a few quid — it feels like it’s all worthwhile. When you’re doing a 15 mile run in the freezing cold after a hard day at work, it’s so motivating and heartwarming.”
So come on, people, let’s all dig out a few quid to support those who are running for other people’s lives, eh?
Tuesday and I haven’t been getting along for some time now. But last Tuesday felt a little different. In this guest blog post for the Dear Tuesday Project, I write a letter to the day that used to make me so happy, and ask where things went wrong:
I know things have been rough between us lately. And although I know I should take part of the blame for my behaviour, you have to admit you’ve been really difficult recently.
You see, every time you’ve come to visit, I’ve woken up feeling sad and lifeless. Your mornings are getting darker and colder, but you’ve forced me to get up and go to work anyway. To be honest, whenever we’ve seen each other, I’ve merely been going through the motions.
I remember a few months ago when things were great between us. I used to practically skip to work with happy songs on my iPod. That time when I was feeling a bit ‘meh’ and you arranged for the man I loved to call me when I was on the train — just to cheer me up.
I had a lot of those moments during your visits back then, and they were some of the happiest I can remember in a long time. The texts, the emails, the calls just to hear my voice, the dinner dates where we just sat touching hands and smiling at each other… READ MORE>>
I often get contacted by people on Facebook or Twitter asking me about HIV, either because they’re curious or believe they’ve put themselves at risk and need some reassurance.
I’ve always been very open about my status, and I’m glad people feel they can ask me instead of sitting there stewing. But it’s become increasingly obvious to me recently just how many people there are out there who know almost nothing about HIV. I’m not judging anyone, just making an observation.
You may remember a while back I wrote a post called ‘Why we should never stop being scared of AIDS’, and I stand by that sentiment. You should be damn scared of AIDS — it may be a manageable condition nowadays, but it sure ain’t fun — but there’s a difference between those who fear it because they’re ignorant, and those who have the facts, protect themselves and still have fun.
So I’m going to give you the basics. I’m not a doctor, so this isn’t written with the education of someone with a medical degree. I hope I’ve managed to slim down the technical side of things without compromising accuracy, but I’m quite happy to be corrected if you want to leave a comment.
This blog has had over half a million visits in the past year. If I can make just one of those visitors think twice about taking risks, then I may well have saved a life.
So here we go:
The science bit:
HIV’s a clever little bugger. When it enters your body, it targets your white blood cells. There are many different types of white cell, and they don’t just live in the bloodstream. But in very simple terms, they’re your immune system — the more of them you’ve got, the healthier you are.
HIV latches on to the white blood cell and empties its DNA into it. In doing so, it effectively turns the cell into a factory for producing more HIV — when the white blood cell reproduces, so does the virus. Sneaky, huh?
But it gets sneakier. When HIV copies its DNA to human DNA it makes a small ‘mistake’ and mutates ever so slightly. This is why it’s so hard to find a cure — because by the time we develop one, it’s irrelevant because of how much the virus has changed.
If you imagine the yearly mutation of the flu virus to be the size of an A4 piece of paper, HIV’s equivalent could arguably be a couple of football pitches.
How do I know if I’ve got it?
Well, the simple answer is — you can’t. Not without a test. Once you’re exposed to the virus, your body will try to produce antibodies to fight off the infection. It’s the presence of these antibodies that the doctors look for when they test you for HIV, but it can take anywhere between thirty and ninety days before there are enough of them to detect in a test.
Some people will develop flu-like symptoms a couple of months after infection. Others may not show any symptoms at all. My experience was pretty traumatic. I was so weak I couldn’t even move, I barely ate. I lost nearly two stone and I had a blotchy red rash all over my body.
Attractive, huh? Thinking twice yet about barebacking?
It stands for post-exposure prophylaxis — and it could save your life. It’s basically a course of HIV medication that you take for a month after you’ve been exposed to the virus, and it could cut the risk of you developing HIV by around 80%.
But you need to be quick — you’ve got about a 72 hour window after exposure to get the treatment (the HPA in the UK say ideally within one hour and not beyond 72 hours). You can get it from Accident and Emergency or through selected GUM clinics. Have a Google and you can usually find where to get it in your area.
Accidents happen, condoms split or get forgotten in the drunken, drug-fucked heat of the moment. Nobody at a clinic is going to judge you, they just want to help. But make no mistake; this is not some magic ‘morning after pill’ — the side effects can be gruesome, and can include heavy vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea, insomnia and dizziness — but it’s better than the alternative. It might be a second chance at an HIV-free life.
So don’t blow it — and take a bit more care next time.
So what should I classify as safe sex?
There are certain activities which can be said to be lower risk than others. Oral sex, for instance, is a lot lower risk than penetrative sex. But the actual risk is dependent on a number of factors.
For instance, if you have oral sex with someone who’s got a high viral load and is highly infectious, that’s obviously going to be a greater risk than if, like me, they’re undetectable (I’ll explain what that means in a second).
On the flipside, they could be undetectable, but if you’ve nicked your gums when you dashed to the bathroom to brush the taste of vodka from your mouth before you got down to it, then the risk goes back up.
And whether you’re male, female, top or bottom, barebacking’s a no-no. Just stick a bloody condom on. You may think you can’t catch it from a passive partner, but you can, and you probably will. If you rupture something while you’re banging happily away up there, you’ll be absorbing the virus straight through the head of your dick.
So should I avoid sex with someone who’s positive?
Sex with a positive person — as long as it’s safe — shouldn’t be something to be frightened of. If they’re kind enough to tell you beforehand, you should assume they are in control of their health, and are at the right stage of their treatment, and therefore won’t do anything they feel will put you at risk.
However, you always have a choice, and it’s your decision whether you have sex with them or not. Don’t just go with the flow’ while silently freaking out.
I’ve been turned down by countless guys because of my status, but the one thing I always say is: “I’m not the first positive guy you’ve slept with — I’m just the first one who’s told you.”
So why should I get tested?
Well, apart from the obvious peace of mind, there’s another thing to consider. So here’s science lesson number two:
There are two indicators of how an HIV+ person’s body is coping with the virus:
- CD4/T-cells: It’s a little complicated, but they’re pretty much the same thing. T cells are a type of white blood cell, and CD4 is the protein on a T cell’s surface that the HIV binds to. For this reason they’re sometimes known as CD4+ T cells. A healthy person can have a count of anything between 500-1500 per drop of blood.
- Viral load: This is the number of copies of HIV per drop of blood and can vary wildly. At my worst, it was over half a million. Now I’m on drug therapy, it’s below 50 — or in clinical terms ‘undetectable’
So therefore, high CD4+low viral load = good news. When the CD4 drops below, say 250, this usually indicates the immune system has suffered damage, and then it’s usually time to consider drug therapy.
So if you don’t get tested, you won’t know if you’ve got HIV, and if you’ve got it, how the hell can you know how your body is coping with the virus? The longer the virus goes unchecked, the more it’ll have the chance to damage your immune system — and that’s where the trouble starts.
Also, the higher the viral load, the more infectious you are to partners — even if you’re indulging in relatively low risk sex.
You may not need to go on meds straightaway. I didn’t start taking them until I’d been positive for six years (I was diagnosed eight years ago). In fact, my CD4 was still around the 1000 mark, it was just that the virus was multiplying exponentially, and it was time to bring it under control — I looked awful, I was about two stone underweight, I was ill all the time, eczema, night sweats, diarrhoea, the lot. I was quite glad, actually.
In a nutshell
Well if I haven’t hammered the point home enough already, I’ll just say it one more time:
Go. Get. Tested.
And if you feel you don’t know enough about HIV, make it your mission to learn about it. You can find out a lot about HIV from websites like AIDSmap, or from charities like GMFA or Terence Higgins Trust.
You may think it’s one of those things that just happens to other people — like a house fire or car accident. But it’s not. It’s real and it’s on your doorstep.
Knowledge is power as they say. And the more people who take control of their health, the better. There is no cure, but with the right care you can live a long and happy life.
I’d like to think of myself as living proof that having HIV and having a fucking great life aren’t mutually exclusive, but if I hadn’t got myself tested, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be here now, and I wouldn’t have had the chance to experience all the amazing things life has sent my way.
Thanks for reading.