Do you know why you're here? I thought I did until I was asked. I'm in a small, windowless brick room at Auckland Hospital. This starter for 10 was delivered by a man who was to become my clinical haematologist. Until that morning I had no idea what a haematologist even was. I'd assumed the extreme fatigue over the past year was my lack of fitness or the 50th birthday I had tried very hard to ignore. It seems I was terribly anaemic.
Yes, I'm here for a couple of bags of your finest blood. After the blood transfusion, I expected a lecture to eat more spinach, exercise more. No.
Instead, tests suggest a strong likelihood of multiple myeloma. My wife Kristy is here. I told her I was just getting a blood transfusion, she didn't need to attend. But she insisted and I have never been so glad she ignored me. Myeloma is a form of blood cancer, not curable, but treatable. Myeloma accounts for only 1.6 per cent of cancer diagnosis in New Zealand.
Why are there no windows in this room? Give me the number. How long do I have?
A painful bone biopsy later confirms the prognosis, along with confirming life will be different - most likely shorter.
My thoughts are of my three beautiful daughters: Jemma, Holly and Ruby. A life goal is to give them the best childhood I can. Dying isn't doing that. Another is to grow old with my wife of 22 years. I had a bigger number in mind.
We start with five months of chemo, a combination of pills and a weekly injection. Steroids are added; a cocktail of drugs to keep me safe while my immunity is compromised. Some days I take 15 pills. People say I'll rattle but I never hear it.
Wikipedia says my life expectancy is 3.5 years, not even a full Rugby World Cup cycle. I prepare a shortlist of pall-bearers and swear off Google for further advice.
Chemo begins on Friday the 13th, already an important date for anyone named Jason. Three weeks into lockdown, I develop a raging fever, common with my treatment but, unfortunately, similar to Covid.
The most terrifying hours of my life ensue. Rushed to hospital, my temperature and heart race out of control. I'm monitored by medical staff in spacesuits. I'm put on drips, isolated in an ED room. Lying there, I'm petrified I will never see my family again. Seven days in an isolation room, four negative Covid tests - and no visitors - my fever abates and I'm allowed home.
Another challenge is managing relationships. Some people are overwhelming, almost suffocating. As if I was supporting them. You see it coming, the head tilts, "How are you?" What else can people say? I'd do the same. I know they mean well but some days it's easier to lie. I'm fine. Explaining is exhausting and I don't want to be seen as complaining.
Level 4 means my weekly chemo injection at Auckland Hospital is no longer possible. I learn to inject myself with the poison. It sounds gruesome but it's better than driving to the hospital. Long nights of steroid-assisted insomnia and fatigue means working isn't an option. I'm an Aucklander with a suitably hungry mortgage. Courier vans arrive daily with online shopping orders.
As with most crises, my wife has it sorted. Twenty years ago we locked into an income protection policy. I knew about it, apparently. Well, I had signed the documents. Other than a mind-numbing day a month filling out forms, we needn't worry. I can't imagine how hard this would be with the added burden of needing cash.
After five months of the initial chemo and steroids, the doctor declares the cancer has been crunched right down. I have responded well and he is happy. My wife is happy. Everyone is happy. I try to be happy. But that was stage one.
Stage two is a much bigger hurdle and I'm not built for hurdling. The plan is a bone marrow transplant. I can't be cured, the cancer will return. The transplant is the best chance of delaying its inevitable return. Stem cells are collected and frozen from a port in my neck. I've lost no hair yet but my crazy lockdown afro and beard must go. I take control and get rid of them before the upcoming massive chemo hit.
I have my transplant in Auckland Hospital's Motutapu Ward. I had a school camp at Motutapu, but this is no holiday. Chemo kills the stem cells in my bone marrow, leaving me with zero immunity. The following day, my collected stem cells are taken from the freezer, thawed and intravenously returned to their rightful owner. I wait for the sickness. It comes, with the boredom and four-hourly observation checks. Long hours listening to the dulcet tones of Robert Smith and American baseball commentaries, plus the unbelievable energy and support from my wife.
There are seemingly endless, dark nights lying on a hospital bed. One night, a close friend messages: "I f***en hate this is happening to you Jase." I weep and rally. Three weeks drag by; the sickness fades; my bloods come right; I can leave that room and go home to the best hugs ever from my girls.
With not a hair on my body other than ample eyebrows, the curse of the middle-age man - hair sprouting from one's ears and nose - are no longer a concern. Dressing up as Uncle Fester for Halloween won't require a skullcap. My reflection reveals a big white dome where once sat my short back and sides - a constant reminder all is not well in the Land of Jase. I compile a list of what not to say to a cancer patient ... such as (when my hair began to grow back) your head looks like a giant testicle.
First tests post-transplant are positive and I go on a maintenance drug recently funded by Pharmac, thankfully, at $6000 a month. It is accompanied by long list of side effects but, as the best option to keep the cancer away, I can live with them.
Another three months, my hair returns, greyer. A year has gone since the I day I learned about my dodgy blood and now I have to remember who I was before I was a cancer patient. I'm told I look well. I am not sure how respond. I feel so bloody tired. Most of the side effects ease but my constant companion, fatigue, might just be the new normal.
I see my haematologist again, this time in a room with windows bearing panoramic views of the Waitematā Harbour. Sitting in the natural light, we get more good news. The cancer levels remain minute. I need to get on with living with a dark shadow, the prospect of the cancer returning.
One day at the clinic, I see a family friend for the first time in 30 years. For 15 of those he's had multiple myeloma and he's well. This raises the hope that Wikipedia is off the mark.