On the eve of his return to work, Tony Calvin gives a searingly honest update on how his planned three-month break in June quickly took a different turn...
"So the next time you get the opportunity to have that break, take it. Because it can be taken away from you all too easily and quickly."
When I filed my copy for the final day of Royal Ascot here on June 18, before a long-planned three-month break, everything was set fair.
Well, that is not exactly correct as I had been feeling more than a touch subdued and lethargic for a while, going back over a year if truth be told, a period in which I was a monumental arsehole to one person in particular, hence my need for a total refocus and re-charge.
I had identified a couple of personal issues that needed addressing but I was sure a drama and work-free, healthy summer, incorporating the arrival of my first grandchild and a solitary six-week break high up in the hills above Pathos in Cyprus soon after - the prospect of seeing no other people for days on end was blissful - would set me straight.
Grandson Rome duly did the honours but, apart from him - and what an addition to this world, he is - the last three months have been about as joyless as well, err, going on holiday with me.
Don't worry, this is not going to be one of these "woe is me", pity pieces - that is not in my nature at all, which is generally more of the kind that I don't have or even want a glass, let alone it being half-empty or full - but I may as well provide you a fuller picture, having given snippets of information on Twitter.
It may be overly-indulgent, or indeed of no concern to anyone bar a few mildly-interested people, but tough, you are getting it.
At least I didn't say it was helping me through this process or journey. Things aren't that bad, just yet.
From under the sun to under the knife in no time
Anyway, this process and journey all started when I was having some work done around my house after Royal Ascot. It was hot and I was shirtless in the garden, having a drink late afternoon, when one of the blokes said to me that he didn't like the look of something growing on my back.
I naturally assumed he was talking about my head, but I sent a picture of it to my doctors, which prompted an immediate appointment, and a subsequent meeting with a dermatologist specialist in St Helier hospital three days later.
Expecting it to be a routine check, I thought nothing of it, but there was a rude awakening that it was anything but when she started ringing and numbering different areas on my back in ink and then promptly asked me what I was doing that afternoon.
"Nothing now, obviously" I said.
Going on the piss was quickly replaced as the no-offers favourite by a same-day surgery option they were piloting and a near two-hour excision took place 45 minutes later, on three different areas on my back.
Lesson number one then; get everything checked out as soon as possible, however trivial you may think it is.
This was brought home two weeks later when the St Helier team had me in again, two days before my intended trip to Cyprus on the Sunday, and told me I wouldn't be going.
Stage three melanoma was diagnosed, and they immediately referred me to the world-leading Royal Marsden cancer specialists in Fulham and Sutton.
Lesson number two, which we all know anyway. Our National Health Service is off-the-scale impressive, even when being driven into the ground by this hollow, dangerously inept and cynical Government.
Amazingly, I was in the Marsden in Fulham the following week for a face-to-face meeting with the surgery team, and the operation was set within three weeks. Quite simply, a staggering level of turnaround and service at a time of such demand on an under-resourced NHS.
It was to consist of three wider excisions in the areas already targeted, plus lymph node biopsies in the groin and under the arm.
Lesson number three. Don't just assume you will stroll into hospital on the day, as I did.
I was taken aback at the level of preparation and analysis needed before the surgery itself, and you are in wonder and awe of how the A & E teams cope when they have to operate blind, often without medical records and checks, in the moment.
In separate appointments over three days, I had a full MOT; a series of blood and ECGs and heart tests, a chat with the anesthetist, a Covid screening, and then the afternoon before extensive scans (lasting over three hours) were undertaken to detect exactly where my lymph nodes were hanging around, so they could mark them up for the surgeons to home in on.
This they did the following day (September 8) in my first operation under a General Anesthetic, which I was so worried about that I even had a will done the week before.
Silly old tart, I know.
Thankfully, I came around three or so hours later (you will have to wait for that windfall, boys), talking absolute bollocks - apparently at one stage I even said we need more racing in 2022, was worried that the Racing League wouldn't be renewed next year, and that I thought Julie Harrington would give a good account of herself if ever interviewed on Luck On Sunday - and, speaking of which, I found my undercarriage was exposed as they obviously had to cut my NHS-provided netting-undercrackers off in the op.
And, as most men know, having eight different people in a room looking and operating around your old chap without being awake and conscious to give it the odd bolstering, enlivening nudge now and again is not good news.
Luckily, I have my looks and charming personality to fall back on.
Lesson Number Four. Be patient, listen and trust in the professionals, and acknowledge that sometimes even relative loners like me need good people around us.
I won't embarrass any of the people I include in the above - and some of the support and kind messages came from very unexpected quarters, too - but let's just say that if you have one friend as dedicated, caring and committed as my rock in all this then you are blessed, indeed.
More bad news and a long road ahead
Just before the op, my surgeon said I wouldn't be doing anything much for the next 4-6 weeks, and that my diagnosis would be presented to me on October 7 after the multidisciplinary team (MDT) had met and discussed my results. In my naivety, I was expecting good or bad news immediately after waking up after the op.
A month it was then, and he wasn't joking about the inactivity either. The groin and under-the-arm incisions were fine but the extensive surgery on the back presented its challenges, shall we say.
It also took five different visits to the Nurse Clinic to iron out the complications from the surgery but you deal with it, and rely on those family and friends.
Lesson Number Five. You may steel yourself for the immediate aftermath of getting your diagnosis, but be prepared for a delayed response.
I had bad news on that October 7, as the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes from the immediate operation areas, which dictates that I am now in the hands of the oncology team at the Marsden and I will now need brain and full body scans to see what trouble lurks within this frame.
I will find out more about that when I speak to them on Thursday afternoon of October 14 (today for most of you, I imagine) so at the moment I have little more to tell at this point.
Other than the next stage of treatment could take 12 months but, as cancer goes, I imagine 95% or so are worse off than me, so no pity and self-woe here. It is to my eternal shame that I didn't even know what chemotherapy treatment entailed until I went in for my op and chatted to the guy opposite in the ward, having his latest round.
But, whatever your personal travails, always be prepared for the dips.
An image that I will never forget
I felt fine when going out for dinner and drinks immediately after getting the October 7 news - that was always the plan, win lose or draw to nick that phrase from Paul Nicholls - but I did hit a few lows over the next two days.
Now, I would probably be in the old school self-regulation camp of my parents' generation when it comes to mental health starting and ending at home - I know the world has moved on in this area, and rightly so, but there is no point writing an article like this without being honest and true - and I will simply have a recurring image in my mind when I inevitably ebb at various points in the coming months.
When you walk or drive into the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton, to the left there is a dedicated wing and unit for children and young people called the Oak Centre.
I was waiting outside there for a lift one afternoon when a car pulled up, and out got a young boy carrying his own toys and his own little suitcase, with his parents trailing behind him.
To say that I choked up would be the understatement of the year, and every time you begin to feel sorry for your challenges and predicament, whatever it may be - be it temporary or permanent, in any walk of your life - just picture that image and the hell that family were going through.
You will soon get over yourself.
Very, very quickly.
That was Lesson Number Six, by the way. There will always be someone out there worse than you, and some are likely to be within 100 feet of you at any given time.
It's a cliché but genuinely don't try to sweat the small stuff, like bad luck, losing a few quid and copping the odd bit of criticism, as we all tend to do in horse racing.
So the next time you get the opportunity to have that break, take it. Because it can be taken away from you all too easily and quickly.
One image will stay with me from these past few months, and it won't be mine.
That scene with the young boy should have been taking place at an airport, not a hospital, this summer.