Chapter 26: Conference Season

“When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic.”
George Orwell

It’s October and its conference season again.

QED (Question, Explore, Discover) is a two-day science and skepticism conference held in Manchester. I’ve been going to it since its inception in 2012 and its always a great weekend full of evidence loving nerds like me. There’s usually an evening of drinking and quizzing on Friday night followed by a Saturday and Sunday jam-packed with fascinating talks, seminars and panel discussions with some great guest speakers from the the world of science, skepticism and comedy. Previous speakers have included: Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Paul Zenon, Mitch Benn, Steven Novella, A.C. Grayling, Nathalie Haynes, Susan Blackmore, Simon Singh and Eugenie Scott, to whom I gave a lift back to London, nice chap that I am. Although actually it’s often the speakers I hadn’t previously heard of who give the most rousing talks. It’s also a great opportunity for me to catch up with a lot of my friends from the skeptical community that I don’t see as often as I’d like. Saturday night is generally the highlight of the weekend and includes a Gala dinner followed by the annual Ockham awards ceremony and some music and comedy. The Ockham awards are presented to the best bloggers, podcasters and campaigners for their tireless work in promoting scientific education and rational thinking. My satirical blog The Reason Stick has been nominated for one of these esteemed awards on a couple of occasions, but I’ve never actually won. Much as I love the QED conference I haven’t however actually bought tickets for this year’s conference because of my health situation when the tickets went on sale. I do however notice that my blog, The Reason Stick, has once again been nominated for an Ockham. It’s a bit embarrassing being nominated this year though because I haven’t actually written anything new for my blog as I’ve been far too damn busy dying of cancer. Actually I suspect the reason my blog has been nominated again this year is precisely because of my poor health. There has been some great skeptical blogging this year and as much as I’d love to win an Ockham, I’m not sure this year would be appropriate.

An Ockham is not the only award my skeptical satirical blog has had in its sights. I was once long-listed for an extremely prestigious award given in honour of one of England’s greatest novelist, essayist, journalist and critics, and thanks to my piss poor English skills, a talented writer that I became very fond of fairly early on at school. My first year English teacher had a great nickname, but his real name was Mr Nankerville. Mr Nankerville deemed me not good enough to fail O Level English, so I was placed in a class where I could fail CSE English instead. As I was in the top groups for Maths and Science I initially resented being thrown into Dipshit English, but it turned out to have its advantages. The top English set got to read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Presumably us thickies weren’t considered literate enough for such a challenge, so we were given a simple little yarn about a farm with some talking pigs called Napoleon and Snowball instead. I’m pretty sure that I would have stumbled upon Orwell sooner or later anyway, after all I read Golding in my own time to see what I had been missing out on, but chances are I wouldn’t have read Animal Farm until I was much older. The books and records of our early teenage years can seem overly profound and powerful; they influence our thoughts and remain within us. When our developing minds are fortuitous enough to collide with a genuine work of art a life-long passion and appreciation is forged and our weltanschauung is no doubt knocked about a bit. So it was that thanks to my limited grasp of the English language and a friendly kid in my class who was happy to lend out his older brothers albums that Animal Farm and The Dark Side of the Moon are buried so deep in my psyche. I was therefore immensely proud to have been long-listed for the Orwell Prize back in 2011, although like the Ockham awards, I obviously never actually won the bloody thing.

Two days before the conference however I get a call from my friend Karl to ask me if I’m going to the QED Conference again this year. I explain that I haven’t bought tickets because of my ill health and wasn’t sure how well I’d be doing, although as it happens I’m actually doing quite well at the moment. Karl’s partner is the editor of the Skeptic magazine, and the annual Ockham awards are organised by The Skeptic Magazine. He seems a little agitated on her behalf that I wont be attending and asks if I could make it up for Saturday evening if he arranged a ticket for me. I have nothing else on this weekend so I agree, especially as it sounds suspiciously like I might have actually won an award. I set off for Manchester at 6am on Saturday morning and make it to the Mercure Piccadilly hotel for 10am having only missed the opening talk. Karl is good to his word and a ticket is waiting for me at the door. I pick up my ticket and head straight into the conference.

As always the talks are totally engaging and I spend the brief gaps between the talks milling around with my fellow attendees and catching up with old friends. After dinner on Saturday evening with some good friends at a most agreeable Japanese restaurant we head back to the hotel for the award ceremony and an evening of science related comedy and music. I sit next to my friend and skeptical stalwart Professor Chris French to watch the award ceremony. The first award of the evening is for the best skeptical or scientific blog. The five shortlisted nominees are read out, including my blog, and some examples of the work shown on the big screen. The other blogs have had much more work put into them this year than my blog and much as I want to win an Ockham, and I have a sneaking suspicion I might win, I honestly don’t think mine has been the best of the shortlisted blogs this year. After we’ve been taken through the nominated blogs an envelope contacting the name of the winner is opened. “And the winner of best blog for 2016 is … Britt Marie Hermes for her blog Naturopathic Diaries.” I breathe a huge sigh of relief, that was the right decision. Brit is an ex-naturopathic Doctor who started her blog to expose naturopathic medicine and protect patients from dangerous and incompetent practices rife in Naturopathy. I sit back to watch the remainder of the awards for best podcast and best event/campaign, but there’s one more award that I had forgotten about, The Editor’s Choice award for a contribution of a larger body of work over a longer period of time. There are no shortlisted nominees for this award, just a winner whose name is read out after opening the envelope. After my name is read out Chris congratulates me and shakes my hand as I leave the table and make my way through the standing crowd to the stage to receive my award. Deborah Hyde the Editor in Chief of the Skeptic Magazine hands me my award and gives me a hug. It is a truly exhilarating experience accepting such and award, even if it is the “Quick give him an award before he dies lifetime achievement style affair”. I take the microphone and say a few thank yous and give everyone a quick update on my current condition, which is currently pretty good. Buoyed on by my award I start to ponder if I should perhaps start writing a new blog about how I am dealing with my cancer in a scientific and rational manner. Who knows, I might have to start writing again soon.

Accepting my Ockham Award. Photo courtesy of Andrew Merritt
QED is however not my only conference this month. When I visited Dr. Wheater’s clinic last, Gus, my Clinical Nurse Specialist mentioned the Kidney Cancer UK annual conference, which this year is being held in Southampton. He said there will be some interesting talks and an opportunity to meet other kidney cancer patients. It sounded like it might be quite helpful so Tori and I have agreed to attend. We arrive at the hotel early in the morning and after coffee and breakfast we are given an agenda of talks for the day. They include practical talks on claiming sickness benefits, making the most of cancer charities like Macmillan and Maggies, alternative therapies for coping with cancer, an update from a fellow kidney cancer patient and a keynote presentation on current medical advances in kidney cancer treatment by an eminent kidney cancer doctor who is none other than Dr. Wheater himself. The practical talks in the morning on benefits and charities are rounded off by a truly inspiring update from a fellow kidney cancer patient, Paulette. Paulette is a beautifully articulate, West Indian, a nurse, and a similar age to myself. I shan’t forget Paulette’s name (because it’s the same as my Mothers), but I wouldn’t have forgotten her anyway. Paulette talked about how she was initially diagnosed with kidney cancer and the operation she had soon afterwards to try and beat it. There were many parallels with Paulette’s cancer journey and mine. She was one of the first patients to be offered pazopanib (the same drug that I am currently taking), and she seems to be doing very well on it. Indeed, although she is currently on a break from pazopanib as it seems to have put her tumours into remission for now, it is now five years since Paulette’s initial diagnosis. I’m sure there are many more patients who were diagnosed with kidney cancer five years ago and has since died, but to see Paulette here still talking about her cancer five years on fills me with the hope that it is possible to do a great deal better than the 18 months I’ve been predicted.

During the lunch break, Tori and I talk some more to Paulette and I’m struck by many more parallels in our cancer journeys and filled with even more hope. I know that Paulette is the exception rather than the rule but she’s a living example that it can be held at bay for a long period of time. After lunch we have a session on alternative therapies and Tori has warned me not to argue with the speaker. The speaker reels of a list of possible alternative therapies such as Reiki, Homeopathy and Essential Oils and then gives a brief overview of each, to my delight however, no one seems terribly interested in her nonsensical talk and nobody bothers to ask her any questions, which I find quite encouraging. I however, can’t resist one quick question so I ask her if she would like to state for clarity that none of the therapies she has listed have any empirical evidence in support of their efficacy against kidney cancer beyond the placebo effect. She concedes that they are indeed optional additional therapies for those who feel like they might benefit from them and not replacements for conventional treatments. No one else seems interested in asking any more about her alternative flowery flim-flam so we happily move on to our keynote speaker and some proper scientific research.

Dr. Wheater, our keynote speaker explains that about five years ago the prospects of patients with stage four kidney cancer where very poor indeed and life expectancy was very short, around six months or so. Because kidney cancer is relatively rare compared with more prevalent cancers such as breast, prostate and bowel, research had lagged behind for kidney cancer. Things are however improving and although there is no realistic hope of a cure on the horizon there are advances in drug technologies that are greatly expanding life expectancy. Pazopanib, the drug I am currently on, and its sister drugs developed by other drug companies, are giving many patients and extra eleven months or so and some patients, like Paulette, seem to be doing even better still. There’s also a number of other new drugs being trialled and in the development pipeline that might also provide life extensions and more options for oncologists. Indeed Dr. Wheater foresees a time in five years or so when we may have drugs effective enough to make kidney cancer a chronic rather than a terminal disease. It feels like I’m on the cutting edge of kidney cancer drug development and it seems like a with a bit of luck I could ride that wave of new drugs with each one keeping me going just long enough to reach the next breakthrough. Its closer to the cutting edge than I’d like to be, but combined with Paulette’s testimony I come away from the conference with more hope than I’ve had anytime since my cancer returned.

After my conferences its time for me to return to work, on a part time basis at least, but during my prolonged sick leave I seem to have accrued quite a bit of annual leave, which is handy because we’ve got a rather nice cottage in Suffolk booked in a few weeks time.