When I look back at my cancer story I’m often reminded of a scene from one of my favourite films, Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In the scene, our hero, Brian, is in hiding from the Romans. He seeks refuge with a political/terrorist organisation called The People’s Front of Judea (or is it the Judean People’s Front?) While he is at their hideout, the Romans, led by John Cleese as their centurion, come a knocking. They start searching the place to find Brian.
While they are doing this, John Cleese tells the old man who owns the hide out, what penalty will befall him for harbouring a known criminal. That penalty is crucifixion. The old man shrugs his shoulders.
“Nasty eh?” says Cleese.
“I dunno could be worse…” says the old man.
“What do you mean could be worse?”
“Well…” replies the old man, “you could be stabbed.”
“Stabbed! That takes seconds! Crucifixion is much worse…it’s a slow painful death!” says an infuriated Cleese.
“Well at least it gets you out in the open air…”
“You’re weird…” responds Cleese.
I think if you substitute crucifixion for chemotherapy and being stabbed with radiotherapy you begin to get some idea on the difference between the two.
Radiotherapy is instant. Although the side effects from it take longer to appear and last at lot longer than chemotherapy, the actual application of treatment is quick. It’s all over in ten minutes. It’s completely different with chemotherapy. With chemotherapy the treatment is long and drawn out, like a crucifixion. You go to the waiting room and wait an hour (if you are lucky) for them to mix and get your treatment. Then, when you are called through, you spend ten minutes warming the back of your hands ready for cannulation. After the back of hand warming, a good 10-15 minutes is spent inserting the cannula. Once inserted, you are hooked up to a bag of saline for what is known as “a flush”. This normally lasts another 10 minutes. This is done to make sure that the cannula is working OK.
It is after the flush that you then finally start the treatment itself. The treatments vary according to the type of cancer you have and how serious the cancer is. What they all have in common is that they are all extremely toxic. However long it takes, your life is ruled by the clock and the machine you are hooked up to.
When the treatment is finished, your machine starts bleeping. This usually happens when there are no nursing staff about like at lunchtime or at a change of shifts. It’s often quite awkward if two or even three machines start bleeping at once. Then you start eye balling your fellow patients. If someone whose machine started bleeping after yours gets attention first, boy does it piss you off!
You usually then have a finally flush, just to wash the final residues of treatment/poison into your system. When that is over the machine starts bleeping again and you are finally disconnected and free to go.
That is a basic outline of what you go through but as we all know, life is never that simple.
My appointment the following week was on a Thursday not a Wednesday. Thursday was now to be my chemo day. Every cancer patient who has had chemo has a chemo day. You see them shudder a little when they tell you.
Again my husband came with me. It was the first time I would have the Herceptin and the Paclitaxel so we wanted to make sure that my head wouldn’t fall off. After about an hour, Sue, the nurse who led the induction, called my name. I was cannulated quite quickly and up and running with the Herceptin. So far so good. Sue asked how I felt after last weeks’ treatment.
“Fine. Although I did feel a bit fluy in the night. I took some paracetamol and felt fine afterwards.”
Sue’s expression changed.
“You should have called us immediately. That meant you had some reaction to the Herceptin. How was your temperature this morning?”
“Fine…” I said feeling a bit ashamed.
“Good. If you feel that way again you MUST call us. I cannot stress how important that is.”
I nodded. After it was clear that the machine was pumping away happily and that I was fine, Sue disappeared.
“Well that told you.” Said my husband. It sure did.
After 90 minutes, the machine started bleeping and Sue reappeared. I had a ten minute flush and then Sue appeared with a little tray with a variety of vials on it.
“These are pre meds. We give you these before you have any chemo drug to lessen the side effects.”
There were about three vials and she injected each of them straight into the cannula on my wrist. At first I felt fine. Then I felt incredibly woozy. It was if all the blood had rushed from my head to my feet. I felt so lightheaded that I couldn’t speak to confirm my date of birth for the Paclitaxel. I did eventually and the Paclitaxel pumped away for another 90 minutes.
When the 90 minutes and the ten minute flush were up, I was finally unhooked. I immediately went to the loo as I had felt too weak to go during the treatment and then my husband slowly walked me to the car.
When we got home, I went to bed straight away to sleep it off. The next day I felt a bit hungover but was pretty much back to normal.
It was pretty much like that for the next 18 weeks. What was making me so drowsy were the pre meds before the chemo. One was Piritin which is an antihistamine. It’s normally harmless in hayfever tablets but it turned me into a zombie all the way through treatment. The nurses tried slowing the dose and all manner of tricks, but it had no effect. I would turn into a zombie and that was that.
Although the Piritin was doing what it was supposed to do medically, psychologically it turned me into a bit of a wreck. Each week normally on Wednesday evening or even on Thursday morning on the drive to the hospital, I would have a little chemo cry. I think it was because I knew by the end of the day I would feel awful and there was nothing I could do to change it. I’ve met many other people who also have had Piritin as a pre med and nearly always, it sends them to sleep for the rest of the treatment. For some reason my body just refused to accept this. It was like it was keeping me awake in order to confront exactly what I was going through, no matter how tedious it was.
The chemo ward is a peculiar place. Time seems to stand still for everyone except the nurses who are dashing from one bleeping machine to another. Chemo nurses are definitely a special kind of nurse. They are a breed apart. They always find time to deal with anything, not matter how annoying it is. More than once I heard nurses telling their colleagues:
“I don’t care if she wants the meeting now. I’ve got to cannulate this patient and then finish off that patient. I’ll see her when I’m ready…”
They really put patients first and yet also possessed with a kind of sixth sense. They seemed to know when you were up for a bit of a chat and when to leave you be. It’s a very clever skill and one that I don’t think can be taught too well.
As for my fellow cancer buddies on chemo with me, they could be fascinating, kind beyond belief, irritating as hell, rude, obnoxious, sweet, helpful, generous, boring… the list could go on. I only really remember fragments of it now because I was pretty much drugged up to my eye balls.
I remember an elderly couple and the husband was very poorly. It was clear that the chemo being offered was for palliative purposes. However they were both so kind and funny I used to really look forward to seeing them. On one occasion, the nurses had decided to put the radio on instead of the TV in our bay. This was actually a good idea because it was easy for you to drift in and out of the music being played. The song “A Horse With No Name” came on. The wife of the couple knew every single word of this hypnotic song and seeing her singing it gently to her sleeping husband has stuck with me.
Another patient was chap called Sid who came with his son. Both of them didn’t really say much. I remember when I was drugged up, Sid had just finished his treatment and came over. I had reclined my chair and was trying to get some sleep. He just waggled my left foot and said:
“Hang in there kiddo…”
It was the only thing that he ever said to me, but weirdly it did help.
I remember news stories at the time. The downing of Flight MH370. The awful ferry sinking in South Korea. Bill Roache and DLT being cleared of sexual offences. All these stories and many more were being discussed around me, but I just couldn’t contribute to the discussion. I was there, but I wasn’t there.
I also remember thinking that weirdly, we were part of one big family. It didn’t matter what type of cancer you had. You were all the same in the chemo ward. You could be a doctor, a builder, a housewife, a professor, an artist, a bus driver, a soldier, a baker or even a candlestick maker, we were all equal in the chemo ward. We all had have our bloods. We all had to cannulated. We all had to be scanned. It was all the same thing. It’s just where it was and what it was like that made us all different.