If you can’t stand old people and needles, for goodness sake do not get cancer. Over time I have come to seek out the company of the former, while developing a slight phobia of the latter. Or is that the other way round?
My first experience of needles involved a booster injection when I was about four or five. I remember sitting on my mum’s lap having no idea why I was there.
The nurse came in and started chatting to my mum. She turned to me and said:
“Look at that!”
She jabbed a needle into my upper left arm. I don’t remember any lolly, just a lot of crying.
My next encounter with needles was at primary school. When the girls turned eleven, it was decreed that we had to be immunised against rubella. Rubella, which is also known as German Measles, we were was told was fine. However, should we contract this illness while pregnant, all manner of awful things would happen. This sense of fear spread to the actual injection itself. All sorts of horror stories were soon circulating about girls whose arm became paralysed, blood spurting everywhere and of girls who were never the same since.
Soon the day of the injection arrived. We were led in line to the school secretary’s office. One by one we went in. Each of us then emerged afterwards, clutching our upper arms, trying to make out how traumatic it was, when it wasn’t that bad.
My next encounter with needles was a couple of years later when everyone, including the boys, had their BCG. The BCG had reached quite mythical status by the time it came for our year to have it. There were stories of people being hospitalised, in comas, having their arm amputated and other such trauma. What was bad about the BCG was that unlike Rubella, you had to have a skin test the week before. If you got a rash after your skin test, then you didn’t need to have the BCG. Somehow your body was already immune to all the illnesses that the BCG protected you from.
The day of the skin test arrived. Once again, we were led single file, to the school secretary’s office. We went in two at a time and sat opposite a nurse, with our palms facing upwards, on the table between us. The nurse placed my wrist between something that looked like a stapler. She pressed down on the stapler. Gerclung! I felt tears welling up and pulled my wrist away. I looked down and saw a circle of five holes on the inside of my wrist.
“Sorry! It does hurt a bit…” said the nurse sympathetically.
“If you get a reaction, let your teacher know straight away.”
Unfortunately despite willing my little circle to get bigger and angrier, it didn’t. For some lucky ones it did. They displayed them with pride, while we poor mortals scowled at their smugness.
BCG day rolled up and soon we were all quivering outside the secretary’s office. Once again we went in two by two. As it was done alphabetically, I was towards the end of the queue with Sarah Taylor, a person I always ended up with alphabetically wise. People were emerging in tears, sniffing, clutching their upper arms but thankfully, there were no stretchers.
Then came our turn and in we went. The two nurses did a fantastic job, distracting us. I guess as we were near the end, they had perfected by their double act by the time we arrived. Without noticing, my upper arm somehow became exposed. While the nurse was performing a comedy monologue, I became aware of a sharp scratch.
“That’s it! All over. I’ll just pop a plaster on that and you’re good to go.”
That was it? Both Sarah and I knew that we had to make it much more traumatic than it was to the final remains of the queue. So I clutched my upper arm and for some reason, started limping. Sarah, somehow, managed to bring tears to her eyes.
“How did it go?” asked Sasha Windmill, who was next in line.
“I think they hit a nerve…”I said as I limped by.
And so the BCG myth carried on being passed down for more generations of school kids to come.
After that, I had a couple of needle encounters when I went to teach in Thailand. Both myself and the nurse were very professional about it all. Maybe the pitch of my voice went up a little once the needle went in, but that aside, that was it.
And so it was until my cancer experience. Now there was no escape from the barrage of needles being thrust at me. It is generally true that nurses are far better at handling needles than doctors. Some nurses realise this. At times, their cockiness can lead to a whole lot of pain. My first experience of this was at my first CT scan. The nurse seemed convinced that I would be cannulated in that veil, come hell or high water. It just needs one painful wriggling around, to make you nervous for life. You are forced to accept this predicament. It’s either the needles or death. It’s that black and white.
Old people have been a revelation to me throughout my treatment. It’s a sad fact that the longer you live, the more likely you are to get cancer. Chemo wards and radiotherapy units are dominated by the over seventies. If you are allergic to old people, for heaven’s sake do not get cancer.
Before I had cancer, I was quite indifferent about old people. I would chat politely to them at bus stops but that was it. Now I mix with old people daily. They are fabulous. Behind every old person is an amazing story. They rarely talk about it. A lot of prodding is often required. But once you have heard their story, you’ll be spellbound.
Throughout my chemo, I had two stalwarts that kept me chugging on. They were Keith and Arthur. We all met while doing relaxation classes at the cancer support centre we all go to. As soon as the therapist started talking, Keith would start snoring. At first this was an irritation. Over time it became a joke. Arthur and I would time how long it took before Keith started. His quickest was twenty seconds.
Over time I was privileged to hear both Keith and Arthur’s amazing stories. Keith’s background sounded like a carbon copy of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He was a factory worker for over thirty years. He finished each day with the usual eight pints at the local. Over time this caught up with him. He was first diagnosed with prostate cancer. That spread and now I’m not sure where he’s at. All I know is that he seems to have had most of his bowels and lower intestine removed. Yet he’s still able to move about and great each day with a smile.
Arthur’s story is equally amazing. Arthur was a rocker. He had a terrible motorbike accident. While he was recovering, he met a beautiful nurse. She became his wife and they had a wonderful family together. Then the C word struck. Arthur’s wife got breast cancer. She died three years ago.
We all came together about six months after Arthur’s wife died and bonded immediately. Keith and Arthur kept me going throughout chemo. I knew I couldn’t miss a relaxation session or there will be trouble. Most important they gave me hope via endless cups of tea and chat.
Old people are often seen as a burden. During chemo, I would see relatives flapping around while the old person was sitting calmly, having their treatment. They would be keeping their heads, while all around them others were losing theirs.