To you lot, the build up to chemo may well seem like the build up to an end-of-season sale at a really shit pound shop. Some over-zealous newbie with a diploma in social media has been hyping the ad campaign up to the point where even you, a discerning yet compassionately tasteful consumer, have taken an interest. But deep down, you know that whatever is on offer once the doors finally open on Sale Day, it’s going to be shelves of the unfloggable total shite that even the most ardent of thrifty shoppers have refused to purchase on several occasions in the past. No one wants what chemo has to offer.
And if you’re starting to feel that the wait has been somewhat drawn out, imagine how it feels for me. Boredom and apprehension do battle with each other to fill my days. My happy, chirpy stiff upper lip chafes regularly against my grinding teeth, and my positive smile is tautened by the pull of my clenched jaw. I want chemo to start, but there is nothing on earth that I want to happen less. Apart from dying, which isn’t the greatest of choices, so chemo wins by dint of no one else turning up.
You may be surprised to hear that there is a large amount of preparation that goes into pumping someone full of poisonous chemicals. There are infusion lines to be inserted, bloods to be tested, height and weight calculations to be taken, decisions over the mix and type of godawful toxins to use, and markers to be recorded so as to measure the impact and damage of the chemo drugs on your vital organs once the treatment programme kicks off.
The chemo team called me last week and talked me through the next few appointments and we booked them in. First off is a heart scan. An echocardiogram. Smartarse me feels smugly confident in this one, I had an ECG at the pre-op, so this will be a breeze. But I google it anyway (because hey, what the fuck else have I got to do?) and it turns out that an Echocardiogram isn’t an ECG - that’s an Electrocardiogram, the one with the beeps and the pulses, the star of so many episodes of Casualty that it really should have its own Equity card. No, the ‘Echo’ is an EKG, even though there’s no ‘K’. It’s an ultrasound, you know, the one with the KY jelly and the blue paper towels. But hopefully no second tiny heart beat. Just the one hugely powerful adult healthy one is what we’re after. They do it to check out your heart and arteries, to make sure they’re OK to cope with the poison-laden twat-festering chunderbus that is coming their way.
And so now I’m heading off the Cardiology, alone, as Mr G was being an arse about something or other, so I flounced out with full dramatic effect to “DRIVE MYSELF TO THE HOSPITAL FOR A HEART SCAN BECAUSE I HAVE CANCER, ACTUALLY, BUT NO, YOU KEEP PLAYING YOUR COMPUTER GAME, I’LL BE FINE”.
Stress levels are high. Moving on.
All About C
Once you have cancer, everything that happens in your life is henceforth totally about cancer. Your conversations, your diet, your social life, and also every tiny thing that happens to your body. You get a hangnail, you think it’s cancer. You get a headache, it’s cancer. You fart, it’s cancer. Living with the cancer you know you have is hard enough, but learning to live with the fear of the cancer you might have, now or in the future, is very much worse. You are also constantly expecting to hear the worst possible news. All of the time. So obviously, as I’m now having a heart scan, and because I am an over-dramatic, anxiety-ridden loon, and despite the fact that I have no previous heart problems, I am fully expecting to be told that I have total heart failure, and that I will be dead by Thursday lunchtime.
Luckily Darcey, my cancer buddy, is by my virtual side, and she reassures me that I am unlikely to die this week. As I am flying solo on this one (Mr G really is in the very depths of the doghouse now), I will have the added anxiety of having to work out how the car park ticketing schizzle works. Big angst, as this is very clearly Mr G territory. I imagine scenes where I lose my ticket and have to walk home. Eastbourne is hilly, I clearly have a weak heart, so I will die. Or I try to pay with cash and it only takes contactless cards cos this is a hospital and Covid, and my card suddenly stops working, I am arrested for fraud, get sent to jail, the stress affects my weak heart and I die. Obviously I also explore the flip side of this where the card machine isn’t working and I don’t have the right change. I check my purse, I have £1.80 in cash, and everyone knows that hospital car parking is £200 an hour, so I will not be able to pay, I will be left with no option but to walk home, up the steep hill, heart, death, da capo al fine.
But I navigate the entrance to the car park, get my ticket and put it safely in my purse. So far, so good. My success boosts my confidence and I remember to note whereabouts I have parked the car because my cancer-brain will forget, and I march into the hospital, flick the hand sanitiser, grab a blue mask and flounce past the Reception desk with the swagger of a seasoned pro. I don’t need to check in any more, because I, ladies and gentlemen, am now officially a regular. I have a post-it note of the directions that the lady on the phone gave me - straight past Reception, end of the corridor, up one flight of stairs, Green Zone, turn left into Cardiology, ring the doorbell that looks like a light switch. The fuck?
No, no, no, this cannot be happening. The doorbell that looks like a light switch? How much more laden with potential for utter disaster could those few words be? My mind’s way ahead of me. I will undoubtedly flick the wrong switch, turn off all the lights in the hospital, trigger a critical incident and cause the whole hospital to be evacuated. Or I will turn off all the machines that are keeping all the heart patients alive, they will all die, or I won't even find the switch and I will be wandering the corridors for all eternity. And don’t come at me with any of your ‘it won’t happen’s, because my life truly is an episode of Airplane right now, and statistically, chances are, it will.
So I head up the stairs which, frankly, alarms the heck out of my estates management head (who on earth puts the Cardiology department up stairs) I locate the Green zone and, astonishingly, find Cardiology. There is a desk where the ghost of a pre-Covid receptionist would have sat, and a plastic screen. A sign says ‘please ring for attention’. There is a light switch. Too easy? It’s clearly a trap, but the man in the office opposite nods at me, so I press it and prepare to run. Instead, a nurse appears out of an office, asks my name, ticks me off on a list and tells me to take a seat in the waiting area outside. Blimey. 1-0 to me. Screw you, Gods of Fate.
There are a handful of other people waiting, and I’m delighted and pumped to realise that I’m at least 40 years younger than everyone else here. My odds just went up. I have to wait about 20 minutes and I quickly come to realise, by the number of consultants in blazers and handmade shoes that pass by, that cardiology must be significantly better paid than oncology. These guys simply ooze mid-week golf and sports cars. I don’t know if that’s reassuring or not, I suspect it isn’t. I’m called in and am taken into a room with a small lady and a fucking enormous machine. It truly is enormous, like the bit in the TARDIS that goes up and down and makes the whooping noise, but better made, and without a whooping noise. So not much like it at all. But it is huge.
Prep-wise, it’s standard procedure, top half off, on the bed, gown on, brace yourself. There’s an unwritten rule in scans that you don’t ask what’s going to happen, you just do as you’re told and hope that snippets of information will eventually form themselves into a coherent explanation of what is going on. I’m told to lie on my side, facing away from the machine (damn, I won’t be able to see the pictures), whilst the radiologist sits herself on the bed behind my back. It’s very odd. She gets the gun thing, and the jelly (Darcey and I have a pact to never ever call it lube) and she leans her right arm over me and starts squirting gel and scanning various bits of me. It’s a disconcertingly intimate situation and really very strange. After a year of lockdown and social distancing, I can count the number of people who have put their arms round me on one finger. And lovely as she might be, an unknown radiologist isn’t on my list for next in line. I don’t like hugs from strangers, I only really tolerate them from very close family, so to have a stranger leaning over me like this is complete sensory overload. I am really uncomfortable, but I smile and co-operate, breathe in & out on command and make the whole experience as pleasant as it can be for the radiologist. Typical me.
Twenty minutes later we’re done, and she asks if I have any questions. I have lots, many of them articulate, researched and pre-planned. But instead I ask “so what is this for, this test things, cos I’m not really sure why I’m here”. Because in that moment, like in so many before, my brain decides that I’m a gibbering idiot with the IQ of a kumquat. She smiles benevolently, like I am, indeed a kumquat, and tells me that the machine takes photos of my heart, so the oncologist can see if there is anything to stop me from having my chemo treatments. She asks if I’d like to see some of the photos. I nod, like a small, excited kumquat, called up on stage at a magic show, and she shows me lots of red and blue images of the inside of my heart. I make an ‘ooh’ sound. I ask if it’s all OK and, because I’m a freaking kumquat, I break the cardinal rule of asking the radiologer to give a medical opinion. She is clearly a small fruit sympathiser, so she breaks a rule too. She tells me everything looks fine and there’s nothing to stop me starting chemo. Which obviously is a double edged sword, but it’s better than ‘dead by Thursday’, so I thank her, and I skip on out, with my healthy heart pumping happily. I think that’s 2-0 to me now, Fate Gods. Screw you.
Really, fate gods?
I head for the car park ticket machine and my anxiety tries its damnedest to screw with me, but I’m on a high. I put my ticket in the right slot (a first for me), I pay with my phone, first swipe, like a proper adult, and my ticket is returned to me unmangled. Woo-freaking-hoo! I spot the car, walk over to the drivers door and then freeze, because there’s a woman sitting in the driver’s seat of my car. A woman I have never seen before. In my car. With the radio on. What the actual heck? I have no clue what to do, so I step away. And that’s when I see it. My actual car, parked two bays down from this one. The exact same make, model and colour. Really, Fate Gods? Is that where we’re at? Hallucinofuckinggenics? OK, you got me. 2-1.
I offload to Darcey, she cackles at me via WhatsApp and shares a photo of the pint of gunky yellow fluid she has just had drained from her armpit. I am impressed. When I get home Mr G is making a fancypants lunch as a tacit apology. I accept it, eat it, and we go back to normal. He is battling the might of the entire roman empire, I am googling wigs that don’t make me look like Myra Hindley. An hour later and he is doing infinitely better than me.