Updated: Feb 28
Cancer in a Pandemic
Getting cancer is really shit. Getting cancer during a global pandemic is really a whole other level of awful. It’s possible the loneliest and scariest thing you’ll ever, hopefully never, have to do.
My husband and I have been married for 18 years, and we’re pretty independent people. We work well as a team because we have different skills, different interests and we let each other do our own thing. But when it matters, we’re rock solid. We laugh at the couples with matching cagoules who hold hands in Tesco, and we’re happy to head off on different nights out and meet up at the end of it. Back in the days when nights out were a thing, of course. But there is no one else I would rather have by my side when things get tough. To coin a truly terrible phrase, he is my rock.
So it’s really, really crap when you read on an hospital appointment letter that you can’t bring anyone along with you. Not even to an appointment for a potential cancer biopsy, when you need a rock to sit alongside, just in case you start to wobble a bit. But Covid has stripped us of that comfort. Walking into the clinic alone, being directed to an isolated seat by paper signage, and sitting waiting for a masked stranger to take you into a freezing cold room for an ultrasound is pretty goddamn awful.
The AK47 Prodecure
Of course, this is the NHS, so the masked stranger is the most wonderful kind and caring nurse you could hope to meet. I’m a right stand-offish cow with new people, so I do the whole eyes down, closed body language thing, give one word answers and offer only cursory “yup”s when I’m asked if I’m OK. But when the doctor/radiologist (not sure, didn’t ask, probably should have) brings out a needle the literal size of a sharpened AK47 and points it at my heart, the nurse takes my hand quietly. And I let her.
AK47 woman tells me I might feel a sharp scratch, and the gun (she actually called it a gun) would make a loud clicking noise. We all know that ‘sharp scratch’ is NHS speak for ‘fucking big ouch’ but I can handle that. ‘Loud clicking noise’ is a new one on me though. I await the click.
What I get, instead of a click, is the sound of a rifle in a cavern, close to my head, and a sensation (painless admittedly) of a cold metal spear entering my body at high speed. I’m over-dramatising, of course, but bear in mind I’m lying supine on a bed with my arms above my head, like a walk on extra in a war movie, so I think I’m entitled to play up the trauma. But I haven’t been shot, I’m alive, and like a bizarre Ealing Comedy, we smile and make small talk like nothing just happened. AK47 woman leaves, with an actual piece of me, and lovely nurse repairs my dignity, puts me back together and sends me home with an aftercare letter and an extra dose of compassion.
Six days later I get a letter summoning me to the hospital. At this point you have an inkling. In lockdown, anything that can be done by phone or video call is done by phone or video. You don’t get brought into the hospital unless you need a physical examination, or they have something to tell you that they can’t do over the phone. Good news happens in a phone call. Bad news happens face to face. Husband drops me off outside the entrance and I take a deep breath, sanitise my hands, take a mask, and join the socially distanced queue for Outpatients.
I’m directed to the Pink Zone, to section C. Now I’m no expert in symbolism - I mean I’ve read the Da Vinci code and we did DH Lawrence at A level, but even I can tell that PINK signs with big Cs on them are pretty much going to be the breast cancer section. Heck they should give out pink ribbons just in case anyone missed the clues. The fact that it’s full of middle aged women pretty much cements my theory. Interestingly, B zone is full of middle aged gentlemen. My mind is already whirring away trying to decide what the B stands for. I decide it stands for ‘Bollocks’ and I play on my phone, trying to avoid the kindly meant eye-contract from the lady sitting opposite me. A nurse calls my name and I check out her name badge (after AK47 woman I decide I should take a bit more interest in anyone who might potentially ask me to take my top off). The name badge says
Macmillan Cancer Nurse Specialist
Fuck. Fuckity Fucking Fuck Fuck.
Katy takes me into a room where the consultant is sitting reading his messages. He asks me if we’ve met before. I’m pissed off that he doesn’t remember me but I let it pass. He starts talking and time suddenly distorts. I feel myself moving at a different pace to everyone else. I’m there but I’m not there at the same time. I’m underwater and I can’t hear anything. Sometimes I catch a word or two.
But apart from those clearly conflicting words, I have absolutely no idea what he has said. I have no idea how long I’ve been there. It might have been 5 minutes, it might have been 20. He asks me if I have any questions. I say no, not at the moment. He says I seem to be very calm. I say I suppose we just have to get on with it. I’m giving stock answers, automatic responses. He nods. His phone rings and he asks if I mind if he answers it and suddenly I’m back in the room. Yes I bloody well mind! What the heck are you thinking? You just ripped a fucking enormous hole in my life and you’ve moved on to the next conversation and I’m left here, trying to remember to breathe, holding myself together so I don’t collapse on the floor, and you’re talking to somebody else. I say "sure".
Katy stands up and asks me if I’d like to come with her somewhere quieter. I’m not sure if my knees will work, but I stand up, they do work, and we go to a room a bit like a chapel. It’s got cushions and a vase of fake flowers, so I know we’re in pastoral territory. Katy tells me she’ll be with me every step of the way, and she’ll answer all my questions when I’m ready to ask them. She tells me she’s really sorry, that normally she’d be able to give me a folder with lots of information about breast cancer, but because of Covid they don’t have any. She hands me a photocopy of a leaflet with a badly drawn breast, which has a big black circle drawn on it, with those dotted lines around it which means ‘cut here’. She tells me a bit more about the procedures I’m going to have but my brain has turned to Teflon, Nothing’s sticking. She gives me her business card and tells me to give her a call any time. I ask if I can email. She says yes, if I find that easier.
We’re interrupted 3 times by other nurses looking for things, and suddenly I know I’m coming back to the real world again, because I start mentally criticising their customer service. Katy tells me that now I need to make my way up to the pre-assessment department, to book an appointment for a pre-op assessment. She says she’d normally take me there, but Covid restrictions means she can’t. But it’s easy to find. It’s in the purple zone, on level 3. So just along the corridor turn left, and up the stairs.
Ten minutes later I’m still wandering around the hospital. I’ve been through the blue and green zones, and I finally found the purple zone, but this is level 2, not level 3, and I can’t find the stairs. I can’t stop and ask anyone because I can’t speak. I can’t stop because I might not start again, I’m clutching one of those A5 cards that they give you to take to another department and I notice it gives the name of the department I need to go to. I’ve seen a sign for that, so I back up and eventually find it. I hand over my paperwork and the lady gives me an appointment for a few days time. She prints the letter out for me, because she knows. I won’t remember.
I call my husband. He says he’s on his way, but he decided to go to try and buy a piece of wood and he took a shortcut which wasn’t a shortcut and is now on a single track road a few miles away but will be there soon. This is normal behaviour for him, so I’m not surprised. I stand outside the hospital in the rain, for 20 minutes, letting the raindrops sting my face so that the sensation gives me something to focus on other than the utter, utter terror that is threatening to overwhelm me.
He arrives at high speed. I get in the car. He drives off. He asks if I’m OK. I say No. He pulls over. I fall apart.