Dancing Girls and Muscle Men
November 24, 2017
The anticipation of a new round of chemo treatment makes me nervous and tetchy for a few days before. We have an awkwardly timed day ahead – 9 am consultant’s meeting, and then 3 pm in the chemo suite. We are in the busy morning waiting room at Mount Vernon. My name is called and I am weighed and measured (the chemo dose is made up accordingly) and we are lead to the drab consulting room. We sit between a sink and a bin marked Offensive Waste. Mo comes in. He is a familiar face now, a senior registrar who seems assuredly knowledgeable and kind. He says my bloods are fine and he is happy for me to begin treatment again. I ask him the same question that I asked Sarah the Macmillan nurse a week ago. Can the treatment just carry on? For years? Yes, he says, palliative care can continue indefinitely with adjustments made to treatment and drugs as necessary. I take great heart from that – I see my life elongate before me.
We get back to the car and on a whim decide to go to Dunstable Downs for coffee and a very blowy walk. It does us both good to clear our heads at least momentarily – the chemo process is arduous and taxing. It’s a bright, clear and sunny day. We can lean on the wind. A glider hangs motionless in the blue above the hill, caught in a delicate balance of lift and airspeed.
The chemo suite is a modern high-ceilinged space with slivers of coloured glass set into the big long wall. Big windows at each end of the room let in late afternoon light. There are 19 blue reclining chairs and one bed. The room is full. Tracy the nurse fusses around me, tapping and turning my arms for a suitable vein. She is kind and caring, never rushing. Today she has a male trainee nurse with her, and he is to insert the cannula. He says he needs the practice. He says he’s been a trainee for a week. Tracy shows him which way up to hold the needle, and tells him to imagine he’s landing a plane, swooping down and landing on the runway and into my vein in one deft curved movement. He dives straight in, crashes and burns, completely destroying the runway. Manda has left the room. They find another vein and he crash lands on that one too. Tracy takes over flight control and establishes a flight path over my other arm. First approach aborted with a collapsed vein, fourth time lucky with a perfect insertion. I feel like a colander.
The medicine I’m on is slightly different this time round. I’m not getting the bright red Epirubicin – the consultant now thinking the side effects outweigh the benefits. It is horrible stuff. The nurse has to stay and watch while it drips in, just in case it spills into surrounding tissue. If that happens all hell breaks loose, sirens go off, red lights flash and muscly men in Hazmat suits swarm in and quarantine the whole area, before hosing me down with decontamination sprays. Ok, that last bit might be exaggerated, but only a bit. But not having Epirubicin should mean I keep my luscious new curly locks, some feeling in my fingers, and not be so knocked out afterwards. I am though on a higher dose of the oral chemo Capecitabine which I take at home.
I watch the nurses work. If only they pointed their toes a little more it could be a Matthew Bourne ballet. Some move quickly, stopping suddenly to check where they are next needed. Others glide purposefully across the room. Support staff push trolleys between obstacles and pirouette around each other in the few open spaces between chairs. There is a sense of rhythm, the pumps bleeping randomly, and then in synch, and then randomly again. Gestures and coded looks pass between the nurses – they are a close group and have a familiar sign language that smooths out their time and tasks. And then there is a calm moment, a short time to regroup, catch up on last night’s TV, moan about the roster for the upcoming holiday period. It’s late in the day, and the performance is almost over as patients complete their chemo sessions and leave. A few nurses are evidently close to some of the patients, there are kisses and hugs as they leave. Tracy is back, my arm tingles terribly like nettle rash, but the worst pain is to come. Ripping off the plasters from my sore and hairy arm. Man alive! She reminds me that I will be very sensitive to anything cold, I had forgotten that. The cold air outside makes my nose and mouth go numb straight away, and we have a quiet drive home.
Here we are, being kids again on the swings at The Tate Modern.