Being Human

Going into a chemotherapy ward is terrifying.  I was very anxious about having chemo and psychologically I wasn’t prepared for it at all.  I’d seen women before, that haunted look, the grey skin, the separateness.  Despite having a lumpectomy, I still looked well, albeit stressed.  I was about to undergo a treatment which would bring me into world of the ‘unwell’ – the people on the periphery of life.

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The moment I stepped into the ward, I was horrified and became hysterical. I didn’t want that stuff in my body, but more than that, I didn’t want to be like ‘them’ – the other people in the cancer ward of the hospital. People were being wheeled in and out on trollies, some were sitting in large chairs, perhaps sharing a room with one other. It smelled of death and sickness. All the rooms were open, so as you walked down the corridor, you could see everyone in their varying states of decay. No one was laughing, no one was having fun, everyone looked terrible. I remember the moans of a man, with a large bloated stomach, obviously in huge amounts of pain. This wasn’t me, this wasn’t supposed to happen.

Then something happened. The psychiatrist had been in to see me, who had been baffled by my reaction and I eventually calmed down and allowed myself to be connected up to the chemo. I read a book and talked to my husband to try and forget what was happening. Suddenly a lady was wheeled in next to me – she could have been thirty, she could have been eighty, I had no idea. All I knew was that she was incredibly fragile. She looked like a little bird who could hardly open her eyes. The two strapping young ambulance men wheeled her in, and placed her on the bed with such care it was really touching. In the process of transferring her to the bed her slipper fell off her foot, one of the men gently caught it, and place it back onto her foot with such tenderness. The physical contrast between the muscular healthy young men and the fragile weak lady was really striking. The lady still had her eyes closed, as if she had either simply given up on life, or was too weak to open them.

I watched, suddenly feeling guilty about my earlier outburst and my relatively fit and healthy state. I watched as she lay motionless on the bed next to me, as if on the cusp between life and death, I wasn’t sure. The nurses clearly knew her well and had probably cared for her for some time. Perhaps they had known her when she was more than just a lifeless figure to strangers’ eyes. One nurse came in to give her some sort of injection and link her up to more machines. Before leaving she stroked her hair back gently from her forehead and kissed her. That simple act was so pure and giving, it humbled me.

Going through this treatment is horrendous, but it gives you in a glimpse into another world, which we can all be part of one day. Some will come back to full health, some of us aren’t so lucky.

Phoenix Rising

I really didn’t want to have chemotherapy.  Not only did I not want to lose my hair, but I didn’t believe in it.  Surely something which was going to damage my immune system and kill healthy cells was going to poison me, and in the long run weaken me, making it more likely that I would have cancer again.  It was all so quick, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, so I had to put trust in my surgeon, who did seem to know what he was talking about, yet I still struggled with the idea as the day drew closer, especially as I had been told this treatment was just ‘preventative’.  On the lead up to my first treatment, I talked to friends and family, and would often use the word ‘poison’.  I clearly had an issue, and I knew this type of language was not going to help me get better.  So there I was, stuck between a rock and hard place – my gut said, ‘don’t do this’, and my head said, ‘you don’t have a choice’.

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I have a clear memory of those first few chemo sessions.  I was hysterical.  I entered into the ward, and saw lots of very sick people around me – grey, no light in their eyes, and weakened bodies.  What on earth was I doing?  I didn’t belong here and I was going to become one of ‘those people’ and my life would be over.  I cried hysterically, so much so, they sent the psychiatrist in to see me.  They wanted me to take anti depressants, but to my mind, it was perfectly understandable that I was upset, and anyway I didn’t want any more crap in my body.  I also hated the port that had been put under my skin and made me look like a robot.  It gave easy access for the chemo drugs directly into my veins, and is something which usually stays in the body for two years.  I couldn’t stand looking at it- not only did I look like some sort of futuristic robot, with a large implant under my skin, but the idea that I could just be plugged into the machine was a dystopian  nightmare.

So what to do?  I knew it was important to believe the treatment was going to make me well, but as it was ‘preventative’, it was very hard for me to get my head around the idea that this was helping me.  My friend Andrea, a medical doctor with experience of cancer care told me to imagine the chemo as if it was little particles of light cleaning my body.  When I was plugged into the machine, I should try to meditate on this, rather than the idea I was being poisoned!  My dialogue (inner and outer) focussed on the idea of re-birth, a renaissance, phoenix rising – I was going to come out of this stronger, fitter and with purpose.  This gave me the strength to get through it, and rather than be a victim of cancer, I was going to try and turn it into a positive.  So, over time I came to accept what was going on (or was so weak, I didn’t have the energy to fight back!), and I also became far more empathetic to the people around me in the hospital – rather than thinking of these people as ‘the other’, I felt we were all in this together, no matter what stage we were at.

One day I shared a room with a lady who was wheeled in on a trolley.  She was literally wasting away – she could have been 40 or 80, it was impossible to tell.  I remember the two ambulance men (built like rugby players) lifting her gently onto the bed, and then with immense kindness one of them placed her soft slipper back onto her foot.  Later in the day a nurse came in, and spoke to her in a calm reassuring voice, and on leaving kissed  her on the forehead.   With these gestures I was struck by the humanity of all the staff  – it outshone the treatment and it helped me to face this terrible challenge.

I still find it difficult when I read things about chemotherapy and the lasting damage it can do, but all the dreadful side effects are slowly melting away, and I’m hoping my positive frame of mind is helping my body to make a full recovery.