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’.
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.