( For cancer sufferers, and those who know someone with cancer — and that’s most of us — the prospect of a long period of chemotherapy can be daunting. But I think this Blog, resumed now, is one of the most remarkable, human, and readable accounts I’ve read — Ed)From Ros Aitken in London
On the Saturday of my ‘free week’ I finally receive a letter from the hospital summoning me for a scan ten days hence, at 9 o’clock in the morning, breakfastless.
Oh joy! In that week, I shall have to go to the hospital three times for early morning appointments.
Everyone is grumpy
On the following Tuesday after an early lunch I go for my routine clinic and blood test. The Oncology Outpatients’ Waiting Room is an unprepossessing place, a dispiriting prefab-like construction too small for the number of people using it, always either too hot or too cold, equipped with a tinny radio broadcasting banal pop music. Today everything is running late and everyone is grumpy.
I’m informed that I can’t have my blood test before my clinic appointment because the nurse is still at lunch. My doctor – big chief Benepal himself this time – is running half an hour late, but of course no one officially acknowledges this.
No matter: he is charming, and full of optimism about my positive response to the treatment, which he feels fairly certain the coming scan will reflect.
Apparently it is a GOOD THING that I feel sick so much of the time. He decides to cut out ‘the middleman’ and writes me a prescription for enough of my basic anti-nausea drug to fill several bathroom cabinets. I take the opportunity to ask if he’ll check that the hospital has now recorded my phone number. Unbelievably, it hasn’t. Benepal and the attendant nurse are aghast, and yet another attempt will be made to persuade the system to accept it.
Back to the waiting room, where I’m told to sit and wait to be called for my blood test. After half an hour I politely ask the jobsworth on the desk (see an earlier blog) if she is able to give me any idea how long I might have to wait. She, having just dropped and smashed her coffee mug, gives me short shrift.
After another half hour, she goes off duty, and her replacement, a helpful young man, tries to obtain some information. I eventually get away at 5pm, and take Benepal’s prescription to leave at Pharmacy. The pharmacist is somewhat askance, and I have to assure her that I have no intention of overdosing.
Home to NZ sauvignon blanc
I need hardly say that my bus is caught up in the Tooting rush hour, and in spite of another jolly nonstop mystery tour of Putney Heath – unannounced on this occasion – I don’t reach home till nearly 7pm. A restorative glass or two of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc on the back patio is my reward.
It is now Thursday, and upon my arrival at reception I am welcomed by a shout of ‘Hallo Rosalind!’ from one of the nurses,which skilfully disguises the fact that the hospital is having a really bad hair day. (I have not succeeded in getting the staff to call me ‘Ros’ and on the whole I don’t mind – it means that not only am I suspended in time and space for the duration of my visits, but I also inhabit a different persona. Escapism, no doubt.)
I pass some time reading an old discarded Daily Telegraph which details the weaknesses of the current Australian cricket team. Still recoiling from the humiliations inflicted on us by you New Zealanders, I find this comforting.
The treatment room is so short staffed that they’ve brought in an agency nurse, to whom, after some discussion, I am assigned as her first patient. It is a pity that there is no one to tell her (1) that it is de rigueur to smile all the time, (2) that she should communicate, cheerfully, with the patient, (3) that when she goes for lunch, she should conduct a handover, and (4) that blood pressure and temperature should be taken before chemo is administered.
By mid morning something approaching normal staffing levels has been achieved, so I mention the fact that I should by now have been given my super-duper pre-chemo anti-nausea tablet. The agency nurse makes a vague promise to check. Nothing happens.
Macmillan nurse to the rescue
She then abandons me for lunch and I am rescued by a wonderful Macmillan trouble shooter who takes down my empty bag and prepares to hitch up a full one. I mention the missing drug again, but make it clear that I’d rather press on without it and risk the consequences than wait for an indefinite time while Pharmacy, which claims the drug has been removed from the system, struggles to dispense and deliver it. At this point, my own Macmillan nurse appears from nowhere, like a guardian angel, and we all agree to proceed.
This I see as a minor exercise of patient power, but it is as nothing compared with the action of a young man who has just arrived and who is refusing point blank to take his steroids, on the grounds that they keep him awake. Too right. They do.
What with one thing and another, including the agency nurse’s failure, in spite of my request, to give me my usual final 2 drips at once, I have a very long day. The one good thing is that the Kindle – on which I have now progressed to a re-read of The Mayor of Casterbridge, has been brilliant.
Not only is it simple to turn a page with a light pressure of the left thumb (my right hand this session being incapacitated by the drip) but it offers an entirely different reading experience which I mix in with a ‘proper’ book and a literary magazine. As well as giving relief to the eyes, it somehow tricks you – well, me, anyway – into thinking you’re actually pursuing a different activity. Psychologically, this is a terrific boost.
‘Escape’ at 4 o’clock
Just before I escape at 4 o’clock, Pharmacy sees fit to deliver my pre-chemo drug, with instructions to take the first tablet ‘now’ and a warning that it will be less effective than if it had been administered at the right time. Sigh and roll eyes heavenward.
I now have to go to Pharmacy to collect Benepal’s Tuesday prescription. I fear the worst, but lo! I am immediately handed over a bag bulging with boxes of my basic anti nausea drug, labelled ‘Collect Thursday’, with no questions asked.
And so to the bus stop, and a story for any cat lovers among my readers: on the way to the hospital this morning, at a stop somewhere in the featureless leafy suburbs between Putney Heath and Wimbledon, a cat boards.
It is in a pet box and escorted by a young man. In spite of his ministrations it mews pitifully, and I begin to think it is on its way to the vet, and knows it. In Wimbledon, cat and escort dismount.
Now, on my journey home, in Wimbledon, the cat gets on again, in the same pet box, but no longer mewing, and accompanied by a different, female, escort, clutching a bag of medication. So I was right about the vet. When we reach the stop at which it boarded 9 hours earlier (it’s had as long a day as I have) the escort hands it out of the bus to yet another minion, waiting to receive it. What an exercise in organisation – I only hope the cat appreciates it.
I myself reach home at about 5.30 and after restorative tea, then wine, on the patio, husband Tom and I set off for our nearest Café Rouge. There’s a lot to be said for Bouillabaisse as a restorative after chemo.