Wednesday, 29 September 2010


On the day of my chemotherapy I woke up and felt… nothing really. Maybe a little nervous? No, not really. Anxious? No, there was none of that. Weirdly, the best I could muster was some good old fashioned dogged determination. I needed to get this done. I was going to get this done. It won’t be that bad.

Mark and I went and met my friends Gary and Kaz for lunch. Kaz had come up to London especially for a dance festival that Mark and I were supposed to be attending the next day. Obviously we’d had to sell the tickets, another thing that pissed me off about this whole cancer lark. It really was eating away at my summer.

We had lunch in a pub. I ordered a steak and a pint of bitter. My companions furrowed their collective brow at this, but I wanted one and couldn’t think of a good reason not to. I’d not been told not to drink beforehand. So I did. Unfortunately the beer was off and the steak was chewy. That’ll teach me.

There was an unusual atmosphere. Gary and Kaz were concerned and lovely but, I sensed, not really sure what to say or how to behave. It was a weird situation – going for a pub lunch then popping over to the hospital for some chemo. But we all did it because we couldn’t think of a reason not to. There was no need to isolate myself. I didn’t want or need time on my own before having it. These things – ‘going to have chemotherapy’ - always sound more monumental and dramatic than they actually are. In fact it’s a fairly straightforward procedure, as I was to discover.

I didn’t have to wait in the chemo waiting room for long. They ushered me into a room that was exactly the same as the waiting room – armchairs, etc - except it was larger and the people sat in here were attached to drips.

The nurse sat Mark and me down in some armchairs. She went about inserting a canular into my arm, something I’d had some experience with before when I did a medical trial in Australia. But not something you can ever get used to I feel. It is the most uncomfortable and ‘wrong’ feeling to have something sitting in your vein and coming out of your skin like that.

The drip was hooked up to a machine that dictated the flow of the drug into my bloodstream and timed it. The nurse explained that it should take about an hour and a half. I asked if I will experience any symptoms during the process and she told me probably not but (I hear it again) everyone is different.

The drug they gave me was called carboplatin, a colourless fluid that looked harmless enough sat in its clean clear bag. It's usually given to patients with lung or ovarian cancer and I wasn't clear on why they'd decided to give it to me, apart from that it would do the job in one dose.

I looked it up later and found this: “Carboplatin kills cancer cells by binding to DNA and interfering with the cell's repair mechanism, which eventually leads to cell death.” Basically they pumped me with poison.

So I sat back and relaxed while I was pumped with poison. I looked around at the people there. Those attached to the drips were all over a certain age. There was no one young. I supposed children with cancer have their own oncology department. And people my age… well they don’t get cancer do they. Just the unlucky few.

I sounded sorry for myself then. I wasn’t, and am not. I was and am actually just grateful that the whole thing wasn’t a whole lot worse. In fact, rather than overwhelming and upsetting, the experience of getting chemotherapy was underwhelming and even a little funny.

For a start the machine kept fucking up. Every now and then we’d hear a beep telling us that the drip had finished. The first time it happened was a few minutes in. “Well,” I said. “That wasn’t so bad.” Mark went and got a nurse.

About half an hour in, a batty-looking woman who looked like an extra from Rent-A-Ghost came bursting into the room shouting, “Mabel! Mabel! Are you here Mabel?!” She was obviously near-blind, despite walking around unaided. But there was an obvious candidate for ‘Mabel’ – a batty-looking woman who looked like an extra from Rent-A-Ghost sat in the corner on a drip. They soon found each other with the help of the nurses.

I was engrossed in my book, but Mark heard them talking. They were trying to assess our relationship. “Well, that’s a very good friend to come in and sit with him like that,” said one. “They might be brothers,” said the other. “True, but it’s still good of him.”

Then Mark spilt tea everywhere. Everywhere that is, except from on me. We had tea and biscuits sat on a tray on a trolley and Mark smashed his arm down on it, sending the tea flying. To this day I don’t know how he managed it. Thankfully I didn’t have to move. Not that it mattered; the drip and incessantly beeping machine (it couldn’t wait to get rid of me) were on wheels. I could have popped down to the shop if need be.

And finally the beeping machine was no longer lying to me. It really had finished. I was pumped full of a litre or so of poison. And I felt fine. Disappointingly normal. We went home, still normal. Watched TV, still normal.

Then at two in the morning, still wide awake I realised the first of my symptoms – insomnia. The anti-sickness drugs they’d given me were supposed to be taken first thing in the morning so they wouldn’t affect your sleep. But my chemo was done in the afternoon, so here I was wide a bloody wake.

Saturday was my first full day after chemo. I woke up feeling nauseous and forced down my anti-sickness. I texted my friend Steve to tell him I wouldn’t make his birthday lunch. I’d said I might come along if I felt alright. But I didn’t feel alright. And I didn’t feel in the right state of mind to socialise with people I didn’t know. And I was the other side of London. It just wasn’t a good idea.

But then as the day rolled on I felt normal again. Mark wanted to go out and buy a TV stand he’d seen in a second hand furniture shop down the road. Did I want go with him? We weren’t sure what was best. We debated it. I felt alright. We decided I may as well go with him.

And I was alright. When we got to the shop the dude who ran it wasn’t there; he’d put a sign up saying back in 10 minutes. I felt the first wave of tiredness. I sat down on one of the second-hand chairs and felt better. I wasn’t hungry – I’d eaten okay at lunch. Just felt a little woozy. It soon passed.

We took the TV stand back on the bus. People stared and frowned like they had never seen a TV stand before. To be fair they’d probably never seen a TV stand on a bus before. But come on. The bus driver didn’t look sure about letting us on. But the stand was on before he could argue. We took it home.

I went to bed earlyish. Tiredness hit me like a truck. I woke up some 13 hours later, feeling awful. The best I can describe it is somewhere between a hangover and a drug comedown – a wooziness that is all-encompassing but that is not alleviated by lying down, sitting on the sofa, or walking around. Sunday, the first day of full-on symptoms, was in a way the easiest, as I slept through most of it. I ate a little, took my anti-sickness drugs, and went back to bed. That day was pretty straightforward.

Monday I was more awake. But this was a pain. I still felt the wooziness, the uncomfortable, want-to-climb-out-of-your-skin feeling. But I could do nothing to ease it. Nothing that I would treat a hangover with – coffee, food, Berocca, lying down, watching TV – made any difference. I couldn’t concentrate on TV, reading, talking to Mark. As soon as I tried to do something it didn’t take the feeling away so I wanted to do something else. It was horrible.

Over the next few days however, I gradually felt more human. The weekend approached. Mark had an idea. Why don’t we go to Cornwall for the weekend? Over Wednesday and Thursday we discussed it. We could hire a car, drive down, stay in the hotel in Padstow Mark’s dad had booked for us, chill out for a few days, come back.

There were two issues – one, was I feeling okay? Yes, I was feeling alright. Good enough to spend two nights in a luxury hotel, anyway. Secondly, what are the risks in regards to my immune system?

I was now entering the second week of my post-chemo window, the week where, according to the oncologist, my immune system would now be at an all time low. We weighed up the options – stay in London and not leave the flat I’d not left for the past five days for fear of catching something from the hordes of people living in an over-populated and dirty city. Or. Drive in a contained car to a secluded and quiet part of the country where there is plenty of fresh air and far less people around.

Mark got on the phone.

It was a brilliant weekend. The hotel was beautiful and not intimidatingly luxurious; homely rather than decadent. It looked out over Padstow harbour, of which we had a view from the decking out the front of our room. We relaxed, went for a drive up the coast, relaxed some more, had a wander round the quiet streets of Padstow, relaxed some more. I breathed deeply of the fresh sea air.

On the Sunday night Mum and Dad came to Padstow and we had a meal at Rick Stein’s restaurant. It was the perfect place for Mark to meet the folks for the first time. I didn’t think about what I’d been through throughout the whole meal. In fact I barely thought about it for the whole weekend. It was nearly over and soon I could consign it to my past.

We drove back to London and I spent the rest of the week roaming around the flat like a caged tiger. It seemed to drag at the time but before I knew it, it was time to return to work.

I was nervous going back. I wasn’t sure still what people knew, what they would say. I was greeted with gentle concern from those that asked about it. My immediate colleagues sought assurance that I was ready to be back. Initially I felt fine. But as the week wore on I noticed that I fatigued easily. It was subtle but it was there. So I took it easy. I was pleased to have something to do, to focus on, that wasn’t situated in the four walls of my flat.

Also, I was pleased to be through it. The worse was over. I was almost healed up properly from the operation and I was through the drowsy, druggy hell of the chemo. Now it was time to get my life back on track.