Thursday, 24 September 2009

A Variety of Rants

To Harley Street for my blood test. There’s more than the normal level of mayhem going on at Chemo Central. As I fling the door open I nearly flatten some poor cancer sufferer. He’s got a tracheotomy valve in his throat so he can’t scream or hurl abuse at me. That’s lucky.

Another guy has sprung a leak in his port-a-cath and has removed his shirt. The nurses are trying to get it washed and dried and coax him into alternative apparel. But he’s not happy. “What is this?” he pouts. “It’s a theatre smock” cajoles Sister Lottie, “just try it on for the time being.”

I scamper down to The Providores to meet Flossie and my friend David who is visiting from New York (I’m telling you his real name since I will probably post a link to his website). As I walk in, David is reading Peter Gordon’s recipe book. A convert already. Flossie arrives and I make the introductions. David is delighted to learn that Flossie is a psychotherapist. I can see him mentally filing the information for future use.

I spy my new friend Martine the osteopath looking gorgeously glam, having lunch with a stylish gentleman in a suit. I wait until she has her mouth full of duck and noodle salad then march over and exclaim “Hi!” Martine nearly spits the squirmy duck noodles all over her lap. She’s my kind of girl.

After another slap-up meal Flossie skips off back to her work counselling the anxious, confused, drug addled and fearful ones. In other words, people like you and me. As an alternative to psychotherapy David and I stock up on chocolate éclairs from Paul, next door.


Cara greets me with a big welcoming smile and a thermometer. She marches me over to the scales. 66.9 kilos! It’s the most I’ve ever weighed in my life. I’ve gained a kilo since last week. Maybe I should restrict myself to half a bar of Green & Black’s per day.

The chemo nurses are short-staffed today, only nurse Bess and Sister Lottie are on duty (nurse Cara is not fully qualified to give chemo yet). I resolve to be good and not drive them mad with my inane nail varnish discussions, wig tips and frozen pea schemes. Besides, David is here so I can inflict that all on him. We settle into the chairs. Sister Lottie inserts the cannula and we’re off. The first drip is an antihistamine. It makes me quite drowsy. Knowing that there will be a temporary lull in the conversation I pull out a pile of magazines from the side table and pass David a copy of Period Living. “Is this a magazine about how to cope with Pre-Menstrual Tension?” asks David. I’d forgotten that his sense of humour is more appalling than mine.

The man with the tracheotomy smiles and gives me a little wave. Suffering a life-threatening illness can make a person very forgiving. The man in the surgical smock is packing his briefcase. Sister Lottie goes over to him. “Ok we’re just going to start your chemo, so that will take an hour and a half.” “But I thought we’d finished,” protests the man. “I don’t know what gave you that idea. We’ve still got to do your chemo and then a flush. I said five o’clock remember?” We all look at the clock. The big hand is pointing straight up and the little hand is on the three. “I know you said five o’clock but I thought you’d changed your mind,” says the man, in a glum tone.

David and I discuss when we should eat the chocolate éclairs. Now or in five minutes time? “Well, by the time you’ve made us a cup of tea it will be five minutes from now,” I observe.

“What will you do,” asks David, “when the chemo is finished and you can’t come here and then go to The Providores for lunch every week?” For a moment I’m crestfallen. Then I cheer up. “After the chemo I’ll be having radiotherapy. So I can come here and go to the Providores every day.”

Sandra arrives. Hallelujah! I’ve said before that the treatment I am receiving privately is no better or different to the treatment I would receive on the NHS. All the consultants that I see also work at St Mary’s. I’m glad that is the case, it’s as it should be. I would not want to live in a land where private medicine was superior to that available to all – in fact that is the main reason that I would never want to live in the USA. A society that does not provide decent, universal healthcare cannot truly be regarded as civilised. In fact, I know from my previous experience of serious illness, in the most acute circumstances the care available in the NHS is far superior to that offered in the private sector. When it comes to the really bad stuff, the NHS is the only way to go. I got health insurance because I am a freelancer and terrified of being out of work for any longer than absolutely necessary. Having treatment privately is like having it in business class. The queues are shorter, the seats are more comfortable and they throw in a few treats to make it as pleasant as possible. Like Sandra. Sandra is a reflexologist employed by the hospital to take some of the stress out of having chemotherapy. She starts massaging my feet with a heavenly scented cream containing geranium, rose and bergamot oils. It’s by Tisserand. I drift off into a cloud of bliss.

Jamie arrives looking all tanned and relaxed following his holiday in Malaysia with Muttiah. I don’t remember if I’ve told you before, Jamie is an actor. He prides himself on keeping his instrument in tip-top condition. He has recently been cast in a play. I will give you the details before it starts. “And what do you do?” Jamie asks David. I forgot to tell you, David is a fabulous painter. He tells us about a series of portraits he is working on of people with their dogs. “Oh, you should paint Chilli with Iris,” I say. “No,” says Jamie, “you should paint me with Hugo.” “You’d like Chilli,” say I. “Chili,” Jamie rejoins, “is something of a moth-eaten, mangy old cur, whilst my Hugo is a fine, magnificent prince of a dog.” “That sounds like a pretty convincing testimonial", says David. “For Chilli,” I riposte.

David leaves and Jamie settles into his chair. It’s ok doing chemo on my own. The nurses are great company. But I do love having my friends with me.

The surgical smock guy has started kicking off again. It is five to five and his flush is still dripping. “You have five minutes,” he informs Sister Lottie, “you can stop this now.” “If I don’t do this properly and you have an allergic reaction I will bar you from leaving this hospital,” she says in a stern tone. “I’m Australian so don’t mess with me,” she waves an arm in my direction, “she’s Australian too, so you definitely won’t get out of here,” not taking into account that I’m hooked up to a chemo machine. Nurse Bess joins in, “we’re all Australian here,” she tells him, in case he hasn’t got the message. He grumbles on in a subdued fashion. I feel like shouting “keep your shirt on,” just to rub salt in the wound. But I refrain.

At last it is home time. Sister Lottie unplugs me and then with big cheery smiles, all the nurses wave us off, “see you next week Lily. Bring more lovely visitors.” “The nurses here are so nice,” I remark. “They’re utterly gorgeous,” Jamie replies. He’s got it about right.


Before I leave the building, Honoria the breast care nurse calls me down to see Suzy Cleator. I had told her yesterday that I’ve started to experience some numbness in my fingers. It’s peripheral neuropathy - a known side effect of the Taxol. Or it might be caused by blogging all hours of the day and night.

Jamie and I take a seat in the waiting room and I pass the time playing spot the wig.

Suzy Cleator welcomes me. Both she and Honoria are more noticeably pregnant every time I see them. Which is as it should be. Suzy looks at me. “I don’t want you to have permanent nerve damage in your fingers,” she says. “Neither do I,” I agree. “I think we will reduce your dose,” she says. “So, will I have to have more sessions?” I ask, a little disappointed by the prospect. “No, she replies, we’ll just reduce the dose for your last three sessions.” “Will that mean that the chemo is less effective?” I ask. If I’m having the damned chemo I want to make sure that it works. “No,” says Suzy, it works just as well.” Anticipating my next question: “so why didn’t you give me a lower dose in the first place?” she swiftly expands on the subject: “Side effects are a good indication of how well or badly your body is metabolising the chemo. If the side effects continue for a long time, it is a sign that you are metabolising it slowly, so it is staying in your system for longer and doing its work more effectively. Some oncologists increase the dose until the patient experiences side-effects.” I am grateful that Suzy is not one of those oncologists.