I was astonished to find in an old diary today that by 8 March 2006, less than one month after I was diagnosed with cancer, I had already been given two infusions of chemotherapy. The speed of the cycles of my particular treatment was due to my successful volunteering to take part in a randomised control trial testing the efficacy of a cycle of 14 days against 21 days, or, in the jargon, ‘CHOP-R 14 vs 21’.
It is odd what you remember. The twenty tiny cherry-red pills I had to swallow with milk during for five days after each infusion. (These were steroids. They were deeply un-fun, let me tell you). The Piriton chaser injection just ahead of the main infusion, ‘to send you away with the fairies, my lover’, as one nurse put it. She wasn’t wrong.
Most of all I remember the swathes of bright blue clothing every nurse had to wrap themselves in each time they began the course of injections. When I asked why this was necessary I was told it was because the chemicals were so poisonous they would burn through ordinary clothing if spilt. ‘And to clean it up we would have to shut the whole ward down. For a day.’
Mostly I looked forward to being away with the fairies.
I had come across Julia Darling’s marvellous poem ‘Chemotherapy’ nearly a year before I fully understood what she was talking about. There is not much I need to add to it, except to say I think ‘the smallest things are gifts’ sums up for me the entire universe of pain, gratitude, suffering, relief, anxiety and humour which the word ‘cancer’ registers in me.
I did not imagine being bald
at forty four. I didn’t have a plan.
Perhaps a scar or two from growing old,
hot flushes. I’d sit fluttering a fan.
But I am bald, and hardly ever walk
by day, I’m the invalid of these rooms.
stirring soups, awake in the half dark,
not answering the phone when it rings.
I never thought that life could get this small,
that I would care so much about a cup,
the taste of tea, the texture of a shawl,
and whether or not I should get up.
I’m not unhappy. I have learnt to drift
and sip. The smallest things are gifts.
from Sudden Collapses in Public Places (Arc, 2003)
I did not come across Psalm 102 (‘A prayer of an afflicted man. When he is faint and pours out his lament before the Lord’) until some after my treatment had ended. Again, I do not think it needs much explication. My first reaction to it was -how did the psalmist know how to describe the bodily reaction to chemotherapy thousands of years before it was invented?
Hear my prayer, O Lord;
let my cry for help come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me;
when I call, answer me quickly.
For my days vanish like smoke;
my bones burn like glowing embers.
My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
I forget to eat my food.
Because of my loud groaning
I am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a housetop.
With grateful thanks and acknowledgement to the family and estate of Julia Darling.