f any of you are old enough to remember that Maureen Lipmann BT advert where the grandson is opening his exams results, then you’ll know what I mean when I say that was me when I found out I was being referred to Oncology. I got an Ology! If you don’t remember the advert, then you’re far too young to be reading this, and there are almost certainly going to be swear words, too.
Being able to say “I have an appointment with my oncologist” makes me feel like an extremely glamorous (tanned and toned, naturally) californian housewife, grabbing her giant handbag, flicking her tawny golden hair and effortlessly sliding into a white convertible en route to her oncology appointment. I’m told that in reality, this is probably a gynecologist or an orthodontist, rather than an oncologist, and I’ve messed my ologists up, but hey, I enjoyed the dream.
Scalpels of Steel
The reality was a bit different. Oncology is where it all gets very cancery. Surgery is done, Mr Flashpants the surgeon is off to do more great acts of derring do with his scalpels of steel. Are scalpels made of steel? I have no idea. I expect so. Scalpels of Tungsten sounds more butch, but less alliterative. Let’s go with scalpels of steel. There’s enough butch out there already.
Anyway, I have an appointment with my oncologist. The one that looks like my old Headteacher. But this time my breast cancer nurse (BCN to the initiated) tells me I’m allowed to bring my husband with me. This brings forth a multitude of responses:
Brilliant, I can have someone with me to hold me steady
Oh god, it must be really, really terrible if they’re letting me take someone with me. This must be worse than the diagnosis one.
Is Covid not an issue now then? Or does cancer outrank Covid?
Oh god, my husband will be a nightmare, he can’t sit quietly unless there’s a TV.
Is he going to say something stupid?
Am I better off keeping the detail to myself and just giving him the headlines and directions, like we normally do?
So I tell him and he also has a number of reactions:
When is it? I’m not missing golf.
How long will it take?
Do you really need me there? I’ll only be annoying.
I usually nip to Sainsbury’s while you’re in there. It’s always much cheaper when you don’t come.
We’ll have to pay for a parking ticket, you know.
(after a long pause) Yes, OK, I’ll come then. To be with you. Because that’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?
So it’s decided. We’re going together.
Remember outpatients from before, bright and shiny, with the big pink sign? Well Oncology outpatients is the room they haven’t decorated yet. It’s downstairs, in the basement, at the back. Clearly not the place where anyone goes to be impressed. It’s in the Green Zone, the bright lurid green zone, and as we find our way underground, we pass a sign for the hydrotherapy pool and the fitness suite. For a passing second I imagine myself in a fluffy robe, on a sun lounger, contemplating a dip in the jacuzzi, but then a very elderly man shuffles past on a walking frame, with two physiotherapists helping him move his legs, and I realise this is no David Lloyd centre.
We find Oncology and it suddenly gets very real. The waiting room is filled with people in various stages of cancer. It is very obvious who is the patient and who is the carer. A man in his 50s is slumped in a chair, skin and bone, while his wife keeps a careful eye on him while she discusses his weight with the nurses, whom she knows by name. A lady in a headscarf is wheeled in by her husband. She’s attached to a drip, she has a sick bowl on her lap and is holding her head in her hand, clearly exhausted and very unwell. They are waiting for an emergency appointment. Her husband gets his laptop out and starts working, she tries to sleep. They have been here many times before, she looks utterly spent. I have a glimpse of the future, and I reel from it. I sense my husband looking around the room, and I know that he is thinking the same, but from another angle. He could be the one pushing the wheelchair.
The Social Etiquette
They are running behind schedule, about an hour and half, and the waiting area is full. The usual chair social etiquette that we all know and understand is suddenly ripped into pieces. The cancer patients must clearly get offered the seat, but that means a woman should offer her seat to a man if he looks ill? Do we have to guess? What if we get it wrong? Cancer, although most definitely a wanker, certainly seems to be an equal opportunity wanker. A gaunt looking man, alone, has just walked in, so he must be the cancer patient. Should I give him my seat? I think I should, but suddenly my husband is up, standing behind me and he starts to rub my shoulders. It looks like he has got up because I need him to, it is the perfect manoeuvre, designed to free up a chair without the embarrassment of having to offer it. It means the chair is now free for anyone, and the new man willingly takes it, with an almost imperceptible nod of understanding and thanks.
The Theory of Cancer
The theory of cancer is something I have read, researched, calculated and almost understood. I know my percentage life expectancies, of recurrence, my tumour size, my hormone receptor status, I know the side effects of chemo and the general picture of what to expect re hair loss and sickness. But this is the first time I have seen it up front and understood that this is now my reality. I don’t want to be that lady in the wheelchair. I don’t want her to be that lady in the wheelchair either, I want everyone in this room to never, ever have to have set foot in here ever again, and to be able to go back to their lives, before this thing, this disease, this skulking, brooding assassin of a fucking attempted-murdering bastard chose us as it next victims.
My husband’s hand is still on my shoulder, he hears my thoughts as clear as day, and he gently pushes his strong fingers into my tense neck muscles and tries to massage the pain, and the future, away.
As the time goes on people come and go, but there are 3 of us waiting to see the same man. A nurse comes to apologise, but it’s fine. It’s completely fine. Someone somewhere needs their oncology urgently, and I’ll wait here all day if it helps them get the expertise they need to lessen their pain.
A middle aged woman comes in with an elderly lady, clearly her mother. She’s here for physio and the daughter books her in to Reception, helping her to remember her full name and date of birth. She was born in 1929, she’s very proud to tell the receptionist that she’s 92. The room collectively beams back at her. Her daughter knows that she can’t stay for the appointment (apparently Covid is still an issue in Physiotherapy, but not in Oncology, I sense a risk assessment). Daughter gives the receptionist her phone number and says she’ll pop to Sainsbury’s (my husband visibly twitches at this point) and pick her mum up later. She checks that her mum knows where she has to go. Mum says that yes, of course she does, she’s not silly, and her daughter leaves.
As soon as she’s out of sight, Mum turns to the receptionist and says “Sorry dear, where am I supposed to go? I told my daughter I knew, to make her stop worrying, but I’ve forgotten where the room is.” The receptionist smiles and walks her to the end of the corridor, where she is greeted like an old friend by one of the physio team. She turns and waves back to the receptionist, as she is led off around the corner and out of sight.
Her unquenchable spirit has lifted the room, and suddenly, the appointment log jam is cleared. The sick lady in the wheelchair is called in and I’m told I’m up next. Right, action, let’s get prepped. Damage limitation. I have my questions mentally prepared, I’m OK. I look at my husband, he’s bored, but he’s thinking about something. Never good. But I can read him like a book and so I give him very clear instructions. He is to listen and remember the names of the drugs the man mentions. He can ask any questions, so long as they are about my cancer and my treatment. He is not to ask the oncologist about getting a free car park ticket, and he is absolutely not allowed to ask him to take a quick look at this toenail fungus, while he’s here. He has the grace to blush, but doesn’t try to deny his intent. Instead he sighs and says he’d better make an appointment with the GP then. I agree.
And we’re in, sitting in the room with the man himself. He doesn’t look anything like my old headteacher, he's about 20 years younger, so either Google gave me the wrong man, or this guy has friends in Plastics. He talks us through my story so far, he explains the positive receptor status and what that means, he says that although that means my tumour is, was, aggressive, they have an antidote, the hormone therapy, and that because my surgery was so successful he’s very hopeful that we won’t see a recurrence.
I’m to have a ‘chemo-lite’ option, it seems. If such a thing exists, this man seems to have it. I will have 12 sessions of chemo, once a week, so the dose will be less powerful than the usual 3 weekly rounds, which take 2 weeks to recover from. Because of that he’s expecting that my side effects won’t be as severe, and that I won’t be as sick. He said with the anti-sickness drugs he’s not expecting me to experience nausea at all. I love this man. I will lose my hair, and I will be immuno-suppressed for 3 months, but this is definitely the least worst option. I’ll have the hormone injections once every 3 weeks, for 6 months, then a week of radiotherapy, once a day for 5 days. After that it’s daily tablets for 5 years, possibly 10, depending on something or other.
And though that seems like a heck of an agenda, it’s far less than a lot of other cancer patients (I can’t just say women any more, I’ve met the men now, we’re all in this together, even though pink is still my team colour) are having, have had, and will have. I’m bloody lucky. The chemo team will be in touch soon to kick things off, and he’ll see me again in 4-6 weeks. I sign a shed load of consent forms, I’m given handfuls of paperwork and booklets, and we’re on our way home, our load a good bit lighter.
We don’t go to Sainsbury’s, he says he’s coming back later without me. It’s cheaper that way and we don’t need any more cushions or fancy candles, apparently. That, I tell him, is a matter of opinion. Fancy candles are almost certainly a chemotherapy must have. He sighs. We laugh. It’s good.
Spot on as always. My main instruction to my husband before our first visit to the Breast Cancer Surgeon was "not to fart". He dutifully didn't, but at one point when I was laying down being examined, he laughed - this was when she asked me if I minded having smaller breasts. He later said that although he knew she was trying to be kind, it was tantamount to saying before we cut off one of your legs, do you mind shorter legs ? The next time we went to see her I said fart as much as you like, because I didn't like what she had to say.
An extra comedic twist - to relieve the boredom of these appts always being at least 1.5 hours delayed, and watching squabbling women complaining about it, and the order of people being called in - we found people dressed to from head to toe in very bright orange boiler suits - under my mask I whispered to my husband "You've been Tangoed"! Seems wrong, but somehow right if you're trying, like me to remain sane in a sad and uncomfortable new world.
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