By the time you’re reading this, I will be almost finished my week of breast cancer radiotherapy. I have another 28 day bout coming up later for the cervix cancer, but let’s ignore that for now and focus on the positives. When you only have 5 sessions, one day after the other, it’s pretty easy to achieve some massive percentage jumps for relatively little effort. Breast radiotherapy takes about 20 minutes, so by the end of day four I’ve basically laid on a couch for an hour and a half and completed 80% of my treatment. These are the kind of figures I can work with. I have my appointments list stuck on the fridge door and frankly, I’m stomping through it!
But of course, this is me, so the whole shenanigan hasn’t been without incident, but I know you’d be disappointed if it had.
My first round was due to start on Thursday of last week, and I turned up raring to go. Unfortunately, the hospital wasn't quite so raring and had moved my appointments to the following week. Even more unfortunately, they hadn’t told me. They had been trying, bless them, but they had been trying a mobile phone number that I hadn’t used since 2018. I suspected something was up when an ex colleague of mine rang to tell me that the lady who took over my job 3 years ago had received 10 missed calls on her work mobile phone from the Royal Sussex Hospital. She knew my current medical situation, put 2 and 2 together and came up with me.
Turns out the Radiotherapy dept had been looking at a GP record from 2016, and finally got my correct number from my oncologist. I got the phone message asking me to call them as I was standing in the Radiotherapy reception trying to unbaffle a very confused Receptionist at the appointment I clearly had on paper but didn’t have on her screen.
Anyways, the Head of Radiotherapy Operations was summoned (and no, I did not demand to see her, nor did I move into any of my assertive gears, or give anyone even a hint of one of my icy glares, thank you for asking) and she explained the issues. My two Oncos, for Titania and Faniella, (see episode 24 for full cast list) had been chatting, and wanted a bit of time to have a re-look at my radio programme in order to minimise my ‘overall toxicity’. I was flattered to find out that had already heard so much about me, but it seems they meant the overall toxicity levels of my radiotherapyradioactiveness, nothing to do with my personality, or penchant for straight-talking. So, long story long, the breast radio plan has been reduced a bit to only cover the high risk area when Fucktard the tumour was, not the whole shebang. Which is fine with me. I mean who wants a whole glowing boob when you can get away with just half a one?
So I toddle off, and return again on Monday ready for action. Lovely Receptionist, let’s call her Radio Rita, now knows my name and greets me like a member of the family. She hands me a gown in a wrapper and tells me to go and sit down and wait to be called. Then she looks over to me and says ‘Hilary, have you got any socks on?’ To be honest I’m baffed, but the lady next to me turns round and replies that yes she has, thanks. What the hecking heck? I just know this isn’t going to be straightforward.
Rita laughs and says “no not you Hilary, the other Hilary.” Oh lord, she means me. But I’m wearing Birkenstocks (it’s too hot for DMs and Birkos are the only valid 2nd choice) and who on earth would wear socks with sandals, and actually, what the fuck has it got to do with Rita anyway?
But Rita’s away now, she’s off on the 2 Hilarys bus and she’s not getting off. She’s decided to call us Hilary B and Hilary G, and she’s amending the records so we don’t get sent to the wrong places. She’s in her absolute element. She’s now decided that Hilary B and Hilary G sound like popstars and suggest that “you two should team up”. Hilary B and I look at each other, and in that moment, despite both wearing surgical masks, we share a “what the actual fuck?” moment that binds us together in a deep understanding of not only our current situation, but of life, in all of its many and varied forms. Hilary B knows. We crinkle our eyes at each other and make a small laughing sound to reward Rita, then silently resolve never to communicate again.
But I’m thinking, maybe Rita has a point. Not about the pop star thing, I’m pretty sure that ship never even got built let alone sailed, but about the mixing up thing. Radiotherapy involves a lot of precise measurements of organs and limbs to locate the very exact location that the nuking laser is going to hit you. The idea is to nuke the cancer area and not nuke any vital organs or other important bits. And I’m sitting here looking at Hilary B, who is about half the size of me, and knowing that whatever bit of her is about to get nuked, I’m pretty sure I don’t want her laser pointed at me. And I’m definitely sure that the corresponding measurements for me, when applied to her, will miss her body entirely and will end up nuking the wall, or some very expensive bit of kit which isn’t my left boob. So Hilary G it is.
The Socks Of Shame
Right, so back to the story. Rita is now off the Hilary bus and is back to the strange sock fetish. She asks me again if I’m wearing socks. I tell her I’m not and she calls me back to the desk and hands me what looks like a steam-rollered guinea pig in a polythene wrapper. Thankfully (for the guinea pig at least) what I have been handed is a pair of NHS issue brown woolly socks. They are clearly the Socks Of Shame.
It seems that I should have been asked to bring a pair of socks with me, to wear in the radio room, as it’s cold, and you have to walk from the changing room to the Radio room and the floors are slippery. But no one told me this. Maybe they told the poor woman who is doing my old job from 3 years ago, who knows, but I would definitely have remembered the opportunity to wear one of my extensive collection of fluffy socks (thank you Wishlist givers, your moment has come). So now I am sitting in Reception, wearing the baby poo coloured Socks of Shame under my khaki Birkos. Honestly, the humiliation is only comparable to having to do PE in your pants, back in 1976, when you forgot your kit. Rest assured, I will not arrive sockless to any NHS appointment ever again, even if it’s a blood test.
A few minutes later Rita calls out my name, and Hilary B stands up. Lucky Rita remembers the plan and sits Hilary B back down and comes and gets me. Hilary B can’t even look me in the eye this time. Rita walks me down the corridor to a changing room with two doors. I have to go in, lock the door I just came in through, get changed into the gown, then open the door on the other side of the room, and wait to be collected. Right. Seems simple enough.
I open the gown, look at it, look at me, and then look for the missing sections of the gown. There aren’t any. This gown has clearly been designed for a very slim 7 year old boy. It is in fact not a gown, but a tiny mini tabard for teeny weeny folk who live in a faraway land where everything is miniature, and food is scarce. I do not fit any of those criteria. And I most certainly do not fit this gown. But I am nothing if not determined. So I cover my left shoulder with the majority of it, and use the remaining 4 inches of fabric to attempt to cover my modesty. I fail, but I decide what the heck, I left my dignity far behind me in a mammogram room way back in November, so I decide to style it out. I kick open the outer door.
A minute later a radiographer arrives, takes one look at my bizarre and failing bondage attempt, tries not to look at the many bits of me that didn’t make it into the outfit, and very kindly tells me that this does happen a lot, and that I should just put my top back on and she’ll be back in a minute. (When you’re visualising this image, if you’re unwise enough to have tried, please also remember that I am still wearing the shit coloured Socks Of Shame, with khaki sandals.)
I peel off the teeny tiny thing that wasn’t a gown, put my top back on and try to forget that those last few minutes of my life ever happened.
The Radio Room
After that it all goes smoothly. She comes back, says “that’s much better, just wear a loose top like that in future” (I love her) and walks me to the Radio room. Here I lie on a table, and get positioned into a supine position that has to exactly match the supine position that they positioned me into at the planning scan. Remember the three tattoos? This is their moment. It takes about 20 minutes to get me lined up right. (It gets much quicker in the days to come. In fact by day 4 we’re experts). The radiographers check the giant big white machine that lurks above and around me, like a kind of giant eye on a mobile circular limb. There are laser lights on the ceiling and I’m distracted by the sparkly things and am transported back to Mr G’s DJ disco days, back in the old world, before all this shit happened.
The radiographers leave the room and the machine starts clicking. It rumbles quietly like a photocopier that needs a service, then swoops around me to do the same thing again, from 3 different angles. Sadly there weren’t any giant red lasers lights zooming onto me, no smoke, no booms and no explosions. It was actually quite dull, and a bit chilly, and I was very grateful for the Socks of Shame. But I’ll never say that out loud.
Five minutes later and the radiographers come back, get me off the bed and tell me it’s all over. I’m free to go. I thank them, head off out of the door, and along the corridor, only to realise I have no idea where I’m going next.
The thing with me is, I always look ahead, and never look back. I don’t do regret, guilt or what-might-have-beens. I am proud of the fact that I live by my decisions and am always focused on the future, on moving forward. It makes me great at what I do.
However, what it also means is that I never look behind me to see where I have come from. Not only in a reflective life-affirming way, but also in a practical one. I am always so busy focusing on where I’m heading, that if I ever have to turn back I have no clue which way to go. So now I’m standing in front of a row of closed changing room doors, trying for the life of me to remember which one I came out of and, perhaps more importantly, which one holds my underwear. There are four doors. I have a one in four chance of getting it right. Which also means I am almost guaranteed to get it wrong. One of these rooms probably holds a half naked Hilary B. She doesn’t deserve this. I’m on a knife edge.
Thankfully, at that moment, the lovely “keep your top on, love” radiographer arrives and asks if I’m OK. I tell her my predicament and she checks the list, opens the first door with the confidence of a woman who trusts her own list-making, and lo and behold there are my things. This woman is everything I want to be.
I’m out of there like a flash and back at Reception, handing Rita back the remains of the gown, and the Socks of Shame. “Hi Hilary G” she says, with a wink “oh you don’t have to hand these back, they’re yours to keep throughout your treatment journey”.
Fucksake. Thanks Cancer.
I dump the gown in the nearest domestic waste bin and sneak out with my free socks, back to my life, to my well stocked sock drawer and to my house, where I spend the next hour liberally applying udder cream (yes really, that’s what it’s called) to my nuked boob and waiting for my nuclear superpowers to appear.
Join me next time, where we’ll be talking bladders, mini enemas and low gas diets. Well, I will. You’ll be sat wincing in horror, being very glad you’re not me.
I'm glad I'm not you, but also pretty fed up - my husband has had he gall to tell me I didn't make enough fuss when I informed the Breast Cancer Nurses my breast looked like a leopard. This morning, as it turned into a black panther they actually decided to make a decision due to it being the biggest haematoma the radiographer had ever seen. What is the point of a Breast Surgeon having a conversation with me asking me how many nodes there are in the chest area ? I knew the answer but that wasn't the problem he was there to solve. Ended up with emergency surgery and a two Covid-19 tests in a few short hours as they sent the first one to Cambridge by mistake.
I went into my first operation, because I did not bring slippers, only slip on shoes, dressed and feeling like a frog. After needing help from the Nurse, as I could only struggle into one "Medium" very tight green compression stocking, she found me a pair of bright yellow slippers with sticky pads on the soles, and placed these on the tips of my toes. Nervous breakdown from Nurse on discovering that these had the letters "CH" on them and were specifically for children. "Who's going to know?" I said, trying to be helpful and added "Doesn't CH stand for Cheshunt Hospital ?". A memorable moment amongst all the crap - the slippers never did reappear and for my next operation I was allowed to wear my slip on shoes and given a larger size of green stockings.
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