You know those little fake plastic and nylon yellow daffodils they sell every year that are supposed to give you immunity from cancer?
Well they don’t bloody work.
Something ought to be done. It’s just not right. It’s not as if I used to throw chump-change into the collecting bucket like most of the other long-pockets-short-arms commuters, who’s pitiful contributions would barely cover the manufacturing costs of the raw materials and the Chinese child labor. I’m pretty sure some tight-wads carefully store their Daffodils away in a draw somewhere, and dust them off every spring, rather than splash out another 50c. Not me. No, I was always willing to spend up large to buy my continued well being. Twenty bucks in the tub seemed a very reasonable price to pay for another year of worry free self-abuse. One year, when I had been binging particularly recklessly I stumped up a fifty, just to be on the safe side.
Now it seems all my philanthropic largess has come to nothing. What a rip!
I did today discover however, what they have been spending all our money on. Jo and I, along with a dozen other neophytes were invited along to the Auckland Cancer Society for a “Chemotherapy Orientation Morning” – a sort of My First Cancer workshop and group-hug. Well, I have to report the place is magnificent. If it looks like a luxury resort, that’s because that’s precisely what it is. A cancer hotel, run exclusively for the benefit cancer sufferers – and their long suffering families – needing somewhere to stay while undergoing treatment. It’s a spacious modern affair just around the corner from the main hospital building overlooking the park and cricket ground. Beneath a huge verdigris copper daffodil sculpture, the main entrance opens onto a spacious and lavishly appointed reception area and lounge. Whilst surveying the plump leather sofas, shag-pile rugs and marble floors I tried to imagine what twenty million dollars would look like in buckets of ten and twenty cent pieces.
At 10.30 we are ushered into a small, but well appointed conference room, with a small stage at one end. There is a dais at the front right, thirty or so neatly laid out chairs, and a folding table at the rear with tea, coffee and shortbread biscuits. The pictures on the wall are not the usual cheap framed prints, but a matching pair of nineteenth century landscape paintings in ornate and heavily guided frames. Inside the door is another table covered in stacks of brochures and leaflets with tittles like “Cancer for Fun and Profit”, “Growing Tumors Indoors”, “Bald is Beautiful: The Cancer Grooming Handbook” and for the youngsters “The Chemotherapy Sticker Activity Book”. (I made some, but not all of those up.)
We are being hosted by several of the specialist oncology nurses from the hospital’s Cancer & Blood Service. They are mostly mature, motherly figures with kind faces and neat blue two-piece coveralls. One of them gives us a short PowerPoint presentation covering mundane but useful information such as how to navigate the labyrinthine hospital campus to the cancer unit, where to find a car-park and how to check-in for appointments and treatment. Next we have a brief introduction to what cancer is, how it spreads, and how the Chemotherapy works. We learn that chemo is a catch-all phrase, used to describe a whole range different drug therapies which are used in different combinations, and tailored to our individual needs. Individual chemo regimes are described by an acronym of the drugs involved, such as ABVD. My particular poison is going to be ECX, which stands for Epirubicin, Cisplatin and Xeloda.
Over the next hour we are taken on a whistle-stop tour of the pantheon of chemical goodies we will be treated to, how they are administered and their various kinks, quirks and side-effects. Each cycle of treatment lasts twenty-one days, with anther twenty-one day “holiday” before the next cycle begins. The effects of the drugs – both good and bad, are cumulative over the repeating treatments, which might number four or six “depending on how badly you get knocked around.”
After the presentation, we are each issued with a brown A4 envelope with the now familiar white hospital sticker containing our name, address, patient number and a bar-code. Inside is a sheaf of papers with more detailed information about our individual treatment, schedules, emergency contact details and more leaflets about patient rights and the like. One colorful brochure called “Look Good. Feel Better” offers me:
- Skincare and make-up application tips.
- Professional advice of hair loss.
- Practical demonstrations on using wigs and scarfs.
I’m half way through filling out the attached form – Eyes: Green. Skin-tone: European, Skin Type: Dry, Eyebrow Color: Grey, Eye-Shadow Preference: Baby Blue etc. before discovering that the scheme is for women only. I am however assured that financial assistance is available if I feel the need for a wig or hairpiece.
While examining the contents of our goodie-bags, we await our turn for a private audience with one of the nurses. I draw Louise, who is a delightful character with a stern look that doesn’t fool me one bit, bright eyes and a black sense of humor. She takes Jo and I through my EXC regime in minute detail, explaining how my treatment will unfold, and most importantly what my likely side-effects will be. The hair-loss thing is a given, apparently. It’s not optional, and will almost certainly happen three to four weeks into my treatment. I’m cool with this, I wear my hair pretty short, and it’s mostly grey these days anyway.
The other most common side-effect is sickness and vomiting, but Louise assures me that the anti-nausea medication I will be given should take care of the worst of this. Other favorites are bruising and bleeding, Anemia, Diarrhea, mouth-ulcers, taste-changes (I ask if there is any danger that I might develop a taste for Andrew-Lloyd Weber musicals), discolored urine (pink) and kidney damage.
Less common effects are (deep breath…) constipation, discolored fingernails, changes in heart function (don’t like the sound of that one much), numbness in the hands and feet, possible hearing loss, increased production of tears – presumably not from laughter, headaches, dizziness and various unspecified allergic reactions. Bloody Hell! On balance I think I’d definitely opt for the dark fingernails over the heart spaz thing any day.
Louise then goes on to explain that, once my treatment is under-way, my immune system will pretty much shut down. Great! I will become very vulnerable to illness and infections. Even minor things like a cut or gaze, of a mild cold can have serious consequences she warns. It’s important that you contact the hospital immediately if you start to feel unwell. Night or Day,” she says handing me a little red laminated card with phone numbers on it.
“Unwell?” I protest. “You mean apart from the puking, the shits, the hemorrhaging, the sores, the paralysis, the kidney failure and the ringing in the ears. How will I know?”
“Don’t be such a pussy” she says patting me on the knee.
NOTE If it looks like I’m having a dig at The Cancer Society, I want to make it quite clear that I’m not. I’m just trying to keep this blog readable by balancing out some of the more “gritty” realities with some of the funnier aspects of living with cancer. It’s a light and shade thing, and not always easy to adhere. If sometimes I poke gentle fun at the doctors and nurses, the hospitals and the other folk I come into contact with to get a cheap laugh, then I apologise, and I hope they take it in the spirit in which I intend it. The level of care, kindness and compassion I have been accorded so far by these skilled and busy people has been both remarkable and moving. The New Zealand Cancer Society raises millions of dollars to fund cancer research, education and patient support services. They do an amazing job. I’ve added a link to the Society at the top of this page. If you’re feeling flush, (and feeling well) send them a few dollars. It won’t guarantee you won’t get cancer. But it will ensure that if you do, you will get the best possible care.