Stories of Cancer
Giving Voice to Real Experiences

Isn’t this nice?

Excerpts from ‘Nothing Personal, disturbing undercurrents in cancer care‘, by Mitzi Blennerhassett – Radcliffe Publishing, winner Medical Journalists’ Association Open Book Award: a patient narrative which includes discussion sections after each event looking at what needed to change, with references to better/evidence-based practice.

Birds of a Feather

A bed by the window
That suits me fine!

Light seeps from the east
Before the paint’s dry
Flooding wet into wet
And with every dawning
A gull comes battling across the sky
Blazing a trail
In the chill of morning:
The exhausting trip
(To the Corporation Tip?)

We both aim to survive
For just another day
But which will still be battling
When the other has flown away?

But for now, I’m so lucky
I’ve a wide screen view
Of my own ‘Nature Watch’
And the changing hues of a canvas renewed
(On ‘sky’ TV!)

I’ve a bed by the window
And it means so much to me

All thought of sleep is abandoned. It doesn’t matter. Why waste time sleeping when your shelf-life is limited?

Pale streaks appear in the dark sky, slanting in from the east, and for the first time I watch dawn break over this alien place. The process gathers pace, shades of grey giving way to ice green and grey tinged with pink, until suddenly it’s full-blown morning and there’s live action as a lone gull enters left, tipped one way and another by the wind. Determination keeps it on track. Symbolic. I have the same resolve and intend to win my battle.

I am in a cancer hospital. I did not know such places existed. It feels as if I have been plucked from society and dropped into a leper colony.

Soon, a nurse comes and fits a cannula into my arm. “Have you had one before?” she asks. Is she so used to cancer recurring? I tell her I’m a first-timer. She explains it’s similar to having blood taken. I hardly feel a thing. Her voice is kind. Her smile is caring. I feel in safe hands.

Pretty soon I’m attached to a ‘lamppost’ contraption with two bags of fluid suspended from it and a pump making rhythmical ‘chukka-chukka’ noises. Every now and again it goes a little crazy and chatters haphazardly out of sinc. Jazz! Great! Labels show I’m having a mixture of Fluorouracil (5FU) and Mitomycin C (MMC). There’s also a bag of saline ‘because your electrolytes are down’.  What are they? I’m told to let the nurses know if anything becomes uncomfortable. How bad is their ‘uncomfortable’? What could go wrong? How quickly could they turn off the pump…?

The fluids flood into my body. Hurrah! They’re killing the cancer! It’s so good to know the fight has begun, although I’m nervous about what the drugs might do to me. Once I’m sure chemotherapy doesn’t hurt, it’s fascinating to listen to the pump chuntering away and I fall deeper into the role of ‘cancer patient’, putting my life into the hands of strangers with blind faith.

The lamppost has wheels, so I can be mobile. Great! Moving gingerly at first, in case I pull the cannula, I set off to investigate the toilets. They are just around the corner opposite the nurses’ station (poor nurses!), but still quite a distance if I have urgent need and I’ve had diarrhoea since being diagnosed. The open door reveals a row of basins facing a row of lavatories. No privacy for washing. How will I cope with diarrhoea? What if I’m sick simultaneously? How will I bear the sounds and smells when other people vomit? Tucked away behind the door, I notice a single chair.

Back on the bed, I’m feeling less confident. But what’s really gnawing away at me is growing despair at the thought of distressing my children. I need to get away from all these sick people, but nurses say a doctor is expected on the ward shortly.

It’s not the oncologist, but a young doctor with a thoughtful face and a sincere smile.  He asks his questions, listens with his stethoscope, does his doctor thing – but he does not ask to examine my bum!

“I expect you are fed up with people looking at your bottom,” he says gently – and I want to hug him! How considerate! But I just give a little nod. It’s still hard to talk. He’s given me back a little dignity. I didn’t catch his name, but I will never forget his face.

(And then the oncologist puts in an appearance…)

Incongruity

Prisoner in an unbarred cell
Trapped by necessity
Yet, you smile and begin, “Well, isn’t this nice!”
Disquiet, disparity
Words conflict with senses in this alien place
Overflowing with people
Wondering
All the poor people…’

He stands at the foot of the bed, all beaming smile and oozed confidence as I prepare for the ‘How-are-you-fine’ routine. He takes in the get-well cards and massed flowers with a sweeping glance that settles back on me.

“Well, isn’t this nice!”

Swap you? I’m in this alien place, fighting death and I’ve just spent two days and nights listening to a dying patient trying to cough. ‘Nice?’  It’s mind-blowing.

I twitch a half-smile and try to see things from his viewpoint, but this continued lack of acknowledgement of my real situation is unnerving. It’s all a game of pretence. ‘Don’t mention the war!’