Stories of Cancer
Giving Voice to Real Experiences

Leaden Feet & Strung Out

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.

Leaden feet
Sleep calls

The floor yawls


But I make do

And I can’t walk there, any more
I can’t sit among them
Not again

So you bring me the only available chair
And leaden lids deflect the stares
As I sit, incongruously
In an armchair
In a corridor
And I could rest here, floating free

And it’s too late now to pretend that I’m strong
So how can I blame them for getting me wrong?

How to explain how ill I feel; that my legs can’t carry me any more; that the thought of listening to other patients’ lurid descriptions of vomiting is too much?


“Well, you can’t stay here,” she says kindly, looking concerned. But my eyes are closing. I’m sorry to give you a problem. I just need to sleep. Here! Now!

“It’s all… those people… always…talking about…being sick.”

“Wait here and I’ll see if I can get you a chair, so you don’t have to sit with them.”

People pass in both directions, but I don’t look at them. I feel curiously detached. It’s taking every ounce of strength to stay on my feet. They mustn’t keep me in hospital.

“All I could find was an armchair.”

How wonderful! She supports me until we reach it and I collapse gratefully, eyes closed, impervious to the curiosity of passing ‘traffic’.

Judgement day

They try to lever me out of depression
Assumptions and prodding, are filling this session
So this is support?
Well, I know it’s well meant
But the piercing blue eyes stare with too much intent
Trial without jury, no chance of appeal
For it feels like an accusation

How could they rate me so low on their scale?
How could they think that I’d ever fail?
Don’t they know I will never give in
But my body is shaking, I’m weak and I’m thin
My mounting anxiety’s manifest
And preconceptions fill in the rest
So they don’t get as far as the true realisation

Or wonder ‘why’
When I cry

For I’m not depressed, I’m exhausted and stressed
and it’s not fear of cancer constricting my chest
and my self esteem
just hit
my knees


Fragile as thistledown, I’m shown into the consulting room and prepare for the usual ‘how-are-you-fine’ routine, but instead comes an abrupt challenge.

“Everyone tells me you’re very depressed!”

It’s like coming up against plate-glass.

“No I’m not!” I retort – a bristling four-year-old, powerless in the face of adult injustice.

Strung Out

So many things I want to explain
So much I need to say
But the tightness makes me all buttoned and pinched
And the words all get lost on the way

I can hear myself saying such silly things
But you don’t know how hard I’ve tried
I can’t open the hidden door
So the meaning stays locked inside

I hear you trying to humour me
I hear you try to be kind
But though I admit I am hanging on
I haven’t let go of my mind

This isn’t the fear that you think you see
And it’s not that I’m depressed
You’re just the straw on the camel’s back
Something on top of the rest

So many answers I’ve wanted to know
But I’m snatching at leaves in the wind
Please, just tell me, without being asked
And this struggle need never begin

The intense scrutiny has become unbearable. Summoning all my strength, I retaliate, “Well-you-don’t-help…sitting-there-looking-at-me!” My eyes snap shut and, in one movement, I spin around so I’m no longer facing him. The ridiculous machine-gun staccato lingers in the silence, to taunt me. I sit here, defiantly clutching at tattered pride, wondering how I can ever open my eyes to face them. It’s like being under interrogation again. The relief of closing my eyes outweighs any embarrassment.

“Oh yes! I turn everyone into a quivering wreck!”

He sounds amused. Who can blame him? Part of me wants to laugh with him at my childish tantrum…at this person who is no longer me… Another part cannot bear the hurt. He thinks I’m a quivering wreck, a coward! And he hasn’t finished yet.

“I could fall under a bus tomorrow…”

It feels like a battering. How ridiculous! How insulting!

“I know that!” My eyes open with the vehemence of my retort.

Leave me alone!  Can’t you see I need help? But the wail stays locked inside. And the needling continues, less forceful, but still salting the wound.

“We don’t want you giving up treatment.”

I’m reeling. How could you think I would ever give in? What do you care? You just want me to continue with treatment on the off-chance you can notch up a rare success.

There’s a long pause, then he asks, “Are you sleeping all right?”

Ah! Insight at last…! But I can’t let him win. For me to know and you to find out.

“I have pills.” But I don’t use them.

Until now, the information battle has been totally one-sided. Now that I’ve gained a foothold, I’m not about to give ground.