Monday, 31 May 2010

"A Rottweiler not a Poodle."

May 17th this was the day of the driving test, the exam, the speech, the presentation you just don't want to give. As we arrived at the Gynaecological clinic at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital and began looking anxiously for a seat, my mother realised that she had forgotten both her hearing aids – stoically positive as she is, she doesn’t want to hear bad news any more than I do.
We were moved to an alcove, but that was crowded too, mainly with fat middle-aged women from London, Poland and Guyana. There was a skinny Chinese woman, and a couple with a baby in a buggy and a fretful toddler. They had brought nothing along to entertain him so he wailed piercingly. Apart from him and his parents, hardly anyone talked.
I watched a woman, middle-aged but beautiful, fiercely stylish, so probably not English, as she walked past us, wobbling slightly on her high heels. Simone Signoret in French films in the 1960s was an expert at that sexy little movement, which somehow conveyed desperation.
It was a long hot wait. As time went on I wondered if I might break down when I met the doctor, the stress of waiting breaks so suddenly when they start speaking. It is still a thing I dread, yet they must see women in all stages of despair and probably just plough on.
Pray a bit with that intensity that comes from doubt. After two hours we get in to see, not Mr McIndoe my consultant who did the op, but a Dr Chatterjee, I haven’t seen before.
He says that conventionally this cancer would be at stage one, but it has spread to the lymph nodes, and presented itself so oddly in the left inguinal node, that it is a stage four.
They don’t know why it appeared in my groin, they have never seen ovarian cancer do that, so the cells might have originated in the bowel. They might be masquerading as ovarian cancer cells.
He is friendly and relaxed and I feel calm and strong, so the prayer was heard.

“There is still everything to play for, isn’t there?” I insist, and my mother seems to be able to hear everything.
“Yes,” he says, “everything depends on how well you respond to the chemotherapy.”
“You were very brave,” says my mother approvingly, when we were outside in the alcove again.
Next I had to see Professor Gabra, from medical oncology. I told my mother she didn’t need to come in as it would just be technical stuff about my future treatment, the “devil’s brew” he is going to soon start pouring into me. She went off to find some coffee.
Gabra is flamboyant and dramatic, obviously relishing his bactericidal powers. He has a glamorous young woman sitting in and I didn’t feel I could cope with looking at both of them.
“Your cancer is a Rottweiler," he said, "not a poodle.”
I had the op on the day of the General Election and now I wonder if I will outlive the coalition!
A horrible moment and I have to get out my hanky, but it passes quickly. He tells me I will have to have a colonoscopy to trace the cells, a kidney test before the chemo, and another scan to see if anything else is visible after the operation.
I can see the young woman toying with her shoe, waggling it on her toe, obviously bored as he tells me chemotherapy will take eighteen weeks and involve two drugs, carboplatin which has no side effects and Taxol, which comes from the Yew tree, and causes all the nasty side effects like hair loss. He details their effects, making large looping drawings.

It’s like a detailed lecture on chemotheraputics condensed into about five minutes, all the time he has. I might as well be in an episode of the Twighlight Zone for all the sense it makes to me, as I can’t believe that it is really happening.

Yet all this will apparently shape my life from now on. If I do survive, it will be ten years before I can think I am cured, and they check for 14 years.

One thing that interested me was when he asked if I’d had any other symptoms, and I mentioned severe tingling in my thumbs and first two fingers. That started on the 18th of January, when I went with my friend Ella to see The Sacred Made Real exhibition at the National Gallery. It was an extraordinary show, the height of Castilian baroque, displaying Spanish polychromatic wooden sculptures of Christ, usually dead or dying. The critic Tom Lubbock called it, “Sacred visions of godly gore.” The whole gallery was lit like a church and some people in there were sitting with prayer books.
I sat on a stool by a carving of the dead Christ by Gregorio Fernandez and an unknown painter, (1625-30) but while I was trying to draw the pencil kept falling out of my fingers. I tried to carry on but it was hopeless, almost total numbness. Happily one of the attendants told me to move anyway as there were crowds and I was in the way.

I went to the doctor and he suggested carpel tunnel syndrome or RSI. But Gabra says that this numbness in the fingers is a rare early sign of ovarian cancer. He says my doctor can’t be blamed for not picking it up, but a neurologist might have realised.

Out in the corridor I see Jan, looking a bit hippy chic in a smart leather jacket, about to go into her consultant. I put my arms round her shoulders and held her for a few moments, but she had to quickly disappear in to see her man and get her fate.

I met my cancer nurse again, who told me I might be entitled to some state benefits: I might be entitled to an allowance and help at home, someone mentions that they have a free parking permit. It seems almost as if I am getting steered towards a whole new career in disability.

Jan reappears, ebullient, bubbling with relief.
“I am stage one, and A One in everything,” she says. “I can go home, there is no more treatment needed.”
She glanced at some papers on the doctor’s desk before he came in. “So many of those women have such terrible battles to fight,” she says.

Am I with them? I was glad for her, but it was as if we had been looking for our final exam results posted on a wall. She had passed with flying colours but I had flunked.

I didn’t tell my mother about the Rotweiler metaphor. We bought some hot Panini in the small hospital cafĂ©. She started eating with both her little fingers raised. While I was growing up that was one thing she would never allow. I remember her saying that it was a sure sign of vulgarity. Wondered whether to bring that up again, but decided against it. She wrestled with the floury white roll, her old hands like spiky pink crabs.

At home later there was an e mail from Jan saying she and her husband were sitting on their patio drinking champagne in the sunshine. Also a message from a German friend:

I wish your news will be good!!

Had a surgery beginning of this year because they suspected a "bad" zuyst and thanks god I was lucky.

I wish you the same and by the way: HAPPY Birthday!!

I hate her good luck.

Someone on Radio 4 refers to violence as “the cancer of the dispossessed.” I wonder if my cancer is the violence of the distressed. I spent too many years fretting and worrying about men and my place in the world, now everything has narrowed down to the need to survive.

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