Saturday, 31 July 2010

Chemo Three.

Chemo 3


Half way through the long binge of chemicals. Arrive at Garry stuffed with steroids, raring to get on with it. Have still got some hair which I will wash, snip and condition it to the last wisp, but I have to wear a head-scarf now, as when I take it off I look like a ravaged old bat.

The coat pegs in my hall are loaded with hats, hat-bands and scarves donated by my mother and friends. A medical supplier recently sent a very pretty range, including useful turbans to make me look like Joan Collins. We haven’t seen her real hair for years and she must be the ultimate triumph of survival over nature. I was inspired by some recent quotes from her:

'I must give good hair and if I don't, I will give good hat. For trips abroad, or for accessorising with a gold sling-back, nothing beats a turban, darling.'

“As for ‘old’ age, I’m with Groucho Marx who said, ‘Growing old is something you do if you’re lucky.’

Not sure I can be bothered with the bright red lip gloss and the arched brow but I am with her on that one.

I was accompanied by Pam, one of my oldest London friends. We met because of the Live Aid concert in July 1985. Neither of us went to it sadly. It was blasting out from her huge old TV in the ramshackle student flat above my damp bed-sit in Herne Hill. I went up to bang on the door and complain and somehow we have been friends ever since, perhaps due to her down to earth Geordie humour.

I moved up to the other end of the clinic, away from the fish-tank to try to get a bit more space and air. I could see seven patients, all women, three from Asia, one from Poland, a girl from Rumania, and I sit next to Meena from Somalia, swathed in purple robes which cast a soft glow onto her high black cheek bone.

She told me her father had sent her to a Christian school in Somalia as he wanted her to get a real education, and it was a place where they asked her, “what career are you going to follow when you grow up?” Her mother later managed to remove her and she had an arranged marriage.

Fifteen years ago she came to Southall in west London with her husband whom she quickly divorced. She got a job with Maison Blanc, the French patisserie, working in their computer department, defiantly dressed in British style. When she was made redundant five years ago she found herself back with the Somali community and things had to change.

“I have to put on long clothes and veil up or people stare at me,” she said. “They are a very religious community in Southall, all long beards, and they are getting much bigger, I hardly go to the market now as it’s getting so crowded.”

Her independent attitude probably saved her or at least has given her more time. She said she had cancerous cells removed from her cervix eleven years ago, but got no follow up. She complained to her doctor several times “that there was something wrong,” but this was ignored.

Eventually she admitted herself to an A & E department and claimed to be bleeding, which she wasn’t. “I shouted and they thought I was losing it,” she said. This direct action led to her getting a scan. Cervical cancer was discovered and now she is having radiotherapy every day and a short course of chemo.

Our regular nurse, Eileen, from Malaysia bustled about in her neat blue uniform, ordering drugs from the pharmacy while a Nigerian nurse began to put the colourful cannula into the back of our hands, Meena’s like a bunch of long brown twigs, mine short and white.

Hers lay on the sheet listlessly. “I wish my hand was like yours,” she said. “I hate my long fingers.”

It sounded absurd as her hand was so elegant, but she seemed unhappy and discontented with herself and Southall.

“The Somalis there say I am far too assimilated, too Westernised,” she said. “They just can’t understand me living alone and keep saying, “you must get married.” ”

Despite that concern, she says they have given her no help at home and no lifts to the hospital, MacMillan Cancer Support have given her £300 for taxi fares and she always has to come for treatment alone.

We began the long wait for the chemicals to pass into our bodies. Pam and I amused ourselves briefly with a copy of Metro, which has some good animal stories. A Chinese restaurant had been closed down after a mouse was seen swimming in a large bowl of sweet and sour source. There as a photo of it climbing out looking rather bedraggled and sick. Another showed the birth of a baby panda in captivity. The tiny naked creature lay there looking like a tiny man, while its mother stared at it apparently mystified.

“The problem with pandas is that they only have sex once a year, on a specific day,” I said.

“Well they are doing better than us,” said Pam. This began a short, scurrilous chat about sexual activity more usually heard in bars. A few ears pricked up, an Indian woman lying on a bed with her husband in attendance gave me filthy looks. He looked at us curiously, as if to say, how come you are sitting up having a laugh? They obviously have no cultural hinterland composed of Arthur Askey and Our Gracie.

A lone old lady called Mrs Norton appeared, striding about, not looking like a patient with her coat on and carrying an umbrella. She seemed very curt with the nurses. The place was becoming crowded. There was no space to put out our leg rests on the chairs and when I moved my intravenous stand and a slightly bag nearer to Mrs Norton she got up and went off swiftly. I just knew she was going to find a nurse and complain about me. She returned apparently unsuccessfully but said, “Is she a patient?” referring to Pam.

I said no, she wasn’t. “Then she shouldn’t be having cups of tea,” she rasped back.

She went off again, to sort out Pamela who was waiting to use the kettle. Getting no support in her quest to stop Pam having tea, she sat some distance away, eye-balling me. Oh no, I thought, why do I attract people like that?

Pam moved her hard chair to block her view and she immediately scuttled off again. In fact she went outside and was later brought back in by two male nurses.

Just an old bat teetering on the border of dementia, angry like the rest of us to be in the Garry Weston Ward. Now and then hairless, shadowy women would pass through, leaning forward on sticks or walking frame, coccyx bones knifing out under thin trousers, reminding us that we were all involved in the same journey, no matter how involuntarily.

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