Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Keeping The Lid On


The next check up is looming if not glowering on the 25th. Decided to visit Maggie’s again, for a relaxation and “stress management” class and then a one to one with their clinical psychologist.

Once inside its bright walls I was glad to be there, although part of me resented it as once you enter those red doors you are part of the “cancer community,” and there is no two ways about it.

There were eight people in the relaxation class, one of them a sad looking Swedish man aged about sixty in an elegant cable knit sweater and pale trousers. Our teacher was very jolly, like a big, friendly Labrador. As she began, I saw the half circle of people and felt a rising panic. Two bloody hours of this, I thought, and no escape.

She went on about the “many challenges” presented by cancer, the dangers of one’s “inner commentary,” especially if it sounds just like your mother’s voice, and the “thought components of stress.”

I suddenly felt stressed just being in there. We went round the room one by one, introducing ourselves and telling a bit of history. I heard their stories with increasing dread, they were all so calm, so brave. I suddenly wanted to run out and checked the distance past the sofa to the door, then I cracked and wept openly, swept by painful humiliation. I was last to speak and just said that I was moved by what they had to say.

The young woman next to me, so pretty and slim had brain cancer, another woman had two small children and a husband who resents her, the woman next to her was coping with her own disease, which has come back after four years, whilst trying to get her ancient mother into a home. An elderly French woman talked about her husband’s sympathy towards her and how he wants to do everything and she doesn’t want to be seen as helpless.

“If it doesn’t destroy you it makes you stronger,” said the woman with the mother.

Nietzsche didn’t know it, but chronic disease does both.

One of the other women is a patient of the doctor who scared me so much, when he said glibly, “Of course the chemo is unlikely to work.”

“He is OK,” she said. “Just don’t see him if he has students with him as he shows off.” So that was it.

The meeting went on with breathing exercises and having got my fear of the group out of the way, I began to feel very much better, cheerful and quite optimistic.

Our leader does not believe that stress is related to cancer, and made the important, very liberating point, that if you feel stressed and anxious it will not bring the cancer cells back. You are free to feel bad. She seemed to know all the ways in which cancer survivors beat themselves.

In the break we chatted and I noticed that almost everyone started their conversation by saying, “Well, you do look well,” as if that is the only positive thing we can say at first.

At lunch time there were the usual wan ladies at the table I remembered from last time; like a photo of survivors from the Titanic, sitting on the deck of the rescue vessel with blank eyes and dejected faces.

They were joined by various odd bods, including one dishevelled elderly man in heavy glasses who likes to chat ladies up. The elderly woman next to me said she had been offered a therapist but didn’t want to go “because of the stigma.” She began to ramble about her decorating, the need to replace her white curtains with lilac, asking if I thought that would be suitable? The newspaper in front of me got more and more inviting as she rambled on, but I managed to stay focussed on her. She said she’d recently learned to use a computer, although she is 75, and is using it for her art work, but then I couldn’t make out what sort of work it was. Eventually I started reading but she carried on talking.

On the other side was a thin elderly old gal with a shrivelled face and a bolt in her neck, making truly terrible noises, a kind of incessant barking, growling, choking and whining as if she was being strangled. Everyone ignored it. I glanced at her occasionally and asked her if I could get her anything. She shook her head holding a coffee cup up before her mouth as if she was trying to hide. I saw tiny scared eyes looking back. She had borrowed a leaflet about lung cancer, perhaps a little too late.

After lunch I saw the counsellor. He didn’t exactly impose his authority and came late which irritated me and because of the earlier class I was in a very lively, happy mood, not at all the way I was when I made the appointment. I wondered if I would have anything to say, but then he said something bereavement and loss, and I felt like screaming, and dived for the tissues again.

We covered a wide range of emotions and ideas, including God, whether he can interfere in nature, and relationships. I told him things about the past, disappointment and how I thought I had avoided close relationships in order to avoid loss and bereavement, and now it had caught up with me all the same.

“You seem sure that you are going to have bad news,” he said at one point.

“That is what the doctors have told me,” I said. “They want you to get better but tell you it’s unlikely.”

As a therapist he knows all about the power of suggestion. He said that the original Maggie created her centres to be somewhere positive and full of hope, well away from the doctors and their mechanistic routine. Helping people, as she said, “not to lose the joy of living in the fear of dying.”

On the way home on the bus I felt extremely calm, and composed, as if I’d had a complete catharsis. It was more relaxing than two hours in a floatation tank, plus CD and all for free. Maggie’s is a truly wonderful charity.


At 10.30pm I picked up Nebulous, on BBC 7.

This is an hilarious parody of a Sci-fi series, starring Mark Gatiss as the stuffy English Professor Nebulous, the late Graham Crowden as something or other, and David Tennant as the evil Scottish Doctor B. That name was some kind of joke but I missed it as the puns and word play goes so fast it’s quite hard to follow.

This episode was all about health, or lack of it. Half the world’s population suddenly phoned in sick and seemed to have all the world’s worst, most disgusting diseases, real and imagined. “I wish I knew what to do about this to-do,” said Nebulous.

He eventually went down with “Tuesday disease,” when you can’t remember the correct day of the week.

“My brains are frying in the juices of their own fear,” he quipped. Many of us know how that feels. The best cure is Maggie’s, but didn’t appear to have one yet in outer space.

“You have been let down by your health. Health, the great destroyer,” said a horrible screaming robot. Well it seemed funny at the time.


  1. I've been thinking about you today. Rooting for you I suppose. I hope the communication was courteous and clear. If we were sure of that it would be so much easier. Wish there was a Maggie's in West Yorkshire. But there is a Living Well Group once a month ... next Saturday to be precise. There I will be soothed by some free complementary therapies and a vegan lunch! I am so impressed by the women who steer and organise this independent group and the therapists who do the sessions.

  2. Yes, I am finding out how great Maggie's really is. Perhaps you can get one started in west Yorkshire?

  3. Not sure how, they don't have plans for any in this area. I talked to the steerer of the Living Well Group about it but somehow that took it into cancer politics and paid jobs. They wanted to stay small, local and independent - somewhere in between nhs and complementary. Who can blame them.