On Wednesday, I peed green. Then blue. Then turquoise as the dyes in my veins met and mingled.
And a transparent tube leaked body waste from a hole under my arm into a vile vial, to be lugged around with me for five days. A bloody accessory.
I’d spent the day before being poked and prodded and pricked and pummelled; all of it in search of clues to the malignant tumour in my breast. Everything about Tuesday was malignant. The procedures, all of them, were highly injurious to my sense of self and well being, pernicious as they gave meaning to the word.
For the first time, as I checked into the Milpark hospital at 6am, I realised that there is no quick fix option to this malignant situation, borne out by a special card handed over by an admissions clerk. “Produce this every time you are admitted,” she said. “You’re in the system now.” I’m in the system now. I have an easy access pass to a club to which I do not wish to belong. Oncology section. She knew I’d be back. And back. And now, I do too.
I slept badly so was exhausted when my phone beeped at 5am. I meant to catch a taxi to the hospital. I meant, too, to let one of the many friends who’d offered drive me there. But in the end, I couldn’t do it. The very act of allowing myself to be taken to the hospital meant relinquishing control, handing over the reins. And I’m not ready to do that yet. It’s one of the things that I will have to learn in this process – asking for help, and accepting it when it is offered. I can’t do this by myself, but it galls me to have to rely on other people. Is this the big universal lesson that I have to learn? To play nicely with others? To allow myself to be part of a community? To ask for help?
When did I declare UDI and turn myself into a hermit, reliant on nobody, dependent only on myself? More importantly, how do I change? Old dogs and new tricks spring to mind. These are my big questions this week!
I cut a lonely figure as I headed down the long passage to the lifts that would take me so Section 6 – the dungeon with its dank air and mortuary chill.
Journalists are supposed to be good at such things, but forms have always presented a challenge. Pages and pages of information: My own teeth: tick. No false limbs: tick. Allergic to penicillin. Ashtmatic. Non smoker. No children. Next of kin always poses a bit of a dilemma.
A woman, uncommonly harassed for this early in the morning steps in while Sister Brenda asks her questions: Has Mrs Naidoo (me) been for isotopes. I try to say there is no Mr Naidoo, call me Charmain, but she’s out the door. She’s in theatre scrubs. Who is she? The anaesthetist, Dr Starbuck, I’m told.
I’m given a hospital gown and some big girl disposable knickers and have barely tugged them on when a petite woman wearing blue jeans arrives to fetch me. We’re going for a walk, and me with my bottom on display in this open-backed gown with its flimsy ties. Down the corridor. I try and keep up. Who are you I ask. Tara. That’s all. Just Tara.
We arrive at Nuclear medicine. I’m thinking Chernobyl. Fukushima. Bhopal. I tell Tara. She doesn’t smile. She probably hears that a lot. Tara says she will inject isotopes into my breast, (green pee) which will fluoresce my sentinel lymph node. I lie on a narrow strip of a bed with my arms against the cold metal, strapped in, as the gamma camera (also called an Anger camera) helps Tara find the offending node.
Using a black felt tip pen, X marks the spot which will help the surgeon more easily identify the node that needs to be snipped for biopsy.
Tara is pleased with my sentinel lymph. It lights up quickly. I’m delighted to have such a well behaved lymph. (Louise Hay’s assertion that all women with breast cancer have an innate inability to say no and are therefore people pleasers pops into my head.)
Next stop MRI. If nuclear medicine caused a flutter, the door to the MRI chamber had me quivering in my crocs. A large enamel fronted door with a thick rubber seal and nautical handle! Rather like a hyperbaric chamber or one of those “special” rooms at GuantanamoBay where nobody can hear you scream.
It’s cold in this room. Very cold. Radiologist, Dr Ingrid Ferreira (I have to ask the assistant who the glamorous woman in the drop dead gorgeous velvet leggings is) puts a cannula in my right hand so dye (blue pee) can be pumped into my veins at some stage of the procedure – to illuminate my cancer. (My cancer is much in the spotlight. It’s turning into How to Get Ahead in Advertising star Richard E Grant’s talking boil.)
I am lying on my stomach, with my breasts hanging down into two holes in the bed. The bed is so narrow that I am strapped onto it to keep me from slipping off.
And then the assault on all my senses begins. It’s called Magnetic Resonance Imaging since the scanner uses magnetic and radio waves to create pictures of tissue, organs and other structures within the body, which can then be viewed on a computer. I suppose the good part is that there is no exposure to X-Rays or any other damaging forms of radiation. The down side is that you lie there for 40 minutes while extremely loud noises are piped into your brain. It’s like being trapped in a disco (Doef Doef) on a construction site (hammer, hammer) in a forest (woodpecker pecking). The sound sequences change, some are mocking, others chastising, most are accusing, angry.
Next stop surgery. By now it was close to lunch time. I’d last eaten at 7pm the night before. And so the calming dormicum tablet I was made to swallow just before being wheeled off to the operating theatre took the edge off.
I smiled at Dr Starbuck, asked her if she came from the coffee family. You’ll want to know that she doesn’t, that Starbucks used her family name – without permission. In all the Starbucks coffee empire, there is not one Starbuck. If, however, she had been a coffee heir, she certainly would not be sticking needles into the likes of me.
And then we were in the theatre, and I caught a glimpse of the first man I’d seen all morning. Didn’t get his name. Apparently he’s Dr Benn’s handlanger. Dr Starbucks made me count backwards… espresso, frappuccino, latte…
I came to in the recovery room, in agony – a sharp burning sensation under my right arm. Help. Help. She who shouts the loudest gets the best drugs. And so it came to pass that something the nurse described as “stronger than morphine” was emptied into my drip. Oblivion, but no rest. My rescue nurse needed to talk and my kind face (her words) would do. She was in a quandary: in love with an anaesthetist who had four children and a wife. She was in too deep to walk away from him, but he seemed not to making good on his promise to leave his wife… A man called Imran Khan sauntered up and started chatting up the nurse. He was not an anaesthetist but he did fancy nurse. He leant nonchalantly against my bed, on wheels, and fell over. He looked nothing like Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan who is statuesque and handsome. The drugs made me tell him that. He laughed.
Sahm, dear friend, was sitting in the ward waiting for me. She told me she was on a week long food fast. Drugged, hungry and thirsty, I was having a hard time understanding why someone would willingly forgo food when they didn’t need to. When I opened my eyes again, my lovely Godchild Nandi was sitting beside me. It made my heart glad.
By now it was mid afternoon. The woman in the next bed had a dozen visitors – three of them boys under five: boisterous, and noisy. I wanted to go home. Dr Slabbert came in to do the post op check – only I didn’t know that’s who he was. He didn’t introduce himself to me. He was the fifth doctor I’d seen on Tuesday. Not one of them had introduced themselves, or told me their specialty or role in my care.
It’s inhuman and rude. All initial contact between patient in hospital bed and medical practitioner should start as follows: “Hi. I am Doctor X, and I’m a radiologist/anaesthetist/oncologist/plastic surgeon etc. I’m here to … (fill in the medical procedure)”. It contextualises them and allows you a little wiggle-room in the sea of imponderable outcomes and confusion.
The doctor gave me the green light to go home. She’s certainly compos mentis, he told nurse Juanita in her fetching bejewelled white headscarf. But first a lesson on how to care for my drain. Juanita stood there waving her finger: No bathing/showering for five days (use a wet wash rag). No driving for two weeks. (I drove myself home 20 minutes later)
General anaesthetics make me weepy and sad. Or perhaps that is the general disposition of people who’ve got cancer. I logged into my FaceBook page on Wednesday morning, sitting at my dining room table with greasy hair, X-marks-the-spot pointers and theatre sticker glue on my skin. One of my gal pals was ordering a cappuccino at Life in Hyde Park, someone on SleekGeek was notching up another rung in the fitness ladder – mundane posts made by healthy people. And me? Stuck with a drain under my arm that ended in a plastic jug attached to a long blood filled tube catching waste from my biopsied sentinel lymph. I have never felt sorrier for myself.
Cancer, these days, is considered a chronic disease, rather like asthma or diabetes. Perhaps that’s the problem. It has to be managed over a long period of time. I hated Tuesday, not because anyone was unkind or the treatments unbearable. I hated Tuesday because it was not contained; it was not the beginning and end of a single bad episode. Tuesday signified the start of a long road to getting rid of Mr Dixon. And I’m not sure if I can do it, or if I want to. But that’s today. Tomorrow I might feel differently.
Meanwhile Arizona Oncology is following me on Twitter.
What a very moving, very special blog – and what a lot of courage it must be taking to write it. I mentioned it on our womens radio show OTHERWISE today beause I think every woman should read it. Thinking of you – with love, Nancy Richards nxx
What a very moving blog, and what courage it must be taking to write it. I mentioned it on OTHERWISE the womans radio show on SAfm today because I think every woman should read it. Thinking of oyu with love and strength. Nancy