As you may have read the last time I was having treatment, I was embarrassingly goofy about making myself known to all the staff I’d encounter on my trips to the hospital: asking after the chemo nurses’ kids, baking trays of cupcakes for doctors, winking at the terrified boy on reception in radiotherapy... This time around, however, there’s a whole new level of goofiness to be enjoyed – for now, with the revelation of my new diagnosis, I’ve somehow been upgraded to a whole new level of access.
It’s rather like having your bog-standard Mr & Mrs Smith membership swapped for an elite, special-members-only gold card, except instead of concierge services and personal shoppers, you get access to restricted new contacts, hitherto unrevealed telephone numbers and the names of specialists unavailable to your average cancer-pleb. Worried that your new anti-sickness meds aren’t working? No problem, madam, just contact this secret specialist pharmacist and she’ll sort it out for you. Can’t get in for an appointment when you really need one? Don’t fret, madam, here’s the number of a dedicated registrar who’ll ensure you get in. Want to surpass the usual check-over by a junior consultant? Very good, madam, the big cheese will be in to see you shortly. Seriously, I’ve never been given more business cards in my life. Decades of networking couldn’t get you to this stuff. I swear even the way The Curly Professor greeted us was different this time; the secret handshake of the uber-exclusive secondary cancer club.
And so, shameless hussy of an illness-tart that I am, I’m bloody well going to exploit it. I mean, hell, I’ve paid my taxes, I’ve been a good citizen, and I’ve sure as shit got a few extra quid in the karma account. Hence, I’ve been embracing the shiny new services like Imogen Thomas embraces a chance to get on telly, and being every bit as brazen with it. This isn’t just The Bullshit, it’s The Bullshit iOS 5 – which I chose to match by turning up to this week’s clinic not with a notebook of questions to ask, but an iPad onto which I could simultaneously type the answers as The Curly Professor spoke. (Never mind cancer-bitch; I suspect cancer-wanker may be more appropriate.)
As this week’s long day at the hospital progressed, however, I began to feel a bit guilty about my upgrade, even to the point of feeling bad about my early-thirties, skinny-jeaned, shoulder-length-haired presence in the chemo room – which, I’ve got to say, is a world away from the place in which I was treated in 2008: gone are the peeling yellow walls and uncomfortable, edge-of-the-room chairs facing in; now it’s all recliners and personal TV screens and five-star style. Even three years down the line, I’m still the youngest patient in the room – but this time, thankfully, I’m not there for chemo (that’s something that comes home with me and is taken in tablet form, with the second cycle starting this evening), but instead for my bone treatment. Which is a rather daft thing to feel self-conscious about but, as my fellow patients in the room begin to look iller and balder and paler as their chemo does its thing, I will – or at least I hope I will – look much the same with every three-weekly visit, like some kind of cheating chemo pretender.
The truth, of course, is that I’m probably in an unfortunate minority. The chances are that most women in that room are being treated for a primary cancer that’s perfectly manageable, and so feeling daft about having a decidedly less hardcore treatment for a decidedly more hardcore cancer is about as dumb as it gets. It’s not like you can advertise that stuff, though. I mean, it’s just not the done thing to loudly wax lyrical about your diagnosis in such a scenario, and I haven’t yet been given a special membership badge that’ll explain away my presence. Plus, I can’t really meet every ‘what the hell are you doing here’ look with my secondary sob-story – it’s not fair on anyone concerned and, besides, it’d make me and my iPad look decidedly less flash. However I ought to feel, though, the guilt remains – and not just in the chemo room.
Since we discovered what we discovered just over three weeks ago, it’s been a dizzying old time – not just in terms of getting our heads around the reality of my diagnosis, or dealing with the treatment, or managing the change in our day-to-day-lives, but also in terms of accepting the help that is suddenly available. Because the upgraded attention at the hospital is one thing, but quite another is that which is available in the community – largely through the quite marvellous Trinity Hospice. I first baulked at the sheer mention of it, of course, taking my referral to a palliative care team as a sure sign that my numbered days were of rather a smaller count than I’d like, but in fact I’ve discovered that it’s quite the opposite. Trinity are, simply, there to help not just those at the end of their lives, but those dealing with the kind of shit that’s landed in my lap; the kind of shit that, yes, has a conclusion nobody can escape but, more importantly, has a meantime that can be managed, be it with additional nursing and counselling, physio and complementary therapies, or occupational therapy and administrative assistance… all of which I’m entitled to, and all of which I’ve been feeling awkward about. Add to that the charities wanting to offer me grants, the organisations wanting to arrange special days out and the friends trying to organise once-in-a-lifetime treats, and I’ve got more guilt than a Catholic condom salesman.
‘But surely there are people worse off than me who’d benefit more from all this help?’ I said to two of the Trinity girls who visited me at home yesterday.
‘There might well be,’ said one, ‘but they’re getting it too. It’s not like you’re having something that could be going to someone else – this is available to everyone in your position.’
‘But, y’know, I’m okay, aren’t I? I mean, aside from the cancer stuff. There must be people in worse positions?’
‘And there are plenty of people in better ones,’ she said, as I squirmed in my armchair. ‘Seriously, Lisa, you don’t need to feel bad about accepting help. It’s there to make your life easier.’
‘Hm, I s’pose,’ I said, wholly unconvincingly.
Perhaps, then, the problem is that I’ve been viewing all this new treatment and assistance as some kind of upgrade; some kind of sneakily acquired benefit for which I haven’t sufficiently paid. Because the more likely reality, I suppose, is that it’s not an upgrade at all, and simply a double-headed fact that a) my new diagnosis opens me up to a different kind of approach, and b) three years on, facilities and treatments have improved. (And if it is indeed the latter, it makes me even more chuffed to have signed up a team for the Marsden March next spring – for which you can sponsor us by clicking here, or by hitting the button at the bottom of this post.) Because, in the time that I’ve been busily recovering and returning to some kind of normal, the medical (and charitable) worlds have been busily advancing, making the 2G of three years ago look rather laughable in comparison to the 4S of today.
Which, as The Curly Professor said himself, only bodes well for my precariously indeterminate future. ‘Look, Lisa,’ he said, pulling my attention away from my iPad and back to him. ‘We can’t yet tell what’s around the corner. Because, even in the time since we last treated you, we’re already doing things differently. And as for what else will be available to you in another five years… Well, who’s to say?’ All of which I’m roughly translating as: ‘We can’t guarantee your upgrade on this flight, madam, but if you ask for Jeeves at the special concierge desk, we’ll see what we can do.’