The poison IV of chemotherapy
My treatment this summer began with a sort of installation. Not the artistic kind, though there was an art to it.
A surgeon named Grace – I don’t remember her surname – made two incisions over my breastbone and implanted a plastic port about the size of a coin, plus a tube under the skin to my jugular vein. She positioned the port off to the side so I could still wear low-cut tops, then stitched me up so neatly that a nurse inquired if she’d done home economics. “No,” was her dry reply. “Just years of surgery.”
I was awake for the procedure, which I kind of loved. Because when else does a non-doctor get to hang out in theatre and, in medias res, converse with her surgeon and attending consultant? They managed to make me feel like a colleague, though it could be my contributions were not as cogent as I thought.
The port is for taking drugs – chemotherapy drugs. The next day I went in for the first of 14 cycles, as they’re known, going back to the sleek building that looks like a huge day spa. It doesn’t do detoxes though. “All the drugs I give out are poisons,” my oncologist declared. Her plan is to throw “the kitchen sink” at me in the hope of blitzing any microscopic cancer cells; I had surgery in September to take out what showed on a scan.
So began six months of chemotherapy. Now every second Thursday I sit in a curtained bay while a nurse pierces the port and hooks me up to a drip-bag of a cytotoxic drug. I then spend a day at home attached to a slow-release bottle, which is conveniently stored in a Sportif blue bumbag. In case the bottle breaks or spills, I have a Hazmat kit.
Cycle one was stressful. The port was new, the wound still raw, and it felt like a cobra had locked onto my chest, sinking its fangs into the two incisions. I had the urge to rip out the tubes and hightail it out of there, like someone in a film fleeing the zombie apocalypse. But sans actual zombies, this isn’t the done thing, so I sat for five hours while the drip-bag flattened.
Back home, I lay about, beset by a general malaise. A friend dropped by with her dog and I greeted her grimly, “If I were a dog you would put me down.” She looked appalled so I added, “I’m not saying I want to die. It’s just remarkable that as a society we do this – spend all this money and effort on prolonging people’s lives.” She contemplated her sprawling Staffy. “Yeah, but I’d say you’re worth it. I mean, look at him. He’s useless.”
On the upside, I got a disabled parking sticker. “This makes it all worthwhile,” said my beloved. He turned his mind to other perks, such as how I could get a companion animal – a letter from my doctor would trump the no-pets rule in our lease. “It’ll be great – they can’t kick us out,” he said, before spending the next hour watching videos of raccoons and planning how to train one from a young age using grapes.
I spent the next few days channelling Winston Churchill, which is to say I read in bed until noon each day. I skipped the whisky sodas and Pol Roger champagne. And I started feeling better, or a version of better. It was exhilarating to function and work again, and I geared up for cycle two by getting my bloods done. They have you do this before each treatment to check your indicators. It’s kind of like the life of a professional athlete, except the doping leaves you feeble.
There was a certain relief in getting things under way, in leaving behind the hectic weeks of oncologist shopping, of ruling treatments in or out. Plus, cycle two was better – no cobra lockjaw this time round. I grasped that what I have to do is not complicated. It’s straight implementation. I need only endure.
“It’s not the seventh circle of hell,” I started telling people. “I just have to go get poisoned every other week.”
“Think of it this way, Lennan,” said a Kurdish friend who, as a small boy in Iraq, survived a spraying of mustard gas from Saddam Hussein’s air force. “Poisoning did wonders for the Kurds. They now procreate like crazy.” He went on to use a fertiliser analogy.
Soon it was December. I did cycles three and four. To avoid catching bugs, I tried to stop kissing-greetings. The friend with the dog came up with an alternative – double peace signs at a distance. A naturopath told me to eat organic foods, which made me want to say, “You do know that right now I’m the most toxic thing going?” But I decided against the idea of being sick and spent time with friends who didn’t mind a lacklustre presence.
Meanwhile, my hair started coming out in strands. I have a lot of hair, so okay, no biggie. The loss of my eyelashes worried me more. With blonde lashes, one is already at a disadvantage, at risk of resembling Tilda Swinton’s White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia. But when I complained to a Chinese friend, she rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, please. Look at me! I’ve got nothing. I’m like an albino mouse.”
One Saturday night before Christmas, my boyfriend took me to hospital with nothing more than a sore throat. It’s what you’re told to do but it feels ridiculous. We sat in emergency amid injured revellers and overdose cases. “I am embarrassed about this,” said a man curled on the floor. Me too, buddy, me too. At 4am I was sent home, blood tests having shown that my immunity, though low, was still in the normal range.
Retox number five fell on New Year’s Eve. The next day, while Bondi beyond my apartment pulsed, I stayed in out of the heat. And so January wore on – by day the beach was packed; at night cockroaches scuttled and the sound of breaking waves was a dull, freeway-like roar.
“Illness is the night-side of life,” Susan Sontag wrote, “a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
So it’s been for me. Come cycle six, the hospital’s day-spa sleekness no longer had me fooled. I hated the paper-weaving projects, the ugly quilt displays. I hated the smell of drugs and sterilising wipes. I felt a visceral dislike for the old, sick people there; a voice in my head said, These are not my people. (Note: such feelings are transitory. I don’t actually hate the old and infirm, though I stand by my judgement on the quilts.)
In my good, alternate weeks, I am greedy for life’s pleasures. I swim, work and go out. I ignore the links on Twitter to baby boomer cancer diaries – Jenny Diski’s in the London Review of Books, Oliver Sacks’s in The New York Times. I don’t care how good they are, how brave and unsparing. I don’t keep a diary, not wanting to burrow deep into the experience or even accord it any great status. In writing as in life, be careful what you mythologise.
I’m fortunate in lots of ways. There’s chemo and there’s chemo and mine isn’t the worst. I’ve had the prayers of the devout and the good wishes of heathens. Friends have dropped off meals; their cookware, ready to be returned, fills a corner of the kitchen. I’ve eaten the weird health foods my boyfriend brings home. In a recent moment of clarity, he surveyed the stockpile and said, “I’ve gone overboard.” And I’ve passed the worst hours with some excellent TV viewing. Because this is – let’s face it – a golden age for slacking off, a historic zenith for the multi-season series.
Cycle seven was a milestone. It brought me to halfway. Now cycle eight’s done too. We’ve started a post-retox ritual of heading down to the fish markets and slugging back rock oysters. And so, as I work my way through east coast estuaries, I’m counting down to the last of these toxic days.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2015 as "Poison IV". Subscribe here.