It’s amazing how blasé I have become about various aspects of this whole cancer malarkey. A few years ago, just the mention of the word Oncology would have put the willies up me (not literally) but now I find myself casually wandering in to a makeshift Oncology department on a sunny Friday afternoon during a global pandemic and my main concern is that I will look as good as the other patients. Apart from once, I’ve only ever seen women getting treatment around me and they always look very well turned out, almost as though a nice pair of shoes and a sharp haircut will befuddle cancer in to just wandering past and missing them altogether. I’m an entirely more dishevelled sartorial prospect (something I’ve developed over the years to make my face look like less of an accident) so I always get the same feeling as when I’m in a meeting with the big wigs at work or waiting for my wife outside the changing rooms in any shop above Primark in the food chain.

Another signifier of my growing comfort with being around cancer is the ease with which I let people stab me with needles and make jokes about it. Today, the immunotherapy nurse asked which hand was better to put the cannula in (they always do) and we have our usual banter about my veins being a bit obstinate which this time I embellished with a joke about no nurse being able to successfully access the vein on the first attempt. The nurses always take this as a challenge and there was a bit more banter based on bravado as my hand was soaked, tourniqued and vigorously tapped to get the vein up;

Attempt 1 (left hand) – cannula part way into the vein but then the vein collapsed so we pull it out and look for another vein.

Attempt 2 (also left hand) – cannula part way into the vein and this vein also collapsed but only after a bit more bluster and wiggling the needle around before giving up.

Attempt 3 (right hand) – a change of nurse (this is standard practice after two failed attempts – presumably to stop my veins locking them out like an irritable cash machine) like a wrestler tapping their partner in but to no avail as the third vein still doesn’t allow ‘progression’ as it’s known in the biz.

Attempt 4 – (also right hand) – jackpot baby! The cannula is in and I am ready to receive the drugs.

By this point, there are at least 4 nurses and one other patient fully invested in the success (or not) of getting one of my veins to accept a cannula needle which means they all check in on me at some point during the afternoon and, to each one of them, I make the joke; “Fourth times a charm”. They all laugh politely but I am ashamed of myself for allowing dad jokes to follow me into Oncology. Nobody needed that.

During treatment this time I have prepared to watch some topical satire with Charlie Brooker’s Antiviral Wipe loaded on my phone to distract me from the rhythmless bleeps and whirs of hospital machinery. Naturally, I find myself giggling away like a child which draws scornful looks from one other patient and a few turns of the head from one of the more severe looking nurses (to be fair, they all look pretty severe with face masks on). I try to remember that there’s nothing funny about cancer treatment and that I should sit solemnly playing Candy Crush but that’s never really been my thing.

Taking a break from the comedy, I scan the room and notice the rainbows, hearts and smiley faces presumably drawn by children (or artistically challenged adults, like me) to cheer up the windowless Oncology ward. One of them had the word ‘Heroes’ written above a rainbow that somehow included silver glitter (not scientifically accurate) and this, weirdly, coincided with two nurses cleaning the treatment station next to mine and discussing the media coverage of the NHS. “Ugh, I hate it when they call us heroes. I don’t mind the clapping but the heroes thing is too much pressure. Now they’re on about teachers too”. This got a sigh of recognition from her colleague who was vigorously wiping down a chair for the umpteenth time that day.

I then took a mind meander which had me thinking that teachers, NHS staff, delivery drivers and shop workers (among others) have all been classed as ‘heroes’ during this pandemic, they have still been criminally underpaid and put at risk. Meanwhile, I’ve seen numerous social media posts defending Boris Johnson as ‘just a man’ who’s back we should get off because he’s trying his best, whether he’s working from Downing Street, Chequers or any of his other properties. The problem with this is that society is letting those in charge off the hook whilst simultaneously setting entire professions up on impossibly high pedestals with nowhere to go but down.

“Whoa, Roland, what’s all this political chat? We only came here for the fluffy cancer banter”, I hear you say. Well, the thing is, my mind meander took this point about British media and then mashed it like an overripe avocado into the world of having cancer which, in this analogy, is played by a sturdy slice of wholemeal toast. The reality is that as soon as you get the cancer tag, people tag you with additional badges that say things like ‘brave’, ‘hero’ and ‘fighter’ which is a hard to live up to. I only mention this because I’ve come across a couple of other cancer stories recently (via the news and other sources) that make me feel pretty humble even in my situation. Nevertheless, these people still wouldn’t want to be referred to as heroes because they are just doing what they have to in order to survive as long as possible?

Is that what it just boils down to now? Do you qualify for hero status if you’ve run out of options and you’re just doing whatever it takes to stay alive, keep your head above water or earn enough to feed your kids? It feels like the real heroes should be the ones making the right decisions for others even if it they have easier, more self-serving possibilities available to them. Now, please, please don’t get me wrong. I’m the son of two teachers and I would never do that or any other public service profession down but the majority of these people do these jobs as a vocation, because they care, because it’s what they have to do and not for glory or accolades or fame or fortune. Or weekly applause. Anyway, I’ve possibly gone off topic a bit here but the point is simply that raising people up too high in any situation can be dangerous, particularly when that situation has put them at a personally low ebb and then they feel the expectation to be a brave hero. Like having a raging hangover and then being asked to pull off those dance moves you did last night before popping in to the kitchen to prepare everyone a fry up. Nobody needs that.

Anyway, back the cancer stuff; one enlightening thing about my latest treatment was that my thyroid function seems to be recovering a little according to the blood tests, so that’s a positive. The Oncology nurses were also tentatively discussing a proposed move back to the main hospital site by the end of June but that will rely on all of us not rushing out to lick the nearest Costa Coffee drive through window before hugging the nearest dog walker you can find. For now, we are preparing a military style trip to London that involves researching which are the least popular service stations for wee breaks, how to kill time in a hospital between appointments without breathing in any Covid-19 and how on earth to keep my diabetic blood sugar levels stable enough to have the required Positron Emission Tomography (PET) CT scan. If this was a zone on the Crystal Maze I’m pretty sure I’d be locked in but then again I’d probably be the one with the most experience of the challenge so I’d have to give it a go. I’m a hero like that.

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