Margaret Innes

New Worlds: Reading, Writing and the Imagination


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Radiation Therapy Blues or Ring Them Bells

During my first radiotherapy session, the PA system in the radiation room was playing Elton John’s Bennie and the Jets. Later it was Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love and in between any number of songs I didn’t recognise. Sometimes there was silence. Lying on a hard bed, hands above my head holding onto handles, being radiated with high energy rays, was an uncomfortable but also, puzzlingly, an out of body experience. A friend of mine who had gone through the same treatment said she would imagine she was on a beach and the whirr of the equipment was the sound of the surf. Because I was asked to hold my breath at certain times, I found myself concentrating on my breathing. The radiation therapists would position a small screen in front of my eyes. It showed a blue bar about two thirds of the way up and a yellow bar that moved up and down with my breathing. When asked to hold my breath I had to put the yellow bar into the blue bar so it turned green.

While this sounds mind numbing, it was the only thing I could concentrate on while I was lying there being radiated. For their own safety, the therapists had to leave the room while the radiation was being done. I was there alone with the sound of the machine, and either silence or whatever music was playing. It was a little like floating in some extra-terrestrial no-man’s-land, not quite like the star child in 2001: A Space Odyssey but still an experience that disconnected me from myself. The worst of it was the passivity. I just had to lie there and I couldn’t move. ‘Stop wriggling,’ I was once told by one of therapists and she was quite right. For this therapy to work, I had to stay still for the rays to find their right mark. If I had an itch on my nose or in the middle of my back, it was just too bad. It was bliss to get up, put on my blue gown, genuinely thank the therapists, who were all skilled professionals and very pleasant throughout, and leave.

There is a ship’s bell next to the nurses’ desk in Radiation Oncology. When your treatment is finished, it’s tradition to ring it. I gave the bell a good clang twice on Monday, had my photograph taken by one of the nurses, saw everyone applaud (also the tradition), thanked everyone, left my thank you card with the nurses and went out into the waiting area where my partner was waiting. We weren’t quite free yet, I had to see the medical oncologist. As she had been for every appointment I had had with her, she was stylishly dressed, competent, professional, thorough. She was pleased with my test results, advised me to keep walking, and made an appointment for me to see her four months later.

Then we were free, escaping out to the car park, dispensing with our masks once in the car and on the road home, seven months after the sonologist had said to me during my scan, ‘I’ll just get the radiologist.’ Even my hair is growing back though I can still clearly see the shape of my scalp. Little spikelets cover the top of my head like a fine, soft, and very close crew cut. My hair is darker than it was, which is a bonus though I would never recommend chemotherapy as a treatment for grey hair.

So for now it’s done. Thanks to all the readers of this blog for your generous and kind comments, all the feedback, and the friendship. It’s been a privilege to share the experience with you all and the most wonderful support throughout. My strongest hope is that you only ever have to read about cancer treatment and if you do have or even have had this experience, give you all my best wishes for a complete recovery. Thanks again to all the medical staff who were fantastic. And thanks to Medicare, which is so important for the nation’s wellbeing.

That closes this blog. The next one, I hope, will be on the subject of something wholly cheerful and happy. Best wishes to all.


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A Diary of Close Encounters of the Medical Kind

2 Fellow Travellers

Once diagnosed with breast cancer, I started to think how many people I had known in my life who had had cancer, most especially those who had died. Among those lost, an old, old and dear male friend from university days, another, a woman I had known since I was sixteen, lately the former husband of a close friend. They would always come to watch the Boxing Day cricket test on television with us and recover from the day before. The close friend still does. There are others I have only heard about. People I knew only as acquaintances or those reported in the media, loved actors and musicians, writers and artists, sportspeople. Their memory brings into my mind a line from The Wasteland: I had not thought Death had undone so many.

Others I know have been treated successfully. Too many women of my age who have had breast cancer but all of whom have gone back to the usual business of their lives, work and family, study and one day if ever they can, travel. For two of my friends, the treatment has been fierce, and for one, an on-going part of her life. My friend whose treatment is on-going was originally diagnosed with melanoma, a reoccurring issue for her during her adult life though one that’s been at bay for five years now. Her doctors have a watching brief: her treatment includes regular scans, exercise, counselling. After I’d come home with my sheaf of referrals, I spoke to this friend about what each of them might mean. ‘PET scans are a breeze,’ she said. ‘You can snooze if you want. MRI’s are a pain. They are so noisy.’ Every person I know who has had an MRI scan says this same thing. When I went for mine, the technician handed me a set of headphones and asked if I wanted classical music or easy listening. I asked for classical but I might as well have had Death Metal at full volume once the sound of the MRI cut in, like jack hammers in my ears.

The second friend of mine whose treatment was fierce had twelve sessions of brutal chemotherapy for deeply serious cancer. She came through it all though when I saw her next perhaps she had lost half her body weight. I am scheduled only for three and to my second friend and her twelve, as the Kid says, I dips me lid. I think how much a part of life cancer and its treatments can become, how it can invade not just your body but your waking hours, whatever you would ordinarily do with your time. It’s a menacing doppelganger shadowing you wherever you are and if you let it, it will try to consume your body and your life. It’s a fight with death but as my two friends showed us all, fight hard and we can win ourselves some extra time.