The question I asked myself most before my first chemotherapy session was what would I read for the three hours I would be sitting in the chair? I stashed a small collection of books into my bag and with my partner, headed down to Building 19 at the Canberra Hospital, their cancer centre, and then to the fourth floor where they do what they call the infusions. There was, as always, an education session to start, meticulous and detailed and another collection of papers to add to my portable filing cabinet. I asked, will my hair fall out? The nurse said yes regretfully. I accepted this as inevitable and then it was into the large room where everyone else is also being infused. Later there would be a young Asian woman ushered into a chair not far from me. She had the most beautiful long shining black hair whereas mine is only fine and grey. We are both doomed to lose it.
Since I have always mostly associated the word infuse with aromatic ingredients in cooking, it made me a little sad to think of it in this context. But it’s accurate. After putting the cannula into my arm, the nurses arrived in full protective gear, including gloves and eyeglasses, double checked the drugs and began the process, the slow infusion of docetaxel and cyclophosphamide into my bloodstream to counter whatever possible cancer cell might be there. Which is why I have likened this whole process to Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games. The drugs are poison: they take your hair, your energy, your cancer cells, your white blood cells without discrimination. In other words they make your body fight against itself for the survival of either the cancer or you.
To prevent nausea, one of the hospital’s pharmacist had given me steroids to take the day before, during and after chemo, with the unexpected warning they might give me nightmares. They did no such thing, they gave me a three-day high instead where I thought there was nothing I couldn’t do. Probably a good attitude to take into a chemotherapy session and one that went well with the book I chose to read, a book from a vibrant local publisher, Recent Works Press, a wildly imaginative, innovative collection of prose poems about loss called Errant Night by Jerzy Beaumont. Very simply put, to deal with grief he travels the stars and the universe, returns to where I was in Canberra Hospital to come face to face with the loss of someone loved before going out into the universe again. I speak of this book because, even given where I was, there was something close to exhilarating about reading of imaginary journeys to the far reaches of the universe and all its way stations to deal with grief while sitting in a chair having docetaxel flowing into my veins in the very location that is at the heart of the book. It was in its way a comfort, that wherever I am, my mind can go anywhere. I, all of us, always have that freedom to imagine, to find ways to feel and grieve, to read and to think.
There were other true heroes beside the nurses and the patients in the chemotherapy suite that day. There are the volunteer women who wheel trolleys around with tea, coffee, juices, biscuits (Arnott’s assortment for the nostalgic), cake, sandwiches and who stop to chat and laugh. The hospital also serves lunch, hospital food but it’s there for you. And when it’s all over and the cannula is thankfully taken out of your vein to be replaced by a round white dressing and you get a little shakily to your feet to go home, the nurse comes to wish you the best. I have to come back the next day for a pegfilgrastim injection to boost my white blood cell count. This is the process, a serious gladiator fight within the confines of your skin, within your system. It will keep happening until the doctors think they have done enough to save you from yourself. What I have to do now as a patient is navigate the battleground they have created inside my body to achieve that end.