Hope, laughter and friendship - what you may not expect on a cancer ward
'So, how are you spending your day off?' a friend was asked by a colleague. 'I'm going to the Royal Marsden to keep my friend company whilst she has chemo', she replied. 'Gosh, won't that be a bit depressing?' was the response. 'No, we always have a laugh. It's usually a really good day.'
If you've never been on a chemo ward, you'd be forgiven for thinking it would be full of people hooked up to machines, looking thin, grey, exhausted. And to a degree, you'd be right. We are all hooked up to machines. However, what you perhaps don't expect is the inspiration, comradeship, hope and laughter that spills from the room.
We have new hope, with a full consultation of the Saatchi Medical Innovation Bill allowing doctors to innovate new treatments and cures for cancer and other diseases without fear of being sued. The nurses, with their unwavering support and kindness are there to hold your hand, wipe away your tears and be as gentle with big needles as possible. Through what could be perceived as a desperate situation, we find humility and humour.
I've just had chemo number 36. A lot by some measures, survival by others, such as the inspirational Vanessa who has been 'terminal' for the past seven years. My ward was full, with spirits high. Janet had just been told that the chemo had done the job, this would be her last treatment, her cancer markers were clear. She was given the ultimate Christmas present. We helped celebrate this wonderful moment and I feel privileged to have accompanied her on this journey.
And we have laughter in the bucket loads. Yesterday was no exception, as Janet's husband bounded in. Asked how he was, he replied 'Ahhh, mustn't grumble, especially when I walk into this room'. 'Indeed,' responded Janet, 'otherwise you'll get lynched' as we all laughed together. Then there was Sue, who after an hour of indiscreetly fiddling with her wig which kept drooping below her eyes, tore it off, sat there bald and proud, declaring 'bl**dy thing won't lie still'.
They say laughter can be the best medicine. There is even research to suggest that a good old chuckle can be as good for you as exercise, lowering blood pressure and boosting the immune system - essential for those undergoing chemotherapy.
And I, along with friends, have often been the source of others' laughter. The accidental pulling of the emergency cord in the toilet instead of the light switch caused doctors and nurses to come running to assist a particularly accident prone friend. Her fainting when she witnessed me having an injection again meant the doctor had to administer oxygen and check her vital statistics before discharging her from the hospital.
Another time I had been admitted to hospital with an infection. A very dear friend came to see me and decided the best way to distract me was to re-arrange the room. Combine this with her insane urge to press any button, I suddenly found myself, innocently dozing in my bed, being raised off the ground. My friend found this highly amusing, with me squealing 'Get me down!!!', just as a rather confused consultant walked into the room to find his patient 8 feet in the air.
I've been asked to move waiting rooms after laughing, tears streaming, so much with a friend that the other patients were concerned I was not taking the situation seriously (oh the irony that I was probably the most ill, though as ever, my appearance belies my true prognosis). And then there was the sight of the radiotherapy waiting room, with a row of mature men wearing freshly starched shirts, ties, socks to their knees and impeccably polished shoes in dressing gowns that only occasionally covered their modesty. This proved just too much for my sister-in-law and I to bear. How did we find ourselves in this strange situation, desperately trying to avert our eyes from staring at the private parts of 80 year old men?
Finally, there is the story of Darren, the poor life insurance sales person, who tried his very best to pitch his life insurance cover to me. I suggested it was unlikely I was his ideal client given I was currently hooked up to a chemo machine. There was a long pause, a shuffle of papers as he desperately looked for the answer to this predicament when he admitted that no, they probably couldn't cover me for life insurance given I had been granted 6 months to live. I still feel for sorry for this chap, though take some comfort that the transcript of our conversation has probably been used for future training!
These moments remind me that no matter how tough life may be, make time to be with people who make you smile. After all, we're here for a good time, if perhaps not a long time.