DAISY CHAINS AND PLASTIC APRONS

CHAPTER 1

The year 2013 changed my life for ever, and set me on a path that I had never trodden before. I found myself in a wilderness with no waymarks and no guide, except, ultimately, my faith. They say that everyone’s cancer and everyone’s journey is unique, and so there is no one who has trodden your exact path before. Mine was a very harrowing path, and continues to be so, but there is a sense in which I am glad to have trodden this path, for despite everything, I now feel the deepest peace and joy that I have ever known in my life. It may not be an easy story to read, in parts, but the sheer toughness of the journey serves only to illuminate the wonders along the way.

It was a beautiful Spring day when I received the news and heard the earthshattering words, “You have cancer.”I had not expected to hear those words. The blossom was out on the trees, and the flowers were blooming all around, and the sun was shining, yet here I was in a dark sterile room, hearing the harshest words that I had ever heard.

“Will it kill me?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” replied the haematologist. Although I had asked the question I was not prepared for that answer. I fully expected to hear the words “No. we can cure it.” Instead, I was told that my life was “in the lap of the gods.”

Stark though these words were, and despite my utter shock, I remained calm. If anyone had told me, at some point in the past that upon hearing such words, I would remain calm, I would never have believed them. Cancer had always been something so terrifying that I could not even contemplate the possibility of my getting it. It was never going to be me hooked up to one of those machines, with a bag at the side of me, hairless and pale, with a bowl in front of me. I was NEVER going to be one of those people. It was the only way to deal with my intense fear of this dreaded disease. But now, on this beautiful Spring day, my favourite time of year, here it was. There was no escaping it. It had pursued me and found me. I was now one of the number. I had joined a new “Club.”

Surprisingly, I did not cry or scream. My calmness surprised me. I guess that throughout my life, when bad things happened, I had developed a type of Stoic attitude – and however bad the pain, to dismiss it and become resigned to it. Pain formed a big part of my life and the pain came in many guises. But whatever it was and however bad it was, I did not react. It stood me in good stead for this dreadful day.

There was silence in the room, after the haematologist had spoken. The nurse, in her plastic apron, which seemed to me to speak of all sorts of unspeakable things, looked down and studied the floor. I don’t know why, but the plastic apron unnerved me. I was about to enter a world of plastic aprons and all manner of bodily emissions and degeneration that the plastic apron had to protect her from. I wondered why she had not taken if off before she came into the room with the haematologist. What was she going to do to me? He had only come to give me the bad news. Why the cold, hard, noisy, unyielding plastic? Why not just the uniform and her warm skin and a proffered hand for me to hold? I thought that was what nurses did at moments like this. Why this harsh sterility, devoid of human warmth and comfort? Had they no idea at all of the impact of the news I had just been given? The haematologist (promulgated) the harshness of the moment:
“I will always tell you the truth.” It sounded ominous. What truth? Wasn’t the truth I had just been told bad enough? I had cancer. I might die. It was, as he said, “in the lap of the gods.”

I could hardly believe I was hearing this. Was this always how they told people that they had cancer and that they might die? I had always imagined that on such an occasion there would be some kind of warmth. Some kind of compassion and gentleness. But there was none. Just the stark, cold truth.

As if this was not all discordant enough, the haematologist began to tell me that my cancer, which was called Lymphoma, was like a daisy chain. It almost seemed sick, to use something that had given childhood pleasure and delight, to describe an horrific cancer that creeps all over your body. He said that all the lymph nodes in our bodies are linked together, like a daisy chain, and that all the lymph nodes become cancerous. I had visions of yellow and white and green, and in my mind’s eye I saw a child sitting on some grass. Who was that child? Was it me? And how had a daisy chain become so evil? I wondered if the analogy of the daisy chain was meant to soften the blow for me. If so, it had the opposite effect. How could a doctor make a simple daisy chain seem so sinister? It was bad enough that the trees were in full blossom outside in the warm sun, but now, here in this dark and terrible room, we had daisy chains. I felt sick.

There were three of us in the room, apart from the haematologist and the plastic aproned nurse – myself, my husband and my mother. My husband was sitting in his wheelchair and my mother was sat beside me on the bed. She started to kiss my head almost absent-mindedly. This too seemed incongruous. My mother never kissed me. It all felt so odd. Everything jangled discordantly. I tried to take in what the haematologist was saying, through the discordance. I heard the words, “Some form of chemotherapy,” and my insides were screaming out “No, no.” I would let myself die. Chemotherapy was not on the menu for me. At this point my mind went blank. I could no longer take in what was being said. Inside myself, I rejected all that was being said to me. I wanted to go home – to be normal again. I had to get out of that place. But the haematologist was talking about keeping me in hospital for about three days, and had turned to my husband who was in a wheelchair, and started talking about respite care for him. At this point, I declared, very loudly, that I was going home, that I needed time to absorb this before any further action was taken. This was true, but inside myself I knew that there was more to it than that. I needed my priest to know. Spiritually I was not ready for this. I needed help. In the end the haematologist allowed me to go home, as long as I returned a few days later for further tests and a biopsy.

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