I arrive at the centre in Wimbledon today for my 10.30am chemo appointment. I’m welcomed into the unit and see that most of the ten or so stations are already occupied. I’m shown to one of the most open and public ones in the whole unit. In responsible-citizen mode, I ask if I can sit at a more out-of-the-way station as I have a “bit of a cough”.
This immediately sets alarm bells ringing among the medical staff; the last thing they want is someone with the lurgy in a unit full of immunocompromised cancer patients. I’m ushered into the side room. This, it turns out, is where I’ll be until almost eight hours later. I don’t leave for home until 4.20pm.
(I could call the side room an isolation unit to inject some ER*-type drama into things, but there really was no drama, it seemed all very tranquil and calm. For all I know, though, there could have been chaos behind the scenes with everyone cursing the oncologist for saying I should come and for giving them what turned out to be lots of extra work.)
There’s a bit of a delay but soon enough the doctor in charge (the senior medical officer) comes in. How long have you had the cold sores? Is your throat sore? When did the cough start? How long have your eyes been bloodshot? Are they sore? I explain that I am in fact on the whole better than I was on Monday when I saw the oncologist and we agreed to go ahead with the session (“Maureen is tolerating the chemotherapy remarkably well”… but not today). Only the red eyes are new.
The doctor listens to my chest with a stethoscope for any sign of infection. She’d hear a rattling noise if there were; she doesn’t. She looks at my throat; nothing terrible there. She shines a light into my eyes, sees some gunk in the left eye and says it’s conjunctivitis. She says they’ll contact the oncologist to discuss things and to suggest I should perhaps be given some antibiotics to take at home. As if I didn’t have enough drugs to take at home already (see The drugs, round 2).
We’re more than a good hour in now. So will the session go ahead as the oncologist and I want? I’m hoping it will and then I’m assuming it will as they go ahead and settle me in on the bed and set me up for chemo while the oncologist is consulted. I think at this stage I’m given the pre-meds. They repeat the blood tests that were done on Monday to see whether the levels are still healthy enough for chemo. The bloods are sent off and the tests run immediately.
Four separate swabs are taken of my mouth and nose – two of each – to see whether any infection that may be there is viral or bacterial. It’ll take a couple of days to get those results. I think blood is taken for yet more tests but, frankly, by now I’m losing track.
The blood results come back. They’re good and we’re on. It’s nearly 1pm.
Paclitaxel, the chemo agent, is given via a drip over three hours, and that finishes just before 4pm. After the chemo, more blood is taken so they can check my “inflammatory markers”. After a couple of other small procedures, it’s 4.20pm and I get to leave, with a warning to call immediately if I get a fever or start to feel worse.
I also pick up various take-home meds from the fridge, including Lonquex, the drug that promotes the production of white blood cells that I’m to inject myself with late tomorrow afternoon.
In addition to Lonquex and the anti-sickness tablets (one of which is a steroid) I’m due to take already, the oncologist has prescribed one lot of antibiotics (tablets) to prevent chest infection, another lot (drops) for my eyes, and a steroid (another) to take if an old gastrointestinal condition that’s showing signs of flaring up again actually does so. I’ll soon need one of those little pill boxes that are marked with days of the week.
That was a long day. However, I read The Sunday Times Culture section back-to-back (a rare treat). I did also doze for an hour-and-a-half or so. And the staff are all lovely. I did cough a lot; they were right to isolate me. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere near me. So to the friend whose offer of chemo company I rejected, sorry again, but it really was the right choice!
I’d been warned that the anti-histamine I’d been given pre-chemo might make me drowsy and that I might need driving home but in the end I was fine.
So here I am back home and about to go to bed, tired but relieved that session five went ahead as planned and that there are now only three sessions to go. 19 August, the day of the first session, seems such a long time ago.
*Yes, ER really is the last TV hospital drama that I’ve watched. It started in 1994 and it was the drama that launched George Clooney. I think it’s fair to say I’ve had a crush on him ever since.