Which left exactly seventeen days to live through.
Oh how I wish I could say I was like the women in the posters in the health centre, or the women having jolly Macmillan coffee mornings. Suddenly cancer was everywhere, newspapers full of new warnings linking everything I love to do and eat to increased risk of malignant almonds, and adverts on television urging me to take out life insurance (too late), make a will (already done), shave my head ('Brave the Shave' – uh, no…), more articles in the Guardian telling me that people are living longer than ever before with cancer, though that might just be that people are living longer than ever before.
And the comments underneath full of survivors (am I a survivor yet?) saying 'Well yes, but…,' followed by gruesome accounts of chemotherapy side-effects including deafness and chronic fatigue and borderline mental incapacity.
I phoned my breast cancer nurse during the second week as my breast became painful and I was convinced that my cancer, my almond-shaped cancer, had suddenly decided to grow to a walnut, or an avocado seed, but was assured by terribly cheerful Nikki that this was normal and was the internal healing from the biopsies. I took a painkiller, and then another.
Suz and I went for a fiery Mexican chilli a couple of days before the operation. The next day I got very drunk on wine and tequila and cried and raged and slammed doors and told Suz she should leave me as I would be disabled and disfigured for ever. I crashed out of the flat and banged along the street, deliberately bouncing my head off a lamp-post. I kicked the kerb and sat on a bench outside the kebab shop and cried again as people emerged with takeaways and 2-litre bottles of Coke.
I went home and said sorry and went to bed. I want to make alternative posters for surgery walls. It is like this too
On the day of the operation we were both up at 0600 and I ate toast and honey and drank tea. I had to get to hospital by 0830 so we arrived at 0810 and sat in the car. 'I think you are fabulous,' said Suz. We went in and found the ward. It was small, only four beds and only one already occupied. A nurse came to take the first of many tests, and asked me what I did for a living. I was a social worker, I told her, but am self-employed now and work with students.
She grinned and turned to Suz. 'Nurses love sticking needles into social workers,' she laughed. I loved that she moved out of the way so I could kiss Suz goodbye and that people don't miss a beat nowadays about lesbian relationships. I love that I can say she is my partner and know I won't get hate mail in the next post.
Suz left and for six hours nothing and everything happened. My blood pressure was far too high but then it came down. White coat syndrome. I described my severe allergy to aspirin to many people including the anaesthetist and made sure that I would not be given anti-inflammatory painkillers after the operation. 'Very inconvenient,' he commented. 'Very,' I agreed. 'Please can I have strong codeine instead.' He agreed. I filled out a form for a meal and was told to choose something cold. 'Which meal?' I asked. Lunch, apparently, but for after the operation. I chose a turkey slice sandwich, something I have never eaten in my life, and mandarin oranges in juice, which I have not eaten since 1967 when I got my tonsils out.
Another nurse came and stood in front of my chair and began speaking about post-op exercises. 'Please can you sit down?' I asked
Startled, she found a chair, sat opposite me and continued her speech. 'I always tell the ladies to take it easy, if you have a pile of ironing to just do one tee shirt to start with!' She was on automatic. Her speech was not tailored to lesbian feminists who never iron tee shirts. We did not bond. Next she went to my companion in the next bed, pulled the curtains and delivered the exact same speech to a far better reception. They laughed together. I read another short story (by Muriel Spark – wonderful -) on my kindle.
My leg was measured for elastic socks and pronounced Normal.
Socks came with instructions in Chinese and too small to read. I battled on. The consultant came, checked my name, confirmed the breast he was to operate on, drew on me with a blue felt pen and left.
At 2pm a student nurse arrived to walk me to the theatre. She had a sore back and we agreed this was common among nurses. I urged her to take care of it as we crept carefully towards the swing doors. In the anaesthetic room before the operating theatre a doctor checked which side they were operating on. Blimey, I said. She laughed merrily and assured me it was simply a safety precaution. We discussed my bi-lateral hearing aids which I had assumed would have to come out before surgery but apparently not.
'But I don't want to hear what you are doing to me,' I said, foolishly I now realise. 'You won't – but we want to be able to speak to you afterwards', someone said kindly. OK.
And then I saw a needle sliding painlessly into the back of my hand and I thought Gosh that's skilful, and then someone else said Alison, Alison, and it had all happened and they were right, I hadn't heard a thing.
Apparently it was difficult to wake me up but I've always been like that. I could hear people talking about mils of drugs and asking me to rate the pain on a scale of one to ten where ten was unbearable. 'Seven', I whispered, drifting in and out of sleep. More discussion. We got it down to four. Morphine was mentioned, but that would mean having to stay in overnight and the ward was closing as it was a bank holiday (I still don't understand this and neither did the nurse afterwards but hey ho) but a suitable cocktail was devised and pain was relieved.
Is this too much information? Or not enough perhaps? Was I afraid as I walked to the theatre wearing two patterned hospital gowns simultaneously, one on back to front as I do not have a dressing gown, in my white elastic socks and lace-up leather shoes as I do not have slippers?
No. I was simply relieved that there are still parts of my body that function, and that a merciful automatic numbness will descend in times of trauma, a self-preservation tool that stopped me screaming and dashing up the corridor into fresh air and freedom where I could still cycle and work and hold a tenor recorder.
But I also know that in that very outré outfit I would not have got further than the kerb in these leafy and affluent suburbs of Perth before the authorities would have been called by a concerned and well-heeled citizen.
To be continued...
Episode 1 can be found here.
Episode 2 can be found here.
Episode 4 can be found here.
Episode 5 can be found here.
Episode 6 can be found here.
Episode 7 can be found here.
Episode 8 can be found here.
Episode 9 can be found here.
Episode 10 can be found here.
Episode 11 can be found here.
Episode 12 can be found here.
Episode 13 can be found here.
Episode 14 can be found here.
Episode 15 can be found here.
Episode 16 can be found here.