Alison Napier

The heart is roughly the size of a clenched fist, if I remember my life-saving lessons back in secondary school in Tain.

To keep it pumping blood around my body, to continue making small but significant movements, I have made coleslaw. I have the concentration and staying power of an over-cooked Birds Eye frozen pea and I watch my focus drift off the chopping board and roll under the fridge but I am determined to persevere. Chemo fog has hit big time but using a sharp knife and great care I chop white cabbage, grate a carrot, cut up three baby plum tomatoes, crush a juicy clove of garlic and slice up half an onion.

Add salt, pepper, lemon juice and Hellmann's mayonnaise and decant into a plastic tub. This simple task has taken me fifty minutes.

Alison N chemo

We have lift off. I am officially a chemotherapy patient. Suz and I arrived fashionably early to get a parking space outside the Oncology Department. The premises are beautiful, part of the old hospital, and resemble a colonial bungalow with its glass-roof open veranda and wooden benches. We sat outside waiting for 1000 and looked across at the faraway hills and watched the bustling city of ants that is an NHS hospital society. Electric mini-tractors and trailers delivered mysterious boxes and packages and files, nurses and porters dashed in and out, and the rowan berries gleamed blood-red on the opposite trees.

I had taken the following with me, itemised on a list the day before: my oversized hooded fleece, a packet of fruit gums to ward off a dry mouth, my kindle, my phone and headphones for music, four guardian quick crosswords, my diary, and an egg and tomato sandwich in an Aldi brioche bun.

We were welcomed, asked to sit anywhere, and then adopted by staff nurse Linda who was our companion for the duration of the day.

I chose the corner seat by the door for a quick getaway if required, while she conjured up tea and biscuits, asked lots of questions, and provided more forms to fill in with personal information that refuses to migrate from all the similar forms I have completed in the past few weeks. I handed them to Suz.

We sat while Nurse Linda dealt with everything calmly and efficiently. Swabs, blood test, saline drip and steroids, then the actual FEC solutions in their giant coloured and numbered horse-syringes. One by one they were attached to the drip-feeder and fed into the back of my hand. Sometimes I watched. When each one was finished there was a gentle bleeping. There were bleepings coming from all around the room but the nurses knew precisely where to go to adjust and replace things.

Command and control. It was a well-oiled machine.

The day before, I had got to my music group, probably for the last time with hair and/or energy. Back home I had lunch and then went to Tesco's and bought two bottles of wine and texted Suz saying 'Sod it been bad bought booze.' 'Me too,' she texted back immediately. We ate our fish and drank some wine and I said to Suz, 'I feel really frightened.' A pause. 'Me too,' she said and she took my hand and we sat on the sofa just looking ahead at a painting on the wall, a sea scape of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides, a deserted white beach with a dilapidated denim-blue rowing boat, shimmering tides and distant misty mountains.

After the chemo and back at the flat I waited and waited to see what would happen. I had been drip-fed a time bomb, a semtex smoothie, and the behaviour of the timer was at best a matter for conjecture. I walked carefully lest the poison all splash over me at once. It didn’t. I went to bed fearful of what might happen while I slept and unsure how I would be in the morning.

Next day I woke at 0600, got up tentatively and we began the mammoth home-based pill regime. It was the weekend so Suz was at home. We watched hundreds of episodes of The Good Wife on Netflix back to back and I waited for the vomiting, the exhaustion, the mouth ulcers to start. They didn’t.

The most that happened was a general feeling of 'dis-ease', a need to lie down quietly gazing into space, almost certainly as much psychological as pharmaceutical.

On Monday Suz returned to work. I felt panicked and tearful. But 'Brace Brace,' as they say in Easy Jet safety manuals. I had an appointment at the oncology department for a scheduled injection to boost white blood cells and when I arrived the nurse called out 'Hello Alison! How did you get on over the weekend?' and I thought 'That's nice,' and I thought, 'I am in a science fiction novel and nobody knows,' and I thought 'I am in The Truman Show movie and soon this will be the only life I know and who will rescue me.' I got the hospital bus back into town, made an appointment at the hairdressers for a wig consultation later in the week and walked slowly home. Now that is a sentence I never imagined I'd write.

By day four I had not slept properly since the chemo and I had consumed more pills than in the previous 5 years combined. Twice a day, four times a day, before food, with food, after food, anti-nausea, antibiotics (for the seroma), anti-acid, and a massive dose of four steroids twice a day. Suz wrote it all out on a sheet of A4, ticked them off with a pencil and served them in an antique china egg cup.

The steroid pills were to supplement the intravenous drugs.

Someone may have casually mentioned 'sleeping problems' as a potentially difficult issue, I don’t remember, but by day four this was my very own major side effect. My body was worn out and my whole system was jumping. I went to bed and freakish energies tugged me into alertness each time I tried to slip past the steroid guard. There was no sleep whatsoever that night and I listened to radio four extra and waited for daylight to peep through the blinds.

Next day I was delirious with lack of sleep. This is my torture, my punishment, and I will confess to anything and promise everything, simply to sleep. I will agree to and fail random dope testing. Ask and it is yours. At night I lay down and felt the pillow under my cheek. I pressed further down because I knew that I had to get very close to the mattress to be able to soak up the stray remnants of someone else's sleep that might be hiding there, like moisture in moss, like traces of DNA. But I could not get close enough and I was ripped awake. I whimpered.

Another plan crashed into the shattered fragmented mind. I remembered that a piece of paper, regardless of its size, cannot be folded more than seven times and I knew immediately that this was the answer, this was what I must do, I must fold myself up, seven times, pushing down again for droplets of respite, parched and pleading for sleep. Perhaps I caught a few wisps of negligible thistle-down rest.

This was a full-on side-effect of steroids. Timer located and activated. Off we go.

To be continued...

Episode 1 can be found here.

Episode 2 can be found here.

Episode 3 can be found here.

Episode 4 can be found here.

Episode 5 can be found here.

Episode 6 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 !6 can be found here.

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