A chemotherapy unit is a funny place to find yourself. It’s almost verging on parody. On one hand you’re surrounded by all these seriously ill people – bald, pale, shrunken forms – a snapshot of cancer at it’s most wicked. It also serves as a stark reminder that a cancer diagnosis unleashes a tsunami of toxicities on the body and not all of them are physical. Yet, there’s always good cheer, banter and optimism bouncing off those chipped magnolia walls. Everyone has a smile. It’s almost like an office Christmas party on steroids. Lots of lots of steroids in my case. A veritable feast of them!
Richard Curtis once wrote that, ‘love is everywhere’, and none more so than at the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. I disagree. You’ll find more love in my local chemo unit, but it’s a different sort of love. It’s deeper somehow. More evolved. Tinged with sadness but always driven by an overriding sense of hope.
After two months of treatment, I’ve found myself chatting with quite a few of my fellow patients and their partners. It’s difficult not to, to be honest. With all the drip stands, tables and portable medicine cabinets knocking about it’s a tight squeeze on the best of days. But it’s only recently that I’ve started spotting a trend amongst us, a few of which I’ve categorized below;
– The Pragmatic Couple. Usually in their late 40s and 50s. These two refuse to let go of each other’s hands during treatment. It’s a lovelock welded by faith and confidence. When you chat to them they’ll finish each other’s sentences and exchange secret smiles. Cancer isn’t anything other than a blip to them. A more serious outcome is not to be entertained. Theirs is the sort of love that weathers the fiercest of storms. It’s a love to be envied and admired.
– The Hard Nuts. The older ones. They’re usually undergoing treatment at the same time, either that or one of them is a 20 year cancer survivor (the BEST kind of stories to hear on a chemo unit!) They know more medical jargon than the nurses and are the first to tease them as the other one looks on fondly or interjects with a snappier, funnier remark. I love sitting next to these couples. They’re so kind and upbeat. Cancer’s not going to knock them down. They make me feel like my husband and I can overcome anything.
– Us. Usually the youngest. The ones in denial, trying to pretend that all this isn’t happening. To normalise everything we’ll try and make each other laugh, or we’ll lock ourselves away in our own little worlds as a coping mechanism. Yesterday, Matt sat next to me snorting with laughter to some podcast on his iPhone whilst I blasted my ears with the new Oasis documentary on my iPad. Recapturing my youth for an hour or two? Probably. ‘Bloody hell, Matt,’ I said to him at one point, ‘I was front row at that gig!’ See, we don’t hold each other’s hand, or stare lovingly into each other’s eyes but our love is present in our presence. It’s there in our easy familiarity, even during the shittiest of times.
In addition to the partners, there are the best friends and the extended families. You are neon-lit superstars, each and every one of you. You bring so much lightness and happiness into the chemo unit when I’m sure you’re feeling anything but. I’ve often said that cancer is hardest on the support team. At least we have a treatment plan and an end goal. You have all the worry and a normal life to lead. My heart goes out to each and every one of you.
Perhaps Richard Curtis was onto something? Perhaps love IS actually all around us, waiting to be discovered in the strangest of places? Do airport arrivals halls and chemo units have more in common than I thought? After all, everyone is disembarking from somewhere… although I imagine a chemotherapy unit is pretty low on the list of preferred destinations for most people.
We still exist though, us cancer patients, and we’re just as deserving of love as everybody else. Still reeling from my own diagnosis, it took walking into my first chemo unit exactly two months ago to finally realise it.