So. I’d been on the ward for one day, and already two people had died and one had gone home to spend his last few hours with some dignity in the company of his family. New people arrived and occupied the spaces, oblivious to what had gone before. One young man, in his early twenties I guess, wearing a hoodie, swaggered into the ward as if he knew the place very well. After greeting the nurse with a hip-hop handshake he dumped his bag on the bed, unzipped it and pulled out a framed piece of needlework – the kind of thing that old ladies kept on their walls in the 1970s, with a delicately-stitched flower sitting alongside a poem about something to be grateful for in life. Anyway.. he moved his trolley-table to the end of the bed, next to where the patient notes are kept, and he propped the frame up in the centre of the table, facing out into the ward. There was no picture – it simply said:
After he’d changed into pyjamas and opened the curtain around his bed, he was just another patient. Completely bald and looking a bit gaunt, he was obviously some way through a course of chemo. I never found out what he was being treated for, but it seemed like trips to the hospital were a familiar part of a routine for him, so I guess he knew what was in store when the nurses were hooking him up.
Another gentleman arrived, called Frank. Blimey – he was a bit of a foghorn! Like a TV turned up far too loud, his every thought was broadcast to the whole ward. He seemed a bit disoriented, but in a simple way as if ‘disoriented’ was his normal state. He talked with the nurses about where to put his clothes; about where he could go for a drink because he liked a drink every now and then and what about smokes ‘cos he really needed a smoke and how does the TV work and is it free because he ain’t got no money and does the phone work too and is it free… etc etc. It was non-stop! Frank wasn’t the brightest button in the box, for sure.
After the nurses had fitted his cannula and the first bag of chemo, they left him for a bit, and he started looking around the ward. I know the guy in the bed next to him was just pretending to be asleep. As it happened however, before Frank’s spotlight swung onto me, we were all saved by the doctor who arrived to have a chat with him. The curtain was pulled around and the doctor tried his best to speak in hushed tones, but the conversation was audible to the whole ward. And it wasn’t good news. They’d looked at his x-rays and there was nothing they could do – his condition wasn’t going to be curable.
“Well that don’t matter though.. I mean I don’t mind if it ain’t curable, as long as you can just stop it, right? Don’t matter if it don’t get better, right, as long as it don’t get worse.”
The doctor apologised to him again and said that he didn’t think so. And suggested that it might not be worth continuing with the chemotherapy.
“Well yeah.. I mean that’s what we need to stop it right? As long as it gets stopped, that’s alright. I mean I don’t mind if it don’t get better because I feel alright just now.. as long as it don’t get worse, then that’ll be alright”.
“Well.. let’s hope for the best”, said the doctor as he opened the curtains and left Frank to think for a bit.
Shortly afterwards, Frank’s father arrived. “Alright Dad?! ‘Ow are you. What are you doing standin’ over there? Come closer. Over here! Look, stand there. No, move that thing. No! I mean, sit there. Move these things first. Don’t stand on me bag – that’s got me smokes in it. NO!! Now look wot you done.. here, let me see it”. Frank’s Dad was a small man with a resigned expression, a vacant smile and a Che Guevara hat, and he did as he was told.
At that point, the Hospital Chaplain arrived and introduced himself to Frank and his father, and pulled the curtains around the bed again. Frank did most of the talking, and I tried to watch a movie, while the nurses wandered around the ward swapping drips and bags and pumping everyone full of toxic drugs.
The impact of the treatment doesn’t start until about the 2nd day I think, and it’s a very gradual thing – at first I just felt a bit tired and it became difficult to concentrate on stuff. I wasn’t really in the mood for reading or watching a movie. I also had to be careful not to fall asleep in a position that might cinch a drip tube or pull it off the cannula. It was all just a wee bit uncomfortable. And, with every new bag of poison the nurses bring, I started to feel slightly less comfortable, slightly more nauseous, and started to dread the next bag. It’s not pleasant, but looking around me at what other people were going through on the ward, I had to count my blessings. One man was having intensive radiotherapy for a tumour in his neck – the whole of the side of his face was dark purple and sore because of the radiation, but worse than that, he had to feed himself a cocktail of nutrients and drugs through a naso-gastric tube which invariably made him sick five minutes later. Every couple of hours he’d sit at the side of his bed, shakily preparing the mixture, filling the syringe, and then pumping it along the tube, through his nose and directly into his stomach. Then he’d dismantle everything and get his basin ready for the inevitable, painful vomiting and wretching, after which he’d finally collapse on the bed and either try to sleep or wait for his next ‘meal’. Dreadful. I can understand why some people give up and let the cancer take its course.
A bit later, Frank went walkabout. He trundled his drip past my bed on the way to the window, and was clearly excited by what he saw!
“Bloody hell! What’s that?!”
Addenbrooke’s Hospital is on the edge of Cambridge and surrounded on three sides by farmland, and from our vantage point on the 9th floor we had a great view of large fields of oilseed rape in full, bright yellow bloom. One of the nurses who was nearby glanced out to see what Frank was talking about. “Rape”, he said, and turned back to the job he was doing.
“GRAPES??!!”, enthused Frank. “Fuckin’ hell there’s a LOT of ‘em! Here, Dad, come and see the grapes! There’s millions of ‘em. Come on, don’t stand away over there, come on – right here beside me. Here! Look at all the grapes!”
Frank’s dad slowly walked over to join his son by the window. He stood just behind Frank, silently looking out of the window, then he put one hand on his son’s shoulder, and started to cry.
It was one of the most emotional and upsetting things I’ve ever seen. In fact it’s very difficult even to remember it, let alone write about it. I was watching a father starting to say goodbye to his son, and of course my thoughts turned to my own son and the possibility that I wouldn’t see past his 3rd birthday. The possibility that he would grow up without knowing me or being able to remember me. That, for me, was the most frightening thing about Cancer.