Imagine the opening scene of a dramatic television show … the beige double doors to the hospital’s Chemotherapy Unit swing open … slo-mo filming crunches time to jarring seconds, allowing you to take in the chaotic landscape before you. Row upon row of sick people sit in blue vinyl recliners while hooked up to IV bags for the steady drip, drip, drip of their poison. A cacophony of beeps from the pumps rises above the efficient nurses dressed in blue hazmat suits. At first glance, they look inhuman in their blue gloves, gown and face shields, but really they are earthly angels attending the wounded.
I can’t find any dry humour here. Yet.
Our Cancer Centre tour group stops directly in front of a beautiful young woman no older than twenty. She still has her glorious long red hair, but is sick. I didn’t realize that not everyone loses their hair during chemo. She vomits from the needle and looks up at us from the blue tray with misery and shame in her eyes. She wipes her mouth with a napkin, looks away, and I do the same to afford her some privacy on the battlefield.
While the guide rotes off statistics of the hundreds of thousands of cancer patients treated, I retreat mentally. If a room can have a personality, these walls sag with the grimness of their purpose. One large window looks out into the gardens, but everyone is marching in the other direction. We are imprisoned lab rats stuck in mazes as the world continues on. I hate that feeling. Fear Of Missing Out – FOMO – is a real thing. Especially for the critically ill.
I can’t take any more, so I turn and run, flinging open the double doors to find a washroom for my vomit. If I do have any post-traumatic flashbacks to cancer, it lands in the middle of this scene. I shake, perspiration and saliva dripping off my face, as I heave on my knees in a foreign stall. It was one of the only times I threw up from chemo.
“Battling cancer” isn’t a vogue term. Don’t tell a cancer patient how to feel. If I heard “You’ll beat this” one more time, I threatened to beat the commentator. I needed to fully feel the vulnerability, pain and fear of diagnosis to prepare myself for the fight.
No one could take a bullet for me. On my knees, it felt like a firing squad and I knew what was coming.
My chemotherapy protocol was as aggressive as my cancer. Without treatment, I had a 40% chance of dying within two years. With treatment, my odds went down 20% and my chance of developing leukemia from the treatment went up 20%. Catch 22.
Survival instincts kick in. Digging into my professional public speaking skills, I slipped into my role as a warrior. Transform your nervous energy into enthusiasm. Use positive visualization and take deep breaths. Game face on. Smile.
I changed tactics and took on breast cancer with a battle cry… leading the charge, one fist in the air, whooping the entire time. What’s one more stressor when you’ve had nine out of ten? Fight, take flight or freeze? I chose to fight. I stuck my tongue out at life like a three-year-old and pulled my princess gown and tiara out of the tickle trunk. Your stage presence needs to sparkle with charisma.
I dressed for my part in the series. Each week while on stage in the Chemo Lounge, I wore something completely inappropriate … long gowns, ripped up jeans and miniskirts. I had eight wigs to compliment my attire.
My chemo cocktail started with the potent “Red Devil” … nicknamed for its bright red colour and toxicity. Doxorubicin, its real name, is administered manually via a comically large syringe. Should one drop escape, the chemical spill site requires skin and tissue grafts. And they send that soldier in through a spaghetti-like tube running up my left arm and into my heart.
Yellow biohazard warnings waved like flags. I can smell the sharp tang from the chemical warfare of cancer, its metallic bitterness lingers in my mouth. The grandfather of chemo is WW I mustard gas.
It took me to the brink of death and pulled me back. Chemo is a toxin which kills any cell trying to divide and grow. I walked around in stasis, the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, neither dead nor alive.
The first dose annihilated my immune system.
Repeat sixteen times.
Like a double agent, I courted the danger with side split skirts and plunging necklines, feather boas and glass beaded party dresses. I went down in medical history as the Cancer Centre’s most (in)famous patient nicknamed Red. My disguise? Sexy long hair in Fire Engine Red from the party store, matching lipstick and silver mirrored aviator sunglasses. I dressed all in black: a tank top, sequined miniskirt, fishnet stockings and 5-inch stiletto heels.
Everyone stopped to stare as I sauntered through the hospital to the Chemo Lounge. Heads popped up and eyes widened. One elderly volunteer tapped her blue smocked companion to point in my direction, jaws dropping.
One young man stopped to stand at the wall and watch my parade.
“At ease, soldier!” I said inside my head, flashing a wide smile.
As I sat in my recliner and crossed my legs, the nurses flocked to my side to giggle and grill me with questions.
“Who are you today?” they laughed.
“Meet Sasha” I said, grinning.
“What will you wear next?” everyone asked.
“Will you give us an IV pole dance?”
As I entertained myself and the nurses, I noticed a curious thing. The other patients responded in kind. They laughed and danced with me, chuckled and chatted to each other, smiling. Like a genie I gave them a wish for a brighter new day.
For one brief moment we forgot where we were and took back our lives.
Even my PICC line gets fancied up in fishnet!
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