You need a passport for a trip to oncology

Sometimes it can take a lot to get to where you can trust The System. Take it from friend Linda, who says she’s had to get a passport in order to take her to her destination in the remote country of Trust.

Chemo moonshineI spent most of the day yesterday in the oncology unit with Linda again, as she underwent her second chemo treatment, the first being three weeks ago. Both times we sat there glancing apprehensively at one another as one bag after another of ferocious toxins was fed into a little vein in her wrist. Especially unnerving is the fact that the staff are masked and gloved as they hook things up and handle the bags (“It’s just that we have to deal with this stuff all day, every day…”). Hmmm.

Linda knows about the contents of all those little bags. She’s studied them, can pronounce every exotic syllable, and knows every effect and possible side effect. She knows which ones attack her hair, her fingernails, her white blood cells, her serotonin. And given just how nasty something has to be to actually kill off a cancer cell, how can you trust that it’s not going to do you in as well?

So how do you get to where you can trust the complex medical science behind it all? And if you make it that far, how about trusting the Taree Base Hospital? And what about all the way down to Jenny in the oncology department? Most of all, how do you trust your own particular body to override all the fine print and allow you to survive this non-particular onslaught?

Clearly, you need a passport to travel all that way.

As an occupational therapist, Linda works inside the medical profession, and yet that somehow doesn’t qualify her for absolute trust of The System. [Why is there no irony font when you need one?] She’s seen the mistakes and the mis-matches, and she knows there’s no guarantee of a smooth ride.

Astonishing science

But I have to tell you, it’s amazing to observe the whole process. For one thing, the staff are SO careful. Every dose is set up by someone and checked by someone else. Linda’s treatment was held up for an hour or two while we waited for a report to come back from the pharmacy about a smear of oiliness spotted in one of the brews. It turned out normal, but no one was about to take that outcome for granted.

And then there’s the complexity of the interactions among the various medications. Chemo bagsWe’ve all seen the movies where the chemo patient is hanging over the toilet, suffering from the dreadful nausea that the drugs cause. But that result is no longer an absolute, nor are the other side effects. Linda spends an hour or so of her treatment (the first two or three bags) taking on board chemicals that combat consequences like nausea and gloominess. She takes chemicals that accelerate the repair of her white blood count after each treatment, in order to spend as short a time as possible without the ability to resist even the simplest infection.

One of the nurses told us she hadn’t worked on this ward for several months, and in that time so many of the medications and procedures had changed that she barely recognised the place. It takes your breath away to imagine all the research going on all over the world, all the assiduous compiling of data, all the effort to keep little Taree’s hospital at the leading edge of what’s available. I have to say: I felt awe.

Fifteen years ago I had a friend about my age who had breast cancer and couldn’t trust the system. All the homeopathic medicine and spiritual practice in the world couldn’t battle the progress of the disease, and a year later she was not alive to review her decision.

There’s a person inside there too

The System also turns out to be much more than just an intricate cocktail of chemicals being carefully poured into one’s system. Somebody understands that the human brain works in mysterious ways, as well as the body. Taree’s oncology department is a spacious, comfortable room with floor-to-ceiling windows that let the light pour in. There’s a little courtyard just outside the glass door where you can watch palm fronds and contemplate a perfect little bonsai tree. The staff are funny, self-expressive and entertaining. They encourage a dash of repartee among the patients and their offsiders. These professionals understand the main game, but they’re determined to bring some lightness along with it. They know there’s a lot more to battling a cancer cell than lambasting it with toxins. They know exactly what Linda’s going through, inside and out, and they bring a matter-of-factness that most of us could afford to emulate.

Other people in The System understand the complexities too. A volunteer by the name of Cynthia Crocheted beanieknits and crochets hats—warm beanies, cool ones, fluffy ones, sleek ones. She does hats in all colours of the rainbow, ones with little brims and ones that wrap and twist in fetching ways. Cynthia must know about the shock of contemplating one’s completely bald head in the mirror, and about being ready for that event; she’s wise about the role head-covering plays in keeping us warm, not to mention looking “normal”. (Factoid: one’s hair begins to fall out 15 days after the first treatment, and is gone, gone, gone by day 17.)

Linda thanked me for spending the day with her. Well, I can tell you, it was no sacrifice. For one thing, it never goes astray to spend time with Linda, who is wise and fun and an excellent role model for many things (singing, gardening and mastering trust spring to mind). But there is also magic in the oncology department—being in the presence of science at its leading edge, of a profound commitment to health and well-being, of goodwill, respect and empathy.

How can spending a day immersed in the evidence of humankind at its best be anything but time well spent?

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