Up Front by Emma Hart


I Walk the Line

There is a line on the floor at Christchurch hospital, a yellow line with daffodils on it. Here it is, blurrily stretching into a distance of institutional corridor. Every time I walk it – which is every day – I'm reminded of my Oncology Privilege. Only oncology patients get a line. Everyone else has to deal with the literally unreasonable warren which is that hospital without that help. 

It makes a certain amount of sense, of course. Who else is coming in here every day? Twenty days so far, and ten to go, though I get weekends and Waitangi Day off. There is a point where we have to leave the line, at the stairs, and head down to the oddly-named "Lower Ground" floor, but the line is waiting for us down there too. I wave my bar-code under the reader to let them know I've arrived, and enter the waiting room. 

There are always some familiar faces and some different ones. Our appointments are scattered randomly throughout each day. There are volunteer drivers, and women from the Cancer Society cheerfully offering people cups of really vile coffee. There's a bin of communal knitting and a table where a jigsaw is always being done; some indication of how much time people spend in here. There's a camaraderie of strangers. At this time of year, at least the mostly-windowless depths of the hospital are blessedly cool. There's free wi-fi but no cellphone coverage, so I can get Twitter and cricket scores but no texts or phone calls, which is pretty much perfect. 

So I go in to Treatment Three, and they check how and who I am before bolting my head to the table. Sometimes the mask is really tight, and the pressure on the back of my head makes me acutely aware of the sore spots on my scalp that tell me exactly where the beams are going in. Those must be the places where the hair in my comb every morning used to live. 

Someone on Twitter asked me if I could smell the radiation yet. A couple of weeks in, I realised what she meant. There's a coppery sensation around my soft palate. I don't know whether to call it a smell or a taste. I wonder if there's something directly stimulating that part of my brain. You analyse the experience because there's nothing else to do when you can't so much as open your eyelids. There's just machinery moving around you, and the bed moving, and then that sound I have grown to hate, that makes me reflexively cringe. 

A week or so ago, I was feeling pretty cocky. This wasn't as bad as I was expecting. About mid-week, everything hit at once. Today I will take eleven pills to deal with the symptoms of the treatment that is making me ill in order to make me well. I wonder how it feels to the people who work here. They know they're helping people, but what they see is people coming in reasonably well, and leaving very sick indeed. They're unfailingly patient, positive, and kind. They say very nice things about my tattoos. 

So while I know I'm supposed to be positive, all the time, no matter what, this is not a great experience. I have been told that "shithouse" is not an acceptable medical term for how I feel when I wake up in the morning, before I take my meds. 

I don't want to dwell on the shithouseness of it either, though, which makes talking about all this awkward and difficult. Part of the camaraderie of oncology, I think, is that we all know we're not going to casually ask "How are you?" or "So, what are you doing today?" with no discernable interest in the answer. ("My standard reply to "How are you?" is now "Hi." It makes no difference.) 

So what I do want to do is say thank you. Thank you to my treatment team, for continuing to treat me like a functioning adult. Thank you to my family, for picking up the not-inconsiderable slack and easing the pressure on me. Thank you to my friends, who invite me out and offer me rides and send me presents and sometimes are just there, making me laugh. Thank you to the guy who bought me Sky for Christmas, for those days when I can only lie on the couch. Thank you to the Black Caps for cheering me up no end through my treatment. I have been assured by many people that they're only doing it for me. And thank you to all The Isis Knot donors. You've eased a time of considerable stress for me, and made me feel useful and valued, even on those days when I can only lie on the couch. 

People. They're pretty fucking awesome.

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