As you can imagine, my return to the Ruth Myles Unit was accompanied by an enormous sense of déjà-vu, having previously made the ward my home for the best part of 13 months between October 2005 and January 2007.
This is reinforced by a number of familiar faces on the staff: SuperLee, Nelly and Banoo as senior nurses, Daphne the senior sister, Julie the matron, Angela the healthcare assistant, Shirley the pharmacist and Jo on the day unit all give a reassuring sense of continuity, as does my consultant Fenella. After all, they were among those who looked after me and helped me get through the first battle; although I would never have doubted the ability of a completely new team to do the same this time around, it is comforting when Lee, for example, tells me she remembers that I always used to spike every time I had chemo last time, too.
As for the new recruits (who aren’t necessarily all that new; but compared to a veteran such as me…), they are more than capable of filling the gaps left from last time, and there are promising signs they are rapidly getting to know my, ahem, foibles – today I put my head down after breakfast and was left to sleep until midday… Hurrah!
Psychologically speaking, there is a huge difference between finding out you have cancer for the first time (at the age of 23, no less, although there’s no good age) and learning that it has returned. In 2005, it was mindblowing. I had recently finished university, moved to London and started my career at Literary Review. I was ready for an adventure – nay, many adventures – and to make my way in the world. I got my adventure, but it wasn’t one I would ever have predicted. At the time, cancer was a nasty, all-too-prevalent illness, as I knew intimately from my mother’s fight, but it wasn’t anything my friends or I would ever even have contemplated happening to us.
And, strange as it may sound, it did feel like an adventure. Each week brought some other extravagantly named chemo drug or medical procedure; they may not have been comfortable or pleasant, but by ‘eck they were interesting. Not knowing how each new step would feel or how I would react left me with an open, accepting mind, ready to just see what happened and react accordingly.
This time, eight years later, the news was far less of a surprise. Although I passed the five-years-from-the-end-of-treatment milestone in February this year, I always knew there was a decent chance the leukaemia would come back. Naturally this wasn’t something that concerned me day to day, and as a result I’ve lived a fabulous life since the first battle without constantly worrying about how long I could enjoy the freedom.
My first thought was probably: “Bugger.” My next was something along the lines of: “Here we go again.” Among all my thoughts Mariacristina was prominent, but I’ll talk about her in part 2.
On the one hand, having done this before takes away the sense of adventure this time. It feels less like a voyage of discovery, as in many ways I know far more about what to expect. Sometimes I even have to remind the nurses to explain a particular drug / treatment, as it’s actually been quite a long time since I was given / underwent it – for them it still seems fairly recent. Odd as it may sound, the novelty of chemo has worn off.
On the other hand, though, my natural curiosity and instinct to wait and see what happens – rather than assume, or take things for granted – is still beating strong, and the treatment plan this time around is undoubtedly different. Last time the chemo was dragged out over a long time in an effort to hunt down all the last leukaemic cells, with the aim of getting rid of them all. This time, the bone marrow transplant is the definite aim, and the chemo is more intensive but over a far shorter term, as the aim is to get me into remission for the BMT. Unchartered territory for me…
I’m far more aware of the fight ahead, but having beaten the ALL once, I can’t help but think I’m pretty well equipped to do so again. It’ll be tougher, but I’m bigger and uglier, too.
I realise there is an elephant in my post that I have mostly ignored; it is of course the biggest defining change in my life, which in so many ways has turned the challenge completely upside down. I’ll write about me and Mariacristina next time.