17/05/16: The air feels soft and warm on my exposed skin. The sunlight hovers like a firefly just outside of my window inviting me to kick off my duvet, so I do.
I clamber from my bed stretching and yawning and take a long, deep satisfying breath.
I pull back my curtains then gently take my body through some yoga stretches that my kindhearted friend, who knows about these things, has selected for me to help keep my mastectomy site supple during the radiation.
Greedily I shovel in my sweet, sticky porridge and gulp down hot mouthfuls of rich, dark coffee- the first and always the best of my day. They both smell and taste so wonderful that I’m reminded to thank my lucky stars for what seems such a simple pleasure and one that I have taken so much for granted…before.
I’m settled into this routine now. It feels good.
I’m sleeping easily these days. It feels so good.
I wake each morning feeling refreshed and it feels just sooooo damn good.
Each weekday morning I set off walking the two miles to the town centre to board my cancer charity bus that takes me to the city hospital, where my radiotherapy treatment awaits me.
On the bus I chat with other club members.
Members of this here cancer club.
Members of this ‘our’ all inclusive, non gender specific nor racially biased-anyone can join no matter what your age, zero to one hundred club.
It’s busy here…sadly.
Once again I shed my ‘civvy’ skin, slipping easily back into my blue and white cotton stripes. I take a seat, green plastic shopping basket at my feet, in this now familiar waiting room within a waiting room and I ponder on just how exactly, on this planet or any other for that matter, the whole cancer thing can be happening to me at all-‘surreal’ barely touches it.
New people are arriving in a constant flow at this old building, in this busy, busy radiography department.
New people are arriving in a constant flow for their unique fittings and their first treatments.
New people are arriving in a constant flow and you can tell that they are new-they’re wearing the ‘rabbit caught in headlights’ look and are accompanied by a uniform clad individual.
The staff are good like that here, ease you in gently, hand hold you on your fitting and first session. Talk you through step by step, removing some of the unknown from this quite frankly, unnerving experience.
But me…well I’m an old hand at this now. Tomorrow will be my tenth session-that means I’ll be half way through…it has passed quickly.
I keep bumping into women here in this sprawling city sanatorium that I met whilst undergoing chemotherapy, in our toy-town hospital.
We are all still at different places along the treatment pathway but we do now have one key thing in common. One thing we all share in and that’s our utter joy at no longer having to endure the trials of chemotherapy.
We natter and chatter about how we are feeling.
We compare hair regrowth, texture and colour or in my case lack of.
We confer on matters of lashes and brows.
We are all smiles.
It is so good to see these women, these soldiers of war.
These are my comrades, my breast buddies.
These are the women that walked through the No Mans Land of chemo alongside me, treading down and beating back a path together with our learned and shared experience.
Our greetings have moved from the tentative acknowledgement of a sister in arms in those quiet early days of chemotherapy, to these bold, warm blooded broad smiles of genuine affection here in our countdown days of radiotherapy.
We’re genuinely so pleased to see another and another of our ranks arrive here, at this the final tour of duty, this last stop before home.
We share in the deep joy of chemo-done. We are the knowers of post chemo happiness. We are the definition of relief.
My attention is caught quite suddenly by a familiar, unfamiliar sound. Familiar because it is the small high pitch sound of a child. Unfamiliar because it is a sound I don’t associate with my time on this run away cancer train of mine.
The tiny chirruping of an infant voice seems incongruous here in this setting. To see this small soul sitting in her pushchair waiting alongside me and the rest of the much older inhabitants which go to make up the demographic of the waiting room is disconcerting.
I watch her, mesmerised.
I watch her, paralysed.
She chatters and chirps with a woman I assume to be her mother whilst popping orange puffed snacks into her mouth one after another in quick succession. The brightly coloured fallout dust stains her tiny fingers and covers her munching mouth.
She leans conspiratorially toward one of the two specialist children’s hospital staff that are flanking her, only to confess to having ‘cheesy’ breath and then bursting into giggles.
The staff offer her chocolate, announce that they have- in the nick of time- managed to find the CD of her favourite music from ‘Frozen’ and produce a small ‘Pepper Pig’ toy, to accompany her during her radiotherapy.
I contemplate this innocent, this little angel, so full of life. She bears the familiar chemo ‘halo’ and etched deeply in the back of her tiny fragile skull are two vertical scars, a couple of inches apart, a few inches long…evidence of more horror that she has endured.
I feel a deep shame rise up from my gut for all the times I’ve felt pissed off with the impact of my treatment.
I knew about children and cancer, of course I did.
I’ve seen them on the news…
I’ve seen them in films and heard via a friend…of a friend…of a friend but this is different…
Seeing this child, not much more than a baby, I feel little pieces of my heart break off and plunge like a coastal cliff face, its resilience undermined by continual erosion.
Seeing this parent brightly smiling, reassuring her tiny offspring, her legacy, her heart-it is truly humbling.
I feel a deep shame rise up from my gut for all the times I have let my grumpiness win over.
How can it be right that this tiny creature is facing such ugliness as this before even experiencing any of life’s real beauty.
But like children do, she is simply accepting of her life’s lot. She plays happily, talking about school and lunch and of the various professional adults who are part of her young life and as she enters the radiotherapy suite at her turn I hear her chuckle at something the nurse has said.
A loud clanging from across the room breaks my thoughts and turns my head as I see another beautiful soul finish this part of her treatment.
She’s a breast cancer patient too, I’ve chatted to her before.
I know she’s finished her treatment because she’s ringing the bell. It’s a quirky but lovely symbol we’ve nicked from our American cousins. They’re far more relaxed about celebrating achievement and public displays of emotion than we British.
She rings the bell, like so many have done before her.
She rings the bell and poses for a picture.
She rings the bell and we all clap.
She rings the bell and her loving partner holds her, enveloping her in the most heartfelt embrace I’ve ever seen. He’s clearly moved by the significance of this bell ringing and his obvious relief, love and empathy for his partner is tangible, sweeping through this clinical waiting room like an emotional Mexican Wave.
It is quite incredible.
As I battle to keep my emotion from spilling over, my chest tight from the effort, I count five others around me brushing away tears from their eyes, their cheeks, their chins.
We are a room united in release…in acknowledgement…in hope.
And for the first time in such a long time, I begin to feel a fluttering of excitement, deep deep deep inside of me. I feel the fluttering of something that feels like the beginnings of change.
…and I know my time here with this community is coming to a close.
…and I know the time to rejoin my real life once more is drawing near.