Undertaking chemotherapy in a Western clinical setting involves either a converted hospital cubicle with vinyl padded recliners or a purpose built facility. At St John of God Bunbury Hospital, the former is on offer until the new premises become available in March, 2013.
In each four bed ward, there is space for one support person, a pump and stand for intravenous bags of anti-nausea premeds and chemo drugs, a curtain and a television. There are apparently great opportunities for friendship. ( This was promoted by my initial consulting breast surgeon, as a potential positive outcome, along with having a coffee downtown post chemo to celebrate). I barely contained my despair at his lack of emotional connectivity. I am already blessed with many deep and meaningful relationships and chemotherapy did not mark an opportunity for a recruitment drive. Greg and I met with the oncologist to ‘walk’ through the process, drug regime and possible side effects. My blood work had confirmed that my levels were all within normal range, with a slight elevation in my liver function. My heart worked within normal parameters. I was according to all measures, healthy and functioning well. I didn’t need tests to validate what my spirit knew. This wellbeing would be stripped from all of my cells. I soon would feel ghastly in a way I had never experienced.
We walked the corridor to the oncology clinic, in silence. We were greeted by a fresh faced nurse, who weighed me and settled me into a blue padded chair. Premeds, steriods and anti-nausea drugs were administered, then the first 500ml of Docetaxel, followed by 1 litre of Cyclophosphamide and then additional 500ml of Docetaxel.
I had come prepared determined to undertake a healing visualisation whilst having Docetaxel a cytotoxic chemical which was known to in some people, to have an immediate allergic reaction. This required an emergency reversal, stabilisation and then reapplication at reduced infusions. A reaction was potentially life threatening.
I had come equipped with my IPod brimming with guided healing visualisations, and a fist full of healing psalms and prayers which was my strategy to remain calm during the infusion of the toxic chemical Docetaxel. I was glad that I had thought ahead, something that is innate for a child of violence.
In the chair beside me sat a horse trainer who had converted his 2.5 X 1.5 metre square space into an office. In a voice reminiscent of years of tobacco abuse and swallowed steel filings he made bets via TAB online and responded to his mobile with the ‘race call’ phone tone with a heightened sense of self-importance, immune to the impact of doing do,on the remaining three of us.
Across from me, sat a woman in a pretty floral beaded headscarf. Her face betrayed her loneliness, grief and anger. I smiled once or twice so that I could see her down turned smile flick upwards at the corners. She was without support, mesmerised by her iPhone as if it could substitute human kindness, before she abandoned it to surrender to sleep as her poison was injected into the port in her chest. In contrast, Greg’s hold on my hand never wavered. I was washed with deep sadness for this woman.
The remaining chair was occupied by a thin pale man whose facial and head hair had started to regrow. He told the nurse that he missed his work in the stock yards and that he once proudly sported a long beard to match the tattoos etched across his arms, neck and hands. His poison came in a black bag, and while Harvey Norman proclaimed in a broad Australian accent that 50 months interest free could not last past the weekend, he was infused with his second last treatment.
While a thin curtain separated the cubicles, it was not permitted to draw the curtain as this blocked the nurses’ view of the various machines so privacy was not available. This manufactured collaborative experience was not in congruence with individuals who wished to not listen to commercialised television, personal chatter or to explore new friendships.
Perhaps in a parallel universe, there is a centre where administration of chemotherapy is undertaken in a space of beauty, that is tranquil, fragrant with flowers, plants and essential oils, where healing and acceptance are evoked by method and management care. A place where you choose, your visualisation, fragrant oil, music and experience. Or better still, a future, where the use of chemotherapy has been long since abandoned, shamefully dissected in academic review of the history of cancer treatment, and like the Holocaust, reviewed against ignorance, inhumanity, greed and destruction.