Coming off chemotherapy means this really is a happy new year


By Gideon Schneider
January 8, 2009
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Healthy people are a fascinating species, I observed, as the euphoric crowd on Waterloo Bridge raised its collective voice, counting down from 10, willing on the approach of 2009. Untainted by illness, their unquestioning reliance on the infallibility of their bodies gives them an enviable innocence. For me, the cancer cat was out the bag and I doubted I would ever take my health for granted again.

I stood on the bridge jostling for space with a group of teetering teenagers who, swigging the dregs of their Carlsberg bottles, swayed and fell into each other (and a few startled bystanders), giddy grins slapped across their flushed faces.

Next to them, a group of thirtysomethings, up from Croydon, festooned in fuchsia feather boas and glittery cowboy hats, were displaying more flesh than a butcher’s window and murdering the chorus of Rihanna’s Umbrella.

A gathering of Italian students looked on, horrified by the antics of the brassy women in pink — English classes back home had been no preparation for this culture shock.

While I, between thoughts of how much taxpayers’ money was about to explode across the London skyline, found my mind racing back over the past five months of biopsies, diagnoses, blood tests, drugs, nausea, worry and stress.

I remembered my first panicked session with Yara, my counsellor at the Chai Cancer Care centre, who calmly guided me through those confusing early days. I had surprised myself with how philosophical I had managed to be about my condition, taking to heart the idea that you play the hand you’re dealt.

I thought about all the good wishes I had received from friends and colleagues and felt astounded by the £12,000 in donations that poured in for my charity appeal. I remembered how the last month of chemotherapy had been particularly taxing with severe bouts of sickness and my will to go on badly battered.

I thought about how my favourite foods had tasted metallic and how my waistline had shrunk to an extent that Vogue readers can only dream of.

And as the crowd chanted “10, nine, eight…” and 2008 raced to a close, I thought how all these things were now consigned to the past, as the next phase of my treatment was soon to begin. Two weeks ago, my first glass of orange juice in five months was more of a treat than any vintage champagne could have been.

It was a suitable beverage to toast my good news — chemotherapy had eradicated all signs of cancer from my body. Now tasting as it did before treatment started, I had palpable evidence my life was getting back to normal.

“We’ll start you on a month of daily radiotherapy in January which will help make sure the cancer doesn’t return,” my consultant, Professor Goldstone, had told me, but the rest of his words were drowned out by my sobbing, an unstoppable expression of the relief I felt — I was through with chemo!

“Six, five, four…” someone yelled in my ear. A cascade of thoughts tumbled through my mind in those final few seconds before the end of the year. There had been moments in those hellish last weeks of treatment when I couldn’t shake the feeling of hopelessness. Almost on autopilot, I kept returning to the hospital for my bimonthly treatments, despite the anxiety that gripped me every time I got any where near the doors of the ward.

“It’s a good thing you’ve kept on coming here, because some people get so depressed that they try to skip treatments,” Becky, my nurse, told me on one occasion.

I had looked round the ward and felt a warm camaraderie with the other patients, all hooked up to their respective drugs. Now I was leaving their ranks. The path had been cleared for my imminent return to the world of wellness. I had escaped the pull of that black hole of despair and now had the luxury of worrying about how I would adjust to life in the new year without a regimen of check-ups.

There are 10 seconds at the end of each year when strangers standing on a wind-swept bridge feel unified by the hope of a better future. Some yearn for financial stability, some wish for world peace, some pray that Jonathan Ross might this year bless Britain by choosing to retire.

In that final countdown, shuddering from the cold, I felt a sense of accomplishment for beating cancer and coming out stronger for it. I certainly didn’t regret the past few months or see them as wasted. On the contrary, I felt privileged for surviving the experience, having had the opportunity to see what I was made of. And I resolved to treasure every moment of 2009.

Those intoxicated teenagers swaying next to me may have had their carefree innocence, but I had a meaningful appreciation of the value of my restored health.

“Three, two, one,” Carol from Croydon belted out as she lunged for her nearest neighbour; me, smothering me in a wet kiss. If I could survive cancer, I thought, I could certainly survive this.

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