By Gideon Schneider
November 20, 2008
Claire circles the room and hones in on the unfamiliar face. She approaches. "I've put you on the list and will be back when I'm finished with my regulars." I'm attending a chemotherapy session at University College Hospital in London. Claire is there to offer patients complementary therapies while the drugs kick in. For anyone sceptical about the benefits, her warm smile is enough to melt all doubts.
"Get your feet out," she says to Jenny, the 29-year-old girl seated next to me in the out-patient ward. Jenny slides off her striped socks to reveal metallic pink toenails. The two women chat about how Jenny - who was recently diagnosed with cervical cancer - has been getting on since last week's chemo session. Claire places the patient's feet - pink toenails and all - in her lap and begins to massage them. Reflexology stimulates blood circulation round the body. But, more importantly, it relaxes Jenny as potent drugs are dripped into her veins.
As I offer Jenny a Rolo, she tells me that the hardest thing about her diagnosis was realising that she won't be able to carry a baby. She delayed addressing her cancer in order to undergo IVF treatment to store her eggs. Her mum, engrossed in the Times crossword puzzle, has been by her side throughout all her hospital visits. Jenny has also been amazed by how supportive her boyfriend of four months has been. She's relieved that the side-effects haven't been as terrifying as she feared.
"I'm usually really nauseous for the first few days after chemo, but then by the weekend I'm well enough to go out with my friends, which makes me feel like everything will go back to normal when all this is over."
Claire - who is employed by the Sam Buxton Sunflower Healing Trust, a charity set up by the parents of 10 year-old boy who died of leukaemia - finishes the massage and turns to me as my nurse hooks up the next drug to my intra-venous line. Struck by a sudden, hideous realisation, I become apologetic. She would have to go from handling Jenny's pedicured toes to kneading my ugly man-feet. As I slip off my shoes I begin to sweat. But Claire's smile reassures me that she's glad to be giving me the treatment.
Jenny and I continue to talk about our experiences. We both agree that the worst part was the anticipation before starting treatment. Neither of us is bothered about the prospect of losing our hair and we've both had awful experiences trying to claim benefits. There's a sense of camaraderie in the room. Everybody understands what the other patients are going through. The mood is upbeat and I sense it's because mostly we all feel like a group of fighters, not sufferers. We're an exclusive, members-only club - I'm proud to belong.
As I put away my tenderised toes, Mirella, who is 79, sits down for chemotherapy in the chair opposite. In her heavy Italian accent she tells me that she had come to London in June to stay in her holiday home and escape the sun.Momentarily amused by the idea of Finchley as a holiday getaway, I'm brought round by the details of her diagnosis - when she began feeling sick the blood tests revealed she had bone-marrow leukaemia. Her doctor asked her if she wanted to proceed with medical intervention since, at her age, success rates are lower. Of course she wanted to proceed, she told me. She had financial affairs that needed to be put in order.
She winks and says: "I don't want the taxman getting his hands on my beautiful homes."
She's a devout Roman Catholic and believes that her days alive are pre-ordained. Because of this she isn't concerned about the outcome of the treatment and is keen to make the most of her time.
Treatment's done and I hand my last Rolo to Becky, my nurse. "I've got a boyfriend you know. I'm not sure he'd approve of me taking your last Rolo." She eats the chocolate anyway, and I leave the ward asking Jenny to save my seat for next time.