By Gideon Schneider
October 16, 2008
Trapped on the Northern Line between Tottenham Court Road and Goodge Street, the passengers pricked up their ears as the driver's weary voice broke through the void. "Please mind the gap between the high cost of your ticket and the appallingly low standard of service you are getting." Or rather, that's what I heard him say in my half-awake, wholly indignant state.
What I think he actually said was that signal failure up ahead would have my co-passengers and me sharing the tunnel with London's rats, the smell of the unwashed masses and a verbally abusive drunk for the next 10 minutes of our lives.
Technical faults in my own body meant that mutated cells had begun to gather together in my neck some months back. This was not a planned closure, and as such I felt claustrophobically trapped by the impending restrictions on my day-to-day life. But the PET/CT scan I undertook provided some comfort, when finally it was determined that the cancer had not spread past my neck. The diagnosis of stage 2a of Hodgkin's disease felt like a single station closure to me. I'd certainly be inconvenienced, but I would reach my destination of full health sooner than I feared.
Like my exhausted London Underground analogy, my energy levels have been severely depleted in the past couple of months. "That's likely the effect of the cancer," Micaela my nurse told me, as my eyelids closed. "The chemotherapy will rectify all of the symptoms of the cancer, but you may not feel the difference since the drugs have their own side-effects."
A list of worst-case scenarios was duly read to me, which I was then asked to sign my name against. I laughed and told Micaela that as long as one of the side-effects wasn't death, I was happy to go ahead. Looking sombre for a moment, she said: "Don't laugh, we have to be realistic. There is a remote possibility that if you develop a fever during treatment that we cannot control, you could die."
Talking of laughing matters, I'm rather ticklish and this didn't make my bone-marrow test easy for the doctor who had to search my hip for the correct incision point. The examination was to confirm that the cancer had not spread to my bone marrow. The doctor couldn't tell me that it wouldn't hurt, because it did. A lot. Local anaesthetic was administered to the back of my pelvis before a needle resembling a long nail was eagerly thrust, with all the enthusiasm of a javelin-thrower with his eye on Olympic gold, into the bone. Then a sliver of bone was wrenched out. Perhaps I should have prefaced this by asking the squeamish to "look away now". In any event, expletives flowed freely, followed by apologies for any offence caused.
The peculiar thing about pain is that you only experience it the moment it happens. Emotions can be relived in memory as powerfully as when they first appeared, but the minute that physical pain has subsided, it is hard to imagine the same sensation. So although I was shaken by the experience, it was more to do with the images that flashed through my mind as I considered what had just taken place. But the sliver of bone-sample now sitting in a plastic beaker had been a treasure worth digging up.
Micaela asked me to come back in to the hospital again on the following Tuesday for one final blood test. Chemotherapy weakens the immune system, so it's important that the patient be as healthy as possible before being given the drugs. "I'm concerned about that cold of yours. If the blood tests come back showing you are run down, we may have to delay the start of your treatment." My patience could only stretch so far. The thought of further delays was as gratifying as patiently waiting on the Underground platform for 15 minutes during rush hour, only to find the next train too packed to board. Thankfully, the blood tests came back normal, and, even more importantly, the cancer had not spread to my bone marrow.
The next day I was to start chemotherapy. It was like being strapped in to a rollercoaster. I was filled with dread as well as a longing for the unfamiliar ride to start.
The best thing is that so many people have chosen to come along with me for the ride. I've been inundated with well wishes and messages of support, and in the five weeks before Yom Kippur, £10,000 was raised for Chai Cancer Care through my website.
Gideon Schneider, who is writing about living with Hodgkin's lymphoma in the JC and on our website, is raising money for Chai Cancer Care. See www.justgiving.com/gideonschneider