Mostly I can deal with it, tune it out, get on with it and accept the whole package of being a patient with a lot more graciousness than I felt today, but sometimes, just sometimes, it really gets to me and I want to stop playing this game, this lottery game of fear and uncertainty called cancer. Then I remember that this is just the way it is, there won't ever be a way to get off this particular merry-go-round, and life is a bitch.
I'm normally much better at tackling things than I am today, I don't normally do low, I don't usually let things get to me like this. It wasn't anyone's fault. The hospital staff were perfectly pleasant, in fact the Consultant I saw was completely lovely, and even gave me some really encouraging news. It was me. Today I struggled to do positive, happy and upbeat, I failed dismally at looking on the bright side or finding something absurd about the whole thing to laugh at, I just didn't do the whole patient thing well at all.
It was a test day rather than a treatment day. I was with the clinician who conducted the test for nearly an hour, in very close, bodily contact as they have to dig deeply into my flesh with a probe and drag it to various points, each time digging harder until I wanted to scream with the pain. Maybe I'm just a wuss. I was never told her name, even though she knew mine. I had to undress, and she couldn't find the surgical gowns to at least give a pretence to modesty and dignity. I was half-naked, revealing the ugly disfiguring shark-bite scar where a breast used to be, while she rummaged in cupboards looking for the missing gowns. That hideous twelve-inch scar that scooped all the flesh out right down to the breastbone and rib-cage that even now, nearly two years after surgery, I can't face in the mirror without dissolving into flood of tears.
Eventually I was handed a gown, but by then it was too late, I would have to spend the next nearly-an-hour swallowing hard to stop those wretched tears from revealing my true vulnerability. I had to lie, stock-still, on the bed, all the time trying to tune out the joint pain that wanted to tear me apart. Hips, knees, back, elbows, wrists, knuckles, they all wanted a pain party today. My surgery has left a legacy of gnawing pins and needles and numbness in both arms and fingers, which was made worse by the permanent nerve damage caused by chemotherapy. Lying still for what seems like forever means the pins and needles fizzle away like crazy until it feels I'm on fire. I began to think I would never be able to move again. Maybe I've just got a low pain threshold.
Every now and again, I was asked to take in a slow deep breath and hold it. It would be so helpful if clinicians would remember to tell you when it's OK to breathe out again, but they often forget. Today I thought I was going to suffocate several times over. There were curtains around the bed, but they didn't quite meet in the middle, and directly opposite there were staff lockers, and it must have been staff break time, with me and my scar providing the peep-show entertainment.
Normally, I manage to keep a perspective on things, normally I just remind myself how lucky and blessed I am to live in a country with free health-care, and at a time when the treatments on offer will keep me alive for longer than has ever been possible before. Not today. Today I was pissed-off, resentful, miserable and withdrawn.
Being a patient is so much more than just turning up and letting them do whatever has to be done in terms of tests and treatments. The psychology is complex, and there is a whole set of assumptions and expectations that you feel compelled to conform to, even when you really don't want to. I'm a patient, therefore I'm expected to be weak, passive, willing to co-operate, grateful, gracious and submissive. As a patient it's really hard to hold on to your identity, personality, dignity and privacy. It feels like I'm reduced to a hospital number who has to be processed. It really doesn't matter how kind, compassionate, caring and sensitive the staff are, it's almost impossible to be "me" when I'm with them.
It's the same in the outside world. Having cancer, particularly the incurable variety that I've got, inevitably sets you apart from everyone else. It's so easy to become defined by cancer, to let who you really are to be squashed and crushed by other people's reactions. I've spent the past nearly two years fighting against these stereotypes, and I've done it fairly successfully so that people know that the "me" is still alive and kicking and living life to the fullest.
I've kept a blog, starred in the Stage Play of my cancer story, written a book, spoken at conferences, run Laughter Yoga sessions, and kept countless other interests and activities going strong, all at least partly so I remain much more than just a person with cancer. People sometimes tell me I'm marvellous, inspiring, courageous and brave, but I so am not any of those things. I just don't want to be written off, side-lined, ignored, depersonalised or reduced to a pathetic shadow of a person. I want to be engaged, dancing, laughing, involved, enmeshed in life, because that way, I'll stay alive in the only way that matters. I don't want half a life, I don't want to be passive and poorly and get smothered in sympathy. I want to be me.
Sometimes, just sometimes, the facade drops and I'm left exposed, so exposed that even I have to see what's really going on. I have cancer. It's incurable. Hospital tests and treatments are now, and will always be an integral part of my lifestyle until the day I die.
Cancer has robbed me of energy, cancer brings me low when I look at the To Do list and the dozens of little tasks that have been left undone around the house for months, and the admin mountain and the washing and the keeping the kitchen and bathroom clean, and I know I just can't do it all any more. The exhaustion. The bone-tiredness that descends like a cloud and I fight it like hell. The running on empty. Cancer has taken so much and will continue to want more and more. I will not let it take away the "me" though. I will not be crushed under the weight of this awful disease.
I will not be patient, even though I have to learn to be a patient. I doubt I'll ever be a good one though.