A year ago today, I woke up, and didn’t go to work. I was on the start of my sick leave. I’d been told to take the week off, just to get used to the treatment and see how I felt. If I felt OK the following week, then yes I was welcome to go into the office. So that morning, I woke up and I took my first lot of chemotherapy tablets, which was Capecitabine. Radiotherapy also started that day, so that morning me and my parent’s drove over to St Luke’s Cancer Centre for my first dose. It was all pretty quick really. We parked; I went in, signed in and got my photo taken for their records. I then walked into the waiting room for my treatment room. I was met by a room full of faces – men, all over the age of 50. I felt so out place I didn’t really know what to do with myself. There were polite smiles and the curious looks. I probably looked like the helpful daughter, taking one of my parent’s to radiotherapy. That morning I’d dressed up and made sure I had plenty of slap on. I wanted everything as normal as possible.
Then right on schedule, I was called by one of the radiotherapy radiographers. A Scottish woman, smiley and chatty. She took me through to the treatment room, which was huge. It was like something you see in a film. A large, white, clinical room with a great big scanner in the middle of it. There were also a lot of people – which I wasn’t expecting. There was a team of about 4, sometimes more. Over the next five weeks I’d get to know them all, and have a giggle with them. I had to find humour in it somewhere because every morning, I’d say hello, have a chat, mostly about how I was feeling, and then I’d have to climb up on the scanner and get my bum out. They’d line me up, using the marks I’d had put on my backside with the scanner, to make sure the radiotherapy would zap the right parts of me. Listening to them, I sometimes felt like I was in Star Trek. All radiographer speak for “up a bit” “down a bit” I’m in position, are you?” There’d occasionally be lots of pushing me around the table trying to line me up. I’d have to lay perfectly still, on my front throughout the whole process. It got easier the more I went. I started to relax, and on days when my energy levels were gone, I’d fall asleep.
The first time I had radiotherapy I remember laying there listening to Ronan Keating. When the scanner kicked in and I was raised up into the air I wondered if I’d be able to feel the radiotherapy. I didn’t though. When it was over, I pulled my trousers up, put my boots on and was given some instructions on washing, looking after my skin and any problems to ring them.
When I went back into the waiting room, it had all changed. This time I wasn’t the helpful daughter taking a parent for radiotherapy. This time I was me, the patient. They all knew why I was there and I felt embarrassed suddenly, and didn’t want them to see me. When I went back into the room, no one would look at me. My mum told me that when I was called, there was some sighing and shaking of heads. One even said “that’s too young, she shouldn’t be here”. It never really got any easier sitting in that waiting room. None of them ever spoke to me, but would often speak to my mum and dad once I was in the treatment room.
When I was going through treatment I used to daydream about the future. I’d wonder what I’d be doing February 2012. Would I be through the treatment and back at work? Would I be fighting the illness somehow? Would I be alive? It all went through my mind.
I didn’t imagine that I’d be back at work, and experiencing a similar experience to the radiotherapy waiting room experience. So far I’ve done three full working days. In those three days, I’ve probably spoken properly to four people. There are about twenty people on the floor I work on. Some I have worked with for years, and others I’ve never met before. I thought coming back would be easier than this. I didn’t imagine one colleague who I have worked with and drank/eaten with to look straight through me, like I wasn’t even stood in front of him. I don’t feel like I belong here. I thought it would be so much easier to go back to my old life.
So, when a very lovely woman told me to mourn my old life, every aspect of it, she was talking sense. I didn’t understand it at the time. I just saw it as a sickness, which had messed up my plans. It goes deeper than that though. I’m sat in my old office, on a road, I’ve walked up and down hundreds of times, I know the cafes and shops. I know the best tube barrier to go through. I know which road to cut through to bypass the people with clipboards. It all looks and feels so familiar, but it’s like I’m behind a screen. I can see it all, but I can’t quite touch it.
My confidence has gone. The job I used to do and love feels alien. I find it difficult being in a room with people, and several different conversations going on around me. I can’t remember any of my login details. My desk is so tidy it’s un natural. I don’t know how to do office banter anymore. I feel like I’ve lost my sense of humour. I feel clumsy and awkward just making a drink in the kitchen and bumping into someone from the office. I watch the kitchen, and try to make myself a drink once everyone around me has sorted themselves out with a drink. I wish I could stand up and ask the five people sat around me if they wanted a tea or coffee. Then there’s hometime. I find the energy from somewhere to get up and drag myself to the station to get home. But before the illness I used to work silly hours, and went out socially. I didn’t need to be at home much, which suited me fine as I didn’t want to be at home. There’s reasons for it. But for a long time, home wasn’t my first choice. But now it is my first choice, but only because it has to be. Sat on the train the other day I realised I didn’t want to be at work or at home. I just wanted to be out, somewhere, doing something, maybe just walking, like I used to. Suddenly I feel very small in a very big world and I’m not sure where I should be.
I think I do have to mourn my old life. Nothing quite slots into place anymore. Even people now don’t quite fit. There’s the good friends who have left me speechless at times, due to their support and kindness, and then other times, I’ve wondered about some, how we were ever friends in the first place. The other night I looked at one of my cat’s and I realised the cats don’t know what’s happened and treat me exactly how they have always treated me. Like their servant.
I’m very aware that I need to mourn the old stuff. I need to put away photos and keep my diaries. But I also need to move on. I’ve been given a second chance. I forget that sometimes. I guess this time next year; I might be in a really different place. Hopefully by then I’ll be moaning about all the tea I make in the office, and how no one ever makes me one.