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Friday, January 13, 2012

Oncologist 3

Eight days after Chemo, I think I should be feeling better but it's not to be. I want to chronicle this because it seems that it's taking that little bit longer to feel tickety-boo after each intoxination (is there such a word?)

I wake with pain through my legs and make the mistake of taking two Nurofen. Immediately I get heartburn and lie in bed feeling generally lousy.

In the morning I do some housework. Then I go to the doctor as I'm told I need a referral from a GP to Dr Choo in order to continue to receive my medical benefits. It's such a system, really. With comprehensive medical insurance that I've had for at least 25 years, you'd think these things would be easy!

Al has had to go up to Mooloolaba and, because Harry needs my car, I ring my sister Nicky and ask her to drive me to the Hospital. Bless her, she makes herself available without any fuss and soon, we are driving in.

If nothing else, it's a good chance to catch up with her as we haven't spoken since Christmas Day.

When we arrive, 10 minutes early, the waiting room is packed. It's a good thing we are both keen conversationalists as we are able to flit from one subject to another as we wait... and wait.

My appointment is for 2.30 pm but I don't get into see Poh See until 4.10 pm.

What I like about my oncologist is that she never rushes but will patiently and thoroughly answer any question I have. She answers every call on her mobile phone and will never say "I'm with some one, I'll ring you back." She addresses her patients as if they are intelligent and worth her time.

It's Nicky who later observes afterwards that my oncologist must lead a life of barely holding it together. Her shirt is creased, her hair barely tended, her face free of make up. These frivolous concerns must be unimportant in a world where your job is to keep people alive but, we bet. she also has to do the cooking, cleaning and laundry at home.

As it is, I have a very informative conversation with Dr Choo, and it's helpful that Nicky is there as my sister has an avid mind and a great curiosity for everything.

Firstly, I want to know about my menopause symptoms, what else to expect. Here is what I'm told.

Menopause mainly comprises the symptoms of hot flushes, mood swings, the loss of bone density (over time), increasing issues with vascular health (i.e. cholesterol) and vaginal dryness.

Obviously, each of these symptoms has ramifications of its own so I'm concerned about how long they last.

Dr Choo explains the persistency of symptoms varies from woman to woman and is dependent on the amount of oestrogen that remains in the system after treatment is over. In other words, it's the luck of the draw.

My mother sailed through menopause so I'm hoping it'll be the same for me.

The great news I take out from this is that, while menopause symptoms are intensified in women undergoing chemo, the whole process will be substantially shortened compared to 'normal' based on my age.

One other good effect of this is that I learn that my platelets are actually up! Yeah! As a chronic anaemic, it is good to know that my poor red blood cells finally have a chance to regroup and make friends with each other.

Antarctica is now officially barren (fingers crossed!) and the overall effect on my eco system may result in more energy in the future.

I ask Dr Choo how long drugs stay in my system, when I can expect other side effects to ease. She tells me that the drugs are expunged from the system fairly soon after treatment but the effects will hang around 2-3 weeks after my final chemo.

Other side effects, such as fatigue may take up to four months to abate.

We move on to the vexing issue of my continued and chronic nausea. Dr Choo says I have an 'anticipatory response'. We discuss possible other interventions, such as psychology. I ask her for a drug I was told about that you can take before you actually arrive at the chemo centre to pre empt the nausea and she writes me a prescription.

I should be done now, but I want to talk about my breast reconstruction and my options. I am thinking of having the other breast removed completely and then waiting a while to heal completely before worrying about perfecting my boobs.

Who needs boobs when you're dealing with vaginal dryness for god's sake!

Nicky is keen to know whether having both breasts off reduces the chance of recurrence, why, after chemotherapy and radiation it is necessary and so on.

What I surmise is that oncologists see every combination and permutation of cases, and of course, in some, recurrence does occur in the other breast.

In my case, I'm not so much concerned about recurrence, but I hate being unysmmetrical.

You have no idea how hideous a single, low hanging Double-D breast looks on its own. It's like that last withering mango that not even the bats are interested in. It's like that lone sock, left on the washing line. You know the one? It's usually discoloured and has a hole in the toe. It's the where you know the matching pair is missing and you wonder how long you will leave it there before you can make the effort of reaching up and unclipping the clothes peg?

Dr Choo tells me something I didn't know before: chemotherapy is only effective in the event that there are malignant cells present. So yes folks, all of the shit in my body could be a complete waste of time. A bit like shooting fish don't you think?

Anyway, that's basically why the norm is to attack cancer on several levels. You can never be too careful.

We should be done but after years of interviewing people, I can't help myself. I ask Dr Choo if her job ever depresses her.

I'm surprised at the depth of her answer as she goes to great lengths to explain the motivations of an oncologist. She talks about the importance of leaving her emotions at the office, respecting people's wishes and the fact that ultimately her job comes down to the "privilege" of helping people cope with the ramifications of their disease - i.e. carking it.

I expect it's a well practised spiel and I'd love to ask her more questions but people are waiting. Between Nicky and I, the poor woman could be stuck in her office answering questions until next Christmas (although, come to think of it, according to the Mayans, there ain't gonna be a Christmas this year).

When we leave, I am still feeling squeamish. I realise that even going within a mile of Greenslopes Hospital makes me feel like chucking. My stomach is churning and I feel truly vile. Almost as vile as when I listen to any version of the "Hokey Pokey"... that's what it's all about!

Nicky drops me at home and as I go through my front gate, I check the mailbox.

Inside is a small, book-sized parcel addressed to me. It's wrapped in waxy paper and has a white string tied around it and is covered in stamps.

Inside I find a special Sri Lankan cake (very time consuming to make) called a Love Cake. It's from old family friends, Moira and Tanya. There are a few ants clinging to the side like Indians on a rail siding, but I am really chuffed. I love love cake. In fact, I love, love, love love cake (in which cashew nuts and semolina form main ingredients).

Within minutes of arriving through my front door, Al has dinner on the table. God Bless my man!

An hour later, Craig picks me up and I go to a meeting. (I'm working on a political campaign for my friend, Karen William, who is running for Mayor, and things have started to become nasty).

It's actually a funny night because, at the end, we have to record a jingle.

I get home late, I have to say still feeling bloody awful. By 12.30 pm I still can't sleep so I take a sleeping pill.

After just five hours sleep, I'm now awake.

This morning I'll be baking some cupcakes for a funeral tomorrow. A 10-year-old girl, Chloe, in my nieces' class at Sheldon College, died on Christmas Eve, after a short battle with a brain tumour.

I think about her grieving family.

I think how little time some of us are given.

I think: I have nothing to complain about.

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