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Very soon the day arrived that I had to report to the oncology department for my first chemo session. The oncologist suggested that I should attend all chemo sessions on a Thursday, which meant that I would have the benefit of a three-day rest period over the weekend before returning to work on Monday. Armed with a packet of nuts, a bottle of soda and a book I arrived at the blood station where Sister Vampire would draw blood before each treatment and then insert the needle for the intravenous drip.
I knew only too well from past experience that no vein generous enough to donate blood could be found in the crook of my arm, no matter how tightly one applied the tourniquet or how energetic I opened and closed my fist to pump up the veins. The only veins willing to cooperate, are located on the back of my hand. Inserting the needle in that location is very uncomfortable and painful for the patient, but as far as I was concerned, enduring the pain was preferable to the hit-and-run procedures that left my skin covered in bruises. Physicians’ heads, however, are programmed with the I-know-better-ignore-the-patient software and I let slip a few choice curses before Sister Vampire and I reached an agreement. Unfortunately, the law of averages determined that with every treatment, a different vampire would be on duty and I had to repeat the education.
After the blood count was declared satisfactory, I was seated I in my comfortable recliner and three IV bags were hung on a hook above my head. I was informed that the process of administering the chemicals would take about two hours per session. My book remained unread and I kept my eyes closed, peeking at the other patients through my eyelashes. They were all well versed in the procedures and sat quietly reading newspapers, knitting or crocheting, sometimes conversing with each other. Apparently, it was only I that literally had to bite my tongue to keep contents of my stomach inside.
Later that night nausea struck. Accompanied by Ollie, the fat cat, I crawled into bed early and slept through the night, just to feel even sicker the next day. By Saturday morning, I dragged myself from bed to smoke a cigarette. Wonderful how much that first cigarette after a period of abstinence means to a smoker; I immediately felt better.
On Monday morning I was able to go back to work. A few days after the treatment I felt quite well and although I spied a few loose hairs on my pillow every now and then, I was not unduly bothered by it. I had a thick bush of hair and could afford to lose a few, or so I thought until someone at work told me in a meeting one day: “You are shedding like a dog.” It was time to cut my hair.
I was forewarned that my hair would fall out and the oncologist said it would be less traumatic for me to have it shaved before I started the treatment. I was not prepared to go that far and just asked the hairdresser to cut it short. Of course, he was surprised and asked for the reason behind the request. I did not have a good excuse at hand and told him about the mastectomy and chemotherapy. That’s when he started to tell me in detail how his aunt suffered during her treatment for breast cancer, the yellow colour and transparency of her skin, how much pain she endured and … blah blah blah, until she died and the story mercifully came to an end.
I felt like ripping out his throat. This was exactly the reaction that I feared from the beginning and the reason why I did not want to discuss my situation with anyone. At the time, my sympathy battery was flat and my compassion tank empty. I had barely enough enthusiasm to feel sorry for myself and it was easier to deny that there was anything wrong. Obviously, my attitude did not contribute anything towards making life easier for myself.
After my second chemo session, Oliver and I immediately went to bed. I felt nauseated and very sick. Two days later, I got out of bed early to take a shower, because the pungent smell of the chemicals, permeated my skin, pajamas and bedding. I turned on the tap and the smell of the shampoo in my hair almost took my breath away; it reeked of a mixture of bleach and disinfectant. I pinched my nose shut between thumb and forefinger and opened the taps all the way. For a minute or two, I just stood there enjoying the feel of the warm water on my skin, until I suddenly realised that something was wrong: the water felt thick and slimy, and the level started rising around my feet. I looked down and saw a sea of hair. A quick rub over my head immediately confirmed my worst fears – all my hair was gone; I was completely bald.
I got out of the shower, dried off and, slightly dazed, walked to the lounge where my two children were watching television. One look at my face – or was it my new non-hairdo? – was enough to tell them the sorry story. My son made me sit down at the table where he removed the last tufts of hair with an electric razor. Karen disappeared to go clean the shower and my room.
I lit a cigarette and felt somewhat better. Then the full truth of the situation hit me: up till then, I’ve made no attempt to acquire a wig or any other type of headgear to cover my bald head. I really did not expect to lose all my hair overnight; I thought it would be a gradual process. There was still time, wasn’t there? Wrong. It was already Saturday afternoon and the shops were closed.
Monday morning. This morning I had to go to work and attend an important meeting, without a single hair on my head and my arms covered in bruises (courtesy of Sister Vampire). Only a handful of people so far had any knowledge of the fact that I am being treated for cancer; before the end of the day, hundreds of people on the campus would know. Having cancer was like being pregnant; there was no way of hiding the fact. At that moment I would have chosen to be pregnant I thought, a little hysterical.
Just before I departed for work, Karen walked into my bedroom with a chic black mohair hat that was very popular among the fashion-conscious teenagers at the time. She’d spruced up the hat with a hair clip, a butterfly with wings which gently trembled every time I moved my head. An hour later I swaggered into the office with my “butterfly in flight”, much to the amusement of my colleagues.
I never bought a wig and for the next six months, the butterfly bounced merrily up and down on my hat.