The Scan Of Destiny

So here’s the most important thing I learned about going in for a scan: get an early morning appointment.

The Scan Of Destiny required that I fast for three hours beforehand, and then refrain from drinking even water for an hour beforehand. By the time they got to me, I had been fasting for five hours and dehydrated for three.

No, it’s not negligence or bad employees. The problem is, people who need CT-scans are sick. They have to be injected with something called ‘contrast’ (I no longer take the drink but they tell me the injection is more important anyway). The problem with that is, a lot of people don’t have very good veins for IV injections––it takes time. And on a Friday afternoon before a bank holiday weekend––well, you see the problem.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t at my best after five hours without food and three without water. Instead of sitting quietly, I started threatening to walk out. If they hadn’t taken me when they did, I think I might have started threatening to take hostages.

Fortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m married to a man I can’t embarrass. Also, the Macmillan Centre people are used to dealing with cancer patients made stroppy by various causes related to their condition. 

But here’s a pro-tip: If you are taking a friend or relative to have a scan and you’re sitting in a waitinig room where there are people who have had to fast and the scanning techs are running two hours behind, DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES EAT YOUR LUNCH THERE OR I WILL FUCKING KILL YOU.

No, I probably won’t be one of those other people in the waiting room. But then again, I might be. So why take foolish chances?

Impatient To Be Well

Well, I suppose it was too much to ask that two units of blood would immediately restore me to my original factory settings.

I am, as the title says, impatient to be well. But it’s not quite three weeks since my final round chemo and I am still plodding, plodding, plodding up the other side of the V. The Scan Of Destiny is on Friday, but I have to wait a week and a half for the results. I know that I am in better shape than when I started out in January––all the fluid in my abdominal cavity is gone and hasn’t come back. (TMI? Sorry. Cancer ain’t pretty.) I still have to push through fatigue but it’s not overwhelming. I can work on my novel and actually make some progress. Some days it’s 3000 words, other days it’s 300; there are fewer of the former and more of the latter but what the hell.

Perhaps “better” would be more accurate than “well,” because recurrent uterine cancer is not curable. Given the results I had at the halfway point in chemo, it’s not unrealistic to hope for remission. If I’m lucky enough for that, I can do my best to live healthy. But there will be regular scans and blood tests, and I’ll have to keep an eye on myself. Not that I’m complaining––if that’s what it takes to stay alive, I can deal.

That’s what I’m impatient for. I’m impatient to finish recovering from chemo and to start keeping myself alive.

And if the test results say I have to have more chemo, I can deal with that, too. 

It’s just the suspense that’s killing me.

What A Difference Two Units Of Blood Make

I slept through the first unit and a half. I think I was barely conscious for the cab ride to the Macmillan Cancer Centre. Chris got me up to Haematology on the fourth floor. I lay down on a bed, stretched out my arm, and that was all until some hours later when I woke up and had to visit the loo.

I was still being transfused but the IV tree was on wheels so I just took it with me. Got up, went to the loo, came back. All without having a pschedelic dizzy spell or collapsing breathless like a marathon runner. Even the nurse said my colour had vastly improved. When I had arrived, she said, I was about the whitest white person she had ever seen. Well, I am pretty pale anyway but I’d been getting progressively paler for weeks, even before my final round of chemo, so no one had really noticed the change. Even I hadn’t noticed my lips were disappearing. Now I’m a lot pinker.

Just goes to show you: as much as you research and ask questions and study up on what to expect when you have chemo, something can still sneak up on you.

I’d had episodes of breathlessness before but they always went away after a few days. I figured this would, too. Even after a couple of weeks, I thought it was just the cumulative nature of the beast and if I waited a little longer, it would finally pass. I didn’t connect the dizzy spells with the breathlessness––I thought that was just the loss of hair in my inner ear. My blood pressure has always been on the low end of normal––90/60 isn’t unusual for me and I’ve always had to be careful not to stand up too fast. But my ears never rang like this. Eventually it occurred to me that my blood pressure might be too low. The information on the Macmillan site said that absent problems like asthma or COPD, breathlessness was usually due to low red cell count. 

So my brain finally made use of what few red cells were left and called the Macmillan Cancer Centre for advice. They told me to come right in for a blood test, and to wait for the results.

It took a while for Chris and I to get our collective act together but we finally made it and they told me that yes, I was quite anaemic but they would have to transfuse me the next day (yesterday). I had no idea how long a transfusion took––the one and only transfusion I’d ever had was over fifty years ago, during heart surgery. Apparently it has to be done slowly or the heart can’t handle the extra burden. Fine with me––I hadn’t made any plans for the rest of the day. They hooked me up about 9:00 a.m. or so and like I said, I dozed off. I never even knew when they changed the first bag. Poor Chris, who was probably as exhausted as I was, sat beside my bed, holding my hand while he read a book. 

That I do remember––not the cannula in my arm but the feeling of his hand around mine.

Last night I had the first good night’s sleep I’ve had in a while. I never would have connected anaemia with sleeping badly but I guess when you’re anaemic, nothing works right, especially not the V-shape of chemo. After sliding down one side, you try rising up the other side but you keep sliding back down until the anvil mashes you flat.

Fellow travellers in Cancerland: if you are still mashed flat after two or more weeks, have a blood test. Especially if walking from your living room to your loo leaves you panting and gasping like you’ve just sprinted six blocks. It’s not a matter of pushing yourself or getting back into condition after being sick. You cannot will red blood cells into existence. Trust me––I tried.

I’m still going to take it a little easy for the next few days, just to let all those new red cells get used to their new home and make friends, although I may try a short walk to the shops on Green Lanes for a treat or two. Poor Chris is exhausted from the effort of worry and waiting on me hand and foot. I think it’s time for him to lie down and have a rest. Gentleman Jynx, coolest black cat in London, is keeping an eye on him from the underwear drawer (the drawer above it is missing––long story––so he can lie in my knickers and watch over the room).

You know, there’s a section early on in The Dead Zone by Stephen King where the heroine remembers her recent past and she thinks about how a person can struggle along with an extremely heavy burden for a very long time and never realise just how heavy it is until it’s gone. That’s how I’m feeling today––now that the strain is gone, I understand how bad it was, not just for me but for Chris. I probably should have called Macmillan a couple of weeks ago.

I’ll leave you with this moment of surrealism: when I was sitting in the Haemotology waiting room, I realised the design on the floor was a pattern of repeating words––one line, one word, repeated. Amazing, I thought––were these just random words the decorator thought would look good or did they spell out something significant?

It took me a little while before I realised I was looking at the lyrics to “Chantilly Lace.”


À Bout De Souffle

You leave me breathless. But then, everything leaves me breathless. Last Wednesday, the hike from my chair to the dais where I announced this year’s winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award––Station Eleven by Emile St. John Mandel, for those of you with bad memories––left me breathless. Not quite as breathless as getting dressed to go out, and not as breathless as the walk from Yo! Sushi to the nearest corner to hail a cab home, but panting somewhat. 

I’ve been a bit breathless now and then during my course of chemo but nothing like lately. This morning, I finally phoned the Macmillan Centre for advice. They told me to come in and have a blood test, as my red cell count may be low. I’m to wait for the results and if that is indeed the case, I may need a blood transfusion. So we’ll head on down there as soon as my poor husband has enough energy to get dressed.

Poor Chris. He has been my rock, my life-saver (and life-savour), my never-failling support and the air that I breathe as well as my one true love in all the universe. But there are times when neither of us are up to more than lying down. It is my honest opinion that this is harder on him than on me. After all, I can blame everything on either my illness or my treatment or both. Chris has to witness it. He’s staggering under both my fatigue and his own and frankly, I don’t know how he does it. I don’t know how well I’d cope if it was the other way around. I’m glad things aren’t the other way around. I’d be a basketcase, I think. On the inside, anyway. But then. I think most people feel that way about their loved ones. Ask anyone caring for a loved one who is ill and they’d probably tell you if it were possible to take the illness on themselves, they would. I know I would. So, very selfishly, I’m glad if one of us has to have cancer and all its attendant discomforts, it’s me and not him, and not because I wouldn’t want to take care of him. I wish I could take care of him now; I wish I could take care of him as much as he takes care of me.

Anyway, we’ll both have a rest and then head into central London to the Macmillan Centre for my blood test and possible blood transfusion.

I haven’t had a blood transfusion since my long-ago heart surgery when I was five. The fact of that old blood transfusion was something Robert Heinlein and I bonded over back in early 1976, when I took on the duty of liaison between him and MidAmeriCon, the world science fiction convention, held that year in downtown Kansas City, MO. Whenever Robert Heinlein was a convention Guest of Honour, one of his conditions was that the convention organise a drive for blood donations. He was AB Negative, the rarest blood type, and his life had been saved during surgery by a transfusion. 

Heinlein was like me––he wanted desperately to stay alive––and the fact that donated blood had allowed him to keep breathing had had a profound effect on him. Some people felt he was being a primadonna or throwing his weight around to show how important he was, particularly after he announced that he would sign autographs only for people who could prove they were blood donors. But that wasn’t it. He just felt he had a debt to repay. He couldn’t pay it back so he had to pay it forward––he had to do what he could so someone else’s life could be saved. He felt it was a sacred duty.

But I digress. In a way, though, I don’t.

A Small Meditation On The Life Hairless

When you lose your eyelashes, you often wake up with your eyelids partially glued together and it’s hard to clear the gunk out. For me, it takes about an hour before I can see anything properly.

Commercials for Veet and other bodyhair removal systems become hilarious. Seriously. It’s hard to watch a vivacious young woman yanking her leg-hair out by the roots with a wax rectangle and the expression of someone solving a quadratic equation and not burst out laughing. The only thing funnier is the commercial where the woman asks her boyfriend what he thinks is the sexiest part of her body and he chooses her armpits because they’re so smooth and denuded. And this is after she has run through a variety of poses highlighting her other body parts, including one where she clutches her buttocks like a couple of spongy balls.

If I were seeing someone who thought the sexiest thing about me were my armpits, I’d rethink our relationship. Fast. Who comes up with this shite?

Shampoo commercials always suck me right in. I keep forgetting I don’t have anything to use shampoo on although I do have a list of stuff I want to try later. It’s the hairspray ads that seem surreal, Elnett in particular. Elnett demonstrates its holding power by fixing their models’ hair in the most unflattering, retro hairdos posible. Really––when was the last time you saw a woman under twenty-five wearing a six-inch bouffant looking like a battleship atop her head? Gundam coiffure. Elnett manages to make a beautiful young woman with gorgeous hair look awful. But hey, that bouffant battleship wouldn’t move in a wind-tunnel and that’s really the point, so it’s all good, right?

Girlfriend, wash your hair and let it dry while you run around on the beach. And if you’ve got a boyfriend or a girlfriend obsessed with how smooth your underarms are, snap out of it! Life’s too short. Spend less time depilating and more time eating––maybe one of those double-espresso Magnum ice cream bars, they’re really good.

Just sayin’.

And Then Last Night, We Went Out And Had A Good Time

Last night, the winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel published in the UK in 2014 was announced. 

The nominees:

The Girl With All The Gifts – M.R. Carey (Orbit)

The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber (Canongate)

Europe In Autumn – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)

Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta (HarperVoyager)

The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North (Orbit)

And the winner:

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel (Picador)

I had the privilege of opening the envelope and announcing the winner and I was very proud to do so. For one thing, it was the twentieth anniversary of my own second Arthur C. Clarke win, for my novel Fools (the first one was in 1992 for Synners). And for another, all six of these books are wonderful. I spent a good part of every round of chemo reading, which included all of these books. Some were early recommendations from friends; some I picked up after they were nominated. They made a six-way tie for Pat Cadigan’s I’d-Like-To-Forget-I’m-Having-Chemo Award, because they took me away from cancer and into their worlds.

If you have not read them, I can’t urge you strongly enough to do so. If you don’t think you care for science fiction, try them anyway––you’ll be amazed at the quality of the writing, the plotting, the characterisation. Years ago, before I had even won my first Clarke, John Jarrold, editor-turned-agent, described the Arthur C. Clarke Award as the Booker Prize for science fiction. Obviously, I would love that description. But seriously, this is one of those years when it’s never been truer, and everyone who has ever been nominated and/or won should feel like their property values went up. 

I was sorry that Emily St. John Mandel wasn’t there to accept personally. Both times that I won, I wasn’t able to get to the ceremony either––another reason it was such a treat to be able to announce the winner. It was also very gratifying to hear Tom Hunter mention the author events I used to do at Borders Books. For those who don’t know, they ran from July 2001 to July 2006, when Borders, after many changes of management, told me they didn’t want to host them any more. Not long after that, Borders went under. Coincidence? Oh, of course––I don’t really suffer from delusions of grandeur. (On the other hand, it is, I think, indicative of the poor decisions made by the over-all Borders management. We had a Borders in Overland Park, Kansas that over several years became a popular destination for people who enjoyed good books and live music on the weekends. I used to go to the science fiction reading group every month; it was how I got the idea for the events in London. Ahem––better I don’t get started on clueless corporate bean-counters who don’t know how to make lemonade when the recipe is right in front of them.) 

In any case, it was nice to be acknowledged for the Borders events. We had some great evenings. I had the privilege of interviewing a lot of great people. I in turn have to acknowledge Saxon Bullock for getting it started. Saxon worked in the science fiction section of Borders at the time and he convinced the events department it would be a great way to get people into the shop. It was, too. There was no dedicated event space so we set up chairs in the middle of the science fiction section, which meant that we got a lot of walk-over traffic––people would drift over out of curiosity, than hang around listening. More than one of them bought a book and got it signed afterwards.

But I digress.

So anyway, Chris and I went out last night and had a wonderful time. And naturally, for a cancer patient, a wonderful time is more than just a wonderful time. If I had not been bound and determined to open the envelope on the twentieth anniversary of my own second win, I’m not sure I’d have made it. I had to stop and rest after putting various items of clothing on––I couldn’t hold my arms up long enough to straighten out my fancy tunic-top; if not for Chris, I’d have been all twisted up and disheveled. 

The venue was event-space at the new Foyle’s Book Shop. It was a stand around with drinks type of reception but Foyle’s was kind enough to supply Chris and me with chairs. I think I had to walk twenty-five feet or so to the stage and it was a hike. Fortunately the chairs were those high bar-stool type things so I didn’t have a dizzy episode when I got up. I kept it short, although I did take a few seconds for some “Me and…” shots, as you can see below.

As I said, I was proud to announce the winner and I was extremely happy that Tom Hunter asked me to do that. The last two rounds of chemo have hit me very hard, and not just physically. I had a bad week where my spirits really dipped. I knew it was just the chemo and I just had to ride it out. But knowing something intellectually doesn’t reach all those problem areas where you live; it doesn’t make the ride any less rough. That combined with the physical weakness didn’t make me want to help myself very much.

Then Tom Hunter asked me to announce this year’s winner and gave me the push I needed to get back up on my hind legs and make an effort. I got dressed up. I put on make-up––the fancy expensive stuff. It wasn’t easy but I love the Arthur C. Clarke Award and I will do anything I can to support it. And of course, once you start thinking about someone and/or something other than yourself, the tide turns and you start winning the battle.

Despite my physical weakness, I woke up yesterday feeling like I was turning a corner in recovering from the last round of chemo. Today, I know I have. Physical movement is still an enormous effort but it no longer seems overwhelming. I’m going to try to help it along with little things––getting dressed as if I am going out, putting on make-up (the less expensive, everyday stuff, but still). I might not go out but when I look in the mirror, I’ll see someone who looks less like a cancer patient and more like Bad-Ass Cadigan, who laughs too loud, swears too much, and stays up too late, just because she can.