Laughing in the face of cancer

A much cited statistic of the modern era reminds us time and again that at some point in our lives one in two of us will get cancer. So routinely is this doled out that its repetition must surely have dulled the threat somewhat – until, of course, we become the one in the two. When chemotherapy leads to virulent mouth ulcers, Patterson reaches for onomatopoeia: ‘Aieeoo’ In 2019, this statistic took on new emphasis for Sylvia Patterson. Then a 54-year-old pop music journalist clinging on for dear life in an industry going the way of the dodo, she discovered a curious leakage around her right nipple. Doctors confirmed Google’s

The art of oncology

The main side effect of the six-month course of chemotherapy was ‘fatigue’. The main side effect of the three-monthly hormone injection is ‘fatigue’. The one and only side effect of the expensive, new-generation, last-chance-saloon anti-prostate cancer drug that I’ve been started on is ‘fatigue’. I’m clapped out. At night I sleep for 11 hours and wake up tired. Then I have about three hours to spend doing things in an upright position before lunch. After lunch I sleep for another two or three hours. After a long afternoon nap I wake up tired again. But I can read lying down on the bed or the terrace recliner. Then it’s a

The healing power of medieval austerity

Eighty yards west of the high terrace where I’ve sat for three weeks recuperating is a hospice built for Napoleon’s veterans. Solidly constructed high up in the south-facing cliff-face, it comprises a complex of walkways and balconies interconnected by precipitous staircases. It is easy to imagine the battered survivors of Leipzig and Borodino perched up there on those ledges exposing their sabre cuts and bullet wounds to Dr Sun. Which we’ve had plenty of lately. Sun-worshippers of an envious disposition look away now: the year so far has been almost cloudless. Every day the same pale blue horizon. Freezing nights, though. At sundown I ferry my collection of pot-grown cacti

It’s my ninth – and final – chemotherapy session

‘Sorry I’m late,’ I said to the big unit stationed behind her computer. She’s the chief, this one. She shows no fear or favour. ‘It’s not grave. Room two,’ she said without looking up. ‘Today’s my last one,’ I said. ‘I know,’ she said. Room two comprises three cubicles. Two were already occupied. I was piggy in the middle. I took off my shoes and coat, hung the coat over the back of the chair and climbed up on to the padded recliner. Then the raven-haired black-eyed nurse, who invariably looks searchingly into the depths of my soul before asking whether I would like apple or orange to drink, came

Would my scan results be a death sentence?

At the desk I gave my name and showed my Covid vaccination pass and the woman told me to take a seat with the others. I greeted the two elderly couples and the healthy-looking man wearing a three-piece suit and tie and plonked myself down on one of the orange sofas. The tatty oncology department at Marseille now feels like home. The hard-as-nails but sympathetic receptionists. The seatless lavatory bowl. The notice on the wall listing the recognised mainstream religions, designating them with equal disdain as ‘cultes’. Which is a far cry from Torbay hospital, where I was treated for cancer before this. At Torbay hospital the oncology department has

Sally Rooney on steroids

To lessen the side effects of chemotherapy I am prescribed a corticosteroid. I take a whopping dose around the treatment dates and a maintenance dose the rest of the time. The physical side effects of prednisolone are sweating, insomnia, a gargantuan appetite and a moon face. The mental effects are similar to those of decent coke: an afflatus of delightedness and collected wits spoiled by an indiscriminating faith in the truth of my own thoughts, and an overwhelming and grandiose desire to express these marvellous thoughts verbally to other people. Grandiosity in an invalid is not a good look. But people excuse it. Acquaintances who I haven’t seen for a

I rather enjoy my chemotherapy sessions

With a French health card everything is free for us cancer patients, even taxis to and from the hospital. ‘This is the longest taxi ride I’ve ever taken in my life,’ I said to last week’s driver, Virginie, on the outward leg of our three-hour round trip to the hospital at Marseille. ‘Your poor French state though,’ I added. ‘Good for us taxi drivers though,’ she pointed out. She was around 50 years of age. Her summer frock revealed a powerful upper back. She wanted to talk about her four girls aged between 13 and 19. The first three had been always obedient and polite, but the youngest was a

The art of losing your hair

Although fatigued to the point of catatonia, and sitting there like a 19th-century Fang funeral mask, I am glad to contribute to the gaiety of a dinner party by being a good listener. But to be a good listener, even a catatonic requires acting skills. I am learning to lift my glass to my mouth and absentmindedly sip while politely maintaining eye contact. I am learning to leave a dignified or at least sane interval between each visit to the glass and to vary that interval. I am learning to appear interested long after interest has waned or petered out. These skills need polish and I am not yet the