I wake up, and the first thing I see is my Mum. She’s a good couple of metres away, on the sofa in the corner of my hospital room. I smile. If I didn’t write about smiling in the last couple of blog posts, it’s because it didn’t happen. This is the first smile I’ve had the energy or the feeling for in my entire time at the hospital. I have two brand new units of blood pumping around my body, but I didn’t think I’d be able to feel it. But I do. I feel the brand new supply of A+ blood warming my cheeks. The blood that belonged to someone healthy. Someone who exercises regularly. Someone who is between 17 and 66 years old, apparently. I bet they eat chia seeds. I bet they own a tennis skirt. Or could it be a man? Not that a man can’t own a tennis skirt, but could it be a man’s blood inside of me? Is that a thing? How long would it be before I start needing to wax my chest, or worse, using the phrase ‘Not All Men’? Then again, Not All Men need to wax their chest.
But neither will I. Chemo will make waxing of any body part completely unnecessary.
I turn my head away from my mum to see what they’ve plugged into my arm after the blood transfusion. In the coming weeks, I will learn that this is eptoposide, one of the chemicals that makes up my chemotherapy. I will learn not everyone has the same chemo plan, and different chemicals blast different cancers. Its side effects include fatigue, nausea and hair loss. I will learn all this soon. But for now, it’s a big bag of what looks like water, with an orange bag over that, and it is my friend, because it will make my stomach smaller and less painful.
My mum has to leave to go back to Yorkshire. My auntie will come tomorrow, my Dad the following day. I will only be without a family member for a day, and I’ll spend most of that sleeping, but I don’t want her to leave. I don’t technically need her here – the nurses check on me every half an hour to evaluate my pain, check my blood pressure and see if I need anything. I’m not eating, so I don’t need anyone to bring me food. I can just about hobble to the toilet unaided. My low haemoglobin hasn’t allowed me to get up and have a shower. I’ve always been independent – a definite extrovert but one that needs time by myself to recharge. This is the first time in my life I’ve needed another person in the recharging process, and as she always does, my Mum has stuck by my side whether I’ve asked her to or not. Watching her leave makes me a bit anxious. She puts some money on a TV card for the hospital telly, enough for 24 hours, and gives me a huge hug.
That night, I take my handful of steroids and anti sickness medicine, and my syringe full of Oramorph, and lie on my back trying to find sleep. The chemo has been unplugged for the day and replaced with another litre of water. I’m allowed to drink now, and have been doing. My stomach looks and feels like someone has stretched the skin around my belly-button open, placed a canon ball over my vital organs and pulled the skin back over. I have two huge bruises on either hip. Upon inspection, I see I have another bruise forming just below my belly button. I have a good imagination. I imagine what the bruise could mean, and none of the options are as gentle as ‘maybe you just caught your belly on a door handle’.
Thoughts are like flames. The bruise is the discarded cigarette on the forest floor.
The thoughts about the bruise are the lit fag-end that catches hold of the dried leaves.
I remember my Mum is not with me.
The fire travels through the dried leaves until it catches on to the reason the leaves are there in the first place: the tree.
The tree is the reason my Mum was with me in the first place.
She was with me because I have cancer. Fuck fuck fuck I have actual cancer.
And once the flames have caught on to the tree they keep spreading and burning and the rest of the forest is fucked and trees produce oxygen but oxygen is not being produced and I can’t breathe I can’t breathe and I’m actually not breathing and I’m crying a lot and I’m pressing that emergency button and the loveliest nurse in the world is in my room and holding my hand and telling me what to do to get that breath back into my lungs.
‘I can’t,’ I gasp, because she needs to understand the cancer is in my lungs, and under my belly button, and causing bruises and filling my brain and making me think, CONSTANTLY and I am compressed under the weight of someone else’s blood and cancer and my own stomach.
My nurse gets the doctor on call and they do an ECG, which I will one day know is to monitor my heart and any abnormalities but for now I just know it’s yet another foreign, beeping machine that is being attached to me and I’m so sick of this.
‘It’s okay,’ the nurse, Natalie says. She’s one of those helicopters that fly over forests with gallons of water. The fire subsides. ‘We’ll book you a scan to make sure that the cancer hasn’t spread to your lungs. We’ll get that bruise checked out.’
‘My stomach hurts so much,’ I whimper for the umpteenth time.
‘I think that might be what’s stopping you breathing so well,’ Natalie says. ‘We’ve probably over hydrated you, so we’ll stop giving you the extra fluids so some of the pressure is taken off your stomach. Is it just your stomach that’s hurting?’
‘Everything else is ok. I just feel really scared.’
‘Of course you do.’ She squeezes my hand. ‘I think you’ve had a panic attack.’
Sleep is the final curtailing of the fire. I wake up that morning being plugged into my second day of chemo and I feel calmer. Before the actual chemicals start making their way inside me, there are a couple of bags of anti-sickness medicine and steroids. I will soon learn they have names like dexamethasone and domperidone, and the side effects include increased appetite and constipation, but at the moment I know that they will stop me being sick and help reduce the amount of cancer cells in my body, and that’s fine by me. I’m not noticing any differences yet. I’m tired, but I’ve felt tired for weeks. I have a shower and drag a brush through my hair and inspect the brush for any more hair loss than normal. Nothing. The blood transfusions have restored my energy to a place where I can talk and send a few voice notes to my friends to update them. Typing is still difficult and I have to nap after my shower. My auntie Jools arrives from Manchester, and it’s a relief to see her. It’s the first time I’ve seen her since getting ill. She’s brought me a bag of gifts: dark chocolate, books, moisturiser from Neal’s Yard. She gets me a cup of tea and a Boost bar, which is all I feel like eating for some reason, and we set up an impromptu spa day. And we cry. I thought I was all cried out but I suppose I’ve been so pumped full of intravenous fluids that I’ve got tears to spare.
‘I’ve got cancer,’ I say as she rubs my back. ‘I’ll survive or die. Simple as that.’
I fall asleep holding Jools’ hand and when I wake up, she’s asleep too, her hand still in mine. I feel a lot better. ‘Better’ in this sense means that when my friends Jenny and Jon text to see if they can visit, I don’t feel an overwhelming feeling of guilt at not being able to entertain properly. It means that when Jenny and Jon tell me they’ve bumped into our friend Tomos on the tube, and ask if he could come along, I’m excited to see my drama school friends, rather than holding a cardboard bowl and hoping I won’t be sick in front of them. They arrive and meet Jools, and the five of us sit in my fluorescent hospital room and laugh. When Jools leaves, Teb and Grace arrive. They empty their bags onto my bed, and out fall facemasks, chocolate, three different kinds of lip balm and moisturisers. The room is full of people, my people, and everyone’s laughing and talking to each other, and we’re not talking about my illness even though its all around us. My lack of energy doesn’t matter, I can just lie back and smile as their voices ping over me. I’m proud when the nurses come in and witness the love that has spilt in to the room since last night’s panic attack.
And the love doesn’t stop. My dad travels down from Leeds on a morning I’ve thrown up from so much morphine on an empty stomach, and when I ask for a packet of Hula Hoops to stop the nausea, he comes through with a multipack with all flavours. India does facemasks with me, and paints my nails. On Valentine’s day, Grace comes and brings me Valentine’s gifts. Teb, Fred, Kath Ed and Fab come in the evening and the Young Adult Lead nurse brings me balloons shaped like hearts. An actual acapella group comes and sings love songs to all the patients, and we stand in the hall and dance. Rhi has gone away with her family for a week and in her absence gets all of my close friends to send a video message, and she collates it into a 30 minute epic for me. I start bawling in the second minute and keep crying until the last clip, which is Fabien MCing over Grace’s beatboxing, and then I laugh and laugh, because if you know either of them you’ll know just how funny that is. Nearly every night is spent with a room full of my friends. It’s almost like they knew that I would be writing about it in the future, and piled themselves into my memory. So that all I’d be able to recall is their smiling faces and laughter, instead of the relentless scans, pills and doctors’ visits that went on throughout the day.
The bruise is checked out and nothing to worry about, and my lungs are clear of fluid or cancer. I get another drain fitted, and a blood transfusion starts immediately so I don’t become anaemic again. My energy levels improve and improve, and my stomach slowly starts to shrink. Things are getting brighter. I still cry a lot. Every day I ask if I can leave and every day I’m told no. When my grandma comes to visit me I have a nervous breakdown after trying to walk to the hospital cafe and back with her, because it’s so tiring. But I’m also laughing more and more, and my phone is always buzzing with messages of support. I don’t feel alone.
There’s one morning that Madi and Sarah come to visit me. I know them both from drama school: Sarah is the friend that I was meant to be having dinner with the evening I went to A&E the first time; Madi is the friend I was meant to be meeting about setting up a comedy night the day before I was diagnosed. Sarah brings me a stack of magazines and a ton of pastries, and Madi brings me a hand designed cartoon that has become one of the motifs of this blog. It refers to my tumour as ‘Trudy’, as she’s an unwelcome intruder, and she should be reminded to close the door on her way out.
Grace arrives, calling in quickly before she goes to warm up for her matinee. Then Fabien crashes into the room, hungover and clutching a box of paracetamol, but full of energy and zeal. Grace can’t stop long, but we’re waiting for Teb. For some reason Grace really wants to wait and see her.
‘You literally were both here yesterday,’ I laugh. Teb finally turns up and the room is full; we’re all talking over each other and laughing. I’m tired, but these visits are what keep me going.
Fabien comes up to my bedside, waving his phone in my face.
‘Rosa I need you to watch this video,’ he says. I glance at the busy hospital room. Fabien is always a bundle of energy and I wonder if maybe he hasn’t realised it might seem a bit rude if I watch a long video with him whilst I’ve got four other friends here. I touch his arm gently.
‘Fab,’ I say. ‘Could you maybe send me the video on Facebook or something so I can watch it later?’
‘No,’ he says. ‘You need to watch it now,’
‘It’s just that there’s all these – ’
‘Rosa,’ Grace cuts in. ‘You should watch it, it’s really funny.’
I pause. Grace is going out with Fab, and would be the first person to call Fab out if he was being rude, so I’m slightly surprised she’s supporting watching a video and interrupting the conversation.
‘Alright,’ I shrug.
Fabien gives me his phone, and on the screen is my hero: documentarian and journalist Louis Theroux. I smile. Maybe it’s an advert for a new series he’s doing, and Fab is showing me it because he knows the prospect of having that to watch will cheer me up.
‘Hi,’ video Louis says. ‘This is Louis Theroux. Coming to you from sunny Los Angeles. With a message for Rosa,’
My heart does something. I’m sure it hasn’t actually stopped, but my organs have been doing some weird shit lately so it wouldn’t surprise me.
The room almost goes dark, and I forget all about who is in it with me. Louis Theroux just said my name.
‘Rosa, it’s come to my attention that you’ve had some bad news recently,’ he continues. ‘and I just wanted to let you know that I will be thinking of you during this difficult time – ’
I burst into tears. I actually know what that looks like now, because Grace videos the whole thing. (You can see that here https://twitter.com/RosaHes1/status/964889750304952320 )
It’s not only the shock that Louis Theroux, the man who got me through my A-Levels with his documentaries, knows who I am and sent me a video, it’s the sudden overwhelming reminder that no matter what happens, no matter how ill I get, and no matter how lonely I feel – I am not. I am loved. Not necessarily by Louis Theroux, but by my amazing friends that went to extreme lengths to get Louis Theroux to take time out of his busy schedule being an extremely likeable and yet fearless BBC journalist to tell me to stay strong. When everyone leaves that afternoon, my Mum and I walk down to the cafe across the road, and I am not too tired to sit in and drink my tea. I even eat a piece of cake. When we get back to the hospital, I don’t need a nap, or a cry, and spend the evening showing all the nurses the video. The colour is back in my cheeks. Louis Theroux and love. Better than any steroid out there.