‘Well at this point, I guess you’re only as sick as you feel.’
Dad delivered the line with a shrug, as mystified as we all were. It was the evening of 6 December 2007, and I was ten hours on from the end of my first chemotherapy infusion. Girded by our knowledge of how a typical response to chemo should play out, going this long without even a semblance of queasiness could be considered a miracle on par with Jesus’ return from the dead.
We had spent the afternoon awaiting nausea’s imminent arrival in a strained, if companionable, parody of regular family life. We made idle conversation, talking about anything but the state of my gastric system and trying not to make eye contact with the decade-old kidney dishes Mum had excavated from a back cupboard somewhere. Doing crosswords and drinking endless cups of tea, the scene was reminiscent of how I imagine your average British family must have spent their nights during the Blitz. Expectant and anxious, filling in the interminable hours before the parade of destruction commenced once more.
But that night the onslaught never arrived.
Dinnertime came, and I ate greedily, going back for seconds while Mum looked on in concerned disbelief. When we’d finished washing up, my phone buzzed. Some friends were having a drink at a nearby pub. I wanted to go, but it didn’t strike me as the sort of post-chemotherapy activity my doctor would encourage. From what I’d deduced the first time around, acceptable post-chemo activities range in excitement from vomiting constantly to lying in the foetal position and avoiding direct sunlight. I asked Dad what I should do, trusting in his decades of medical expertise to provide guidance, and not really taking into account the fact that he knew next to nothing about matters of oncology. He made a noncommittal noise and then said the nine words that became my cancer motto for the next eight months: ‘I guess you’re only as sick as you feel.’
I thought, that’s carte blanche if ever I’ve heard it, grabbed my keys and went to the pub.
I think that when my father uttered those nine words he was, well, expecting me to be a fair sight sicker. It was a reasonable assumption. After all, he’d been there eleven years before. We all had. The potentially mortal nature of this new illness was almost beside the point. It was a return to that hellish wasteland, the half-life we had so recently escaped that weighed upon us in our quiet moments.
I have never felt quite the same degree of helpless horror and revulsion as I did when they hooked me up for the first infusion of my new treatment regime. When the drip threaded its way into my vein on that December morning, it carried with it the memory of every indignity and depredation visited on me when I was eleven. Every spew-racked night, morphine haze and surgical complication. Every moment of piercing loneliness and physical desolation, blasting back with the force of yesterday.
As I watched the first drops of chemotherapy ease their way into my veins a sense of needing to leave, to run away, to flee my skin, to rip this thing out, to vomit in terror, to scream into the void at all things unspeakable, rushed through me with intolerable force. My body appeared wholly alien to me, an entity with no relation to my mind. I was trapped behind my eyes, watching another life unfold, futility incarnate. Nausea surged by instinct. I jammed my eyes shut and tried to slow my gasping breath, readying myself for the first inevitable climax.
Then, nothing. The feeling dissipated. I opened my eyes to find that only a few seconds had passed. My muscles unclenched of their own volition. I looked around to see if anybody had noticed my episode. Nobody had. After five or so minutes a familiar sense of boredom set in. I replied to a few well-wishing text messages, made chitchat with the patient in the chair next to mine – ‘What are you in for?’ ‘Non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma. You?’ ‘Sarcoma. Second time. Hell of a thing.’ ‘This is my fifth.’ ‘Ah. Right. I’ll stop complaining then.’ – and after a couple of hours spent reading an ancient issue of TIME they unhooked me and sent me on my way. The sense of anti-climax was overwhelming. I felt accusatory. ‘You call this chemotherapy? Stop pissing about and give me the real stuff! I can take it!’
If my response to chemotherapy in 1997 was straight out of the manual, my response to it in 2007 was almost unheard of. I was not sick. At all. In the entire time I was receiving chemotherapy, I vomited twice and, to be fair to my oncologist, both of those times were due to excess alcohol consumption. Even the lesser side effects failed to materialise. The most intolerable aspects of treatment tended to be a result of the drugs I was receiving to stifle the intolerable aspects of treatment. Some light acne, from the steroids. A little insomnia too. Things were so easy that I started to get the impression Dr Powell was disappointed that he had so little to do. After a while, I found myself making up vague symptoms just so he felt like our weekly meetings were still serving some purpose.
‘I guess I’ve had a little bit of diarrhoea.’
‘Yes, yes! That’s the gemcitabine,’ he’d say, a little too enthusiastic. ‘Anything else?’
‘Um. I’ve also been feeling kind of tired.’
‘Ah, of course.’ He leant back in his chair. ‘Classic Taxotere.’ Given that my first infusion eliminated the pain I had been living with for the past five months, there’s no hyperbole in saying that I felt markedly healthier after I began chemo than I did before. I was also armed with a degree of situational resentment just this side of wrongful imprisonment and a new disability allowance from the government. It was time to prove something to this tumour: I was going to party my way through cancer.
It’s hard to express exactly how satisfying it is to drink in front of other people while you’re having chemotherapy. Impressed as they are that you’ve managed to leave the house in the first place, they tend to look at you in wide-eyed concern when you press the third pint to your lips. As we sat in the park drinking beers one afternoon, the day after my most recent Taxotere infusion, my friend Andy brought it up.
‘Luke, you are having chemo. Are you supposed to be drinking?’
I thought about it for a second. ‘You know what?’ I replied. ‘Right now I feel like I cannot possibly be doing anything to my body that it’s not already doing to itself ’.
There was another pause.
Andy shrugged. ‘Fair point,’ he said, and handed me another beer.
I understand this is not the soundest of medical logic, but throughout my treatment I was engaged in an active ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy with Dr Powell. He never specifically prohibited drinking and as long as I remained in good health I decided not to broach the topic. Perhaps he just assumed that no one in their right mind would ever choose to continue an early-twenties drinking regimen while on chemotherapy, and I just assumed that if it was really important he would have mentioned it by now. Suffice to say, if he was surprised by how well I was tolerating treatment, had he known the lifestyle I was leading at the same time I would be an entry in a medical journal by now. I’m sometimes gripped by the urge to pen a book entitled How to Cure Cancer through Heavy Alcohol Intake, just so that there’s a useful counterpoint to those ubiquitous tomes that solemnly exhort the need to cut solids from your diet, or to indulge in daily coffee enemas if one is to beat cancer. Want to booze your way to health instead? Ask me how!