Friday, June 20, 2008

The Return of Wednesdays

I'm a freelance writer but my most reliable gig is a part-time staff writer position at BBC Worldwide where I currently work three days a week on My freelance work includes a lot for Radio Times magazine, so things get a bit confusing but that's another story. Today's story is the Return of Wednesday.

Those three days for vary enormously; I'm forever telling friends that I will always and only be in London on Thursdays but then they point out I'm standing there in a London pub saying this on a Tuesday. And I say it's three days, it can be four, it's been five.

When my wife Angela began having chemotherapy a thousand years ago, I decided to just simplify things as much as I could: I told Radio Times I wouldn't ever work for them on Wednesdays. Angela's clinic days were always Wednesdays, usually about three weeks apart, so I could've worked at least two Wednesdays out of every three, but it was messy. Just because Radio Times was being fantastic about my taking time out to look after Angela, there was no need to make it impossible for them to work out when I'd be where.

And as it happens, all those Wednesdays that weren't clinic days did get filled very quickly. Sometimes I'd go to the clinic for prescriptions, oftentimes I'd just help Angela. Once in a long while, she'd be well enough that we could take the day off and go out for lunch.

All that's over, and for the best of reasons: last Wednesday was the last Wednesday. Twelve sessions of devil drugs done and gone.

One odd thing. Many, many people assume that's it. Apparently even chemotherapy patients have been known to assume this: you've had your last chemo session, shouldn't you be feeling better? Well, er, no. Chemotherapy is such a variable beast that it's impossible to generalise but nonetheless, I'm going to generalise: chemo sessions take place every three weeks. And it's not because of NHS resources, it's for the very practical purpose that your body can only take so much. Remember white cells? Forget 'em. Every cell you own is smashed, pummelled, hung, drawn and quartered in every chemo session and you cannot have any more until the good cells have recovered sufficiently.

Have a guess how long that takes.

So you're not getting chemo sessions when it suits the hospital, you're getting them as fast on each other's heels as it is physically possible for you to have. And countless things can prolong the problems: in fact, you don't recover between sessions, you just recover enough. Angela was apparently unusual in how she made it through all 12 in exactly the time hoped for, without any reason to abandon the treatment at any stage. Though she did discover that she's allergic to yew trees. Seriously: the strongest, foulest, devil's brew drug, taxotere, is based in part on the bark of a yew tree (aren't you picturing three witches stirring a cauldron right now?) and Angela, like so many others, had an allergic reaction to it. That wasn't what you'd rank as a highlight in the treatment: me grabbing staff, crash-cart teams racing over to Angela.

Your mileage may vary, by the way. Got to say that. Even if you had precisely the same breast cancer as Angela, I mean precisely the same - frankly, if you were even Angela herself, you'd best not bet on needing or getting the same treatment. It's that variable, that different from person to person. And each person reacts all but immeasurably differently. So if you ever need taxotere, you may fly through it. I hope so, obviously.

Anyway, Angela's had her final session. But where so many people assume that's it, that on Thursday she'll be skipping, the truth is that of course she has at least three weeks in which she'll be recovering from the final session. We don't know how long it will take: every previous session has been capped by the next one coming through, so the odds are it won't be three weeks to the day. I have to tell you that some patients, a significant number, report feeling bone-tired for another year. And bone-tired is the right description: this stuff knackers your bone marrow.

Pleasant stuff, isn't it? But there are good things. All this violent medication gets rid of the cancer, so I do think of taxotere as the devil drug from heaven.

And right now Angela has booked a holiday in the Lake District. We've just come back from one, one we had during a lull in the cycle, and she's going again next month. The month after that, we're off for a short break to the Lake District. And I'm buying her a birthday present of an iPhone 3G and a Christmas break in the Lake District.

Did I mention she likes the Lake District? I've a feeling that's come up.

But for all I've just told you quite straight about the effects of chemotherapy, the truth is that it is over, so things are getting better. And I'm working Wednesdays again.

Next week it gets very complicated as I juggle days in order to work half the week on Radio Times, half on Doctor Who Adventures magazine. But the return of Wednesdays, it's a peculiar notion. I am stunningly lucky to have the job I do; I've always known this and I am reminded of it by getting a short gig on Doctor Who Adventures: I'm so looking forward to that work. It's been a sobering boon to be able to drop all Wednesdays for the last eight months or so; I know many or even most people cannot do it, but that and the ability to work at home 80% of the week, I'm very grateful for it.

So. I've got working Wednesdays now. If only I could get sleep back next.

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