Finding the funny

Make no mistake, cancer is a serious business.  It’s an insidious disease that manifests in countless ways, and for which we still have no cure.  We can board a plane and be in New York in less than half a day. We can fly to the moon.  We can send messages across the world and have a response within minutes.  We can take high-quality images with our phones. We can talk to our mates in another timezone through our computers and see them talking back at us on the screen. We even have cars now that know how to park themselves (apparently).  But cancer… still no cure.  Again, I say, it’s serious business.

So. Cancer is no joke.  But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find the funny at times during six months of pretty gruelling treatment. I believe that humour is an absolutely essential survival skill in life, along with tenacity, a positive outlook and an ability to be resourceful.  If we cannot laugh at ourselves and the absurd situations in which we sometimes find ourselves, life has a tendency to become a drudge.  Finding the funny in the face of my own experience of cancer helped keep me sane, grounded and positive throughout

Chemotherapy is not fun, trust me.  But my very first session – six or seven hours on Friday 25th July last year – gave me an opportunity to, well, if not laugh out loud, rather smile inside at the absurdity that life sometimes hands us.  The lovely Zimbabwean nurse assigned to me (yes, wasn’t that a good sign? to have a fellow Zimbabwean look after me) talked me into trying the ‘ice cap’.  This contraption helps many chemo patients hang onto their hair by cooling the head and roots of the hair to sub-zero temperatures.  I don’t know enough about the science, but it works for some people although there are no guarantees.

Pissed off and no sense of humour - gritting my teeth through the cold and pain

Not NASA’s newest weekend wear for the aspiring female astronaut!  No, just the selfie I took while gritting my teeth through the nausea, pain and cold of the ice cap.

Anyway, to Thembi’s suggestion I said, “Yes, why not?”, whereupon she wheeled a refrigeration box over to my couch, strapped me into the cooling helmet and told me to sit tight and grit my teeth through the first 20 minutes, after which the discomfort would ease.  Right.  Piece of cake…. Or maybe not so much!  Imagine doing a headstand in deep snow and holding the position…. for HOURS!  The helmet is tight, constricting and you get brain freeze and it’s so cold, it actually hurts.  Which is why I look so pissed off in this photo.

Entry from a diary I kept at the time:

“Scalp cooling helmet goes on – it’s minus 5 or 6! Horrible, heavy, tight, uncomfortable and I feel a bit nauseous from the brutal hit of frozen ice which actually hurts.  A LOT! I drink tea and try to not think how horrible it is.  And then, 10 minutes or so go by, and it’s fine.  Still horrible.  Still tight and heavy and uncomfortable.  But I’m getting used to it.  I check myself out on my iPhone and take a selfie – send it to sister and friends: me auditioning for a role in Dr Who? or maybe a remake of Top Gun for a pilot role?  Def not the sexy tutor role (Tom Cruise’s squeeze in the original).  Even I don’t have such delusions!”

Wearing the ice cap adds several hours to your chemo session as you have to wear it for an hour before starting the drip of chemo drugs, throughout the four or five hours of drug administration and for an hour afterwards. It didn’t take me long, after chemo #1 to decide I would just resign myself to losing my hair.  I’d had my hair cut very short before chemo, in anticipation of losing it through treatment, so I was sort of psychologically prepared.  I had also been with my Mum when her hair started falling out in handsful some weeks after her first chemotheraphy, and I took her, on a new year’s day in South Africa, to have her hair shaved.  So it was quite poignant when, a few days after chemo #2, mine started coming out in chunks and just looked, well, dead.  Off it came…