health

'I'm 26 and I have cancer. This is a day in my life during COVID-19.'

8:23AM.

I wake up two minutes before my alarm with a vicious jolt. For a small moment, I forget what I have to do and marvel at the blue sky playing peek-a-boo with me. I feel an arm on my shoulder - my partner’s been awake longer than I have. 

“Bad dream?” He asks. 

“No,” I roll my eyes and land on my phone that’s shrilling loudly. The alarm name alerts me to my task for the day: Immunotherapy

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9:48AM.

My body is awake but the inner me is not. I can’t eat anything and yet my array of little tablets that come in boxes and screw bottles say I must ingest them alongside food. I eat a muesli bar and pray it doesn’t come back up in the car. 

Ever since I was diagnosed the first time with Melanoma six years ago and then again, four years later, I’ve succumbed to the inner autopilot that moves my arms and legs for me, that reminds me to smile when someone is nice or do the groceries. Everything is magnificently robotic, yet inside I’m broken. I tend not to feel much, but on infusion days I feel everything and nothing. I’m merely a shell that is pushed by the currents, only moving when forced. 

When it’s time to get in the car, my partner doesn’t say anything - we’re at that stage of our relationship where touch is our love language. He lays a soft hand on my arm and envelopes me in his arms.  

I try with all my might not to cry for the third time that morning.  

11AM.

We arrive at the hospital. Every time I see the signage to The Cancer Centre my tummy does a marvellous flip, as if it wants to escape my body and flee for a host that isn’t dying from the inside out. I wish I could too.  

I sit for a few moments, trying to gather myself for another long, painfully boring day that is more mentally draining than hiking the tallest mountain on earth. 

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“Ready?” My partner asks.

“No,” I whisper. “But I don’t have a choice, right?”  

It’s true. The only choice you have in all this misery is life or death, and who would choose death? So of course, I chose life. I chose antidepressants, Lorazepam, nausea, insomnia, panic attacks, anxiety, Ipimilumab, Nivolumab, Keytruda, Morphine, Oxycodone, Panadol, Hydrocortisone, Somac, Endon, Prednisone, bellovac drains, open wounds, open stitches, closed stitches, all the needles, amputation, lymphoedema, compression garments and the Sisyphus-like damnation of being painfully aware of my mortality.  

Image: Supplied. 

11:05AM.

I’ve done this over a thousand times, but walking through the doors to this place never gets any easier. Only now, COVID safety plans decorate the walls instead of encouraging quotes.

Decals line the floor with arrows and plexiglass partitions are everywhere in sight. I’m welcomed by a familiar nurse who takes my temperature and asks me an array of painfully boring questions to determine if I’ve had COVID or been exposed. 

I answer ‘no’ six times. Inwardly, I’m impatient. I can’t go anywhere anyway, so why even ask! She gives me a coloured tag to tape to my jumper which tells every person in this hospital I’ve been checked, and a mask. My partner follows the same routine and when our mouths and noses are covered to satisfaction, we’re allowed to walk into The Cancer Centre. 

Image: Supplied. 

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 11:08AM.

The atmosphere is glum, and the air is thick. You feel like you’re suffocating because no matter where you look, cancer is everywhere. It’s on the walls, scattered with cancer council information booklets. It’s the bald heads waiting for their blood to be taken. It’s the son holding the arm of his elderly mother to help her walk. It’s the red faces with fresh tear tracks, trying their best to walk in a straight line and not collapse. 

11:10AM.

As I walk around the corner to the Chemo Suite, I’m reminded so strongly how I don’t belong here. Like a reflex to a bad smell, I recoil when I take in those around me. I’m 26 and most of the people here are at least 40.

At the door, there’s a sign that reads PATIENTS ONLY. I recall the first time I saw it, and ice-cold water trickles down my back. I hug my partner goodbye, tapping our noses together because you can’t steal a quick kiss thanks to the masks.

Image: Supplied. 

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I know the rules are to keep the Chemo Suite a patient-only and COVID free zone. 

It’s a no brainer that we’re the most immunocompromised of the lot, but my throat always closes as I have to watch my source of support walk away. You’re not meant to do one of the hardest things in the world alone. You’re meant to have your loved one hold your hand. You’re meant to witness the crinkly-eyed smile of your father as he watches a silly video on Instagram with the volume way too loud. You’re meant to, for a small moment, forget there’s a needle in your arm pumping poison into your body, because the people around you are not only a support team, but a distraction. 

Now, it’s silence. It’s hearing the beeps of the machines echo around room. It’s hearing ‘Garry, stay with me - are you okay? He’s fainted, someone get me a blanket!’ It’s your nurse asking you for your name and date of birth over and over again. It’s turning your head, searching for a reassuring smile, only to find an empty chair. There is a sense of solidarity in the room, but it’s had a rebrand and now, it’s called loneliness. 

As the minutes bleed into hours, I have no one else to keep me company apart from my own thoughts. I think about my life, my mortality, my family and friends. I grieve about the life I should have had, and a tear slides down onto my mask. I’m exhausted from all the thinking, the ’what ifs’ and soon fall asleep only to be woken in an instant by a nurse saying it is time to go home. 

3PM.

I pack my bag with incredible speed and wobble my way out of what is, in reality, my second home. 

I want nothing more than to feel the warmth of a body against mine and breathe fresh air. As I wait for the electric doors to open, my hand hovers in anticipation by my head, ready to rip off the mask. Once it’s off, I take a deep breath. 

Spring is here and my mind boggles at just how fast time goes by. I see my partner waiting for me, and I meander over to him only to collapse into his frame, unable to support myself any longer.  

I hate this place. You can only ever leave The Cancer Centre in three mindsets: 1. Relief. 2. Numbness. 3. Panic. 

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Today, it’s numbness. I’m numb because this is my life. 

I’m numb because this will be my life however long the COVID rules are in place. I’m numb because I hate with every fibre in my being, how COVID has brought more complications into an already stressful situation. 

I’m numb because I want nothing more than to be able to walk outside without feeling like I’m under attack. I’m numb because the world doesn’t understand the true effects this pandemic is having on people with cancer, disabilities and chronic illnesses.

4:17PM.

As I crawl into the one place that is safe from the threats of the outside world, exhaustion from the mental jungle gym I’ve had to work my way through makes itself known. 

It’s coursing through my body and seeps through my lungs. I have to remember to inhale and exhale. I glance at my arm wrapped in bandages – funnily enough it’s the only sign to the word of what I went through today. I don’t look sick, but I am. 

Image: Supplied.

I don’t look like I have cancer, but I do. 

I’ve been living in a form of lockdown for the past two years, and whilst COVID makes everything complicated to a great degree – it’s not really new. 

As I begin to drift off, I surrender to the exhaustion taking over my body, praying for a miracle.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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