real life

'I wanted to do something tangible.' What it's like to support your best friend through chemo.

Life is a funny thing sometimes. I mean, you would never think, as a teenager, sitting around a campfire at a country party, drinking UDLs, singing 90s pop songs at the top of your lungs with your best friend, without a single care in the world, that 20 years later you will be in a hospital oncology department sitting next to that same friend as she has her chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer.

I guess ‘funny’ probably isn’t the right word.

But true friendships often find themselves in situations like these, in places you never thought you’d be and most definitely never wanted to be found in. And like most things in life, these situations teach you something, or in this case so many things.

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Video by MMC

I offered to go to one of *Laura’s chemo treatments not long after she was diagnosed. I knew from another close friend who is also battling the same form of breast cancer that having support people – and different support people – with her at the treatments was important. It was important for her but also for them, having a rotating roster of support people was helpful, as having chemo is difficult but so is being a support person for someone who has cancer.

For me, knowing this and also having the chance to offer something tangible, something I could actually physically do for her was important to me and to be honest this was really one of the only things I could think of to really help her.

Laura took me up on my offer and we locked in a date.

On treatment day I drove Laura to the hospital, we met with her oncologist first to go through some test results and the plan after her chemo was complete. Once this was done we proceeded to the chemotherapy treatment area not too far away.

Laura’s treatment is long, due to an allergy to one of the chemo drugs, it takes around four hours if all goes to plan. While many other people come and go, Laura sits in a recliner, underneath blankets and heat packs to keep her warm and her veins open, having the drug administered in the only way her body can tolerate it – slowly.

On her head nurses place an icecap, a device that is used to prevent hair loss and like routine, she unconsciously distracts herself from the initial “intense ice-cream headache” pain by playing Angry Birds on her hospital chair console as I watch on in complete and utter admiration of my friend’s strength and grit.

As the nurses tried to find a vein (because she is approaching the end they are proving harder and harder to find) I asked her what I could do to help. She said to me in a matter of fact tone: “You can be my kitchen bitch.” And I was totally fine with that, Kitchen Bitch I would be.

I went to the ward’s kitchen with a list of must haves to help her tolerate the often-nauseating drug. I gathered a can of ginger ale, handfuls of dried biscuits and Mentos, nausea preventatives and bad taste remover, common effects from the treatment.

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"Laura’s treatment is long, due to an allergy to one of the chemo drugs, it takes around four hours if all goes to plan." Image: Getty.

As well as doing my Kitchen Bitch duties throughout the day, mostly I just sat with her. We talked, we observed, we laughed. I was her distraction, her support and quite simply a way to make an absolutely sh*t experience just a little bit better.

As the hours ticked along, at times Laura would fall asleep and I would look around me. It was different to how I had imagined.

There were over 30 chemo pods, as well as beds for those who needed them. They weren’t all full but there were still many who came in and out that day. From witnessing these people it was clear that although cancer is undoubtedly a complete f**ker, it evidently does not discriminate. Because amongst the patients were old and young, men and women, people of a variety of ethnicities and races, all at different stages.

Although they were on paper, or according to their thick medical files, ‘sick’, their attitudes were the best of any people I had ever heard. Kind, respectful, positive and with a sense of humour about life and about what was happening to them, making these utterly horrendous hand of cards a little more bearable. There was also community amongst them, as well as the nurses and volunteers who assist them, a community that is joyful and loving, at a time when that is exactly what is needed.

Being with my friend that day was a confronting experience, although she is the one who undoubtedly is in the worse position, it is still challenging (to say the least) to see someone who is otherwise young, fit and healthy, and someone you love and care for, have to go through so much. But being there taught me so many things about the resilience of the human spirit, the amazing-ness of people and the cruelness of the disease itself.

The most significant thing that I learnt though was how remarkable, strong, and positive my best friend is and will always be.

*Laura (not her real name) would prefer her real name and identity to be kept private.

Shona Hendley, ‘Mother of Cats, Goats and Humans’ is a freelance writer from Victoria. An ex secondary school teacher, Shona has a strong interest in education, she is also a passionate animal advocate.You can follow her on Instagram @shonamarion.

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