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  1. Mary May Robertson
  1. Correspondence to:
 Professor Robertson
 Department of Mental Health Sciences, University College London, 48 Riding House Street, London W1W 7EY, UK;

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A doctor’s journey through cancer

Mary Robertson has undertaken two major journeys in life: one as a doctor, and one as a patient. She graduated from university and medical school in Cape Town, South Africa, but has spent the majority of her medical career in London. While a doctor, she has travelled extensively, including being ship’s doctor on a yacht crossing the Atlantic, and then on a square rigger, which was circumnavigating. She is a Professor of Neuropsychiatry; she is also an international authority on Tourette’s syndrome. She has coauthored three books, coedited two, and has over 200 publications in medical journals. She enjoys opera, tai chi, and photography. She writes poetry on specific journeys. In 2002 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. This has been her latest journey.


I’m tired and yet
 I am so restless,
 I lie in bed but
 My mind jumps around like a cricket
 Bouncing on and off the wall.
 One task at time to do:
 Pills, poetry, phone,
 Mouthwash, food.
 Occasionally I jump out of bed to
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Get some food
 I go back to bed tired and shaking
 Feeling nauseous
 My mind never stops.
 I do not think it is true akathisia
 But some of it is a side effect and
 An internal discomfort
 Which never goes.
 Will it ever go?
 (11 January 2003)


Baldilocks is what John called me
 After my hair was shaved
 It’s cold being bald
 It’s prickly being bald
 It’s funny being bald
 It’s peculiar being bald
 The curly veins protrude from my scalp
 It is not a pretty sight
 I wished I had taken a camera
 To the hairdressers
 Half way through the shave
 I had a Mohican look
 My eye-brows are still there
 Imagine I used to pluck them
 Or have them waxed
 What would my Touretters say?
 John’s hair is on its way!
 Baldness is much better than
 Tedious incipient alopecia
 With irritating bits of hair everywhere
 On reflection in China
 Buddha never had hair
 But being bald is still peculiar and odd
 For me.
 (January 2003)


My God!
 I remember virtually nothing
 Of that Tuesday,
 Or indeed the day before.
 I woke with knives and blades and swords
 Striking at my throat.
 I had rigors
 Shivering with teeth chattering.
 I phoned our GP
 He’d organise the ambulance.
 Rachel strapped me onto the ambulance stretcher.
 John was there too.
 I don’t remember the journey:
 I understand blue lights flashed.
 I recall only John at my side,
 Also the junior doctor at the end of my bed
 And Phillipa visiting in the evening.
 My God!
 Two days of my life I hardly remember!
 I had three drips:
 Intravenous fluids, intravenous antibiotics
 Subcutaneous anti-emetics into my left thigh.
 I had blood taken often.
 I was just like a pincushion.
 I had a drip in tissues
 And a nasty thrombophlebitis.
 I survived
 Thank God!
 (Memories of February 2003)


My life now seems safe only in
 Comfortable, concentric, circles of calm cocoons.
 My cocoon is
 Only I know one cocoon:
 My very private cocoon.
 The cocoon
 Negates cancer
 And lives for
 The future.
 Like a silk worm
 I will grow out of my cocoons.
 And the cancer
 Will die


Hospitals are horrible.
 The congested coughing of
 Bronchitic beings in the
 Chest clinic,
 Intruding images of
 Septic purulent sputum
 Heading for the path lab.

I puff into the spirometer
 “Come on, blow blow”, says the nurse
 They weighed me in my boots.
 I’m 9 1/2 naked I protest.
 My oxygen saturation is 98%
 Not bad for me with flu.
 Thank God
 There are no samples from me for the path lab.

The breast clinic
 Conjures up cancer, but
 At UCLH I feel we’re all a family so it’s better.
 My right breast has cancer
 Consequently the chemo for months.
 A small lump in my left breast
 An FNA to be safe, and
 My left breast cells go to the path lab.

The phlebotomist forages for
 A distended vein
 “Pump your fist please”!
 My poor veins are pincushions
 From regular ravages of needles.
 Yes, at last blood!
 My deep red blood heads
 For the path lab.

Kathleen Ferrier, a deceased singer, is the name of my ward
 The ambience is good, kind and quiet,
 One man in the open ward
 Vomits, pukes and sounds distressed
 Most patients look ill—no! All patients ARE ill
 Coping with their diagnosis of cancer
 Porters wheel patients to radiotherapy,
 Not yet to the path lab.

In radiotherapy one feels like a blob of body on a slab of a bed.
 Bright neon lights, red and green laser lights shine and
 Technology is at its height.
 Little humanity pervades as the therapists cite
 Numbers which line me up with the LINAC technology and
 Aim the frightening radiation onto my right breast.
 I pray all future cells of mine will be normal in the path lab.

Hospitals however were wonderful when I’m Consultant and Prof too
 My confidence inspires others as I teach my students
 My patients react to my kindness, I give of my best
 I know many of the staff and my car has its place.
 Clinics, ward rounds, teaching, exams and admin
 I know the place and feel at home—I’ve been there 16 years mind-you,
 I pray that I return to my former self
 And that not too much of Me goes to the path lab.
 (2 May 2003 and 28 August 2003)


My right breast was 54 and well
 As the cold set in, chills all around
 On 27th November a lump was found
 To be cancer.

I hated it for many months
 And I cared not my breast to touch
 As I abhorred the cancer so much,
 I hated the cancer.

My body was battered by 8 chemo sessions
 From time to time I was very ill
 Septicaemia tried me to kill,
 But I survived.

On 30th June my surgeon took
 The upper quarter of my breast away
 But the nipple and surrounds were allowed to stay
 I liked my small breast.

I liked the breast
 And prayed I’d need no more removed
 I thought the nodes were also involved
 I was so scared.

On Friday 4th July the USA celebrated Independence Day
 My surgeon told me that the cancer was cleared from my breast
 The 17 nodes were clear and blessed; Oh happy breast!
 I had my independence from cancer.
 (4 July 2003, UCLH, Middlesex Hospital)


S leep is peaceful and
 L azy with the sun, grass, butterflies, cows and
 E asy living down on the Itchin and
 E asy living in the countryside and at
 P eace with oneself
 (27 July 2003, Hampshire)


After total chemo alopecia
 My hair grew into a
 Cool, cropped style.
 I braved Sainsbury’s,
 However, nobody noticed me.
 I, on the other hand,
 Saw a woman with pink hair,
 Another with blue hair,
 Another with streaked red hair,
 Yet another with long blonde dyed dreadlocks,
 And another with a shock of a tomato red twelve inch pony tail,
 An Afro-Caribbean with tightly braided long red and black hair,
 As well as another with sleek stylish spiky grey and black hair,
 And several male
 Beckham wannabee lookalikes.
 A woman with black hair with stripes of blue, turquoise and
 Red popped out of her crash helmet.
 A man with long multicoloured dreadlocks, light blue,
 Mauve and crimson, spoke with an American accent.
 Soon I was no longer self-conscious.
 Admirers told me that I (my hair) was Chic, cool, trendy, funky!
 In the winter my bald head was cold.
 In this hot summer, my hair feels and looks “cool”,
 I’m not sweating like those with long hair.
 I like my new look.
 Many, friends and colleagues suggest I adopt the new hairstyle—Cool!
 (August 2003)