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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,
Occasionally I jump out of bed to
Type a letter
Send an email
Get some food
I go back to bed tired and shaking
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
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.
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.
(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.
And lives for
Like a silk worm
I will grow out of my cocoons.
And the cancer
Hospitals are horrible.
The congested coughing of
Bronchitic beings in the
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.
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
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!