Tuesday, 29 January 2008


Herceptin has been my bag for close on three years now. When opium was first synthesised, I believe they called the new drug heroin because, to the patients that used it to numb pain, it had a heroic quality; and in its purest form, uncut by flour or cement dust or milk formula or whatever else the crooks who deal it use, I expect it still has. Herceptin, anyway, is my heroine, at least for now.

I have my treatment, by intravenous infusion, every three weeks at the haematology clinic in the Royal Cornwall Hospital. The nursing team there are heroines of a different sort, battling with infinite patience against the unseen powers who make so many stupid, arbitrary and ever more impractical administrative decisions at this and so many other NHS hospitals in which the management culture is now a terrible blight. It's a culture predicated on a wish to curse, not cure. The latest decision thought up by this dictatorial crew of outrageously overpaid bureaucrats (whether or not they've got MBAs - and in a cancer clinic, who gives a shit about MBAs?) is to overbook the clinics and take on ever increasing numbers of chemotherapy and blood transfusion patients, without increasing the number of nursing staff or seats in the treatment rooms. By what rationale of time and motion or other redundant studies they see this working, God only knows; but for the cancer patients waiting for chairs, it means a longer wait; and for the oncology nurses, who start at 8am and work till six (or when the last late patient has finished...), it means no lunch or tea breaks. To perform their jobs as well as they do, in such circumstances, with such unfailing patience and friendliness and professionalism, it goes without saying that this team of nurses - Jo, Alice, Rachel, Yvonne, Cass and all their colleagues are something beyond exceptional.

Yesterday (thanks to Management), I waited forty minutes for my chair in the treatment room (and I was lucky - I got a recliner) and was cannulated at twenty to two by poor Alice, who hadn't had a break since clocking on. This time last year, I was having problems with my veins, it taking sometimes as many as 11 cannulation attempts (which means 11 pricks in the arm and hand) to get a line in; but, strangely enough, it's got better since last summer and now I don't worry about it nearly as much as I used to. It's not that the cannulation is particularly painful: a 'sharp scratch' is indeed all it is; it's the anticipation (will they spear a vein this time? will it be over soon?) that causes the most stress. I must now have had close to two hundred 'sharp scratches' - including all the spikes for blood tests, etc, and all in my long-suffering left arm and hand, the right one (my 'operated side') being out of bounds because of risk of lymphodema. I haven't got lymphodema though, and sometimes, it has to be said, they go into the veins on the right. They use the smallest gauge of needle (a paediatric cannula), which is fine for chemo drugs, including Herceptin, but not for CT scans, which require the contrast injection to be given at a faster infusion. But I have found a way around this, like today, by getting the radiographers to put the contrast in through my treatment (paediatric) cannula at a lower pressure. This meant I got away with only two sharp scratches this week - Alice's one failed attempt in my hand and her other successful 'scratch' infusing both Herceptin yesterday and revolting, metal-tasting contrast dye this morning, when they scanned my chest and abdomen.

That's treatment over now for the next four weeks because I am taking a holiday in Budapest on 10 Feb. It's allowed to take the occasional holiday from Herceptin treatment, but what this means in terms of future appointments is that my schedule will be out of synch - and this means more 'sharp scratches'. Usually, I manage to synch a three weekly Herceptin infusion with a three monthly clinic appointment, which means I can get away with one cannulation for both infusion and the dreaded blood test, it being more difficult to get blood out of me than Herceptin into me. But Budapest is more than worth that extra sharp scratch; and four weeks - a whole four weeks - away from the hospital, after all this time, feels like a liberation!

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