My weekly visit to the Chemo Suite at UCLH has become a strangely grounding experience. Inside, it feels and looks like a living, contemporary art installation celebrating the range and depth of human emotion. Turning what should be a 15-minute therapy session, into an all-day plunge of soulful contemplation.
As part of my front line therapy (which comes to end next week), I head to the 2nd floor of the MacMillan UCH Cancer Centre on Huntley Street. An impressive building dedicated entirely to treating this most pernicious of human foes.
The 2nd floor houses the optimistically entitled ‘Chemo Suite’. A vast, clean open plan space, softly appointed and eerily quiet. An open ward on the left with those iconic beds. Most likely for patients on heavy doses, severely ill, or both. An airport-style lounge in the middle dotted with patients and relatives waiting, looking and hoping. Occasionally wondering about, hooked up to a variety of different machines. I haven’t tried it yet, but it seems walking around with your chemo stand on wheels, is impossible to do without impersonating a zombie. Maybe it’s the delicacy. Maybe just the fear.
And finally on the right, a healthy collection of lazy boys with pull-down TV’s for the short-term outpatients. Most fast asleep. And why not?
I’m no expert on chemotherapy facilities, but so far as a space built for sensitive treatment is concerned, it’s an awkwardly impressive spot. Why awkwardly? Because aesthetics aside, it’s very hard, if not impossible to escape the heightened sense of emotion that fills every square meter of it. An almost palpable tapestry where the deepest shades of sadness, courage, hope, pain, fear, love and compassion collide together in a deeply bittersweet celebration of our delicate but miraculous ‘humanness’.
By pure chance, or maybe not, I seem to plant myself in the same spot awaiting my treatment. It’s always running about 45 minutes or so late, and it’s during this down time that I’ve conducted some of the most difficult and inspirational people watching. There’s a deep respect for the suffering on the 2nd floor. Yet there’s a strange feeling that everyone is watching everyone else. All as curious as each other about everyone else’s story. Rarely is any eye contact made. But when it is, it’s profound.
It’s difficult to put into words what the eyes see during those 45 mins. Even harder for what the heart feels. Much of the cruelty of this disease lies in our relative inability to avoid it. Diet and contemporary wellness wisdom are starting to change that, proving the irony that the best cure is also the best preventive. Yet cancer still remains the ultimate poacher, leaving its sufferers with a knawing sense of confusion at best, feeling like hopeless victims at worst. And it’s this sense of heartbreaking confusion that seems to radiate from almost every patient in there, that for me, makes it so sad.
Don’t get me wrong, generally, the patients all carry very courageous and positive attitudes. Some even look like they’re enjoying themselves. But to the perceptive eye, everyone’s story on that day starts with the simple question: “how did I get here?”. Patients, and relatives too. Nothing rests in deeper soltiude than a question that can’t be satisfied.
But as quickly as it comes on, that sadness is dispelled with a quite extraordinary display of what makes us the miracles we are. The courage, love and compassion expressed in almost every scene is deeply humbling. Whoever they are – nurses, consultants, aux staff, relatives etc. – everyone seems to save there best for their time on the 2nd floor. Perhaps sharing a collective intuition that without an answer to the ‘how?’, the best possible ‘now’ is what matters most.
So here’s to all my brothers and sisters, for who The Suite on Huntley Street has become such an important part of their lives. Thank for your for my weekly dose of chicken soup for the soul. Your courage, love and compassion is humbling, and even though we may not see one another, your fight does not go unnoticed. Your pain is not unfelt. And your hope and determination is shared and amplified a million times over.
Peace and Calm