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Deep inspiration

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It says a lot about motherhood and middle age that I’m grateful for any opportunity to lie down and close my eyes. Even radiotherapy.

It’s day two of a 28-session, 20-minute-a-day regime of atomic blasting. More humming German machines, more kindly health professionals, more concerned inquiries of “How are you?”, complete with furrowed brows.

(Sometimes I’m confused when people ask me how I am in that extra-specially-concerned tone, then I remember the cancer thing. I’d so begun to move on.)

I’ve been through “planning” (tattoos and x-rays) and now it’s “treatment”. I even have my own glamorous attire.


It’s not Erdem, but it’ll do for the next month.

This is what the set-up looks like. Sheesh, there’s no avoiding pink, is there?


My arms lie in the pink holders, my head rests on the donut, my backside abuts the wedge. Then the German machine, which looks worryingly retro, descends and does its cell-murderous work.

My monkey mind goes crazy:

“Do the baby radiographers know how to use it?”

“What if one of them is hungover?”

“What if they press the wrong button and this thing squashes me?”

“What if they press the wrong button and it’s Hiroshima in here?”

“When was this thing last serviced?”

“When was it last cleaned — will rogue dust bunnies make it malfunction?”

“Is it really from the 50s or does it just look like that?”

“Was it used to break coded Luftwaffe transmissions at Bletchley?”

“What if it’s not German at all???” At that point, real panic sets in.


Radiotherapy, like processed meat and bungee jumping, is not without its risks — especially when it’s treating breast cancer. Some basic body geography will tell you boobs are near hearts and lungs. So, ideally, these need to stay clear of the nuclear beam.

I’ve been told a teeny corner of one of my lungs will cop a serve, but the method for keeping my heart out of the way is ingenious in its simplicity: I take a deep breath.

Its proper name is “deep inspiration breath hold”, or DIBH, and it shrinks the heart away from the radioactive beam. Because, as our medical friends say in that link, “radiation treatment to the left breast is associated with increased cardiac morbidity and mortality”. Yep, fun!

So when the embryonic radiographers in the next room tell me, through a mic, “OK, now take a deep breath and hold” — I suck it in and hold as if my life depends on it. Because, apparently, it sort of does.


Whenever I’m in the waiting room, I’m sad. I am conspicuous in my smart clothes and rude health. I tell myself the chemo people with no hair and emaciated frames — the ones who are really sick, as opposed to me, the pretender — are looking at me thinking, “But she’s so young.” It’s all relative though, isn’t it? Too old for babies, too young for cancer. Where was the sweet spot?

george v

I remember when my grandma had cancer and we drove her here, to the King George V hospital across the road from where I am now, to have her radium implant. She cried; she was dreading the pain and the sickness. She apologised for her outward display of emotion, and my gruff but oh-so-kind grandpa — who always held it in — said, “There’s no point holding it in.”

Except when it’s breath.


George V. I think of the Georges V. And Paris. And life after this. And life for living. And deep inspiration. And holding breaths, and being grateful that this nuking means I’ll still be taking them, in France, when I’m an old lady, wearing Erdem and carrying my Birkin.

And I lie under the machine, and close my eyes, and my monkey mind goes quiet.

6 responses »

  1. many thanks for sharing your thoughts with us – a daunting experience all the way around

  2. Hi La – another great read especially when lying in my own hospital bed feeling sorry for myself. I just had a total knee replacement – not life threatening of course but plenty of pain. Lots of ‘breathing through it’ – not so much inspirational as to stop you from swearing! Hang in with the German and get back to all that lost opportunity for retail therapy. 😄 Hugs Mike

  3. Love love love Sam and realise it or not you will have a wonderful body of work during this not so elegant journey which maybe should be published or made available to future women in this unenviable, but very real situation! Xxxx suck that heart in hard Sam but it won’t affect it’s wonderful ability to feel and document! X


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