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Now that my new metal eye ornaments were firmly in place, it was off to Liverpool’s Clatterbridge Hospital, where I’d be getting a dose of photon beam therapy. It was a simple plan: Drive up to “The Pool,” stay in a conveniently placed hotel near the hospital, endure five days of not-so-fun therapy, and then head home. And the only tiny hiccup? A global pandemic.

Lockdown was in full swing. Everyone, well, everyone except Boris Johnson’s privileged political elite, was under strict orders to stay put. Stepping outside your local area was a serious no-no unless you had a sudden urge to check your eyesight – in that case, by all means, go for a scenic drive to Barnard Castle. For me, my eyesight check needed to take place in Liverpool, a mere 130 miles away.

Hitting the road, we discovered an eerily quiet M6, then the M56 and finally the M53 along the side of the River Mersey. It felt like we were driving in a post-apocalyptic world where aliens had abducted everyone but us.

The kind folks at the NHS even managed to set us up with a hotel room for our entire stay, and guess what? It was free! Can you imagine that happening anywhere else on this planet? The restaurant was off-limits thanks to COVID, but we had a room, and the Cancer Centre at Clatterbridge was a hop, skip, and a jump away.

Unfortunately, Helen was barred from accompanying me (rules only applicable to non-political elites), so off I went, bright and early the next day in a taxi, also courtesy of the NHS.

My first true COVID encounter was getting into a taxi that looked like it was prepped for biological warfare. The driver and I were separated by some vacuum-sealed partition. Shouting my destination seemed a bit futile considering the driver already knew, and well, sound doesn’t carry well in a vacuum as we know from all those space films.

Upon arriving, I was greeted by a kaleidoscope of signs, all saying the same thing: “Keep two metres away from anything that breathes”. I picked up a mask from a stand and tried to figure out which side goes where. In hindsight, it might seem obvious, but back then, I was as clueless as a chameleon in a bag of Skittles.

The customary wait time finally over, I was shepherded down an echoing, winding corridor and deposited into yet another room with the ambience of a meat locker. Cornered off in a high-tech booth brimming with blinking screens and mysterious instruments, the room’s crowning feature sat in its heart – a sizable metal chair, teetering suspiciously on rails, adorned with what appeared to be restraints specifically designed for keeping the skull in check.

Image courtesy of Clatterbridge Cancer Centre

The day’s task was clear: crafting my bespoke face mask. This mask wasn’t intended for thwarting airborne viruses; its job was to maintain my head in the same rigid posture a marble statue might envy. A lattice pie-like plastic sheet was immersed in warm water, and as it softened, it was pressed onto my face to conform to its contours. As it cooled off, I couldn’t shake off the resemblance I had to Jason Voorhees, the legendary figure from the Friday 13th horror franchise.

PBT Facemask

The frightful aspect of this mask was in its method of application. It was to be bolted to a hefty metal plate, which in turn would be anchored firmly to the steel chair’s upper region. The result? My head would be as immobile as if encased in cement. The final touch in this claustrophobic ensemble was a gob of dental putty, contoured around a mouthpiece that I was to bite down on, just to make sure I wouldn’t do anything as reckless as moving my jaw.

A trial run was initiated; the team explained the who, what, and where of the process. Post this claustrophobic rehearsal, I was unshackled from my restraints and exhaled what felt like my first real breath in years. Eagerly, I awaited Helen to swing by and escort me back to our temporary dwelling, our own little quarantine oasis.

The next morning arrived, heralding the real deal. Helen assumed the role of chauffeur, dropping me off in the carpark and watching as I breezily sauntered off towards my inaugural dose of photon beams. My blissful ignorance was still shielding me from the gravity of the situation, with the textbook symptoms of Micawberism – an unreasonable dose of optimism – still coursing through my veins.

However, the veneer of denial peeled away as I walked back into the sub-zero chamber and truly took in the imposing setup. No more rehearsals. The performance was live. Nestled in the chair, the face mask was aligned and locked in place. With each turn of the screws, I felt my head becoming a part of the metallic seat. The mouthpiece was pushed into place, and I clamped down on it like a rabid dog.

Image courtesy of Clatterbridge Cancer Centre

As I was tilted at an angle conducive to the proton phaser’s requirements, my lower eyelid was in the line of fire. To protect the unsuspecting tissue from the onslaught of radiation, strips of tape were firmly applied. The technician cheerfully described what she was about to do as if she were doing a routine beauty procedure. With a forceful pull that almost removed it entirely, my eyelid was secured out of harm’s way.

A few moments passed as my muscles adjusted to their enforced position. Immobility took on a whole new meaning as I realised I had no option but to stay absolutely still. The initial discomfort grew into a disconcerting sensation as my primitive brain screamed in rebellion. I yearned to shake my head, to move any part of my body, but I was ensnared in a web of restraints. My mind began to tread into panic-stricken territory. I tried to rein it in, to quell the wave of anxiety threatening to break loose. It was a mental tug-of-war, where one side begged for relief, and the other commanded calm.

My mind, thankfully, rallied back to sanity. I focused on breathing, my teeth still firmly locked onto the mouthpiece. My heart rate descended to something resembling normal, and I felt the tendrils of panic ebb away.

The most critical part of the process was upon me: fixing my gaze at the red light. Aiming my line of sight upwards and to the right was to ensure the exact positioning of my left eye for the upcoming radiation session. Deviating from this could mean other parts of my eye receiving an unwanted share of radiation, an outcome that I, and my medical team, wanted to avoid at all costs.

Once my eye was locked on target, the team retreated, leaving me in the cold, clinical room. A siren wailed, heralding the start of the photon bombardment – an alarm that bore an uncanny resemblance to the warning siren for an incoming missile strike. My breath caught in my throat. Was my eye wandering? Was I inadvertently exposing my brain to the full force of the photons?

As I sat there, pinned down, a curious purple haze swam into view. Was this the effect of the high-speed photon torpedo? Was it striking my eye, or was it my brain? I felt a sensation, an almost indescribable phantom touch. The red light blurred under my unwavering stare. If I couldn’t focus on it, how was I to ensure I was looking directly at it?

Barely half a minute later, the room filled with the disembodied voice over the tannoy announcing the end of the session. I could finally relax.

Exhausted, I returned to the car park where Helen was waiting. I slumped into the car seat, and for the first time, the gravity of my situation hit me. I had cancer. I’d just been blasted with radiation. I was going to lose the sight in one eye. The urge to cry washed over me like a tidal wave.