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The oncologist rendezvous, despite my gloomy forecasts, was indeed on the cards. Yet, the MDT hadn’t glanced at my findings, so my doubts weren’t entirely unfounded.

A phone call nudged me to be present at Stoke’s Ward 202 on the first floor. It sounded straightforward, right? Just show up at the hospital, whisk to the first floor, and keep an eye out for ward signs. But, of course, the reality was a maze that my assumptions had naively overlooked.

We breezed into the hospital ahead of time, circumvented the labyrinthine carpark, and even bagged a spot in one smooth circuit. We were on a roll. But such optimism, as I’d soon realise, was premature.

Feeling relaxed, we meandered through the parking lot, ironic, given we were on the brink of hearing the nitty-gritty from my all-encompassing PET scan—a procedure with the potential to unearth any manner of skeletons. Our early bird status beckoned us to a Costa Coffee pitstop. As Helen settled in a corner, I braved the queue, soon securing two petite oat milk lattes. It wasn’t about lactose intolerance; oat milk just added a certain continental flair to our caffeine ritual. A sip is all it takes to be convinced. Trust me.

Coffee cups emptied, I swaggered over to the digital check-in kiosk. After a series of confident taps and swipes—like a seasoned user—I was met with a scarlet error message glaring at me: unrecognised details. Déjà vu hit, reminding me of a previous botched appointment. My heart sank.

Anticipating a bureaucratic marathon, I corralled Helen towards the primary reception. Now, you’d think a hospital’s front desk would primarily be, well, helpful. But instead, it seemed to be an outpost for disinterested staff. Among the two souls present, the woman was visibly disenchanted while her colleague diligently sanitised the counter. His glance seemed to question our audacity to interrupt his cleansing ritual.

I explained that I had an appointment at 14:20, gave him my name and asked if he could check for me. I fear I may have garnered a rather more enthusiastic reply if I’d asked where the nearest Paedophile Information Exchange was. Without a single keyboard keystroke, he lazily inquired about the department. Flustered by his nonchalance, I blurted, “Oncology,” instead of specifying Ward 202. He gestured vaguely towards a hallway, sounding like he was directing us to a mundane event rather than a critical medical appointment.

Time, ever the relentless force, pressed on. Our once leisurely pace transformed into something with more alacrity. Though appointments are notorious for delays, punctuality was still expected of the patients.

The Outpatients’ reception was a study in contrast—a radiant smile welcomed us. When I explained my mission, the smile was accompanied by a gentle correction. “Oh, you’re in the wrong place”, she said. “You need to be in the Cancer Centre.” Before I’d had the chance to say, “Where the hell is that?” she began reeling off directions.

Now, I have this peculiar quirk. When bombarded with navigational input, my brain’s capacity maxes out immediately after the initial left or right cue. The subsequent stream of information simply breezes through one ear and out the other without even pausing to fire a single brain synapse. Fortunately, Helen’s ability to understand and remember directions was on point, as usual. Time was ticking away, so with newfound determination, we zigzagged through hallways, hopped on and off lifts, ventured outdoors, and finally landed at the Cancer Centre’s reception. All poised, as if the prior chaos had been a mere blip.

In the waiting area, we were encircled by figures bearing the weight of life’s cruelties. Was this going to be my new norm? Mingling with souls whose faces mirrored the harsh hand they’d been dealt?

A wall-mounted television was blaring the enthusiasm of a celebrity chef. He was rhapsodising over the sheer delight of green salad drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Really, “extra” virgin? There’s no gradient in virginity. You either are, or you aren’t. Much like life—either you’re dead, or you’re not. There’s no “extra” dead.

Such musings were interrupted when my familiar oncologist beckoned me, grounding me back in the moment. Her casual inquiry about my well-being was met with my breezy response, “I’m fine, thanks.” Oh, the quintessential Britishness of that exchange.

And without further ado, it was down to the nitty-gritty. From where I sat, I could discern bits of the content displayed on her screen. Unveiling the imagery from the PET scan, she deftly navigated through the cross-sectional slides of my physique. The layers unravelled like slices at a deli. But the screen’s minuteness hampered the crystal clear view of her focus.

Drawing our attention, she began, “The primary tumour close to the liver’s portal vein has grown in size from 38mm to 60mm.” It’s uncanny how agile the mind is. Within her brief pause to breath, I’d already computed the magnitude of this growth, gauged its timeframe, and grappled with the implications.

Yet, the prognosis wasn’t over. “Moreover,” she proceeded, “the malignancy has infiltrated your bones too, marking its presence in your left scapula and hip.” Even as the weight of her words bore down, I couldn’t help but read the tidbits on her screen. Surprisingly, a few of my organs, including the prostate, were untouched. I nearly smirked, thinking how life had played its card: terminal cancer, but hey, at least the prostate was safe—something I’d always suspected would betray me someday. The cosmic jest wasn’t lost on me.

Her gaze encompassed both of us.

A remarkable trait of this medic was her ability to engage in candid dialogue. She was our expert guide but valued our informed queries, suggesting pathways moulded by our collective insights. We concurred that, theoretically, a biopsy should precede treatment. But awaiting results would clock nearly three months since my initial verdict, wherein I was projected a lifespan of three to twelve months sans intervention.

So that was it. Well nearly. Treatment initiation would have to wait. Possibly beyond ten days, courtesy of an impending consultants’ strike over remuneration. But then again, what’s a mere week in the grand scheme of things?

As our meeting with the doctor drew to a close, she generated a prescription for antiemetics to combat my nausea. Oddly enough, while we have a plethora of terms like feeling queasy or wanting to throw up, ’emetic’ isn’t one we commonly use. Yet here I am, writing and feeling ’emeticky’, a testament to the drug’s seeming ineffectiveness.

Clueless about this inefficacy then and still reeling from our medical briefing, we made our way back to the primary reception next door to which was the hospital pharmacy. I can’t recall if the ever-diligent Mr Helpful was still at his sanitising routine as we passed, but soon we found ourselves queuing for my medication.

When my turn arrived, I approached the counter, still equipped with an anti-Covid barrier. I found myself leaning in uncomfortably close to ensure the young attendant could hear me. A badge pinned to him revealed his identity: Ewan, a trainee healthcare assistant. Ewan’s face, void of any discernible emotion, lacked even the barest hint of courtesy.

Our digital age meant no handover of paper prescriptions was necessary. In theory, the doctor’s digital note would instantaneously make its way to the pharmacy.

“I’m collecting my tablets,” I informed him, offering my somewhat unusual surname, spelling it out for clarity. Ewan mirrored my spelling, “T-E-S-T-E-R.” The flatness of his tone left me uncertain if he was confirming or questioning. Without another word, he turned on his heel and vanished into the pharmacy’s depths.

Moments later, he returned, his expression unchanged. “What medicine is it?” His monotone left me wondering about the nature of the query. For a brief second, I entertained the notion that Ewan might indeed be a Cyberdyne Systems android, given his emotionless demeanour. In the absence of the protective screen, I might have been tempted to gauge his humanity by reaching out and touching his face.

“I don’t know,” I responded, “The consultant just prescribed it.” What I really wanted to tell him was, “Use my name, find it on the system, and you’ll see the prescription. You complete cockwomble!” My patience with our robotic Mr Ewan was wearing thin.

After another brief absence, he surfaced again, “Is it Dom Perignon” he stated, not asking.
My brain scrabbled for the link between Dom Pérignon, the vintage Champagne produced by Moët et Chandon and what the doc had prescribed. I felt sure drinking copious amounts of fizz would not be a cure for feeling sick.

“It’s Domperidone,” Helen quickly clarified.

Ewan, once again, retreated to the back of the dispensary only to return with two boxes of tablets in his hand. Instead of handing the medication over, he proffered a slip of paper with the number 126 on it. Below this number, it said, “Approximate wait time: 20 minutes”.

I looked at Ewan. Visions of his head rolling off his shoulders, with unnatural latex-like blood spurting from his android tubes, danced before my eyes before he invited us to go to the waiting area and return when our number appeared on the large screen nearby.

We settled in the waiting zone, processing the weighty consultation we’d just had. Helen was leafing through a rather grimly titled pamphlet from the nearby MacMillan Cancer Support office: Planning Ahead For The End of Life.

Soon enough, the number 126 flashed on the screen with a directive to head to the dispensary.

Rejoining the queue for my meds, we witnessed a blonde lady, baby in arms, berating robotic Ewan. “I’ve told you my name, it’s on the system! You’re the pharmacist. If you don’t know what’s been prescribed, how should I?”

Ewan blinked. I swear I heard the faint noise of motors whirring as he did so.


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