Dunedin's cancer ward much better than Solzhenitsyn's

So what books do you pick up for reading, when suddenly plonked into Dunedin Hospital's Ward 8c - that noble institution's cancer ward, asks John Lapsley. 

The Gideon Bible? Collections of inspirational quotes that insist your mind can conquer anything? Or some jovial Swede's dark serial killer thriller?

Frankly, on day one in 8c, I wasn't much interested in commencing a trapped-in-bed reading festival. About all I was up to was The Collected Works of Donald Duck.

But my brain ran ahead of me. Trying to protect its bookaholic master, it began assembling a list of the authors it least wanted me to subject myself to in the days ahead.

First came the Nobel Literature Prize's most famed winner, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Because he'd spent so much time in Soviet prisons, the West idolised him as a symbol of the struggle for freedom. Which is all very well, but his books are extremely glum and include Cancer Ward, set in a Stalin-built hospital. Being in this Cancer Ward, he thought, was rather like going back to the Gulags. So we'll forget Alex. (I think you understand).

Next was Patrick White, Australia's own Nobel winner. His citation doesn't just explain why he is unreadable, it also delivers a backhander to every Australian writer who preceded him.

"For an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature," the judges stated. (I'm not claiming Australia was civilised by then, but still, this was the '70s).

Solzhenitsyn and White. The Wit's End mind, trained in the writerly art of scuttling down any rabbit hole where it scents a yarn, sniffed the air and ...

Well, moving in high literary circles (as you're about to see I did) I'd once discussed the said Solzhenitsyn with the said White. This came about when my newspaper received a news flash that Solzhenitsyn had been nabbed by the secret police and exiled. Who better than White, the current Nobel laureate, to kick off the inevitable international outcry? White lived 10 minutes from our Sydney newsroom and Lapsley, dogsbody of the day, was assigned

It was a tricky job. White came from the landed gentry, and being the Grand Seigneur of Oz Lit, he was snobbish, arrogant, and unapproachable. His phone was unlisted and his address a well-kept secret. I'd been worrying this problem for an hour, when our ancient literary editor showed why she had her job.

"Here's Patrick's address," she croaked. "He says he'll see you at three o'clock."

The Great Man opened his imposing front door, dressed in a gaping dressing gown which revealed far too much of the old fellow.

He led me to a garden table, where he sat and perused the "Solzhenitsyn Exiled" news story I'd pulled fresh from the teleprinter.

(I'd prepared my answer should he ask whether I'd read any of his books. "Actually I'm half way through The Tree of Man, sir," I'd squeak. Which was perfectly true - and had been for the last five years).

White, glared at me as if I was some uppity postman.

The laureate creased his great brow, wrote down some high thoughts, then said: "Right - you're ready for my statement?"

Patrick White dictated me his protest message which, I must gleefully remark, was so turgid and cliche-ridden, it would have embarrassed the worst PR hack.

And so (exiting the Solzhenitsyn-White rabbit hole) I suppose I'm duty bound to deal with my own Ward 8c.

Before Christmas, I'd developed a cancerous tumour hidden under my tongue. The treatment was a six-week outpatient course of radiotherapy and chemo. Unfortunately, radiotherapy around the throat burns the area through which anything incoming must pass - pizzas, gin, air, the lot.

I was warned the treatment was tough going, and halfway through, the body rebelled - and so, three weeks in Ward 8c.

You leave it knowing two things to be true. The first is our country's generosity when your health is truly on the skids. The second is, the skilled staff offer care more thoughtful and committed than you could reasonably expect. Most seem born with the Florence Nightingale gene.

This all began with a specialist threading a micro camera down my nose and spotting the tumour.

A fortnight ago I had to steel myself for the "results" appointment - the thumbs-up or thumbs-down moment.

The specialist threaded the micro cam back down my nose. Peering in, he wriggled it about for what seemed an age, and eventually he grunted.

"No tumour," he announced. (Bless him). "It's gone."

OK, I now have to wait out a couple of years of check-ups, but what the heck? I've been given extra time. Enough even, to give Patrick White a second shot.

- John Lapsley is an Arrowtown writer.



Why does this government as great as it suppose to be fund cancer drugs / some people have to find the money sell the house type of thing/ when the money runs out they die/ about time this got sorted