Breast cancer lesson number 54: Be yourself, not a science experiment

If philosopher Francis Bacon had been forced to undergo a course of chemotherapy treatment in his lifetime, I believe he may never have penned the immortal words: ‘knowledge is power’.

Never one to shy away from polysyllabic medical terms and textbook-like content, I prepared for this five-month stretch of my treatment in the way I would a school exam. Chemotherapy is, however, one aspect of my treatment about which I wish I knew a little less.

The Breast Care Nurse was spot on when she handed me the mandatory chemotherapy booklets and compared the reading experience to that of a examining the leaflet that comes with a packet of paracetamol. The trouble is, if you present someone (on more than one occasion) with an eye-watering list of side effects, they will wake up every day after starting treatment, expecting something to have fallen off.

It’s four days after FEC round one, and I am delighted to report that nothing has fallen off. I’m still pretty much in tact. The pot of steroids is empty, the anti-sickness pills are back in their packets until round two and the only unusual turn of events is that my house looks cleaner than has done since we moved in. Who would have predicted that six syringes and a bag of toxic drugs would have given me the desire to clean not only the kitchen floor, but the bedrooms and the fireplace too?!

Why is it, then, that I still feel a bit like a science experiment, being examined in my very own Jackie-sized petri dish? Every morning in the shower, I tug at my hair to make sure it’s still there. I count the strands left behind on my hairbrush. I stare down the toilet analysing everything that passes. I take pride in commenting on the lightening of my pee. I diligently touch up my dark nail polish. If my eyes water as I eat dinner I blame it on the chemo. I think too hard about the importance of an itchy ear. And, my skin is so well moisturised, I’m surprised I don’t slide out of my clothes.

Far from making me unwell (yet), chemo has successfully managed to magnify my imperfections (imperfections I probably had before the drugs went in). I now feel the urge to discuss every bit of my body. But the truth is, apart from a mouth slowly filling with ulcers and the odd taste change, my bodily functions are not particularly exciting. To be honest, you probably have more noteworthy activity in your own toilet bowls. Even the dreaded constipation/diarrhoea dilemma (is it staying in or running out?) is a bit of an anti-climax. I’d find reporting on a cold more exciting.

I think mum and Duncan are still expecting fireworks. Part of me is still expecting fireworks. Admittedly, there are 17 weeks left in this drug-fuelled challenge. But, if the last few days are anything to go by, the only explosions we’ll be seeing this year are the ones in the sky on November 5.

So, my advice to anyone currently preparing for chemo is this: take the leaflets, read the leaflets and then forget the lot. Information is not your chemo buddy. Get a thermometer and some anti-bacterial hand gel and don’t worry about your skin flaking off. Enjoy every day and trust your body – not a list of symptoms – to tell you if it needs a bit more TLC. Life is way too short to waste time starring down the plughole. I found it so tedious, I ended up attacking it with some drain unblocker (oh, thank you steroids for this temporary cleaning high)! 

You wait. My hair will start falling out now…