Breast cancer lesson number 101: Nothing takes the past away like the future

Change is afoot in the Sloan/Scully household. Now by this, you might think I’m referring to the fact I’m about to start chemo drug Docetaxel. But, there is actually something far more newsworthy happening that I feel I really must mention. The three-piece suite that has been comforting my bottom for the last 21 years – and that I vowed would never make it through our front door in Greenwich – is now outside our house waiting to be taken away.

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Now we are actually parting with my parents’ old grey sofa (complete with embroidered leaves) I do feel a twinge of sadness. We’ve had some good times (curries, TV dinners and movie nights) and some bad times (it’s not good for sleeping on and it has swallowed up a few too many coins). But, overall, it’s been a pretty good sofa. Until Saturday, we are now sofa-less and all I hope is that the new one fits through the door. I’m not sure I fancy recovering from chemo cycle four on the floor!

That brings me neatly to the real subject of today’s blog. Tomorrow marks the official halfway point (not the unofficial one I claimed in lesson 88) in my chemo treatment. Out go red syringes and pink pee and back comes the fear of the unknown I thought I’d left behind in lesson number 49. How am I going to feel by Friday evening? Chances are, it won’t be as well as I feel right now (and by well I mean not in pain). 

Chemo cycle four does sound a lot closer to the end than chemo cycle one, but as the first cycle of my new drug, it feels as though I am right back at the beginning. There are, however, two key differences. Firstly, I’m not as healthy as I was when I started the first course. Will that have an impact? I’ll let you know. And secondly, while I don’t know what side effects will pop up to taunt me, I do know that it’s often the ones you least fear that are the ones that get you the most. I feared the vomiting on FEC. I should have feared the mouth ulcers and the loss of taste! 

I have heard that swapping FEC for Tax (as it is often known) is like swapping a stomach bug for a flu bug. It is likely I won’t vomit, but the muscle and bone pain don’t sound particularly pleasant. Apparently, the muscle pain is caused by the chemo drug itself and comes on in the first week. The bone pain is added in by the injections I have to administer from day 3 to help boost the number of white blood cells in my body (oh yes, this one wreaks even more havoc with the immune system). At least when I was self-injecting for fertility treatment I got eggs at the end of it. Sounds like all I get is pain this time (not sure I will be able to feel my boosted immune system). The list of side effects is long, so let’s just hope the drug is kind. I even get more steroids, which will either help me with the spring cleaning or the piling on of pounds!

The day before my first chemo, I wrote down ten chemo tips I was keen to test. Here’s a quick glimpse into how I’ve got on so far…

1)  Dark nail polish: I’ve painted it on and so far my nails have not fallen off, so I will claim a victory. My big toe is a little on the dark side (under the polish), so let’s hope they last the course. I also have interesting nails for the first time, so even without the
benefits, dark colours work for me.

2)  Sleep caps: They certainly catch stray strands of hair, but they do make it a little tricky to manage those hot flushes. I love wearing them when I am really cold though, even if I look a bit like a gnome!

3)  Senna (or your favourite poo-charming substance): Who needs Senna when there’s All Bran in the house! Ok, so I used it once when I couldn’t remember if I had ‘been’ and then regretted it. It is a handy item to have on standby, but you can’t beat a few mouthfuls of bran with your brekkie!

4)  Flavoured water and ice lollies: It’s nearly summer, so I now have two reasons to eat ice lollies. While I wouldn’t recommend frozen grapes (tried them on chemo 3 to keep my mouth in check and they tasted a bit too weird), I think there is a lot to be said for sucking on something cold while the chemo drugs are going in. It’s a lovely sugary distraction!

5)  Inflatable bath pillow: I think I need to stay in the bath a bit longer. I am still a bit of a speed washer.

6)  Toweling robe: Love it! Not sure I love it because of chemo, but I love it all the same. Who couldn’t love a soft, fluffy robe?!

7)  Queasy drops: Tick! They taste nice, they distract me from thinking about nausea and I don’t get bored eating them.

8)  Pineapple chunks: I would go as far as to say that they taste even better on chemo. Same goes for blueberries and strawberries – and extra strong mints of course!

9)  Ginger tea and ginger nuts: I am finding it hard to tolerate the smell of any herbal teas (so much so I wonder whether I will ever be able to enjoy one again). Ginger nuts are great for baking (as we all know from lesson number 79). But, whether or not they help with nausea, I just haven’t a clue. It would help if I actually ate one when I felt nauseous rather than just when I felt hungry. 

10)  Brow Zings: I’ll tell you when my eyebrows fall out!

The cancer kit list of tips and suggestions is coming, but there is one tip I want to add in for now. Plan in something that makes chemo day a day to look forward to rather than fear. For me, that means baking for the cancer unit so I feel excited about giving something back. I’m also so busy thinking about what ginger chemo cookie (or gingerbread) to bake next, I momentarily forget about the drugs making a beeline for my veins. It certainly works for me, and I hope it will work for you too.

This week it’s out with the old and in with the new. Let’s hope both the drugs and the new sofa are a welcome addition to our little London life.

Breast cancer lesson number 45: If it helps, pass it on

Throughout my life, whether it be guide camp, bikram yoga, school, work or swimming, I have always been the one to look the part. If it comes with a kit list, I am in my element. And, if it doesn’t, I will feel duty bound to create one. I buy the t-shirt and, eight times out of ten, I do detach the price tag! (One notable exception is a yoga top that I know would be guaranteed to put people off their postures. I like to look the part, not get arrested!)

The same goes for cancer. Our house is packed with every factsheet and leaflet going. Given the seriousness of the illness, I didn’t think my old tracksuit bottoms and loungewear wardrobe were quite up to scratch. So, two weeks after being diagnosed I made a trip into central London to buy some new pairs (along with zip-up tops and button down nightshirts). I bought a White Company toweling robe because it was ‘essential’ and even found matching slippers to go with my hospital dressing gown. For the next stage, I already have the hats on order, ginger tea in the cupboard and udder cream on the bathroom shelf. I have booked my ‘wig referral’ and my PICC cover research is also well underway. That chemo chair is coming, and I want to be ready!

Something wonderful happened to me yesterday while trying to compile the ultimate chemo kit list. First, I posted my chemo queries on a secret Facebook group (it’s called the Younger Breast Cancer Network (UK) and it’s open to any young women with a breast cancer diagnosis). Within minutes, there were so many great recommendations posted (from ice pops to boiled sweets). Then two women sent me private messages offering to pass on both unused and rarely worn items (that probably seemed like essential purchases at the time). When I received these messages I was so touched by their thoughtfulness. I was also reminded of the fact that I am not alone in my desire to stock up and take the ‘Be prepared’ Scouting motto to extremes!

A lot of the time, what we’re buying is specific to the treatment we’re having. In truth, I probably won’t need a sleep cap again and there is such a thing as too many headscarves. I will try and be inventive in redeploying the more fabric-based items, but I was inspired by these women (my latest kind strangers) to think about how I might ‘pass it on’ too. In lesson 37, I talk about the concept of ‘passing it forward’ and starting a chain of kindness. I would like to think when my caps have done their time, they could be warming someone else’s head. I would love to imagine someone getting joy and a self-confidence boost out of one of my summer caps (that have admittedly not made it onto my own head yet). I would also like to think that I could share more than words with others facing up to a breast cancer diagnosis.

In both cases, I have accepted their kind offers. In return, I have asked each one to nominate a breast cancer charity so I can make a donation. I plan to pass on the items that have made me smile (or brought me relief) when cancer has had enough of me and I would encourage anyone reading this to find a way to do the same. While I am not geared up to be the cancer equivalent of freecycle (or a cancer swap shop), I would like to think I could help you find a new and loving home for your cancer cast-offs (there’s a swap shop in the secret group for starters on which I could post items). If you have something to share and no one with which to share it (or are a hospital or charity looking for donations of drain bags or other treatment-related items) please post here or contact me directly (see Get in touch for more details). Together we can share the love – and the expense!

Second-hand comes with a story attached and that thought makes me smile.