Breast cancer lesson number 50: Conquer those fears! The chemo chair is actually very comfy

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I have pink pee. It started off red, and I am so thankful someone warned me otherwise I would have been running all the way to the nurses’ station. That, a mild ‘ice cream’ like headache, a bit of a sore right eye (random and linked to headache methinks) and a general feeling that something weird is going on, is all I have to report. And, most importantly, my morning cup of tea tasted great!

As mornings go, it was a pretty pleasant experience. I have been wondering why there isn’t much discussion about chemo and breakfast. It was only this morning that it struck me. In many ways, this morning was just like any other. No nil by mouth, no random taste issues. Just me and my muesli. When you throw in the fact that you’re not greeted at the hospital with a gown, general anaesthetic or anti-embolic stockings – just a comfy recliner and a hospital wristband – it feels like you’re going in for a nice sit down, not a helping of toxic drugs.

So here’s what happened. Having selected my chair (very excited that I got to choose a window seat), I was quickly handed six pills to swallow (four steroids and two anti-sickness tablets). As soon as that started to kick in, my very friendly nurse talked me through the toxic stuff (getting me to call out my name and date of birth with each one just to make sure they were going in to the right arm). First up there was red-coloured Epirubicin (the reason why my pee is pink) in four giant syringes. Then there was Fluorouracil (5FU) in two smaller syringes. Finally, there was Cyclophosphamide in a drip bag covered with a red sleeve. So, EFC not FEC if you go by order!

I felt good as my PICC line (when you’re sat opposite watching someone get their arm soaked to find a vein, you do feel pretty smug too) was hooked up to a saline drip, which is used to dilute the first six syringes. I felt better when the tea lady came round and I could enjoy my first tea of the day. And I felt even better when the pump beeped to indicate the drugs had run their course. It wasn’t a particularly sociable occasion (was in a bay with three older men who knew the ropes), but with mum at my side, we managed to laugh and smile through most of it. And the nurse – newly qualified in the giving of chemotherapy – was really lovely. Did you know, the children of OBE recipients can get married at St Paul’s Cathedral? (you learn something new every day).

I think my fascination for what is happening to me is keeping me positive. It feels like I am watching a scientific experiment rather than actually having things happen to me. It’s the first part of my treatment that really is all about cancer and, I still feel like I’m not really a cancer patient – I’m just surrounded by them. One day, it might kick in, but right now, I am more than happy asking lots of questions about syringes and watching my PICC line with interest rather than fear as the drugs go in.

On returning home, I was not only greeted by a tasty egg sandwich (yes I broke a rule and ate something I liked post-chemo, so let’s hope it doesn’t come back to haunt me), but I had pretty hats from Suburban Turban through the letterbox and news that my Breast Cancer Care feature has been published in my inbox. Not a bad day so far.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t fear this first session. I think it’s because, up until now, it’s just been about my boob, my tummy, my right arm and my ovaries. Now the whole body (my nice well feeling body) is in on the action, and I’m not sure how I’m going to react. Only time will tell.

Chemo and I are getting on well so far, so watch this space…

NB: by the way, I saw the scalp cooling kit today and hat’s off to anyone who tries it. Looks like an inverted rubber pyrex-style dish and cap attached to a large cooling machine. Glad I chose not to try and delay the hair loss.  

Breast cancer lesson number 49: Get that chemo kit list ticked off and let the destruction begin…

With the words ‘green sputum’ printed on my appointment card and a hotline to acute oncology in my purse, I know that whatever the next four to five months has in store, it’s going to be memorable – that is provided ‘chemo brain’ doesn’t wreak havoc with my memory.

It’s now the day before chemotherapy – or FEC cycle number one. I feel like I’m in the calm before the storm and it’s a storm I’m not even sure will head in my direction. I’ve got the umbrella, sand bags, windbreak, torch and bottled water, but I can’t see what’s coming. I think I’m ready, but I’m not really sure what to be ready for.

All I know is that, right now, I’m healthy (and cancer-free). My body may look like it’s been into battle (not helped by the addition of PICC), but I actually feel really good (beyond a bit of shortness of breath that I have now declared). It’s hard to believe that with a combination of toxic drugs, steroids and anti-sickness medication, I might start to feel a bit less so.

With less than 24 hours to go, I feel like I should be doing something significant. As it is, I am tidying, washing clothes, composting and generally being a bit boring. But maybe that’s just because, when you’re life is anything but, boring is actually quite thrilling (remember the excitement I had post-surgery in lesson number 19, when I could empty the dishwasher for the first time). It was supposed to be my first day back at work, but with the timing of treatment, we all decided a day in the office might just not be what the doctor ordered. Of course, I do have the urge to brush my hair continuously (just because I can without risk of a clump coming out), I am chipping off my nail varnish so I can paint a darker shade on tonight and I am ticking off items of my initial chemo kit list. I wonder if I will develop a night-before-chemo ritual?!

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Chemo’s version of a kit list (for all kit list lovers) is a sight to behold. For every possible side effect, there is a whole raft of products designed to help you relax, sleep, fake an eyebrow and generally look less like a patient. I do have a burning desire to list them all down now and thank all those who have contacted me with ideas and suggestions. But, given I haven’t even sat in the chair yet, I think this might be a bit premature. I am also planning to set up a page dedicated to cancer kit once I have perfected my chemo kit bag (or carry-round-the-home chemo caddy) to cover all general, surgery, chemo and radiotherapy tips etc, so see this as a little teaser.

Top tips to get you ready for chemo
Here’s what I’ve learned so far…

1) The dentist is your friend: coming from someone who starts to pace four weeks before a dentist appointment, this is me encouraging you to face your fears. If you need more convincing, have a look at lesson number 28. A dentist in battle mode is an impressive sight.

2) Take the Cancer Day Unit tour: ok, so no one is queuing for tickets to this event, but a one-to-one visit at the chemo suite before you start is a great way to learn the ropes and meet the nurses, without worrying about the drugs part. I went yesterday and was pleasantly surprised by the layout, the peaceful surroundings and the thought that must have gone into the design of the unit. The reclining chairs look comfy and the views across London from the chemo bays are wonderful.

3) Put your appointment card and emergency numbers in a safe place: I was congratulating myself at being able to tuck my appointment card (think dentist card from the 1990s) and numbers into my purse, when Duncan pointed out that he often finds it hard to find my purse (quite what he is doing looking for it in the first place is a little baffling). So, I am diligently copying out the details for the fridge door.

4)  Dare to play with your hair: having decided not to go down the scalp cooling route for a number of reasons, I am now sporting a short pre-chemo pixie. Ok, so it doesn’t have to be as bold, but if you have luscious long locks, it may be quite distressing to watch them as they fall. Plus, if you’re going to (probably, although not guaranteed) lose your hair, this is your chance to opt for the cut you never thought you’d have the confidence to try.

5)  Try not to obsess about the side effects: having had two rounds with the oncologist and a good session on side effects with the chemo nurse yesterday, I am determined to let my body do the talking from now on. It’s vital to know what might happen so you can spot the signs and react appropriately, but I don’t want my mind to think they are inevitable.

6)   Be honest about your veins: the disappearing vein act is not one you will want to perform throughout chemo, so if you are worried about your arms (or the fact you only have one to choose from due to axillary node surgery), just ask.

7)  Put your trust in the chemo nurse: within the space of an hour yesterday, my brilliant chemo nurse had me pegged as a workaholic whose biggest challenge would be learning how to be less hard on myself and take it easy if I can’t operate at full speed (don’t know where she got that idea from!). The oncologists are there to extend your shelf life as long as possible (I’m thinking best before 2081!). The chemo nurses are there to make sure you are comfortable, at ease and kind to your body.

8)  Prepare your kit bag: I think I will feel more qualified to comment on this once I’ve worked out what I need for each session, but needless to say, a good book, the iPad, my phone, battery pack (from surgery kit list), lip balm, a drink, appointment card and some sweets (to mask any nasty tastes), are all packed. More on this soon…

9)  Pick up a thermometer and don’t be afraid to use it: if the Cancer Day Unit doesn’t provide you with one, make sure you have one in house (and know how to use it). High temperatures are usually written next to the words SEEK HELP IMMEDIATELY. They don’t call it an emergency ‘hotline’ for nothing. The chemo nurse did mention that it’s important to check your temperature before taking any paracetamol, as the drug tends to mask the signs.

10) Get ready to write: a chemo diary sounds like a great idea to help you get a sense of your ‘pattern’ on each drug. While I appreciate there is a cumulative effect too as your body is worn down by each dose, I think anything that can help give you an idea of what to expect, is a good plan.

Top chemo tips to test
With more than 50 chemo tips filling up my inbox and my ‘secret’ Facebook profile, it will take me a while to sift through and work out my ultimate chemo kit list. To get things started, here’s a quick list of ten things already lined up next to my thermometer that I am interested to try:

1)  Dark nail polish: thanks to my wonderful friends, I look like nail varnish aficionado, when I have only ever really worn one colour in my entire life. I have been practising with dark pink to get used to noticing my nails, and the dark blue goes on tonight. Why you ask? My nails may get brittle and break easily. They could also get darker and get lines and ridges on them. For a preventative measure, it’s one I fully support. After all, what better reason is there to get acquainted with your femininity!?

2)  Sleep caps: my ‘small boobs, big smiles’ branded hat is ready for action tomorrow night. I wonder how long it will take to collect any hair.

3)  Senna (or your favourite poo-charming substance): constipation (especially when you’ve recently experienced it with surgery) is a pain in the bottom. The anti-sickness medication is the major culprit I hear.

4)  Flavoured water and ice lollies: as a water fan, the thought I might not like the taste of it, does make me slightly sad. But, it does give me the perfect excuse to taste test everything in the cordial aisle at the supermarket. Elderflower anybody? My mum has also brought up our childhood ice lolly moulds (basically plastic lolly-shaped containers with chew marks on the old plastic sticks).

5)  Inflatable bath pillow: once I have worked out exactly when I can get back in the bath, this item is top of my ‘be-indulgent-to-self’ list. Think this one may live long after the chemo drugs have left the system.

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6)  Toweling robe: I cannot imagine being so tired I can’t lift a towel, but I have robe on standby and am not afraid to use it!

7)  Queasy drops: another thoughtful present and one that I would be keen to stress test if the opportunity arises. If it doesn’t, I will probably have to check these raspberry-flavoured sweeties out to comment on taste (purely in the interests of science of course).

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8)  Pineapple chunks: could be a snack staple for the next 18 weeks (fresh and healthy sugar kick). Will keep you posted.

9)  Ginger tea and ginger nuts: in the cupboard and will be tested frequently just to make sure they are still fresh :-). Ginger is apparently good for nausea.

10)  Brow Zings: when its rival product Gimme Brow arrives (both from Benefit), I will enjoy working out which make-up product gives me the best Jackie-looking eyebrow. They’ll probably get more attention through chemo than they’ve had in 32 years. Lucky eyebrows. I just hope they don’t fall out!

There will be more tips – many many more! Let’s just see what the drugs want to throw in my direction first.

Chemo, all I ask is that we try and be friends. And, if that is too much to ask, I have queasy drops at the ready and I will smile at every side effect you give me (just as long as I don’t have my head down the toilet).

Let the destruction begin…