Breast cancer lesson number 71: You may be sore today, but you can be strong again tomorrow

I have only been sick three times in my life. That is, until about 12 hours ago. FEC chemo two brought with it more pink pee, another ice-cream headache and, yes, you guessed it, a bit more vomit than I’d bargained for (three lots so far!). Thank goodness a) I can read my body well enough to avoid the bedding and the new mattress and b) I had an old washing up bowl by the bed (just in case).

Having experienced nausea in cycle one, I went into yesterday’s session prepared. With an extra dose of anti-sickness medication, I wasn’t even expecting to feel sick, let alone be sick. Just goes to show that, when it comes to chemo, even the best laid plans can prove fruitless.


As with chemo cycle one, the session itself was really rather nice. I passed by blood test and had a good laugh with the nurses. I got my medication ahead of schedule and everyone seemed to like not just my pretty PICC line cover, but my chemo-friendly Shakespearean T-shirt too (it says: ‘Though she be but little she is fierce’ and it was bought for me by a kind and lovely friend).

Everything was going so well. I enjoyed my dinner and even managed a few Miniature Heroes for dessert. Then the side effects kicked in. They were two hours earlier than round one and they were more intense from the start. Once in bed, I had to lie flat. If I rolled to either side and I felt like a spirit level knocked off balance. I tried to deep breathe my way out of the nausea, but it wasn’t long before I was saying hello again to my chicken and rice supper.

My poor tummy (thank goodness I’m back at pilates so it didn’t hurt to retch) and I made it through the night (along with a very concerned Duncan and mum), only to be greeted by another pile of bile-coloured vomit. The worst bit is when you’re tummy is empty, you’ve got nothing left to give, but your body is still trying to expel something.

Eight pills, two glasses of flat lemonade, a cup of tea and two pieces of toast later and I am still (touching all wood available) keeping food down. Let’s hope that I may make it out of my pyjamas/sleep cap/dressing gown/slanket combo at some point and face the world today. And if I don’t, there’s always tomorrow.

This is the first day in a long time that I actually feel like a sick person. You can read it in my face and the bags under my eyes. You can see it lurking under my sleep cap. And, I can certainly taste it in my mouth. Chemo hasn’t defeated me, but it’s giving me a bit of a beating.

Today, I have one objective: avoid vomiting. Chemo drugs, I plan to put up a good fight.

Breast cancer lesson number 70: You can only play the opposition in front of you

I have always been one of life’s great worriers. Growing up, my favourite phrase (much to the frustration of my parents) was ‘what happens if…?’. If there’s an opportunity to obsess about something – from slugs and foxes to magazine deadlines – I’m there with my concerned face and (usually) my notebook!

That is, until now. Cancer, for all its flaws, has a way of putting life into sharp focus. It forces the mind to think about the only things that matter – namely life and death and how to enjoy one while avoiding the other. It certainly doesn’t eliminate worry, but it does have a way of helping you be a little more selective.

Cancer, and chemotherapy in particular, has given me a masterclass in a thing called ‘worthwhile worry’. This rather exciting strand of worry is related to concerns about events and side effects that are happening now and over which I have some control. There’s no ‘might’, ‘maybe’ or ‘what if’ in sight. Worthwhile worry, unlike 80% of the concerns that have filled up my diary over the years, is a good use of mental energy and it has a great way of pushing the unexpected phone engineer bills and missing parcels to the bottom of the pile.

Of course, I am not wishing life-threatening worries on anyone just so that they can let go of the empty washing-up liquid bottle and the overflowing laundry basket. But, I do think it is healthy to reflect on your existing list of concerns and challenge a few along the way. This year has already taught me that time is not for wasting. Time is not for throwing away thinking about things that might or could happen. Time is to be spent tackling the important obstacles that life has a habit of flinging in our direction. If it isn’t, you’ll look back and realise that you’ve got a few more unnecessary wrinkles and no time left to straighten them out!

As FEC chemotherapy cycle number two approaches, I am not worried about the side effects or just how pink my pee will be by 7pm this evening. I may not pass the pre-chemo blood test. I may react badly. But, the only thing I know will happen is that, whatever comes my way, I will get through it. I know about mouth ulcers and I have a stocked medicine cabinet to prove it. I have so little hair on my head, there’s not much more to take. I have a tub full of queasy drops and I’m not afraid to use them. By starting my anti-sickness meds at lunchtime, I am hoping I can stop the nausea in its tracks. I am prepared based on the experience of chemo cycle one. I will take it one day at a time. And, if other side effects wish to join the party, I will worry about them only when – and not if – they occur. Go into it relaxed and you’ll have far more energy to tackle those nasty little surprises.

Duncan was spot on when he said: ‘you can only play the opposition in front of you’. It’s something I plan to do today and for the rest of my life – and I hope you do too. Worry about tomorrow once you’ve got the real problems of today out the way. And, if tomorrow doesn’t look too demanding, don’t worry about it at all. That way, you’ll have more time to spend smiling and being productive and more strength for those worthwhile worries when they do come along. Because, rest assured, they will.