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 79: In search of the ultimate chemo-friendly ginger cookie

Anyone who knows me well will know that there’s nothing like a 250g slab of butter, a plastic spatula and a kitchen lightly dusted with icing sugar to make me smile. From grannie’s special shortbread and melted stilton and ham rolls to chocolate orange cake and even the odd hand-rolled fondant rose, if it involves a lot of measuring, plenty of bowl licking (oh, raw sponge how I love you) and a little bit of icing, I’m there.

As you might have guessed, I love to bake. The emphasis is usually on taste not presentation (although Duncan was stunned when I once produced a cake that actually ressembled Thomas the Tank Engine for my lovely godson), and there have been more than a few disasters (the less said about the collapsed Quiche Lorraine, the broken brandy baskets and the misshapen macaroons the better), but for me, there is no better smell than the smell of freshly baked goodies!

The trouble is, I love to bake with a purpose. And, when you’re tucked at home with a surgically-flattened stomach and no desire to enlarge it, that purpose is not so easy to find. I will certainly be doing another of my annual charity bake sales in the not-to-distant future, but for now, I am just keen to get creative while filling someone else’s tummy as well as my own. Plus, I have also started to notice that my new right breast is taking a rather larger shape than my left. With tummy fat all over the place (including in the new boob), I have more than just a bulging belly to worry about.

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Last night, however, I went to bed with a dream and I woke up with that purpose. Yes, after discovering that opening the bedroom door can do wonders for night sweats, I had a comfortable night. It also reminded me that I am stronger than the chemotherapy drugs dancing away inside me and now is the time to start fighting back. With chemotherapy cycle three just 12 days away, I am determined to triumph over every single side effect thrown in my direction. That means Difflam on tap (mouthwash for mouth ulcers), ice lollies and frozen grapes (yes, still focusing on the mouth) and a lot of ginger (for the sickness).

For FEC chemo cycle one, having discovered the medicinal benefits of ginger, my beautiful and thoughtful mum arrived on the doorstep with not one, but three bags of homemade ginger biscuits (plus a box of tasty cookies from a friend). I dutifully polished of the lot (with a little help, but not much) and the experience has got me thinking. What is the tastiest, most nausea-relieving and chemo-friendly ginger cookie in the world? Does it exist? Does someone have the recipe lurking in their family history? Is gingerbread better than a ginger cookie? And, could I make some to deliver to my chemo unit to help other chemo patients (and inspire others to do the same)? Why simply take on my nausea, when I can try to help everyone else too?

Of course, I am not ruling out bought ginger biscuits (or ginger bread for that matter). But, there is something about a lovingly-prepared homemade bake that I think might just have the edge. I have heard great things about the Fortnum and Mason stem ginger biscuits and do love a good Ginger Nut. Question is, do they have what it takes to banish waves of nausea from the chemo suite?

So here’s where you come in. Can you help me find the perfect ginger-flavoured treat? In return, I promise to bake every recipe and share my favourites with chemo patients (and maybe a few friends, family members and neighbours too) J. Plus I thought the whole exercise might be quite useful to my wonderful and kind sister-in-law-to-be, who just so happens to have a ‘slight’ addiction to biscuits of a gingery kind! Please post here or send me an email via the ‘Get in touch’ page and I will get cracking.

Spatulas at the ready, it’s time to turn on the oven and turn off those chemo side effects!