End of chemo

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I had my last dose of chemotherapy last week – and I had planned to write something celebratory, but when I sat down at the computer I found I couldn’t. The truth is I’m tired and fed up.

I had expected to find this cycle easier somehow – thinking I’d sail through the side effects on a tide of elation that this was the last time I’d suffer, but actually it’s been really tough. I struggled to get out of bed at all for a few days and when I did I was hit by waves of nausea, fatigue and grief.

There has been a lot of crying this week. Perhaps it’s because I’m now forced to think about the next step of treatment – masectomy. Since diagnosis five months ago I’ve been trying to convince myself that I’m not really bothered about losing a breast – because it’s nothing compared to losing a leg.

I mean it’s just a boob, right? It doesn’t help you walk or run or get you out of bed in the morning. It just kind of sits there lumpily, perhaps jiggling occasionally during exercise, but otherwise (in my case) hardly even bothering to add much in the way of womanly curves to a lanky frame.

But losing my leg made a huge dent in my body confidence, and now losing a breast is another blow – another bit of femininity gone. And obviously the feminist within me says, “Geez Sal – it ain’t all about legs and boobs you know – being a woman is about personality, humour, intellect, charisma, spark….” But the problem is chemo has robbed me of that too – I feel dull, dreary, tired…. really, really tired. It’s been five long months of hell, I have a mouth full of ulcers, a balding head and an operation in three weeks.

I know there’s a positive spin to put on all this – I’m making progress, the surgery will rid me of the tumour etc etc, but right now I’m too exhausted to make the effort.

Chemo round 5

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Having (another) bad hair day with chemo buddy Vicki

Usually I have a couple of days’ grace straight after chemotherapy before I start to feel ill, but this time the side effects kicked in almost straight away – which is why I’ve only just got around to writing about it.  Also, my arm swelled up around the cannulation site, making typing painful – a sign that my veins, rather like their owner, are getting “grumpy’ (the medical term) from the repeated infusions.

The long list of unpleasant side effects seems to lengthen with each cycle of chemo and this time muscle spasms came, uninvited, to join the usual boorish party-goers of fatigue, sickness, dry mouth, lack of appetite, acne, diarrhoea, heartburn, mouth ulcers and hot flushes. Painful cramping in my leg and toes kept me awake for five nights after the infusion.

Apart from that, I was absolutely fine and dandy.

Luckily, I’ve since emerged from chemo hell to engage in activities that don’t involve needles, hospitals or feeling sick. Which is always nice.

This week’s loveliness has included: watching the Tour de Yorkshire in Wetherby and Tadcaster; tea-drinking and gossiping with friends; monster-chocolate-cake-making; scone-eating and bike pootling with the kids.

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Next week is (fingers crossed) my final round of chemotherapy. I’m focusing on that milestone, rather than the mastectomy, reconstruction surgery, radiotherapy and Herceptin injections to follow.

There’s still a long road ahead but we’re making progress – one painful step at a time.

Some good news at last

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This picture shows my nine-year-old daughter jumping for joy over waves at the beach last week. And it’s kind of how I’m feeling today.

Today’s MRI scan results show my main tumour is finally shrinking. The radius has gone from 11.5mm to 8mm, meaning the volume (V = ⁴⁄₃πr³) has shrunk from 6368mm to 2143mm – a much more impressive reduction of around two-thirds. (No, I didn’t understand the calculation when the oncologist explained it to me either, but my chemistry teacher husband did!)

The shrinkage now won’t necessarily have any impact on the course the disease takes in future, but it’s a massive psychological boost. Compared to the results of my last scan, when the chemotherapy showed no impact on the tumour at all, I will be going into tomorrow’s fifth chemo session feeling much more positive.

I’m taking today’s news at face value: the chemo is nasty but right now it’s working.

And I’ll take that, write it down, and be thankful.

Change of scenery, change of mood

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Sea, sand, sunshine: it’s hard to be blue at the beach.

This week we went to Scarborough for a typically British seaside break, i.e. it was pretty cold and a little wet but we had a blast anyway.

We dug trenches and built sandcastles in jumpers and raincoats, ate fish and chips on the harbour at Whitby, dodged the crowds at Sealife with an early-bird pass, swopped iPads for card-playing, and spent a glorious day on the beach in Sandsend reading a book in a deckchair (me) and Boogie-boarding in wetsuits (Pete and the kids).

I did think about the Big C a bit (debating whether my headscarf/buff could pass as surfer chic or just screamed CANCER) but it didn’t dominate my thoughts like it does at home. I was able to enjoy the holiday for what it was: precious time with my family.

Massive thanks to my friend Linda, for lending us her house for the week – it was just the tonic we needed x

 

Infection

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One of the (many) side effects of chemotherapy is immunosuppression. The drugs cause the number of white blood cells in the body to plummet, making it harder to fight infection. Which is how I ended up back in hospital on Friday.

As a prosthetic limb wearer, I’m used to dealing with skin breakdown, blisters and ‘lumps and bumps’ where my socket rubs at the top of my leg. It can be unpleasant and makes walking uncomfortable but it’s usually nothing a bit of Sudocrem won’t heal overnight. But on Thursday night, a nick in the skin had turned into an angry, red lump, and walking was agonisingly painful.

I phoned the chemotherapy ward the next morning and a nurse advised me to come in to the assessment ward at St James’. There, a doctor examined me and confirmed that the cut was infected, as I’d suspected, and I would need antibiotics. There followed an anxious four-hour wait while the team decided whether I needed to stay overnight on the ward, but after much pleading and a promise to come straight back if things got worse, I was released home with a big old box of flucloxacillin.

I escaped just in time to watch Beauty & The Beast at the cinema with the kids. At which I cried.

I blame the chemo. It’s turning me into a right wet lettuce.

 

The dog with a ridiculous name

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This is Cuddles, the dog with the ridiculous name, who came into our lives via The Dogs’ Trust when our lives were turned upside-down by cancer the first time around.

Back then I was grieving: for the loss of a limb, for the loss of a future with children (the infertility diagnosis was thankfully wrong) , the post-cancer loss of my self-confidence. Getting a dog when our life was an uncertain mess wasn’t the sanest idea  but Cuddles, the car-sick hound with the embarrassing-to-shout-in-the-park name got me through those first dark months. She needed to go out for a walk even when I didn’t want to leave the house, and when I sat down sobbing on the kitchen floor she would pad over and put her head on my lap.  Not judging me, just being there.

 

As the years have gone by, I’ll admit I haven’t paid Cuddles as much attention as I once did. Pete walks her so she is ‘his’ dog really, and life with a full-time job, kids and sport has meant that whilst Cuddles is always a much-loved member of our family, her advancing years mean she’s happy to curl up in her basket out of the way of frantic activity.

And yet, now I’m at home much more on my own, drowning once more in the enormity of my second cancer diagnosis and what this means now for my future and that of my children, Cuddles is playing her part once more. There have been tear-filled hugs lying on the floor (because it’s OK to cry in front of the dog once the kids have gone to school) and some pitifully slow limping walks around the block (because chemo and limb loss don’t mix well).

Today we even staggered up to the field where I collapsed/sat on the soggy grass for a while next to my loyal friend.

Not thinking, not worrying, just being there.

 

 

 

 

Chemo round 4

After round three’s meltdown, chemo round 4 was a breeze – for me at least.

I had plenty of company – thanks to Emma, Zelie and Pete for keeping me smiling.

Also my lovely chemo buddy Vicki (read her latest blog here),  who’s had a really rough week in hospital battling a nasty infection, but still found time and energy to bring me a matching wooly hat to keep our balding heads warm. She also had to endure some very painful injections in her hand today, after the chemo drugs started to leak out into surrounding tissue.

Here’s hoping we both have an easier time of it over the next couple of weeks. See you on the other side of the side effects xxx

Mother’s Day

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It’s Mother’s Day and that’s the perfect excuse to say thank you to my mum for supporting me through cancer treatment for the second time.

Last time around, I was in my twenties and living an hour-and-a-half from my parents’ home. But that didn’t stop mum driving over the M62 every weekday, bringing homemade food to me in hospital and sitting by my side on the ward. It was a boring, tiring slog but she never complained, even when I was grumpy as hell and unwilling to communicate.

This time around, I have a family of my own to take care of, and mum has stepped up again – helping to distract her grandchildren from my health worries with trips out and craft-making. She and dad are just a phone call away whenever I need a lift to the hospital or help with school pick-ups.

I’m not an easy patient – I’m too obstinate, introverted (on chemo) and irritable to accept help readily.

But I am grateful, lucky, and thankful to have my mum.

Friends

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I’ve seen lots of friends over the past few days during my ‘good week’ – when the chemotherapy drugs have left my body long enough for the side effects to be minimal: A group of cheery colleagues came to ply me with cake and raucous work gossip; my sister drove up from Birmingham for a catch-up; we had Sunday dinner cooked for us by lovely friends while the kids played together; and I’ve even ventured out for coffee with neighbours.

Spending time with friends during my good week each chemotherapy cycle is a huge boost to morale. It reminds me that when the chemo fog lifts, I can still be the sarcastic, chatty, outgoing person that feels like the authentic me. Rather than the curled-up-on-the-sofa depressed misanthrope. Because, in case you haven’t noticed (and my husband has definitely noticed), I am really very grumpy for at least ten days after chemo.

There have also been some very thoughtful gifts – a magazine subscription, cosy blanket, HelloFresh food delivery, to mention a few.

And then there was this:

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Thank you Amanda Wilkinson. There are no words 😉

Chemo round three

Chemo round three basically sucked. Mainly because I had worked myself up into such a state last night about my tumour ‘not responding’ to chemo that I had a full-on panic attack which required breathing into a paper bag followed by vomming into a plastic Haribo bucket (empty – it’s our family sick receptacle).
By the time I had realised this morning (in the car on the way to the hospital) that I had forgotten to take my pre-chemo steroids I was a snotty sobbing wreck. I managed to reduce the crying to tears-silently-pouring-down-the-face by the time my nurse had inserted the canula. But when I was still spilling big fat teardrops half an hour later the nurse suggested I might like to move to a side room. I think I was putting the other patients off their chemo. 

And being on my own did the trick. Ironically, once I stopped trying not to cry in front of other people, I stopped crying. I was still monosyllabic and moody with my lovely nurse who was working her last shift before moving to a new role at the hospital (hopefully with fewer weeping crazies) but at least I wasn’t sharing the misery round the ward. Because – honestly – the process of having chemotherapy is painless (once the canula insertion is out of the way) – it’s the emotional baggage you bring with you that turns it into a downer. 

I even managed to have a semi-normal conversation with my friend Anita, whose visit distracted me from own depressing thoughts. And two breast cancer veterans on Twitter (@Liz_ORiordan  and @secretdiaryofcg)- reminded me that chemotherapy isn’t really about the primary tumour – surgery will deal with that – it’s to ‘mop up’ any rogue cancer cells that might be swilling around the rest of my body looking for a new place to set up shop. And they’re so tiny that they’re more likely to be crushed by the chemotherapy drugs. 

So I’m feeling much calmer tonight. 

Although I have just taken a shit-load of steroids.