30. Chemo – the lowdown

Last Monday morning, I went to hospital at 08:30 as usual, let them take my blood and came home again, with fingers crossed and a nervous sense of uncertainty. The doctors have lowered my chemo to 75% of the original dose, so my blood will recover quicker (and they can blast me again). But with one week instead of two between chemo cycles, there’s still no guarantee my blood will be ok, and going into my last cycle, I wanted more than ever to get the green light, just one more time…

Well, needless to say I didn’t get a “we’re sorry but…” phone call later that morning, so I scooted excitedly back to hospital later that afternoon and rolled up my sleeve, grinning like a Cheshire cat!

At this point it occurs to me that I’ve never actually written about what happens during chemo…? I’ve shared photos, but apart from comments about my growing sneaker collection (which I doubt would’ve grown so fast had I not started Instagramming a different pair each time?! Foolish girl, Rebecca, foolish…) I’ve not actually shared the detail. So here we go…

I don’t have chemo on a hospital ward. It’s a separate room off the ward, so despite having medical equipment and wheelie intravenous thingies everywhere, it doesn’t really feel like a hospital. There are about 10 chairs, each of which has a wheelie intravenous thingy, a chair for if I have someone with me, and a table to accommodate my iPad, munchies, cups of tea etc. The place is very laid back; although I have an appointment time, there’s no waiting around, so if I’m early it’s fine, and if I’m late, that’s cool too. I just wander in and pick my spot, and then pretty much own my own space. It doesn’t feel formal or governed at all. And the nurses totally support this atmosphere, being very laid back, friendly, chatty and fun.

Once I’m settled, the first thing they do is ask which side I want to go in… it’s my choice but best to mix and match, so I don’t end up giving one vein a beating (the damage done by the injections repairs over time, but mixing it up gives each side time to repair before we hit it again).

Then comes the nice bit – to help the veins come to the surface of the skin (and make it easier to insert the cannula), they put a heat pack on my hand/wrist/arm. It’s just a standard gel pack about a foot long, which they heat in the microwave then rest on my arm for 10 minutes or so. (This may not sound special, but one side effect of chemo is that you feel the cold… so anything warm and cosy is nice!)

After about 10 minutes, they take off the pack and look for a good vein. As I have a number of injections during the course of treatment, they start on the back of the hand, then gradually work their way up the arm, to avoid injecting in the same spot every time. When they find a good vein, the next thing is to put in the cannula (this is like a straight tube which is inserted into a vein and strapped to my skin, the drugs are then injected through the cannula so they go straight into my blood). Putting the cannula in isn’t nice, but once it’s in, I don’t feel the rest.

The veins in the arm are generally straighter/longer than on the back of the hand, where they’re shorter and more wiggly. So navigating the wiggly veins in my hand, into which to push an inch-long straight cannula can be tricky, especially when they’re trying to avoid where they’ve gone in before. And if they get it wrong and pick a bendy vein, they end up going straight through and out the other side… OUCH! Needless to say, I hate the cannula bit.

Right – here I’ll pause for a second, as there’s something worth sharing which I wish I’d known in October… cannulas into your arm hurt less than into your hand!

I discovered this on Monday – my 11th treatment, out of 12. Yes, I’ve spent the past five months having cannulas in the back of my hand and dreading it, because it hurts, and I have a low pain threshold (seriously, I squeal when plucking my own eyebrows – god knows what I’m going to be like in surgery…?!) They did tell me at the beginning that they’d work their way up my arms, but for some reason they’ve always gone into my hands. So people, if you ever have to have a cannula, go for the arm – the plethora of lovely, long, straight veins make this a far nicer experience than hitting a bendy bit in the hand!

Once the cannula’s in, we’re good to go. The nurse brings over the chemo drugs, asks me my name and date of birth (to check they’re giving the right batch to the right person), then they hang them on my wheelie thing and, one by one, in they go. In the meantime, I just sit there and read a mag, take photos of sneakers, or do whatever my lovely friends have brought to entertain me… Kari prepared the quiz of the century and grilled me on general knowledge… Mum hijacked the blue glove box and tried to ‘administer H2O’… Alex just hopped into a chair and asked them to manicure the pom-poms on her shoes…

How long the whole process lasts depends on what chemo drugs you have – some are given in larger volumes, so take longer to go in. My first treatment (AC) took about 90 minutes, whereas the one I’m on now (TC) takes around 2.5 hours. Different drugs also have different side effects – the ones I had before gave me a killer headache, whereas the ones I’m on now just make me tired. So once the drugs are in, the cannula comes out and they put a small bandage over my hand/arm and that’s it. Then I just hang around and chill for a bit until I’m ready to head home.

After that, the chemo starts to do its thing… kill my cells. So while the treatment itself is on a Monday, and lasts just a few hours, it’s the following few days when I start to feel weaker, more tired, and more ‘sick’. During this time, I take the meds the doctors have prescribed to combat the side effects while the chemo is in my system (in this case, around four days).

Once the chemo is out of my system, my bloods then have chance to fight back. This means my lowest point (in terms of blood strength) is about four days after chemo (day five).

Luckily for me, on day five this week, my best friends arrived for the weekend to help me celebrate my birthday and finishing chemo! We’ve been out for dinner, brunch, coffee and apple pie, and they are now causing chaos in my kitchen, baking me a ‘secret’ birthday cake (read as: I’m not allowed to know what they’re doing, but they’ve asked me where I keep my baking tins, how to use my oven, and whether the local Albert Heijn sells baking powder and icing sugar…) 🙂

 

And tomorrow is a BIG day – my final chemo treatment, my 40th birthday, and my dad’s 65th birthday. Dad’s in his favourite place, with my mum and a hotel full of surprise guests; I’m in one of Europe’s most amazing cities, with my three best friends and what’s looking like the most amazing chocolate cake; and this time tomorrow night, I’ll have finished chemotherapy, and reached the first major milestone in showing this nasty little f****r the door! So much to be excited about!

SO BRING IT ON CHEMO: ONE. MORE. TIME. We’ve got this, we’re better than you, we’re stronger than you, we’ve got this far, we’re still standing, and we are NOT giving you an inch!

Let’s do this – COME ON!!

#FeelingFierce #StandingStrong #BadassBoxy

 

28. Reflection and perspective

When I first found out I had cancer, I never thought I’d be drawing a comparison to Anne Frank. But having just been round the Anne Frank House, I now find myself sitting in the cafe at Prinsengracht 267, in beautiful sunshine, with my health, my freedom and my iPad, and a compulsion to write.

A place like this, a story like hers, puts things into perspective. Nineteen years ago, I lost my brother. Despite growing up bickering, by the time we became teenagers we were incredibly close and he was my best friend. So losing him was awful. Cliche it may be, but I cannot find a word to describe it. I guess that’s why I felt kind of numb and focused on other things… My parents had lost their son – how must that feel? God knows. Other people lost loved ones in even worse ways – Lockerbie, for example – at least we’d had nine days to prepare for the worst, they’d just been hit with it. So after Simon died, the mental strength which kept me going was the thought that there was always someone worse off than me.

This same mentality came out in me when I was diagnosed with cancer – ok I have cancer, but it could be so much worse. A friend recently told me about a group of her friends who are cycling across India to raise money for brain tumor research – apparently, funding for research is allocated based on the likelihood of success/improvement, so the harder a cancer is to treat, the less likely it is to get funding. I’ve no idea if this is true, but the amount of funding that goes towards breast cancer is phenomenal, and the improvements in treatment as a result have been amazing. So if I’m going to have any kind of cancer, I feel lucky to have this one.

I’m nearing the end of the first part of my treatment – chemotherapy – which is perhaps one of the craziest things anyone would voluntarily put themselves through; so crazy that many cancer patients opt not to, in favour of almost anything else. I opted to go for it – nasty as it is, if it kills the cancer it’s the lesser of two evils, right? The journey has been horrible, but thanks to the drugs I’ve been taking to offset the side effects, it’s nothing like as bad as it could have been. Many people have it a whole lot worse.

OK so I’ve had to spend months at home, unable to go out of the apartment for long periods of time, unable to train, unable to travel, unable to socialize, unable to go to work… but reading extracts of Anne Franks’s diary today, seeing where she and her family had to hide, and reading about their ultimate demise, what on earth am I complaining about?

I have air in my lungs, sun on my face (yes dad, I have sunscreen on, don’t worry!), space to walk and the freedom to do all these things without fear for my life. There are millions of people out there, even today, who do not have any of this; who cannot walk to the end of the bed, let alone the end of the street, who are in hiding or fear for their lives, who have no idea if their loved ones are alive or dead…

…and here am I, sitting in the sunshine, in a cafe on a canal in Amsterdam, writing my blog on my iPad, with a cup of tea and a stroopwafel, planning how I’ll make up for lost time; who I will visit when I can travel again, where I will go to explore and inspire myself, what I’ll get stuck into when I get back to work, how I will celebrate my 41st birthday…

It’s all about perspective, and there’s always someone worse off.

#humble #thankful #positive #strong #hopeful

#luckyboxy