CHEMO is one of the things I love the most, yet hate in equal measure.
Right now, it’s keeping me alive.
And over the last five years it’s played a big part in helping me live to see my 40th birthday next week.
It’s a milestone doctors didn’t think possible when I was diagnosed with stage 4 bowel cancer at the age of 35.
Back then, they said I would need six cycles of treatment.
I’m fast approaching 100 cycles, and in a hideous position of knowing that in order to keep my sleeping bear cancer, well sleeping, I have to keep going.
Over the years it’s become glaringly obvious that whenever I am off treatment, be it chemo or my targeted drug therapy, my cancer grows.
It’s the cruel reality of the fact you can live longer now with stage 4 cancers, thanks to all the new drugs and targeted therapies.
But, with that comes the side effects – and the very scary and real risk that one day those options will run out and the cancer party will run riot.
While I complain about chemo, I do know I am very lucky to have it as an option right now.
Just three months ago, my body was so weak and my liver was failing – and I wasn’t strong enough to have chemo.
The issue is you can’t pump cytotoxic drugs into a failing body.
I wouldn’t have been able to process it, and I would have died anyway.
But, thanks to an emergency operation to insert a stent into my bile duct, my liver started to recover and I grew stronger.
That’s how I am still here, writing this column and looking forward to my 40th birthday next week.
Like with so many things to do with cancer, it’s all about a balance.
Weighing up the risk of nasty side effects with the risks of dying if the cancer spreads.
I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who finds the treatment a breeze.
It doesn’t matter how many cycles I’ve had, it doesn’t get easier.
I am writing this attached to my chemo pump again, having been vomiting violently at 3am, my husband holding my hair back, while I cuddled the toilet yet again.
Understandably, I get lots of questions about my treatment.
One common one is: “Is your chemo kinder because you still have your hair?”.
The answer is no.
I may be really lucky to still have my hair, and I do count myself very lucky on that front, but my stomach gets blitzed and I can’t feel my hands or feet due to damage to the nerves.
The treatment I am back on is known as first line chemo.
Top tips to dealing with chemo
I have put together ten tips that I find really useful to help get through the rough treatment days, and hopefully, regardless of at least some will resonate with most cancer patients.
- Chemo sucks and it is OK to cry about it, it’s OK to admit you find it hard
- Get some advice from someone who has had your type of chemo, online forums are great for picking up tips to deal with specific side effects from other patients.
- Managing side effects is key, get on top of them before they get bad. Don’t wait to feel sick before taking anti-sickness medication, for example.
- Be your own patient advocate. If you don’t feel well, tell someone. If you are struggling, tell someone. Help is out there, but it has to start with you asking for help.
- Know you will have good days. Hold on to them and make the most of them.
- Know that sometimes you just have to sleep and cry. Tomorrow is a new day, and it might just be a better one.
- Take all the help and support you can get. Just say yes!
- Treat yourself each cycle. Flowers, a trip out, lipstick! Whatever you fancy, treat yourself, you deserve it.
- Know there will be times when it is all too much, times when you want to run away and throw the towel in.
- Remember to live in the windows. Don’t give cancer all of your time, make the most of the windows where you’re not on chemo and you feel OK. They might be unpredictable, but grab those fleeting moments with both hands.
It’s a hardcore mixture of five different drugs that I get via a porthcath – a device that is planted into me, and allows the drugs to get straight into my veins.
I then walk around with a mobile pump for two days, at which point (due to Covid) I have to disconnect myself.
Then comes the ten days of misery, the sh*t days, where you are actually shocked at how much sh*t your body can produce.
Then comes the tired days, where you’re shocked by how you can sleep and sleep and still feel exhausted.
And then you hope for a few normal days, where life feels OK.
And then, you have to do it all over again!
Chemo, targeted drug therapy and immunotherapy all work in slightly different ways.
But, all three have similar side effects to manage.
I found my targeted drugs much kinder in many ways, but I did suffer with hideous skin rashes.
What is important to remember is while this is my experience, it won’t be the same for every cancer patient.
My experience won’t be the same as everyone else’s, every cancer, every drug, and every patient has their own unique experience.
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