The treacle thickens

There’s an irony to cancer treatment. When you are diagnosed with cancer your first thoughts are “is it terminal? how long do I have?”. Fortunately my cancer was caught early, but my diagnosis caused me to face my own mortality, and wonder how much time I will have on this glorious planet. Then, when I am going through the worst days of treatment, I find myself wishing my life away because I feel so wretched that I just want the days to be over until I feel vaguely like Alison again.

Thank goodness last week’s treacle is behind me. I’m now almost euphoric to be feeling good again, so I will savour these 12 days of feeling ok before diving in to a new flavour of treacle on 30th May. I want to hug trees and sing to the moon.

Chemotherapy #3 of 6

The chemo infusion itself went well. The nurse gave me a bowl of warm water to pump up my veins in my arm, and she did an excellent job of getting a vein first time (on the top of my wrist, ouch!). I took a flask, wore a roll neck wool jumper, used a headband under the cold cap, wrapped myself in a blanket, and visualised myself in the warmth of the Caribbean sea in St Lucia with the sun’s rays kissing my skin. This all stopped me getting chilled to my core.

St Lucia

One of my absolute most favourite places in the world, St Lucia

The side effects in the week after the infusion were just the same as after #2. Sadly I didn’t like any drinks at all this time as my mouth felt so weird. For someone who has always been an advocate of drinking plenty of water, it’s very strange to find I’m forcing myself to drink fluids.

The vein in my left arm is now a tender, raised, hard cord so I am massaging it in the hope of hastening its recovery. My hair is still falling out, my eyebrows and eyelashes are thinning, but I think I’ve been really lucky so far and haven’t needed to collect my wig yet. Never thought at the age of 47 I’d be perfecting my comb over technique.

But physically, I am bouncing back quickly. In the week before my last chemo infusion I was at spin classes, I even went for a run. Most days (after treacle week) I manage 10,000 steps. I’m sure all this is helping me respond well and it definitely lifts my mood. Haven’t yet found a way to alleviate chemo brain, don’t think there is much I can do about that one.

Black molasses

The tougher part of this third round was the mental and emotional impact. The treacle felt thicker and the depression darker. I had been advised that the effects of chemotherapy are cumulative. Whilst I’ve been really lucky on the physical side, the mental side has worsened. I was now in black molasses territory. Also, it was my brother’s birthday and it angers me that treatment is disrupting our usual celebrations. None of us want any of this.

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I’m starting to get frightened of my next three chemotherapy sessions as they change to a different drug with different side effects (muscle and joint pain, peeling skin on feet and hands, lose of finger and toe nails, skin discolouration, peripheral neuropathy).  It’ll be another type of treacle.

I do not want to live with anger, fear and anxiety so I’m taking action. I’m using the Headspace mindfulness app which has a 30 day cancer series, and this is definitely helping. It’s so important to be in the moment. Worrying about the days, weeks and months to come just robs me of today’s potential.

Two days ago, feeling the full effects of chemo brain and with a very low mood, I dragged myself to a workshop on emotional freedom technique (also called tapping) at The Haven. It had been recommended to me by a few friends. I was really impressed by its simplicity and the logic of its approach. But most of all it is something I can do to manage my emotional responses. The course leaders said they work with many cancer patients and consistently see it help with anxiety and chemotherapy side effects. I’ll let you know how I get on.

The Haven

The Haven is a fabulous charity offering emotional, physical and practical support to anyone affected by breast cancer across the UK. The charity was set up to fill the huge gap in treatment for breast cancer. The NHS does a marvellous job of trying to fix us physically, but does not address everything else in our lives that is impacted by cancer diagnosis and treatment.

A few weeks ago I attended an introductory day at The Haven’s Fulham centre, which is in a converted church, an oasis of calm and support. We were introduced to Chi Gong, had a meditation session, and were given the best explanation of a healthy diet I have ever heard.

This is followed up by an individual one to one where your needs are assessed and you are then offered ten sessions as appropriate. This may be from a range of support such as nutritional advice, counselling, aromatherapy or reflexology.

All of this is free.

So I was absolutely delighted when a friend put me in touch with the fundraising team at The Haven about an upcoming event at the Chelsea Physic Garden on 13th June. They have asked me to speak at the event, to share with the 500 or so attendees what The Haven means to someone like me, someone facing breast cancer. I am so honoured and so excited to be able to support this amazing charity (after I got over the instant panic of “will I be bald by then? what will I wear?”).

I have a number of tickets at the early bird price, so please do let me know if you’d like to buy one. I’d love to see you there and to have your support for this wonderful charity. There will be entertainment, the gardens are delightful and, most important of all, there’s champagne.

Chelsea Physic Garden

Chelsea Physic Garden

Saint Dora

Since my diagnosis, it has felt like Christmas so often as I have been showered with cards, gifts and love. Now, Christmas has Saint Nick, a fourth century Greek bishop, better known as Santa Claus and the giver of gifts. So I feel there is a need to create a new saint, who bestows gifts on those going through pesky cancer treatment. Dora means gift in Greek, so that’s our woman, Saint Dora.

Saint Dora made many trips in the last couple of weeks. Thank you x x

Saint Dora excelled herself with this gift, from one of my dearest friends who knew that I would welcome a really good belly laugh. It is the ultimate solution to a bad hair and bad face day.

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Treacle

Reasons to be cheerful

  1. Chemo session #2 complete – I’m a third of the way through chemotherapy
  2. I still have hair
  3. Cadbury is relaunching a chocolate bar and it looks scrummy.

It’s nearly two weeks since the last chemo, and the session itself went well. I wore my Wonder Woman boots and took my super powers with me. However, I had forgotten to pack the super power of staying warm.  The cold cap was so much colder without a thick mane of hair at the back of my neck and I got chilled to the bone. My head didn’t feel any colder this time (I think it just goes numb after 10 minutes at -5 degrees), but that evening at home I felt very cold, and my friend who visited me said I looked white as a sheet. So, for round #3 I will take some muslin for the nurse to put on the back of my neck under the cold cap, and a flask of tea so I can sip hot tea for the three hour endurance test.

My nurse had to use a different vein in my hand this time, as the previous one used wasn’t playing ball. I’m hoping I don’t run out of good veins and have to have a permanent port, called a picc line, put in my arm. As I’ve had surgery to my right armpit, my right arm can not be used for injections or IV, so my left arm is taking a bit of a beating. My vein is also sore all the way up my arm, which apparently is a common side effect. Makes sense really, as our veins aren’t really designed to have a litre of various toxic fluids pumped in to them.

Some other interesting new side effects to report. I don’t think I mentioned that one of the chemo drugs, epirubicin, gives you bright red wee straight away – it comes out the same colour as it goes in, just like the Tiny Tears dolls of my childhood. The chemo suite has a patient only toilet, and I imagine it’s because we are all urinating such toxic stuff. I was also advised to flush twice if I use a public loo whilst I’m peeing the red stuff. This is a selfie from said toilet after my chemo.

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And you know that thing where your wee smells after you’ve eaten asparagus? Well, chemo does that too except it’s quite a bit more pungent.

Finding the positive, no PMT to deal with at the moment as chemotherapy has stopped my periods. And in all likelihood they won’t come back, I have a medically induced menopause to look forward to. More on that another time.

This is the view from the Whittington after my chemo session:

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Despite all the above, I have bounced back more quickly this time than after chemo #1. I now realise that some of the side effects I had experienced first time were actually the start of shingles. Also, this time I had acupuncture the day before chemo, and I think this has helped. Fingers crossed for #3.

Hair

One of the ways I am managing this whole dastardly affair is by facing the tough stuff when I feel ready. For a week after the chemo I knew my hair was dirty and falling out but I did not have the emotional strength to deal with it, so I wore a buff or a beanie day and night and avoided looking at my hair in the mirror.  Then, day 7 after chemo I knew I had the strength to face reality. I washed my hair, and it fell out in clumps.  What would the mirror reveal? Hooray, I’m not bald! Definitely perfecting the comb over technique, but still presentable. I am enjoying my hair whilst it lasts.

 

“Sink”

Have you seen the film Get Out? I’d highly recommend it. On one level it’s a stonkingly good thriller story, and on another it has a lot to say about middle class racism. My reason for mentioning it is that there is a scene where the protagonist is hypnotised. He is instructed to “sink”. And we see him sinking in to his armchair and being sucked in to a black abyss. That’s what the days after chemo feel like. It is like being sucked physically, emotionally and mentally in to treacle. Everything feels much harder and slower. And nothing feels the same. But I know it will pass. Day 6 and 7 I can feel myself emerging from the treacle. So, now matter how thick the treacle gets, I tell myself tomorrow is another day and it will get better. And it does.

The Treacle Cafe

Your taste buds change completely in the days after chemo. This time I didn’t even like sparkling water. But I could tolerate Waitrose sugar free cloudy lemonade and was drinking cans of it a day. Not exactly healthy, but it’s more important to stay hydrated. And in terms of food, the menu at the Treacle Cafe (ie what I could face eating) is basically a kids’ menu:

  • Baked beans
  • Fish fingers
  • Jacket potato
  • Peas
  • Tuna sweetcorn
  • Lemonade
  • Vanilla ice cream

Put anything else green in front of me (salad, broccoli, spinach) whilst I’m in the Treacle Cafe and I will fold my arms and push out my bottom lip until it’s taken away. Definitely a kids’ cafe.

London Marathon

I have often gone along to watch the London Marathon and cheer on all the amazing runners. It is one of the most uplifting experiences, to witness the pursuit of human endeavour and the huge support from the crowds. When the depressing state of the world which the media portrays to us gets too much, go to a mass participation event, cheer from the sidelines, and revel in the good in humanity. All those thousands of runners who are running to make their lives better, and to improve the lives of others, it makes me feel good about the world again.

This year I watched from the treacle sofa, and found myself crying quite often (which I do anyway, I cry when I complete half marathons and cycle 100 mile sportives too). The commentators said that since its inauguration in 1981, nearly £1billion has been raised for charity. Astonishing. Over the years I have donated to charities, as well as raising funds through sponorship by running numerous half marathons, cycling sportives and even cycling London to Paris in 2010 (an amazing experience, I highly recommend it). This is something I have always done with huge pride, but always felt a little awkward asking for donations. Well, I won’t feel awkward in the future. Having cancer has meant that I have become reliant, not just on the NHS, but also charity.  Already I have received direct support and benefit from a number of charities: Macmillan, Penny Brohn, Cherry Lodge Cancer Care, The Haven and Breast Cancer Care. There are also a number of charities whose websites have been hugely helpful to me. And if it wasn’t for thousands of strangers willing to put themselves through the hell of training to run 26.2 miles, and thousands of strangers willing to donate their hard earned cash, then my experience of cancer treatment, and my prognosis, would be very different.

Thank You

I will keep saying thank you to all of you for your words of support, your company, your gifts, your good wishes, your time. It’s a long haul getting through treatment and beyond, and I’m forever grateful to have you there by my side.