I made it. 18 weeks of chemo – actually make that 19 with my week delay – has finally come to an end. Being told back in late November that I had to undergo chemo was bad. Hearing it would take 18 weeks was really bad. And being told the second half would be administered weekly was awful. It seemed insurmountable. But here we are in May, with the flowers blooming and the trees lush and green. The timing of my treatment has been an excellent metaphor for going through chemotherapy. I went into my first treatment on a cold, grey winter’s day on the 28th December feeling pretty grey and dark myself. I emerged from my last chemo session on the 3rd of May into bright sunshine feeling lighter than I had in four and a half months.
The high of my last day of chemo was promptly followed by a pretty crushing low. Everyone is thrilled that you’ve got through it but then the side effects kick in. The cumulative tiredness after 18 weeks of poisoning meant I felt the worst I ever had and really not very much like celebrating. But as ever this too shall pass and by last weekend I was feeling normal enough to head up to Edinburgh and celebrate my good friend’s wedding (thanks for a wonderful day Jules and Keith!). I decided to have a full day off from my cancer health-kick and enjoy a few glasses of prosecco. I danced, got a bit tipsy and behaved like an ordinary person at a wedding. If not entirely forgetting my situation, then at least sticking my fingers in my ears and shouting “LALALALA” for a little while.
HAIR AND BEAUTY TIPS
I managed to scrub up OK on the day after feeling like the mangy dog at the back of the pound for the last few months. I had to call on all the hair and beauty skills I’ve learned during chemo to disguise what is happening to my body. Despite chemo finishing two weeks ago my hair continues to thin and shed - though thank God (or rather thank Paxman!) it still looks normal to everyone else and my wig remains in the care of the hairdresser. I never seem to be able to get it to feel really clean though as I can’t scrub it properly when I wash it so I generally wear it clipped up. Hairdryers and straighteners are still banned so I agonised for weeks over what on earth I would do with my hair. In the end, it was clip in pony-tail to the rescue. Hair colour is still banned and with my hair growth now stepping up a gear my dark/grey roots are giving me an unintentional ombre effect but a bit of root touch up spray hid the worst.
My eyebrows and eyelashes haven’t completely gone (yet!) My very patchy brows are well hidden by the micro-blading I had done before chemo started. I’d highly recommend it though I know not all oncologists agree with it as you need to have a top up appointment a few weeks later which I had to have during my chemo and could have been an infection risk. My poor eyelashes are a different matter though. I’ve always said if you sent me to a desert island my only essential makeup item would be my mascara. Not even that can make them look good now they’ve thinned out so much and patches where they’ve completely gone. I’ve never been one for false eyelashes – way too much effort - but I managed to find some natural looking ones and needs must. I was given a makeup lesson the day before the wedding with the fabulous Lynette Page which was a Christmas present from my husband. She showed me how to stick them on without blinding myself and gave me a whole new makeup look which I tried to faithfully recreate the next day. With the help of a new outfit I managed to feel a bit like my pre-cancer self. It was a perfect edit point post-chemo and pre-surgery.
Looking back at the last 4 and a half months I definitely think the anticipation of chemo was worse than the event. But I know I was incredibly lucky in terms of not suffering too many side effects. Tiredness, hair thinning, mild indigestion, slightly irritable skin and fluid retention were the worst I had. And to be honest I was tired before I started with an over-active toddler to chase after.
WORKING THROUGH IT
I managed to keep working throughout, made easier by the fact I was part-time since having my little boy and I work relatively flexible shifts. I found going to work a real life-saver. While I was there, even though lots of people wanted to know how I was (and I had to tell them all I honestly didn’t mind talking about my treatment!), I was able to forget about the cancer for a while. On a busy news day, with lots going on, I could go a good hour or more without thinking about cancer. And believe me that’s a life-time these days!
The state of my immune system has played large on my mind for much of the chemo period. After the shock of being told my second session would be delayed because my neutrophils hadn’t recovered enough (the day I arrived for chemo 2 they were 0.79!) I was determined there would be no further delays as that can mean a less successful outcome in the long term. I consulted a nutritionist so I was doing everything I could diet wise and started taking a lot of vitamins and supplements. I did as much as possible to keep germs at bay while still trying to maintain that all important normal life. Something which was totally and very irritatingly misunderstood by some small sections of the media. I managed to make it the rest of the course without having them drop to dangerous levels again which has been a huge relief.
THE MIND GAME
Chemo is a long old slog but to be honest the hardest part I’ve found is not the physical effects but the mental ones. It is such a shock to be slapped in the face by your own mortality before the age of 40. And then to be told by all and sundry that your life relies on you being positive about it. My emotions, understandably, have been somewhat up and down. There have been great days where I’ve been full of hope and positivity and plenty more where I can’t even look at my son and husband without picturing them without a mother and wife. The only advice I can give on getting through this mentally is to keep on keeping on. For every bad day, there will be a good one. I find talking about what is happening helps, this blog has been my therapy. Also to all those people worried I’m fed up of talking about it at work, every-time I repeat what is happening it takes a little more of the sting out of it, so ask away! I’m also just starting some CBT to deal with my anxiety about dying and counselling to work through my feelings of guilt and injustice.
NOW FOR SURGERY
Before I started chemo, I was blasé about the surgery and radiotherapy aspects of my treatment. But I guess I was just dealing with it in sections. Now the chemo is behind me and wasn’t as bad as I feared, my surgery looms large this Friday. The closer it gets; the more nervous I feel. It’s not so much the surgery that worries me. I’m a pro at being cut open and general anaesthetics after three laparoscopies and a C-section under my belt recently. It’s more that after Friday, part two of my treatment will be over. And then it will be a matter of whether it has worked. I am dreading what the histology results will say in case it is not good news. Biopsies and scans can only tell you so much about the cancer that is attacking your body. The medics only get a clear picture when they go in and take it out and examine what’s left under a microscope. I’m only having a lumpectomy not a full mastectomy so will just be in hospital as a day case. And if I’m up to it I’ll be live video-blogging before and after on the BBC North West Facebook page. So with Round 1 done and pretty much dusted, it’s Ding Ding Round 2. Let’s go cancer.
Latest live vlog on BBC North West from Wednesday 17th May 2017: