Chemotherapy can have profound effects on the body and the mind.
When I started my chemo journey I had no idea how it would affect me and I was truly scared. I had already been told my cancer was terminal with a life expectancy of 9 months and I saw no reason to question what treatment the medical profession had planned for me. My oncology team were clever in the way they would only drip feed me information as and when they felt I needed to know. I guess this process was based on experience and it really worked well. They did give me some pointers, some of them really horrifying. I was told there was a high probability that I would lose my hair. It was explained to me the different ways this could happen: I was told that my hair could come out in clumps in my hair brush, I could wake up one morning and find most of it on my pillow, or it could just simply fall out a patch at a time. This information scared the hell out of me.
Jack in the box
It was during this time that I discovered that I could pop the all the negative thoughts I was having about hair on pillows and bald patches on my head into a box and lock it away for a while, until I could think about it without the fear paralysing me.
I conjured up a memory of an old box I had in my childhood bedroom. I was looking into the box and I imagined that I put a letter with all the hair loss details into the box. Then I closed the lid and locked the box. Doing this small but significant thing helped me keep a hold of my fear. Every time a fear would arrive I would conjure up the box and pop it in!
I know this sounds silly and it is only now, that the silly things when added together, played a big part in my dealing with and the healing of my cancer.
Try it on for size
The hospital told me that I would be sent a wig in the post from some central NHS department. I did not want to wait until the NHS wig came or my hair had fallen out, so I took the initiative (taking control which I think helped the healing). I made appointments with wig shops and talked to a wig maker. I took a fun friend with me to the shop and we giggled as we tried on different wigs. Doing this enabled me to share my fear and turn it into fun. Also, I played with scarves until I was confident I could tie a couple of differing styles of scarf over my head. I also spent one afternoon looking at various different types of head gear, hats, beanies, bobble etc. This meant I was prepared and not waiting for the effects of chemo before doing my research. There are lots of videos on the internet of how to tie head scarves which I have since watched and played around with.
Prior to going into the hospital in the early days of my cancer journey, I would have thought about what important questions I wanted to ask the oncologists. As soon as I passed over the threshold of the hospital I would lose all sense of self. I would ask a couple of questions and look as if I was listening to the answers but the truth of the matter was I would not be able to retain the information. I do not know why this happened, it just did. I could not remember what I really wanted to ask, nor would I retain the things the medical staff told me.
I called this experience hospital amnesia because that was what happened. This was a major setback. To overcome this handicap I would write down all my questions on a large A4 size pad of paper, leaving a couple of line spaces in-between questions and a few lines at the end for things the oncology team told me. When I arrived for my appointments I would tell the oncologist that I had a list of questions and I needed to write the answers down along with whatever they needed to tell me. The oncologist was always happy for this to happen even though it took longer for the sessions.
Rest to recuperate
Chemotherapy is cumulative, which means as you receive each dose it builds on the previous doses. I spent the time being good to myself and relaxing so that my very clever body was using the energy to heal itself rather than using the energy for walking about. I planned lazy healing days and put them in my diary beforehand so I was reminded to say 'no' to any requests to do thing on those days.
Being selfish, and by this I mean putting self-interests before other people's wants, did not come naturally to me. However, when it is a matter of life or strong possibility of death, it was a no brainer. I had to learn very quickly how to be selfish and I learnt that this was incredibly important. During the treatment my immune system was seriously compromised, which meant that my immunity was very low and I was not able to deal with viruses and bacteria.
During the chemo time, I would insist that anyone who visited me wash their hands on entering my apartment and that they do not visit if they had any signs of illness. To be fair, everybody was brilliant and even though there were times we had to cancel at the last minute either because I was not well or they would have an infection, nobody took offence.
It is now 23 years since I was given that terminal diagnosis, and I have done many more ordinary and extraordinary things to survive and thrive. I know that, sadly, there are thousands of other men and women facing the same challenges I did every day, so I wanted to share my story through my book, 'Achievement: Cancer Free For 20 Years.' Even after all these years, I still have what I call my "Daily Dozen", or 12 things inspired by my cancer journey that I do every day to survive and thrive in life.
Achievement: Cancer Free for 20 Years by Curly Martin is out now