Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I barely knew what chemotherapy was - I didn't even know it was the part of having cancer that makes you go bald. I only really understood after undergoing the first of six chemo cycles under a regimen known as FEC-T. I was in for a real treat.
Chemotherapy Round One
Aug. 7: Five days after my 30th birthday, I sit in a comfy white chair at the Christie Clinic in Manchester while a nurse inserts a needle and cannula into my hand. For the next two hours, I watch the Olympics on my private TV screen as a cocktail of liquid drugs infuses into my veins through a long tube. It's an uncomfortable but not painful process and the strong anti-sickness drugs ensure I don't feel any nausea.
My first chemotherapy session coincides with the day the Brownlee brothers of Yorkshire win their Olympic Gold and Bronze medals in the triathlon. Being from West Yorkshire myself, I'm engrossed in the race - a welcome distraction from the various tingling and cold sensations I experience during the chemo. The last needle comes out just as the national anthem starts playing and, as Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee take to the podium for their moment of glory, I silently give myself an Olympic-sized pat on the back for getting past my first hurdle.
That evening in bed, it takes every ounce of strength in my body not to vomit. I hum and sing to myself as I try to get through the constant waves of nausea and the pounding in my head. The feeling of not knowing what's next is the worst, and I keep a bucket by my bed lest I puke in the night.
Aug. 8: After a steroid-induced night of insomnia, I wake up with what can only be described as a combination of the worst hangover in human history, a horrific migraine and food poisoning in India. (I speak from experience on all of the above.) I have completely gone off tea and coffee and sweet foods but my appetite remains strong for anything savoury I can get my hands on. I remain in bed the entire day with a pounding headache, light aversion and terrible nausea. I also have terrible constipation - a common side-effect - and I almost faint after spending an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom!
At lunch time, a local district nurse comes to the house to inject me in the stomach with a powerful drug to boost my immune system. My skin has gone a funny grey colour and the acne I have fought all my life has flared up like a teenager's.
I employ my mother as an audio book as I can't quite bring myself to focus on the pages. She summarises the first 60 pages of her Up at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham, keeping me occupied for a good 15 minutes or so. This is an easier and less embarrassing exercise than her reading aloud the book I am currently engrossed in: E. L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey.
Aug. 9-12: The nausea eases off after day three, but I gradually feel more and more tired as the week goes on, doing nothing but sleep, eat and watch the Olympics. I rename my cat Nurse Molly as she has taken it upon herself to keep me company in my misery, sleeping on my bed throughout the long, snoozy days and sleepless nights. Unfortunately, her nurse-like qualities become less apparent when she decides to spend a good 15 minutes attempting to cough up a fur-ball on my bedroom floor, making me feel more sick.
Aug. 17: About 10 days after my first chemo, I start to feel vaguely human again. I have slept for a week and still feel exhausted and a little dizzy, but my appetite slowly returns to normal and I manage to go to London for a weekend of normality. My immune system is particularly low and paranoia sets in as I avoid the busy tube and develop a (modern-times) Lady Macbeth-style obsession with hand gel to prevent infection.
Aug. 26: My hair begins to fall out. After three weeks of checking my pillow every morning for clumps, it starts to come out in small bunches of strands. I have already cut my hair short so it's not too distressing, and I find it quite therapeutic to painlessly pull it out. (More on this in a later blog post). My thick eyebrows and lashes remain firmly in tact.
By the end of August, it's been a pretty awful three weeks, but I feel just about recovered enough to go in for round two...