The Chemotherapy Diaries
There seems to be a thing with unpalatable words beginning with ‘C’. For many people outside of Scotland, the natural word that comes to mind is… well, you know, See You Next Tuesday. The theme of this series is based on a different ‘C’ word though: chemotherapy. Throughout this series, I’m going to be writing about my experience with chemotherapy.
My first day of chemotherapy was Saturday 27th November. It was in the shower that morning that the impact of the word truly hit me. All of a sudden, I felt overwhelmed by feelings of the most genuine fear I had felt in weeks. A thought had occurred to me that after today things may never go back to ‘normal’ again. This may be the start of years of chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and whatever other techniques needed to make me well by doing quite the opposite to my body in the short term. I sat on the floor of the wet room with water running down my body and cried. “Things can only get better from here” I thought. My parent’s bathroom has underfloor heating at least, so it is a comfortable place to have a breakdown.
Despite being in the middle of my second cycle of chemotherapy whilst writing this, I still feel non-the-wiser as to exactly what it is and how it works. It seems to be some form of dark magic whose chance of success is based on some loose parameters, such as how positive you are and whether you eat enough Manuka honey each day. What I do know is that I show up at the hospital every other Saturday and one of the wonderful nurses connects me to a machine. We then embark on the 5-hour journey of trying to assassinate some cancer cells together. I, armed with my Nintendo Switch, a few books and my phone, and the nurse, armed with the actual chemotherapy drugs and supplying every useful part of the operation.
The drugs themselves are delivered through a port that sits under the skin on the right side of my chest. If it is sounding like a storyline from a sci-fi film, it’s because it may as well be. The procedure to install it was fairly simple. An incision is made in the chest and the silicone device is inserted under the pocket of the skin. Another incision is then made in the neck where a vein sits, and a line is fed under the skin from the device and into the vein. I realise that it sounds like I was sitting watching the entire procedure, but rest assured I was not. I was lying on a table facing the opposite way and discussing skiing with the doctor. I made the mistake of asking “what was that?” at one point, and the doctor responded that he was tunnelling between the 2 incisions with a rod. I ceased asking any more questions about the procedure after that and tried to keep the conversation fixed on skiing only. My knowledge of the procedure has been regurgitated from a video I had to watch before signing some forms, so take it with a pinch of salt. I have a very bad memory after all.
Each chemotherapy session begins with me sitting topless whilst a nurse plunges a needle into the silicone device. It sounds worse than it is really, and I would take a needle to the chest over a needle directly to the vein any day. I’m usually the youngest person in the room; a title I hold proudly and defend ferociously. It also seems that every other chair manages to turnover approximately 2 people in the time it takes my treatment to be delivered. So not only am I insisting that I am the youngest, but I am also claiming to have the hardest and longest treatment. Narcissism is a little-documented side-effect of chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy bag no 1 takes two hours. Although I have only had two sessions so far, I like to refer to this as the honeymoon phase of the treatment. Despite the warnings of severe stomach cramps and diarrhoea, I sail through this part of the treatment with my book in hand and smile on face, joking with the nurses and enjoying my Saturday morning. Bag no 2 is where the problems start to begin.
It is hard to explain all of the side effects that start to occur during the delivery of the second bag. Apparently, it is particularly bad as it not only delivers some of the more uncomfortable side effects of chemotherapy generally, but bag no 1 is also settling into its job of making my life hell by this point. They are quite the formidable team chemotherapy bag no 1 and 2, and together they deliver a plethora of weird and wonderful problems for my body.
After about 15 minutes of bag no 2, a cloud of tiredness and nausea creeps over me, and I am forced to abandon my book and blasé attitude towards the day’s treatment. My fingers and jaw begin to cramp, and I get an extreme form of pins and needles in both. For some reason, my jaw actually locks up so badly that I start to slur my words like I’ve been upgrading the free hospital coffee to Irish all morning. The jaw symptoms are especially weird as none of the nurses or doctors seem to understand why that happens to me, and they say that they haven’t seen it before. Even more concerning is how little it seems to phase medical professionals when a symptom of chemotherapy is undocumented. As previously mentioned, chemotherapy is a dark magic and not a science, so maybe this isn’t that surprising or concerning.
In the first session, I had to be accompanied to the toilet during bag no 2. The nurse came over to me and kindly asked “is everything Ok?”. I’m not sure what prompted the question, as I sat keeled over with my head between my knees, dripping with sweat and trying not to move a muscle to prevent myself from feeling any sicker. “I think I’m starting to feel a little bit dreadful” I responded, only half joking. My jaw was locked at this point, so I doubt she made out a single word of my response, but she knew what I was trying to say. It wasn’t her first rodeo. She helped me onto my feet and told me I should try to go to the bathroom. Another nurse appeared in my peripheral vision and handed me a little cardboard bucket in case I needed to throw up. I was deeply insulted by this. Throughout my life I have prided myself on my ability to never throw up. It is the reason I used to regularly fall asleep in nightclubs at university. Better that than throw up. I decided it wasn’t the right time to start an argument; she was only being nice after all. In the second session I managed to walk to the toilet by myself, so there are signs of improvement already.
Once bag number 2 is finished, the nurse attaches my baby bottle of chemotherapy drugs to the line, and I am sent on my way. This bottle is quite fascinating – it contains a balloon inside it full of chemotherapy goodness. Over the next 48 hours the balloon diminishes in size as the drugs are pushed through the line and into my system. A district nurse then comes to my house to disconnect it. And that concludes the delivery of chemotherapy into my body. It is only the start of their effect on me however, as I brace myself for the 2 weeks of suffering before the next session.