The Chemotherapy Diaries
Chemotherapy session 4 took place on Saturday 8th. It was pretty non-descript in many ways. I’m not trying to blow my own trumpet here, but I think I may be starting to get a kick out of the chemotherapy drugs. Now I have managed to acclimatise to the symptoms, it has started feeling a little bit like an ultra-marathon. Whenever I was preparing to run a 65km or 100km race, I was well aware that the day would have its highs and lows. There would be times that I felt like throwing in the towel, sitting on the cold earth and simply refusing to use my feet again for 2 weeks. “That’s enough,” I’d say, “These feet have had enough. I live here now.” I still have 2 black toenails on my right foot to this day due to the summer training schedule that I was just finishing when the hospital visits started. I got a PB over 50km’s in the last ultra that I competed in; it was only 10 days before I went into A&E with severe abdominal pain. “Not bad for someone with pancreatic cancer,” I thought to myself smugly, days after finally being diagnosed.
The truth is, the last chemotherapy cycle seemed to hit me so severely, both physically and mentally, that I feel like this one is giving me a break so far. There are the normal symptoms that are uncomfortable. My hands are cramping, I’m getting bad indigestion in the night, and I cannot drink cold liquids without it feeling like someone has slipped some popping candy in there; a variety based on actual fireworks, though.
There are even some new symptoms joining the party, but I am mostly laughing them off so far. My lower legs were cramping badly for the first time ever on day 1. Usually, only my hands and toes play this game with me. I was making my way around the house, looking like I was attempting the robot. The bottom of my legs wouldn’t bend, and I was rocking up the stairs one at a time, swaying from hard left to hard right, as my straight legs alternatively picked themselves up to the next step. Anna and my mum were watching from the bottom, laughing.
The only new symptoms that I cannot laugh at are the mouth sores. 3 have appeared under my tongue, and they are very uncomfortable. It has been common for me to get some mouth ulcers in other cycles, but I now know what the nurses meant when they told me to use the special mouthwash they gave me if I get any ‘unusually painful sores’. The mouthwash issued by the hospital numbs the mouth to the pain. I used my normal mouthwash and thought someone had swapped it with nitric acid.
I had my first moment of imparting wisdom on another person during a chemotherapy session, though. Well, attempting to. A man came into the ward about 30 minutes after me. He was short, of Indian heritage and probably in his mid-40s. He struggled to speak initially, partially because his English wasn’t excellent, but also because he seemed nervous. After the nurse did some introductions, asked if he needed a translator and requested to see his signature on the chemotherapy consent form, she left to collect his treatment.
“Is it your first time today?” I naively asked, as if I hadn’t just listened to their whole conversation. “Yes. I don’t know what to expect,” he meekly responded. His head-turning at the end to meet my gaze. “It isn’t too bad. It takes a few sessions to get into the swing of it, but at least you know that your body is fighting back.” I didn’t want to ask him what his cancer was, how serious it was, and whether his treatment aimed to cure or just to make his life more comfortable. I begged it wasn’t the latter. He had mentioned his wife and children to the nurse earlier, stating that they had dropped him off. The thought of it hung heavy in my mind, and my conscience screamed at me to tell him that he would fight this and see his kids get married, grow older. But you can’t make promises like that on a chemotherapy ward, especially to someone you don’t know.
He smiled at me and asked me how old I was. “I’m 28. It caught me pretty early, unfortunately. I’m always scouting the ward, making sure I’m the youngest here. No one younger than me should be dealing with any of this. None of us should.” He nodded, staring at the floor now. The nurse returned and drew the curtains around his station. I put my headphones in and prepared myself for the first chemotherapy bag as the machine was starting to beep, indicating the initial 30 minutes of sugar water was over. Time for the strong stuff.
As I left the ward 4 hours later, I passed the man as he walked back to his chair from the bathroom. We smiled at each other. “Good luck,” I said, “hopefully, see you again soon.” He smiled back and thanked me. I felt awkward about what I’d said. Did I just wish that his chemotherapy wouldn’t work? Or that his cancer wouldn’t get better? No, I didn’t. Did I? No, surely not. He smiled back, he understood what I meant. Anyway…
The session was fine. I felt rough during chemotherapy bag number 2, but I was used to that. Just the usual nausea and body temperature rising, with a small dose of sickness thrown in occasionally. I made the nurses some chocolate chip banana bread this time. It was a bit of a hurried effort. The night before, Anna and my mum had asked what I planned on making them. They saw the fear in my eyes… I’d forgotten… my whole thing was that I always baked for the nurses. “Why don’t you buy them something nice from the shop?” Anna said. I scowled at her. How dare she. I’ll make these nurses something if it’s the last damn thing I do. “I’ll make them my banana bread. I’ve done that loads of times.” Not all heroes wear capes.
An indicator that I am adjusting to the chemotherapy schedule is my new adeptness with injecting myself. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I must inject myself for 5 days in every 2-week cycle. I leave the hospital with a ‘baby bottle’ of chemotherapy drugs attached to my port. 48 hours later, a district nurse comes to my house to disconnect it. I then start the injections 24 hours after it is disconnected, for 5 consecutive days. They ensure my bones produce more white blood cells, so I am not so vulnerable to disease and infection. It was daunting at first. I’m sure any diabetics reading this are rolling their eyes and calling me a wimp, but it took some mental effort to get past the idea. You are sitting wielding a needle about 1.5cm in length, knowing that you are about to insert it into your own belly fat. It is a daunting situation. For the first 2 cycles, I spent every morning umming and ahhing over it. I had to psyche myself up all morning before I finally managed it. “Come on, Dan. You’ve had an endoscopy. This is nothing. Just a needle in your hand, being pushed into your own stomach. That’s fine. Maybe even fun? No, not fun.” I eventually got it done, one way or another.
I don’t worry about injecting myself nowadays. It isn’t fun, I admit that, but I know the drill. A bit of pain sometimes, occasionally a tiny trickle of blood; it’s okay. I like to think of it as a small win in the battle against cancer. You can acclimatise to a lot in life. What seems challenging one day can become a benign reality after a few more routine repetitions of the same process. I remember when I got my first career job in London. It was based in the Citibank building in Canary Wharf. Strangely, 2 days before starting, it occurred to me that I would be working in a skyscraper, 17 floors from the safety of the ground. I don’t know where the thought came from and why it bothered me at that moment. I wasn’t scared of skyscrapers, and it had never occurred to me before, not even when I went to the interview in that very office. The next time I thought of it was about 6 months after starting the job. As I stood in the lift one morning, I remembered that brief moment of worry. I sniggered to myself. “What an idiot,” I thought, as I sipped on my coffee and belittled past me for being so pathetic.
The point is that we find things to worry about in life. Sometimes they are warranted. Other times their origin is more deceitful. My worry that I would be working the 17th floor of a building was more likely a worry that I would fail in this career move. I knew it was a step-up from my previous job, and I had more to lose. I wasn’t living with my parents anymore, I had rent to pay, and I had a job that I wanted to excel at more than ever. That pressure manifests itself in plenty of ways – being short with loved ones, feeling agitated, focusing on negatives instead of positives. Knowing yourself well enough to recognise these things can help you better cope with the stress and tackle your worries more directly.
For now, I am feeling positive in this chemotherapy cycle. I am starting to know how to deal with the symptoms and find peace with them. You learn when a symptom is a problem, as opposed to when it is something you just have to ride out. The chemotherapy hotline at The Christie is really helpful. I can ring them 24 hours a day about anything, and they always answer compassionately and effectively. You feel like they genuinely care about you. They take time to talk to you about the problem and go through the different scenarios for resolving it. Again, it is another way that The Christie sets itself aside from the other hospitals I have attended. Perhaps some of this is because it is a specialist hospital for cancer, so they are better trained in these issues, but I still think it is unique.
My oncologist encouraged me to try and do some exercise in week 2 of my cycle. He said it would help me tackle some of my symptoms and keep me positive. Next week, I will attempt to do a few easy runs. Initially, I’m going to jog 5K with a few walking breaks if necessary. He told me not to do anything that strenuous in the first 7 days, as my body needed to deal with the stress of the drugs during this time. I did a 30-minute walk with my mum and the dogs today, which felt great, but it did tempt me to do something more. That is my competitive fitness mindset kicking in, though; I need to stick to a more holistic, cancer-centric approach for now. Control what I can, listen to the advice of the experts, and enjoy the good days. As the inspiring Shaun (The Spider) Walsh messaged me on Twitter – “Make sure your bad days are bearable during chemo but make your good days GREAT.” Amen to that Shaun, it is fantastic advice. I’m happy to see some of that old competitiveness creeping into my mind, though – it is proof that there was a Dan Godley before cancer who ran 6 times a week and enjoyed challenging himself and that he is eager to return in whatever capacity is possible under the circumstances.