Mouth Ulcers and The End of Chemotherapy

The Chemotherapy Diaries

Bedbound and Down

I thought I’d left my abusive relationship with mouth ulcers in the past… the mouth ulcers had another thing in mind. They decided to come back in force and ruin my victory lap week with the mop-up treatment. Rather than being excited about reaching the end of my journey with chemotherapy, I spent the past week in bed, struggling to eat, and even struggling to talk.

The issues started last week on Monday. It seems strange how they form, and I’m not sure if they form differently on chemotherapy, or if I just haven’t had enough in my life prior to being on treatment for cancer to know, but it seems to be different to how I remember it. I know I’m about to get mouth ulcers because my mouth just starts feeling strangely sensitive. All of a sudden, a hint of paprika in a tomato sauce results in my cheeks and tongue feeling hot and irritable. I’ll sit there after the mildest of chilli meals and find my mouth pulsating with discomfort.

“I think more mouth ulcers are coming,” I announce to my wife, with a combination of bitter amusement and familiar disdain. The sentence sounds like a naive plot thread in a horror movie, where the protagonist announces that they’re happy that they live in the safest town in their country, minutes before a gang of weapon-wielding maniacs descend on it with masks on and a vengeance against middle-class bullshitery. In my case, I use the word ‘think‘ as a sign of optimism that perhaps the ulcers won’t materialise, and that my mouth may just be a little sensitive that day. Usually, I wake up the next day to find that optimism to be entirely unfounded, and the ulcers have spread themselves throughout my mouth in the most awkward and painful of places.

This time was particularly bad, though. I couldn’t even drink water from Tuesday to Friday without it causing my mouth to sting so intensely that I’d question whether the government had replaced the local water source with hydrochloric acid. It was Thursday night that I decided to finally call The Christie hotline and report the problem to my oncology team. I was still taking the chemotherapy tablets twice a day at this point and had been for my last infusion on the Tuesday, when it had all started to kick off, so the chemotherapy was rife in my system.

Before the final infusion, I reported the problem to my nurse during the standard pre-treatment survey. She had manoeuvred one of the large extendable lights attached to the wall behind the bed into a position to investigate the contents of my mouth.

“Oh, the back of your mouth is very swollen. Your tongue looks very painful too. They are rather excessive, aren’t they?”

“Yeah. I’m struggling to talk because the ones on my tongue are constantly scraping against my teeth towards the back of my mouth. Opening my mouth is hard because the ones at the back of my cheek strain when I do.” You’re probably reading those sentences in too normal a fashion for how I was enunciating my words at this time. Imagine someone with a lisp who, for whatever strange reason, also can’t open their mouth properly, reading the sentence to you. Looking back, it makes me laugh quite a lot, but I didn’t see anyone laughing around me at the time. What a waste of a painfully funny situation. Another rather funny event that occurred during my final infusion was me receiving a foot massage.

I’d had a minor breakdown at treatment during my first session of the final cycle, and the nurse had referred me to the hospital’s Macmillan team. The next week, during session 2, one of their specialists had come to visit me to talk me through techniques to implement when I’m feeling overwhelmed, as well as services that her team can offer to patients. One of these services was a foot massage during treatment, which is said to help lower the effects of nausea, which I was experiencing in abundance during my sessions at the hospital.

It wasn’t actually the treatment itself causing this, but the smell of the ward. I think it has finally happened that I now associate the smell of antiseptic cleaning products with the horrible effects of chemotherapy, and the experiences familiar to me during the delivery of treatment at the hospital. These include, and I apologise in advance for the amount of toilet-based issues listed, but it is the reality of being on chemotherapy: chronic diarrhoea, blood in my faeces, throwing up whilst sitting on the toilet, sweating profusely, the room spinning around whether my eyes are open or not, going white as a sheet, and my extremities freezing solid, so I cannot bend, or even feel them, which is incredibly painful and irritating.

I declined the foot massage that week, stating that it was a nice gesture but that I am nearly at the end of my treatment, and that I’d made it this far without them, so I’d soldier on. The Macmillan representative was so lovely. She encouraged me to accept it and said that it is really therapeutic, but I felt far too English and awkward about the whole thing. Also, my feet are the part of my body that I am most self-conscious of, as I used to run a lot of ultra-marathons, which isn’t usually indicative of nice-looking feet. Mine certainly fall into the category of ‘That guy likes to run marathons’, and I haven’t even run one for well over a year.

But, during my interview at the start of session 3, cycle 3, the Macmillan representative had come back to see me, and it just happened to be during the nurse’s inspection of my mouth.

“Other than the mouth ulcers, have you had any other symptoms that have been bothering you?” the nurse asked.

“I’m still struggling with nausea, and just generally feeling wiped out. I really struggle to get out of bed at the minute, and I barely leave the house at all,” I replied.

The nurse turned to the Macmillan representative and said the following:

“Do you think we can give him a foot massage to try and help his nausea?”

I’d been rumbled. Had these two planned this? What a deviant, awful, lovely pair of people. How dare they assassinate me with their good nature. How am I going to wriggle out of this one?

“That’d be great – are you Ok with that, Dan? I know you weren’t so keen on it last week,” the Macmillan representative said to me.

Both their eyes were locked on mine; I felt the weight of expectation.

“Ok, sure. That’d be lovely. Thank you,” I said, defeated, and still struggling to pronounce my words properly because of the mouth ulcers.

If you are on treatment and are offered a foot massage, I only have one thing to say to you – do it! The Macmillan representative used the electric remote on my chemotherapy chair to elevate my legs straight in front of me, then placed herself at the end of the bed. She put a lovely white towel under my feet and curved the ends of it around each ankle. She then proceeded to cover my feet in ACTUAL OIL, and softly massaged my feet, whilst chatting to me about everything that was getting me down – acknowledging the trauma that I have been through, the difficulty of the cancer that I am fighting against, and how hard it must be to readjust to my present life, compared to my old one.

The whole experience was absolutely wonderful, and it really put into perspective how important the work is that Macmillan do. What an incredible organisation and, in particular, what a wonderful individual she is. I wish I could shout her out by name in this post, but I’m not sure how ethical that would be, so I won’t. I hope this gets back to her somehow so she can read how much I enjoyed the experience, and how grateful I am for it. Anyway, this post has turned far too positive, lets get back to my week of hell with the mouth ulcers.

As I said, I spent Tuesday to Friday mostly in bed, consuming very little in the form of food or water, and struggling to do much more than sulk. Talking was very painful, and no amount of the hospital-issued mouthwash, or Iglu gel that I put on the ulcers to try and relieve them, was doing much to alleviate the issue. I was still taking the chemotherapy tablets throughout this time, but I was feeling incredibly weak and sick, and I decided it had all become too much. I’d taken to sleeping on the bathroom floor a few times during these 3 days as I was getting such bad abdominal pains and bouts of nausea, that I was worried I wouldn’t make it to the toilet in time from my bedroom if I stayed there. A few times, this proved to be a good idea, and I learnt that my favourite place in the upstairs bathroom was assuming the fetal position on a small rug placed in front of the radiator.

One time, I had been rudely woken up by my wife banging on the door, telling me that dinner was ready downstairs. Dinner? Can one not assume the fetal position on the bathroom floor in peace these days? Unbelievable. I can’t eat anyway – what good is dinner to me?

The Christie hotline wanted me to go into the hospital to be reviewed, as they were worried about a few of my symptoms. My temperature was 37.7, which is right on the border of ‘high risk’. A high temperature can be the earliest sign of infection, so patients are advised to regularly check their temperature whilst they are receiving chemotherapy treatment. The advisor was worried that some of my mouth ulcers may be infected. On top of this, the fact that I was struggling to consume liquids, and had been suffering from bad diarrhoea all week, added to their concern.

I was pretty sure that I didn’t have an infection, though. My theory about the high-ish temperature is that I was taking the reading using an oral thermometer and that my tongue and mouth were very swollen, which would probably be skewing the temperature reading. I didn’t feel like I had any symptoms of flu, which usually indicates that the body is struggling with fighting an infection, and none of the ulcers looked infected to me.

It was nearly midnight at this point, and The Christie is nearly an hour away from me. That would mean an hour to get there, a few hours there having blood tests done, and being put on routine fluids, and then another hour back home. If I was genuinely concerned that something bigger was going on, I would have been happy to do this, but I wasn’t convinced that it was. I gently refused and asked if I could arrange to see the GP the following day instead. The representative reluctantly agreed but said that she would call me back an hour later for another temperature reading, and if it remained the same or increased, insisted that I would have to either go to The Christie or to my local A&E to be checked out. The suggestion that I may go to my local A&E over The Chrstie made me giggle.

“If I need to go anywhere, I’ll come to The Christie. I’m not stupid enough to go to my local A&E anymore – I’ve made that mistake a few too many times over the last year.” That thought cheered me up momentarily. Who would voluntarily go to an A&E in the UK? They’re notorious hell-holes where, if you manage to get out within 5 hours of arriving, you feel like you’ve been blessed by the gods. At A&E you are treated like a problem; I’d rather book a plane ticket to be seen at The Christie than drive to an A&E that is 20 minutes away from me. The overall time it would take to resolve the issue would still fall in favour of The Christie anyway, even if it included navigating airport security, sitting through a flight, the awkward bag collection on the other side, then the mandatory coffee stop before leaving the airport. I once sat in A&E throwing up for 9 hours before speaking a single word to an actual doctor, and that was during my recovery from major surgery last year.

An hour later, my temperature was 37.4. Good, it was dropping. She was happy to let me stay at home, so long as I got an appointment the following day.

In the morning, The Christie hotline diligently called me to see how I was getting on. They had been far sharper than I had that morning, as I had had one of my typical chemotherapy mornings, where I could barely move a limb for how bad I felt.

“Hi, Dan. It’s the hotline here – we wanted to confirm that you have an appointment to see the GP today?” The advisor asked me.

I broke out into a thousand excuses, but the central point was – no, I didn’t book an appointment, and it was now 10:30, and all appointment slots will have probably gone. She asked me to try to get one, and then get back to them once I either had an appointment or learnt that I could not get one, so they could help to arrange an alternative.

Lucky for me, I called my GP and explained the situation, and they offered me a slot at 17:00, only available because a patient had cancelled. I assume that this patient had originally accepted the appointment, only to realise that it cut into their Friday night pub time, which had convinced them that whatever was wrong with them really wasn’t that bad and that it is probably normal for men to have dry testicles that are covered in flaky skin. No idea where that came from… you’d think I was projecting, but I promise I’m not… Anyway, I snapped the appointment up but was concerned that the advisor on the hotline would not be on shift anymore by the time I had seen the doctor, so I wouldn’t be able to report back the outcome of the appointment. Rather than proactively do anything about this concern, I returned to my position under my quilt, falling in and out of sleep until the fateful time came to attend the appointment.

The GP looked at my mouth ulcers and confirmed that none of them looked infected, but said he would give me some steroid mouthwash to encourage them to clear up quicker. He then looked at the results of a recent blood test I’d had at the GP, due to some standard screening procedures for diabetic patients, which I am.

“One of your liver functioning tests is rather high – are you a big drinker?” The GP asked.

I sat there stunned for a second before responding, trying not to sound too condescending or annoyed.

“Erm, no. I believe it is due to all the chemotherapy I’ve been on. I have pancreatic cancer.” I couldn’t help but be a little stern in my tone.

“Oh, of course. Sorry,” he responded, before talking to me a little about how the treatment was going, and how long I had left on it. He was a nice guy – it had probably been a long week.

The steroid mouthwash lasted for 5 days and seemed to do very little. My mouth ulcers are still going strong, though I am managing to eat more. Some recipes I’ve taken a particular liking to are overdone pasta with homemade pesto, a mild daal and, of course, soup – a classic ‘I’m ill and everyone should feel sorry for me‘ meal.

On a more positive note, I woke up today feeling better than I have in weeks. Instead of being greeted by a piercing headache and heavy limbs, I woke up at 8:00am and felt… kind of, Ok? I’ve gotten so used to the first feeling that I wake up to being anguish, as if I spent last night downing straight vodka from the bottle before being hit by a double-decker bus, that anything remotely more positive than this feels like a breakthrough.

In the Wet Leg song ‘Ur Mom’, there is a break in the song where the singer sings the following lines:

Okay, I’ve been practising my longest and loudest scream
Okay, here we go
One, two, three

She then proceeds to scream for an impressive amount of time. It is very random, fun, and the sort of tongue-in-cheek thing that you start to expect from their music after listening to a few of their songs (the song ‘Chaise Longue’ is a prime example of their lyrical good humour). I like to think, if I had written the song ‘Ur Mum’, I would have channelled my anger at mouth ulcers whilst producing that scream. It brings me some pleasure to imagine that was her inspiration as I listen to the song, but it almost certainly wasn’t.

So, to finish off this post – fuck you mouth ulcers, and fuck you, chemotherapy. You can both do one forever. I’m hoping that I am done with you for good, but live in trepidation that my oncology team will tell me that I have to resume taking the chemotherapy tablets until the full course is complete, which would mean another 5 days of tablets to come. I’m purposefully avoiding calling the hotline back to tell them that I’ve completed the course of steroid mouthwash given to me by the GP, as I am assuming they will advise me to now continue the course of chemotherapy tablets.

Can I just say “no” at this point? Will 5 more days of pills really stop whatever may happen from happening? I seriously doubt it. It would give my mouth ulcers more opportunity to thrive, though, and they only need half an excuse to kick off a violent party in my mouth. They’re still at it now, even after 5 days of steroid treatment. If anything, I think the steroids just encouraged them.

Who’s side are these oncologists on, anyway? I’m starting to think they’re funded by mouth ulcers.

I’ve told myself that I have to call the hotline this afternoon to talk about whether I have to resume the treatment, like a real adult. It is so hard not to ignore your problems when ignoring them does, kind of, make them go away.