Chemotherapy Returns: A Tale of Tiredness & Ulcers

The Chemotherapy Diaries

Back in the chemotherapy fog…

As I lay on the sofa a few nights ago, the TV show I was watching ended. After a few minutes of adverts, a sound I dreaded came on… The news was beginning. I couldn’t see the remote around me, and I was feeling worn out from the chemotherapy. It’s becoming more regular for me to fall asleep on the sofa involuntarily, my personal signature of chemotherapy. I’d been in and out of sleep on the sofa for a few hours at this point. The sound of the news starting, with the summary of all the goings-on in the world and the familiar music, struck me awake, but not quite awake enough to get up and find the remote. I lay there for ten minutes or so listening to the headlines, feeling any enthusiasm and positivity I had for the world drain from my being.

I salute anyone who frequently and voluntarily watches the news. Although I think it is good to be aware of what is going on in the world, it really can bring you down. The list of awful events just reinforces this cynical idea I have in my head that there is a lack of cohesion between almost every force in the world. It leaves you feeling certain that we’re all doomed, and rightfully so. It is a feeling that I just can’t face when I’m already wrestling with the negative effects of chemotherapy. After those ten minutes, I mustered up the energy to push my body off the sofa and looked around the room to find the remote. I saw it on the other sofa. As I pressed the off button on the remote and deadened the life from the TV, I breathed a sigh of relief. Not today, I thought to myself. I’ve got my own battle to focus on. My battle against sleeping every second of every day. I’d been losing it that day.

It made me wonder whether news readers have to compartmentalize themselves from the things that they are reading every day. When it is your job to read that these 50 people died here and that this war rages on there and that there is a potential famine on the horizon in this country, do you just read the words and not process their meaning? Perhaps they are too focused on getting through the thirty minutes that they are on air to really consider the meaning of what they are saying. Maybe they attend parties and roll their eyes as everyone expects them to reel off line after line about how terrible that flood was last week, and how the death toll rises with every day that passes. The whole world becomes work to them, as everyone assumes that their favourite pastime is to discuss the headlines they report every day. A little like expecting an accountant to want to do your year-end accounts at a party because they must have gotten into accountancy as it was their passion – right?

Like the imaginary news reporter I have created here, I find myself struggling to consider the going-ons with chemotherapy this time around. During the first week, it was because nothing was really happening. I had my 30-minute infusion at the hospital and was surprised to learn that it really is just that – 30 minutes of infusion, then home. It sounded too good to be true, so I couldn’t believe it before I saw it with my own eyes. During Folfirinox, the chemotherapy I was on before my surgery, I would spend a good 5 hours at the hospital undergoing the infusion of various bags of chemotherapy drugs. This time, upon learning that I would only be required to do a single 30-minute infusion, and then take tablets every day, I couldn’t believe my luck. Week 1 reinforced this feeling that luck was finally on my side – it seemed that I’d sail through this treatment schedule and be clear of all of this cancer stuff. That is great for me, but it left me feeling dry in terms of content for the blog. There wasn’t much to report, and I don’t want to just continue blasting every nurse who takes blood from me every week; although, the nurse who did my blood test before my first treatment week did make my arm hurt for 3 days… These blood-suckers just can’t resist roughing you up sometimes.

The tablets that I have to take every day aren’t pleasant, but they felt much more manageable than an extended infusion at the hospital. I have to take 3 tablets, twice a day. I was getting into a routine of having the first 3 after my breakfast in the morning, then taking the second load after my evening meal. Because I had extremely bad mouth ulcers during my first phase of chemotherapy treatment, I’ve been conscious of not leaving the tablets in my mouth too long before washing them down with water. I’m sure that has no weighing on whether you get mouth ulcers from them or not, but I’ve convinced myself that it does, so the most stressful part of taking the tablets in that first week was getting the tablets down fast enough without nearly choking on the water. Other than that, it felt pretty simple. Onto week 2.

Week 2 is where the more ugly side effects started to reveal themselves. The infusion was all good again. “I feel like I’m being let out of school early because it’s been snowed off,” I quipped to the others sitting in the chairs around me in the hospital, as I picked up my stuff and left after another seamless 30-minute infusion. It genuinely felt like that; before I’d settled into reading a book or listening to an audiobook, the pump would be making its familiar alarm noise signifying that the cycle was complete. It catches me off guard every time – I just can’t believe it has really finished that quickly. Wonderful.

I was starting to notice that I felt a lot more tired in week 2. The chemotherapy tablets were starting to really mess with my stomach when I took them too, so I was starting to resent having to take them. I’d be eating my evening meal and trying to enjoy it, but every other bite came with another warning thought – “when this is over, you’re going to have to take those tablets again,” I’d say to myself. It puts me off my food as if it is the food’s fault. I know it isn’t, but it is nice to blame something. A few times, I’d totally forget that I needed to take them after eating, only remembering as I climbed into bed. That meant taking them on an empty stomach, which only seemed to make the symptoms worse. I’d swallow them and sit in anticipation as I wait for the sick feeling to come, the pains in the abdomen, the need to run to the toilet; it just wears you down.

The tiredness was getting worse too. I was starting to need twice as much sleep to be able to focus on anything. I’m working full-time now, whereas I didn’t work at all during the last 7 months of chemotherapy treatment. This cycle is definitely more manageable, so I don’t think that it is necessary to go off for the entire time again, but trying to do full days whilst on chemotherapy is hard in my experience so far. Your brain power is just shot – trying to focus on something for a long time is hard, and I get a lot of headaches on this new chemotherapy regime. When you have a banging headache, the last thing you want to do is sit staring at a screen. I’ve started having to take more regular breaks instead, and I’ve been starting a little later in the morning, but it all brings this feeling that you aren’t doing enough and that you should be forcing yourself through those tough patches. That brings a whole new world of anxiety to deal with alongside the already tough symptoms. It was about to get worse, though…

Towards the end of week 2, I started feeling something that I had been dreading. Mouth ulcers. My god if there is one thing I have learnt from going through all of this chemotherapy, it is that I absolutely hate mouth ulcers more than anything on this planet. Why oh why is my body’s default reaction to these toxins in my body to start punishing me even more in the most sinister and annoying way possible. I’d really love someone to explain to me why mouth ulcers are a thing, so I could simply shout “fuck you,” at that individual before throwing the glass bottle of Diflam mouthwash, issued by the hospital to help tackle said mouth ulcers, directly at the nearest wall, followed by a public protest of me licking up all of the green residue until none remained. The mouthwash doesn’t seem to do anything to actually tackle the ulcers themselves, it just numbs your mouth enough that you can’t feel how painful and annoying the ulcers are temporary. Although that relieves some of the symptoms, it does little to actually tackle the problem. I’ve lost faith in those little glass bottles issued by the hospital and engage in them with the same enthusiasm as a gazelle does a lion, as they catch eyes across the watering hole.

On Thursday, I went to Manchester to do some recording for the wonderful charity Pancreatic Cancer Action. They asked if I wanted to be featured in a video they are creating, to be released during Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month – November, the same month I was diagnosed; another dark nod from the universe, grinning its ugly teeth at me. “Oh, Dan’s aware of pancreatic cancer,” I imagine the universe saying last November as it sat awaiting my diagnosis. Some people only think the universe is against them… I have proof that it is. Anyway, my wife Anna came along with me. Before our recording time, we grabbed some brunch together in a cafe, and I took my chemotherapy tablets. All was well, and the lunch was lovely. As we arrived at the filming location, I started feeling a bit worse for wear, and I was getting some cold sweats, and a sickness was building in my stomach. I was starting to feel bad. I kept my composure and made it through the recording. After that, my plan was to go to Huddersfield to see my best friend Luke. Anna had a work meeting, so she set up camp in the building where we had been recording. I grabbed the keys from her and made my way back to the car to grab my bag. By the time I got to the car, I was overwhelmed with the sickness. My head was spinning, and I was having to wipe sweat from my forehead with my sleeve. I meekly climbed into the back seat of the car, fashioned a coat into a pillow, and lay there with the car door slightly ajar in case I needed to throw up. I fell asleep like this, only to be woken up by Anna returning to the car about an hour later. It was official – I was back in the swing of chemotherapy. It was exactly how I remembered it.

So, as I started week 3 on Friday with the starting gun 30-minute infusion, which marks the start of a fresh week in the chemotherapy cycle, I was not feeling too enthusiastic. My family have been unlucky enough to bear the brunt of my negativity so far, as they are the main ones who are in earshot of my tired complaining, so I decided it was finally time to spread the weight of my complaints across a wider network. That network started with the nurses at The Christie, who I finally informed at length of the sickness I was getting when taking the tablets, and the constant tiredness I was experiencing. The tiredness seems like a pretty standard-issue symptom, and their remedy for that was more sleep… Reasonable, but my unreasonable brain wasn’t happy with it as a solution. I hoped they’d start dishing out speed tablets or give me an NHS-funded Costa card to start drinking coffee by the pint load – hospital orders, paid for by the taxpayer. For the sickness, though, they advised me to start taking anti-sickness tablets an hour before eating, and then see if that stops the sickness from arising when I take the tablets. They advised me that if this doesn’t work, they can issue stronger anti-sickness medication, as the one I am currently being issued is quite low-duty. I don’t like learning that I’m getting the low-duty stuff. Give me the good stuff; I’m not here to play games.

That was on Friday. Today is Sunday, and I find myself writing this after falling asleep on my bed for 3 hours in the early hours of the afternoon, after eating lunch and immediately feeling sick to my stomach for doing so. I think I’m going to need to make that call and get those higher-strength anti-sickness tablets. I’m still not sure what I’ll do about the tiredness, but starting Friday next week is my first rest week, so it should get better from there. All I need to do is repeat this 4-week cycle another 2 times, and then I’m free. 3 weeks of a single weekly 30-minute infusion, followed by tablets twice a day for 21 days, then a week off. It can’t be that hard right? I did double this length of time last time, on much more toxic chemotherapy. The mouth ulcers are still far better than they were at their worst last time, but they started mild then too… Time will tell, I guess.

Like my imaginary news reader, I find myself back at the mercy of my trade – regurgitating events on a page, and struggling to comprehend their meaning. Every second you experience a negative symptom, you struggle, but you understand that this is all part of the game, and there is little time to do much more than grit your teeth and push through to the next milestone, whether that be the next meal, infusion, or rest week. The words do little to alleviate the struggles because you’ve already wrestled your way through them. This is me living to tell the tale, and I’m still grateful for that, even if I do find myself co-existing with a legion of mouth ulcers. They did not have my permission to exist, and we shall never live harmoniously. I’ll continue drinking the Diflam mouthwash by the bucketload and, most likely, continue to be disappointed by the results.

Anyway, I’m going back to sleep. I’ve been awake far too long writing this.