Chemotherapy 101: chemotherapy is treatment for cancer using drugs. There are a lot of different chemo drugs available; some are given intravenously (into the blood), and some orally as tablets. Whilst chemotherapy is becoming increasingly sophisticated and targeted, most unfortunately do kill off some good cells as well as cancer cells (especially ones that, like cancer cells, have a fast turnover), which means it can have some fairly unpleasant side effects. Chemo can be given for any time period, from daily tablets ongoing, to a set number of intravenous cycles (generally 21 or 14 days), where the drugs are given at the beginning of the cycle, then there is a break until the next cycle.

So I started chemotherapy last week, but before that I had to have my portacath inserted. As I explained in my last post, I was going to have a PICC line in my arm, but because of my blood clot it was decided that a portacath would be better. This is essentially a little box that sits under the skin on my chest, and has a tube that feeds into a main vein. It enables the chemo drugs to be given without the need to stick a needle into my vein each time. The procedure was pretty unpleasant and the portacath is rather larger and more obvious than I expected, but I know that I will be glad of it over time, and I’m already getting used to it.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I was rather dreading starting chemo. The difficulty with chemo, is that each individual responds differently, so until you’ve started, you don’t know how you will feel, or whether the treatment will work. My fear was that I would feel horrendous for three months before we even knew if it was doing any good. So I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how my first cycle went!

I am on FILFORI, which is a combination of chemo drugs used for a number of different cancers, given intravenously. I have a 14 day cycle which goes like this; day one I see my oncologist and have my bloods taken to make sure I am well enough to have chemo. Day two I spend on the chemo ward having a number of drugs administered via a drip (it takes about five hours), then I go home with a pump attached to me that continues to drip in the final drug for another two days. On day four the pump is disconnected, then I have a break for 10 days until the next cycle begins. I was told the side effects can last for up to 10 days… So basically the whole time then!!

Determined to go into the treatment with as much positivity as possible, I loaded up the iPad with chick flicks and put on my best red lipstick (I wanted to wear killer heels too but it’s been so long since I wore a pair that I was worried I’d fall off them and I didn’t think my neurosurgeon would be too happy about that…) I’d already seen one of the wards so knew roughly what to expect, and my oncologist had explained the process and drugs I would receive so I was fairly relaxed about it all. There is always a risk of having a reaction to one of the drugs, especially the first time, but I knew the nurses would be monitoring me closely.

There isn’t a huge amount to say about the rest of the day because it was very uneventful! I felt a little dizzy and my vision blurred with the first chemo drug, but the doctor assured me this was a known side effect and it didn’t last long. Five hours sat in a chair is rather dull, but I watched a couple of films, had some lunch (avoiding hospital food as usual), and then I was done. My pump was attached and home I went (task one, find a more attractive bag to hold it; NHS issue is UGLY!) The pump looks like a water bottle with a balloon inside that slowly deflates, pushing the drug into my bloodstream. It’s a little awkward, but not painful, and it wasn’t as bad to sleep with as I thought it might be.

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The hightech pump!

So far so good, but I was bracing myself for side effects. Chemo has various systemic side effects including lowering your immune system, making you very susceptible to illness and infection, so this is something I’ll have to always be aware of. (It’s not easy to keep clear of germs living in central London, and with a one year old, but I’ll do my best! Visitors, please take note and only come if you’re well!!) For my drugs, the common side effects are also nausea and gut upsets, fatigue, sensitive skin, especially sore hands and feet, hair thinning (but not complete loss!) and mouth ulcers. All fun stuff… Whilst on the pump I had a mildly upset gut, but nothing major, and felt fairly tired by the third day. And that was it! A couple of days later I felt normal again, and as my back pain and (very slowly) hand function are improving all the time, I felt better than I have for quite a while this week! I know that the effects are likely to increase with each cycle, so I doubt the next few months are going to be a walk in the park, but it was a huge relief that cycle one went well, and I feel far more comfortable now about being able to face this phase of my challenge.

In preparation for any hair loss I decided to cut my hair short (it’s a challenge to manage it with my poor hand function as well). It’s a shame it’s taken cancer for me to brave the chop (I’ve always had my hair long), as I absolutely love my new bob! Now I’m ready to face round two on Tuesday, then round three will be on my birthday… What a way to celebrate turning 34!