Something I haven’t been back to in a while is my story with cancer so I think it’s about time I carried it on – and what better time to recall it than the Easter weekend!
If you would like to read part 1, you can find it here.
The Treatment Plan
So at this point – after being given a definitive diagnosis that I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma – it was time for me to start my treatment.
I remember sitting in a room with a CNS nurse who had called me in to discuss the treatment I was going to have. I was sat in a small consultation room in one of those padded armchairs with my mum to one side of me and a small desk with leaflets on it about Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
My girlfriend at the time (who turned out to be an absolute DICK – more on that at a later date) had come along also – a decision my mum thought would be a good idea as it would make her realise just how real the situation was (we were one of those on/off-every-two-weeks couples and she hadn’t really taken my diagnosis seriously).
I remember desperately hoping beforehand that I would have chemotherapy tablets rather than have the treatment intravenously because I was pretty scared of being turned into a human pin cushion. As it turned out, my worst fears were realised: I was to have two cycles of intravenous ABVD chemotherapy followed by two weeks of radiotherapy.
Beginning the First Cycle
Not much happened between that day and when I started treatment. I remember there being many re-tellings of my treatment plan to friends and family members to the point that I just wanted to get going with it. I went for drinks with my closest 5 friends and filled them in on the details. I let them know that I’d be pretty unavailable for the next 3/4 months or so. I felt like Edward Norton in 25th Hour – like I was going to prison or something.
On the day of my first treatment, I wondered into the chemo ward, expecting it to be a row of separate rooms with different people having their therapy in each one. To my surprise, it was a pretty small room – probably the size of an average living room. The reception desk was right in front of me as I walked in which was only about 4 feet away from the closest chemo chair. Everything felt incredibly cramped and very impersonal. I just wanted to sit on my own with nobody else in the room but my mum.
I remember feeling pretty nervous but happy we were going to get on with the therapy. I just wanted to get the whole episode of my life over with so the quicker we started, the better. At the same time, I remember having an overwhelming sensation of everything happening way too fast. This was cancer therapy we were talking about – surely we should take our time to make sure everything goes swimmingly? Instead, I was brought in, sat down and had a drip in my arm within the space of about 5 minutes.
On this occasion, because it was my first session, I got to sit in a private room to have my chemo. I don’t think it was an actual private chemo room, I think it was a consultation room and they just wheeled my drip through.
Once the line was inserted into in my arm, that was that. I had started my cancer treatment.
An Awkward Conversation and Irn-Bru Pee
Whilst I was sitting there bored out of my mind (there wasn’t a TV or anything in the room I was in), a representative for a children and young adult cancer charity came in to chat to me. The charity he worked for offered special days out for people of my age with cancer.
Along with that (I ended up choosing two full weekend tickets to Reading festival in case you were wondering), he started telling me about the kind of things I would have to be aware of now I was having chemo. There were loads of little things I’d never thought about: I should ask for a glass in a restaurant if I ordered a canned drink because the can might be contaminated enough around the mouthpiece that it could make me sick (especially important seeing as my immune system would be on its arse from the treatment). I should try and avoid acidic foods as much as I could because the chances were that the extra acid would irritate my stomach lining, in addition to the effect my chemo would be having on it already.
And then came the awkward info – I should avoid oral sex with my girlfriend because my “sexual fluids” (as he put it) would contain some of the chemo and I could therefore pass the side effects onto her. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s important information, but damn, I’d just met the guy 5 minutes earlier!
I think he was there for the entire 4 hours of my treatment. He eventually left after we co-munched our way through a bag of Haribo Starmix. I remember desperately needing a pee when the drip had finished and swiftly jogging to the toilet once I was allowed to. What was really weird was that my pee came out a lovely shade of luminous orange. Apparently it was due to one of the drugs that I’d been given. It’s also the reason why I feel a bit sick whenever I see a glass of Irn-Bru (not that that happens too often these days…).
The Dreaded Side Effects and Becoming Best Friends with the Plughole
I got home from my first stint as an outpatient, still waiting for the realisation to hit me that I had actually just started treatment for cancer. I remember sitting on the sofa in the front room feeling like I’d just finished a marathon. Every muscle in my body felt like they had absolutely zero energy left in them. I think I ended up nodding off for a couple hours or so.
Thankfully, that was the worst of my side effects after the first treatment cycle and I was pretty much back to normal by the end of the next day. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last. The doctors had told me that the side effects would build up and that I’d gradually feel worse with each cycle. It was a necessary evil to make sure the cancer was getting no let up on the chemo front.
On a side note, I ended up splitting up with my girlfriend around the time of my first treatment cycle because she randomly decided to go on holiday for the exact length of time that my cancer treatment would take. A 2-month holiday that seemed to have been booked immediately after she found out I was to have cancer treatment. Coincidence? I think not… (told you she was a dick).
By the second cycle, I felt a bit more rough. For a few days after the treatment, I was feeling nauseous and incredibly tired all the time, but still, the side effects were manageable.
By the third cycle, the plughole started to become my best friend. Not only was my hair starting to fill it every time I had a shower (luckily, I never lost all my hair because I had really thick, curly hair at the time) but I would find myself looking at it a lot as I retched into the sink at least a few times a day. Things going anywhere near my tongue would bring on the sudden flood of nausea. Brushing my teeth suddenly became a genuine challenge.
Weirdly enough, I wasn’t actually sick too many times. There were plenty of moments of retching but very little actual being sick (although I did throw-up pretty much immediately once I’d woken up at home after my fourth treatment – brought on no doubt by the Pot Noodle I’d eaten just before I’d fallen asleep).
That was pretty much the pattern for both my third and fourth cycle. During my third, I was feeling sick literally 24/7 for a good week or so after my treatment. By the fourth, the feeling was so overwhelming that I was essentially bed-ridden for a couple of weeks and I barely ate anything. At that time, every evening I would dread waking up in the morning just to continue my nausea misery.
My sense of taste had also gradually deteriorated as the cycles went on. By the last cycle, I was pretty much exclusively eating salt and vinegar Walkers crisps as they were the only thing my stomach could take and that I could actually taste. I think that and my lack of movement contributed to me gaining about a stone in weight.
The Side Effects Part 2: the Long-Term
Those were all short-term side effects though. I do still have some long-term side effects too. I have a real problem with lavender handwash, mainly because it was the smell of the NHS-standard soap they had in the hospital toilets. To this day, I get a sudden wave of nausea whenever I smell it. My hair is different now too – what were once thick, big curls have now become thin, tighter curls (it doesn’t help that my genetics dictate that I should be losing my hair about this age, as evidenced by my two older brothers who lost their hair at my current age). I had this strange sensitivity along the top of both of my forearms for quite some time after I finished my chemo. I think that’s from the amount of needles that were jabbed into those areas though. I also have problems with my neck and upper back now where my radiotherapy was aimed at, meaning I pretty much always wake up with a stiff neck. And of course, I have the mental scars from it all (as you might have already guessed from this blog).
So after two months of living like a hermit and feeling like absolute shit, that was it. I’d finished my chemo. I can’t tell you how happy I was at the time.
Unfortunately my happiness would be short-lived. Little did I know, things were about to truly go tits-up.