I’m not sure if anything can actually prepare you for chemotherapy. So far it’s been an absolute rollercoaster of symptoms from uncontrollable diarrhea to back spasms which make me look like Michael Jackson in Thriller (kid you not) to vomiting to hair loss. The biggest thing has been the tiredness. That feeling like you haven’t slept in days and just want the world to go away so you can curl up. Then there are days where I’ve been feeling pretty spritely and have managed trips out and felt quite normal…those are invariably the days when someone rocks up with a homemade cottage pie and you feel like a total fraud. I even went on a two week camping holiday to France where I slept on a camp bed under canvas…true story. So life on chemo doesn’t have to stop. I really should caveat this with the fact that everyone responds differently and every chemo drug gives different side effects so this is only MY experience.
Before it all starts you’re invited to have an induction session at the hospital so you can get a sense of what’s to come. I managed to drag my brother Andrew with me and he was more than delighted to learn that ‘breast nurses’ actually exist.
I found it very hard when I first walked into the chemo suite and was surrounded by poorly looking bald people with tubes everywhere thinking that this was going to be me very soon. It felt like the time I went into labour and I was sat in triage having my foof assessed and could hear the baying noises of women in full throes of childbirth all around me. I remember just wanting to cross my legs and do a runner. It’s that feeling of no choice – this shite is going down and there’s no turning back. At least in labour there’s a cute itty bitty bundle at the end of it…
After our whistle stop tour of the treatment room Gaynor, my amazing Brazilian breast nurse, took us into a private room to talk through the procedure, the timings, the symptoms and the side effects. Gaynor is blessed with the most infectious heavy Latino accent and reminded me of Gloria from Modern Family (if you haven’t watched it, you must). She told me about ‘dee hair you-er must-er lost…bud idder grower back huh’ and ‘you taker da sickness somer da days’. Everything she threw at me just sounded poetic because of her exotic turn of phrase. Until she got talking about my skin changes ‘sensible sensible sensible your err skin going to be…you must taker no parabans or perfume in er your products because your err skin going da be very sensible’. I knew she meant sensitive of course but felt too judgy to correct her. She then leant forward and stared intently at both Andrew and me and in a hushed tone whispered ‘And er your er vagina gonna be da most er sensible as it’s ever been‘ It was at this point that Andrew got up awkwardly and declared his need for a coffee. ‘Your er husband no likey de sexy talk‘. I explained he was my brother and we sat in silence while I contemplated having a law abiding fanny. I should add that I have zero complaints about the team who look after me – they’re incredible.
I digress. The main learnings (apart from sensible lady gardens) from the induction were the common side effects of breast cancer chemotherapy. I thought it’d be helpful to share my tips on how i’ve managed them so far. I can’t stress enough though that everyone responds differently…
EFFECTS ON THE BLOOD
Chemo has the ability to wipe out the good stuff and the bad stuff in your body…especially the ability to make white blood cells which in turn reduces your immune system. Each time you go for chemo you have a blood test to make sure you’re well enough to have the treatment. My white cell count went down, down, down each time so I was given an injection to give them a boost which worked well. However, another complete godsend for me has been LIFE MEL HONEY
(see https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/Honey/Nu-Vitality-LifeMel-Honey-120g/B003UG86WU ). It’s pretty pricey but I have honestly sworn by it. It’s made from Israeli bee’s which are fed on a specially formulated diet which includes selected herbs such as Siberian Ginseng, Echinacea and Uncaria Tomentosa (whatever that is). I have a teaspoon under the tongue morning and night. The results have been incredible.
REDUCING RISK OF INFECTION
As your immune system is weakened chemo patients are very susceptible to infection which can be pretty dangerous. I’ve (touch wood) managed to keep infection free so far which is some small miracle given the age of my 3 kids. They’ve all been poorly at some point these last few months and thankfully I haven’t picked anything up. My tips on this are:
- Frequent handwashing and anti-bac hand gel
- Washing all fruit/veg
- Drinking 3 litres of water a day
- Eating healthy food (avoiding processed where possible)
- Not reheating food
- Avoiding unwell people
- No sharing cups/straws
HAIR LOSS (more on this in next post)
This is more than likely to happen on breast cancer chemo. However the cold cap can be very effective. I have thinned massively all over and have a bald patch at my crown but apart from that i’ve kept a decent covering so far. My tips are:
- I cut my hair into a bob in preparation – it helped mentally prepare. Plus my hair was long and the theory is the weight of it could’ve encouraged it to fall more.
- Try the cold cap (i’ll do a separate post on this), the first 15 minutes is the worst and take a few paracetamol half an hour before. Reflexology is often offered when using the cap and I would highly recommend…it makes the cold cap slightly more bearable
- Wash your hair really gently once a week with cool water. Use paraben / alcohol free shampoo and conditioner. Boots sell a few different brands which are great. I used Neal’s Yard Lavender shampoo and conditioner.
- Don’t blowdry or use straighteners. You have to suck this up i’m afraid and accept that your font won’t look as good
- No hair clips / hair bands or anything which applies pressure on your hair follicles. Avoid brushing too. I used a wide toothed comb from Boots
- Hair tends to fall around Day 15 after the first round of chemo. Leading up to this point your scalp can feel sunburnt and itchy. It’s so hard not to touch and fiddle with it but really try not to. It comes out in chucks like this…
7. I wore a headscarf most of the time (and still do) to protect what I have, to cover my bald bits and to stop me itching. Below is the start of my bald patch…
8.Wigs are of course a fab option – I can talk through this in another post
EYEBROWS / EYELASHES
I didn’t lose my eyebrows on EC chemo but they’ve definitely thinned massively on the weekly Taxel. My eyelashes are also much more sparse but there’s still a covering. Most women i’ve spoken to have lost there’s entirely at the end of Taxel treatment so i’m a few weeks off of that delight. I got my eyebrows tattooed by Tracy Giles (www.traciegiles.co.uk) in Central London and she was phenomenal. I had it done a few weeks before my chemo started and I honestly think it was the best thing I did. It hurt but no pain no gain! They looked quite dark to begin with but it soon wore off
SICKNESS, NAUSEA AND VOMITING
I really struggle with this unfortunately. I have only actually vomited a couple of times but the nausea has been pretty intense. My tips for this are:
- Eat little and often
- At its worst, just go with the foods that your body is telling you to have – I was sinking pizza / Nandos / bagels like the cookie monster
- Keep hydrated
- Ginger tea / Ginger chewing gum (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ginger-People-Original-Chewy-Candy/dp/B000LKX4FW)
- Travel sickness bands (Boots sell them)
- Prep for it in advance…on your good days, remember the foods/drinks that hit the spot and have them ready. I found the same things kept working.
- Oh and take ALL the medication you’re given for it! I was prescribed Emend and Domperidone.
DIARRHEA / CONSTIPATION
Your bowels definitely have fun with you and i’m yet to speak to another cancer patient who hasn’t been affected. Each day is a bit of a Russian roulette but the medication can be so effective so do tell your breast nurse if you’re suffering.
- I could only really rely on the medicine I was given for this
- Drinking 3 litres of water a day
- I took Dioralyte after each bout
- I was prescribed Loperamide (Imodium) which worked a treat
MOUTH AND DENTAL PROBLEMS
I suffered pretty badly with bleeding gums and excruciating mouth ulcers.
- Corsodyl daily mouthwash is a good over-the-counter option
- Difflam mouthwash is great but only on prescription. Your oncologist should prescribe
- Gelclair is an amazing oral gel which relieves pain. It coats any lesions instantly so I use it before I eat. I got mine on prescription.
- Use a very soft toothbrush
- Use natural toothpaste – I’m using Arm & Hammer Simply Natural
As well as becoming more sensitive your skin gets very dry so I’m constantly moisturising myself. I’ve been using Aveeno Skin Relief Body Moisturising Lotion 300ml (Boots £5) because it’s more affordable than some of the others available. The Green People (www.greenpeople.co.uk) have a wide range of paraben/perfume free products which are more pricey but really good. It’s also worth looking at baby ranges because they’re often chemical free and value for money. In the shower i’ve been using Neal’s Yard Lavender Shower Gel which is, again, nasty-free.
SO FAR my nails have held out but apparently they’re likely to go to pot in a few weeks time. I’ll keep you posted! Here are my tips:
- OPI Nail and Cuticle oil morning and night
- Acetone Free Nail Polish Remover (Boots own brand)
- Constantly wearing a dark nail polish colour to protect nails from UV light
4. This is a picture of my nails today in between painting. You can see the white ridges running across the nail which you get on chemo.
Feeling ill for such a long period of time is enough to get anyone down but the chemo drugs also seem to play havoc with my mood. Everyone is different but i’m the sort of person who gets frustrated if I feel i haven’t done anything with my day. I like to go to bed at night feeling some sense of achievement so I’ve had to lower my expectations of what I can accomplish in a day. For example. i’ve just made a curry for dinner tonight and feel pretty good about it. Plus writing my blog has definitely been driving me through the darker times. I’ve spoken to so many people going through chemo and many have taken up reading, knitting, box sets…anything to keep them occupied. Something that I can’t stress enough is the importance of exercise and fresh air. Even if you can only manage a 15 minute walk, I have found it makes a dramatic difference to my energy levels and certainly to my mood. Try it!