Scary cycle 1 of chemo complete, & it was... fine

First cycle down. It’s felt like a long time coming, even though it’s only been a month. The day before, full of trepidation, I wanted absolutely none of it. Unfortunately that’s not an option… ; )

We arrived and got parked easily. The Western have a great free parking scheme, provided you rock up with your appointment letter for the Cancer Centre. It’s limited, but it turns over fast. It’s one less headache, and it’s right beside all hospital entrances. Pretty key when you feel like rubbish.

Nerves were high.

I am treated on Ward 1, a ward we’ve never even visited with Keith, let alone been on. But it’s large and bright and open. 15 big reclining seats line each bay. I learned it can treat 100 patients a day.

We’re so lucky to live 10 minutes away from this centre of excellence in the world of cancer treatment.

We were met by the lovely healthcare assistant Chuck - a good omen (Keith’s best mate’s name!) - who took my height and weight again, all obs: temp, heart rate, BP. My heart rate was 75 which is a little high for me (normally in the 55 - 60 range). He commented it was impressively low! At least that bit seems healthy.

Back on ward, back on treatment

It suddenly felt real. Which I wasn’t expecting. The beeping of chemo infusers everywhere. The smell. The sitting patiently waiting. I caught Keith’s eye as mine pooled with big tears and we both blinked them away. We’ve done all this shit before, it’ll be fine.

Steph and Kirsty, my nurses for the day, introduced themselves shortly after and ran through all of the pre-treatment docs: chemotherapy types, side effects expected, sickness medication, steroids for 3 days.

All the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’: do stay off work for a while, don’t drink alcohol, don’t see anyone with so much as a cold, especially small children as we don’t have any and therefore little immunity to those bugs, don’t pick up dog poop (win), don’t be a hero, do call the Cancer Treatment Helpline with any symptoms whatsoever, do take your temperature twice a day, don’t lie in bed for days, do live a normal life!

Cold cap treatment

I’ve signed up for a treatment called Cold Cap, which is exactly as it sounds - freezing cold liquid pumped around a tight scrum cap. It’s designed to freeze the top few millimeters of your scalp, preventing chemo-laden blood from infiltrating your hair follicles and saving your hair.

It has a 50/50 success rate, but if it works should save around 75% of my hair.

It also adds two hours to my treatment, as it has to be started an hour before infusion and remain on for an hour after treatment finishes. I’m up for anything that keeps some locks up there!

Meanwhile, I’ll lose the rest of the hair on my body, normally including eyebrows and eyelashes.

For whatever reason, one of the best chemo drugs for breast cancer is also one that causes the most hair loss. Something I remember Keith’s Oncologist telling us back when he was preparing for treatment, and although he lost his hair, his eyebrows and eyelashes remained.

The first 35 minutes of treatment are spent working out what size of cold cap is going to fit. The inner cap is a rubber hat made up of pipes carrying the water. The outer cap is a tight fitting wrap keeping it secured to your head.

My biggest concern: can I pee in this?! Answer, yes!

After an hour of cooling you can be disconnected for a quick pee and then hooked back up. Thank god. I pee once an hour.

From what I’d read online, cold cap is torture. It’s horrendous. It’s long and painful and cold.

It is long, and it is cold, but it’s only painful for the first 10 minutes until your scalp goes numb. A friend and client described it as doing a headstand in the snow, and she’s bang on! The most uncomfortable part is the tight chin strap - which also gives you a highly attractive squished face for 4 hours.

We’ll know in 3 weeks if it’s worked or not. In the meantime, I’m having a back up wig - provided on prescription from the amazing NHS - made up.

Chemo infusion

Chemo infusion one - epirubicin - is blood red. It’s suitably apt for halloween. It also matched my nails, so I’ll be keeping this colour for each session then?! It’s the gnarliest of the three.

As it’s kept in the fridge, it’s cold and you can feel this immediately. It’s very strange to be able to ‘feel’ your vein. I could track the chemo all the way up past my elbow and part way up my upper arm, before my body temperature warmed it and it disappeared everywhere else. It also causes mad tingling sensations, which periodically spread down my fingers and up my forearm.

The nursing team inject my first chemotherapy slowly and directly into my cannula, to monitor my vein’s push back against it and my immediate side effects. The last two: fluorouracil (Fuck U for short) and cyclophosphamide, are painless.

Stephanie - thankfully - mentioned that chemo no.1 turns urine a different colour, and not to be alarmed. Just as well she did, because your pee turns a bright kidney-looks-to-have-melted red!!

It’s insane how fast your body processes this liquid. It’s confirmation it’s now everywhere.

Going forward, all three will be mixed directly into a bag of saline and administered via an IV machine, shortening the process to only two hours.

Only 5 more chemo to go!

My immediate symptoms were a truly horrendous headache, sore cannula site, nausea, and sleepiness. I also felt incredibly sad. Probably less of a side effect and more of a mental acceptance that we’re properly ‘doing’ treatment for motherfucking cancer now.

But, as ever, the nursing and support team we met were amazing. The free NHS lunch was lovely! Sara - a friend working at the WGH - dropped in and chatted through the last hour of my cold cap which was a great, welcome distraction. Keith was allowed to hang around to make session 1 less stressful, but will stay off ward from now on.

Only five more chemo to go.

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