My laptop is about three years old and ever since the day of purchase it’s been temperamental and slow. Mentioning this a few weeks ago to a friend, she asked if it needed defragging. Which, it turned out had never been done and so after a few hours, the machine was running as though it was brand new.
Which prompted me to start having a good clear out of folders, files and documents.
In the backlog of old files is an account I wrote of my first visit to our local chemotherapy unit in July 2017. It made poignant reading and I hope you find it of some interest.
A friendly, smiling receptionist checks me in. “Hello Catherine, and how are you feeling today? It’s your first time, isn’t it? I’ll go and see if they’re ready for you.”
I follow a nurse into the treatment room.
A blur of impressions.
Soft lighting through large windows looking over a shady garden.
Pale blue seats.
There are eight places and all but one is occupied.
“That’s your chair over there. Take a seat, we’ll be with you in a minute.”
The seats are close together with minimal privacy.
A woman in a woolly tea cosy hat smiles kindly.
A man’s eyes are closed as he listens to something on headphones.
The occupant of each seat is hooked up to an intravenous drip.
I move over to my designated place.
The man in the next chair is reading a motoring magazine. He’s still there when we leave four hours later. Still reading the same magazine.
A familiar face.
Six weeks ago I had a few emergency days in hospital. A woman was admitted into the ward for urgent treatment. She told me she was to start chemotherapy the following week. Earlier that same day she’d been to choose a wig.
We recognise each other and exchange a few words. Her hair looks nice.
I look for somewhere to put my bag and sit down. After a couple of minutes a nurse introduces herself and sits in front of me.
“We just need to check your details. Do you prefer to be called Catherine? Please confirm your surname and date of birth.”
Yes, I do prefer Catherine. Since I started this journey I’ve reverted to the name I was given at my christening, a name I abandoned when I was about thirteen. As a teenager I was Katie or Kate and since leaving college I’ve always been Cath or Cathy. I thought Catherine was too old fashioned, too long-winded and meaning “pure” it hardly fitted with the Swinging Sixties and summer lovin’ Seventies.
Funny how Kate Middleton has been re-branded as Princess Catherine.
The nurse fixes a cannula into my hand and starts checking the drugs.
I’m having one day of intravenous in hospital and fourteen days of tablets at home.
There seem to be rather a lot of tablets. I don’t usually do pills apart from the odd paracetamol. The nurses count out the tablets and replace them in the boxes. They load the IV bags onto the drip stand, checking and checking again.
Another nurse asks if anyone is with me. Michael, my husband, is in the family and friends waiting room. She brings Michael into the treatment room and he sits down next to me. We hold hands.
My nurse is talking about potential side effects. We’ve been told about these at the pre-treatment interview. And we’ve read the leaflets and visited the website but it’s helpful to hear about them again.
The nurse reminds us that first I’m to have a drug to counteract nausea and vomiting. She starts the drip. After a few seconds she explains that for some patients this drug has a peculiar side effect. “Many patients say it feels like a prickly bottom.” There is a frisson in the room. Eyes are raised and the other patients are discreetly looking over. Clearly, they know what the nurse is talking about. A few moments later so do I. Now I understand what a hedgehog must feel like every day! A drug induced smile covers my face and the strange sensation continues. Other patients smile and the moment passes.
Changing the IV bags, the nurse starts my treatment. The drug is Oxy-something-or-other. I struggle to remember its name. The bag has been in the fridge and my arm quickly starts to chill as the drug gets into my system. It’s going to take a couple of hours to administer. Michael and I both try to read but can’t concentrate.
Some patients go as their treatment ends and others come to take their places. The woman I met previously leaves and we say goodbye with best wishes for the future. I wonder if our paths will cross again.
The hands of the clock on the wall opposite move erratically. A few minutes pass and then the hands stand still. Beeps from a drip announce another treatment is complete. And then my drip starts beeping and it’s time to disconnect and get ready to go home.
Three weeks later Michael and I are back to commence the second cycle of my chemotherapy.
The side effects from cycle one weren’t too bad apart from a massive lack of energy and considerable feelings of fatigue. But I was lucky in that I missed the vomiting and diarrhoea that makes chemotherapy so difficult for some patients.
A nurse checked my weight and blood pressure and I was getting ready for another round of prickly bottoms and an ice cold arm when the ward sister came to say that the oncologist wanted to speak to me before chemotherapy commenced.
The oncologist explained that the results of a biopsy on my primary cancer had revealed a “wild” Kras gene which meant that I could receive a targeted antibody therapy as well as the chemotherapy. The chemotherapy drugs would have to be changed to drugs that worked with this antibody drug but overall it would be a more effective treatment. It’s a treatment that’s specifically designed for advanced, metastasised, colorectal cancer to reduce the cancer and extend life.
The drugs are to be administered via a Hickman line aka a tunnelled central line. I never watch hospital dramas on TV and, being of a squeamish, wimpy nature, I usually close my eyes if any surgical stuff comes up in documentaries. But I thought I needed to know what the procedure entailed and found helpful videos on Youtube.
Once the Hickman line is in place it stays in until the end of the treatment. Day 1 of the treatment is as an out-patient of the chemotherapy department and I’ll be sent home with a pump attached to the Hickman line which will continue to deliver the drugs for a further 48 hours. A district nurse will come to the house to disconnect the pump and then it’s pick-and-mix from an extraordinary array of potential side-effects. These include a skin infection that makes teenage acne look decorative. However, as the helpful Macmillan leaflets emphasise, no-one gets all the side effects and some people don’t get any side-effects at all apart from the fatigue and lack of energy which appears to be non-negotiable.
That’s where the account I wrote back in 2017 finishes.
I commenced the new regime of Cetuximab and two chemo drugs in August 2017. The treatment was repeated every two weeks until the end of 2017.
Our lives were completely changed. Michael had to take on the role of my carer especially in the first six months when the chemotherapy was particularly aggressive. But we adapted and evolved a new and very different lifestyle.
The treatment continued every two weeks throughout 2018.
And for the whole of 2019.
The results were extraordinary and unexpected. The size of the liver tumour reduced considerably and the level of bowel cancer cells in my blood diminished dramatically. Just before Christmas 2019, the oncologist and the surgical teams reviewed my case and decided to stop the drugs therapy and undertake surgery. My 2nd January 2020 treatment was my final chemotherapy.
You can imagine the combination of anxiety and excitement that Michael and I were feeling. We knew that there could be an unexpected but very bright light at the end of the tunnel. But the risks were enormous. I’ll tell you the story of having cancer surgery in the time of Covid another day. Meanwhile, I’ll keep on sorting through my old documents and try to get them into some semblance of order.
Thanks for reading my blog today.