As I come to the end of my final cycle of chemo for breast cancer, and as the side-effects gradually start to wear off, I’d like to reflect on my personal highlights. If you’ve been there, feel free to add your own in the comments…
1. It’s a bit like being pregnant. You’ll spend at least three months of your life feeling nauseous, with a hospital bag packed and ready, and you’ll have to treat soft cheese and shellfish with the same contempt as nuclear waste. And your tits will never be the same again.
2. Baldness can be liberating. At first. As even more hair falls out, the time you save not having to do your hair will be spent attempting to draw on ever more complicated eyebrows. You’ll save a fortune in waxing, though, so – every cloud.
3. But… as a cancer patient, you’ll qualify for a Look Good Feel Better course. A makeup lesson, complete with free bag of makeup in someone else’s colours, in which an unfeasibly elderly Michelle teaches a roomful of baldies how to contour their faces back out of The Chemo Swell and more towards normality. An extra tutorial on blending into the non-existent hairline might have been handy.
4. You probably won’t lose weight. In fact, the combination of anti-nausea drugs and steriods may make you pile it on, and apparently the one lost boob and a whole head of hair weighed nothing. Fucking NOTHING. I added a stone in 18 weeks. The pre-treatment weigh-in is a reverse Slimming World in which the nurses congratulate you for gaining a few pounds, and you have to smile and try to hide the fact that if you’d known about The Chemo Stone you’d never have agreed to having the bastard stuff in the first place. ( Obviously that’s a lie. You graciously and gratefully take whatever drugs might make you better. But you still feel shit about piling on the weight.)
5. It’s not all dreadful. Towards the end of each cycle, you may feel quite well. While there are many, many days ranging from feeling very ill to mildly off-colour, for much of the time, you can live your life. I worked daily (from home, admittedly,) still took the boys to their sports games even if I couldn’t always watch, and walked the dog on non-shit days. In fact, the more you do, the less time you have to think about how awful it is, and there’s no need to think like an ill person. Being widowed on chemo has been the toughest thing I’ve ever done, but actually, in hindsight, I’m proud of myself for not crumbling. I couldn’t afford to. I’m also truly grateful to friends and family for stepping in on the occasions when I’ve been stuck.
6. Talking of which, you’ll definitely find out who your friends are. And who your friends aren’t. ‘Nuff said.
7. Wigs. Itchy little fuckers. I didn’t usually bother. You’ll only need to find out once though, the hard way, that it’s a good idea to keep an Emergency Hat by the front door for that unexpected visit from the postman.
8. Chemo Brain. It’s an actual thing. I had a point to make about this. Forgotten what it was.
9. Needles. You’ll get used to being cannulated all over, but the daily self-injections are prickly little bastards that boost your blood cells, and you have to do those all by yourself. Take a deep breath, lift your dress, shove it in, and breathe out again. Similar to, but much less fun than, mediocre sex.
10. Loss of taste. Tabasco on EVERYTHING. You’ll know you’re officially ill when you go off alcohol.
11. The menopause. Or not. My ovaries decided to have a ten week long bloody protest in desperation, but have given up for good in favour of hot flushes. Keep a leaflet with you at all times as a makeshift fan (in my case, I use the order of service from my husband’s funeral which has never left my handbag. I like to think he’s doing his bit to help.)
12. Constipation. Or diarrhoea. Or both. Either way, when you finally produce a firm, slippery, satisfying turd you’ll never have been more pleased with yourself.
13. Every fucker’s an oncologist. Smile politely as perfect strangers trot out all the miracle cures they’ve read about on the internet. Or share their own cancer stories. My personal favourite amateur surgeon is a chap I meet on my dog walks. He’d noticed I’d lost my hair and, because we’re northern, he wasn’t too polite to comment. He told me he’d had radiotherapy ten years ago. “Doesn’t work, you know,” he ventured. Well, mate, I’d like to wager that if you’d had it ten years ago, then it probably actually did.
14. Sympathy central. Cancer is the Rolls-Royce of illness, bringing with it everyone’s sympathy (and free parking at the hospital,) but there are definite degrees of shit, and most people who catch theirs early will almost certainly survive. People with other, more permanent life-limiting conditions – Crohn’s, MS, MND, mental health problems, etc. – don’t tend to get the same cocked-head reaction, yet their condition is ongoing, with no cure so far. If you’re lucky enough to have a treatable cancer, please remember those less fortunate when your hair has grown back and you’ve got your all-clear.
15. Sick bowls, not swords. Walking around with a sick bowl under your chin for a few weeks doesn’t make you a warrior. There are no “survivors” and it isn’t a “battle.” I found a stage three tumour in my breast in enough time to be cured. My husband had a stage three tumour in his oesophagus and died. Did he not tell the doctor in time, or fight hard enough? No. We both turned up to all our appointments and took all available treatment. I was lucky. He wasn’t. For his sake, and our children’s, don’t tell me I’ve been amazing. He was, too.
16. Living is lucky. If you’re fortunate enough to be rid of the bloody thing for good, please don’t let the shadow hang over you forever. Worrying about it won’t change anything. We all diagnose ourselves with an incurable brain tumour the moment we get a headache, but people who’ve had cancer before are more likely to be taken seriously by a doctor if symptoms persist. So, keep an eye on yourself, alert the doctor to any changes, and in the meantime, bugger off and live your life to the full, in honour of those who didn’t make it. They really do want you to.
Love Fanny x
*Bear in mind that all cancers are different and all chemo regimes have different side effects. Many don’t cause hair loss, for example. My treatment regime was Cyclophosphamide and Epirubicin for 9 weeks, and then 9 weeks of Docetaxel/Taxotere. Oh, and a massive overdose of tumour humour.