Posts Tagged ‘FEC’

“Enemy combatants this is your final warning, please evacuate. I repeat this is your final warning!”

Everyone loves a military cliché when it comes to cancer, so my secret mission for this blog post was to try to squeeze in as many as possible. I must stress that military clichés are reserved for people with the disease and there’ll be no bravery awards on my watch.

When I filled out my cancer return for 2012/2013 I wrongly assumed I’d repaid my karmic debt and my recent diagnosis proves that I still have plenty of credits in the bad-shit bank. My sense of normal has been severely warped in the past couple of years and I wonder if I’ve just resigned myself to life being shit, as it took the nice young doctor examining me before surgery to remind me how abnormal my life has become. His four words “you’ve been in the wars” were enough to unleash a torrent of tears.

war on cancer

Two weeks ago I had surgery – axillary clearance – to remove the lymph nodes from my right axilla: that’s the ‘armpit’, or ‘oxter‘ to you and I. In the war against renegade cells, the battleground of my body has been subjected to another assault. Unlike the sentinel node biopsy I had last year, this operation was much more invasive and they ripped out half my armpit. I think the NHS should scrap the latin and start using slang: “Aye we’re gonnae clear yer oxters” sounds much less intimidating than the militaristic “we’re going in for axillary clearance”.

As is the norm in my world, I thought I’d be fully recovered after a couple of days, however it’s taken me much longer to recover than I expected. You’d think my body would be hardened by previous battles but perhaps the relentless chemical and surgical assaults are starting to take their toll. They do a lot of rooting around to get to the nodes, nerves can be damaged, and tissue-fluid can build up in the axilla (armpit). This can result in a number of not very pleasant side effects. 

For the first couple of days, there was a definite rumble in the jungle of my armpit: I was mightily pissed off about having to go through surgery again, so it’s understandable that my armpit might want to communicate its discontent. By the end of the first week I was starting to resemble a human-bagpipe, and could have joined a ceilidh band with the ever-growing bulge and chorus emanating from my right oxter.

shrig-1112-400x215

An extreme reaction to axillary lymph node clearance

I’m surprised my body isn’t screaming, the damage that’s been inflicted in the last year: the FECin Chemotherapy; the now seemingly pointless Sentinel node biopsythe Mastectomy with bottom transplant; the skin-shedding Radiotherapy; the ‘let’s give the other one a bit of attention’ Mastopexy; and the bagpipe inducing Axillary lymph node clearance. That’s 4 operations, some heavy duty chemicals and a ton of radiation.

It’s not a competition, however I am considering starting a new Facebook game called “Disease Top Trumps”. Having been diagnosed with cancer twice in the last year, I do get slightly irritated when I read a Facebook status update that says “feeling rubbish today, sore throat 😦 “. It’s all relative and everyone’s entitled to a whinge, but from where I’m standing, anything that can be treated with paracetamol does not require a Facebook status update, and the next time I see one of these updates I’m going to find it hard not to play my cancer top trump: “I HAVE CANCER – WOULD YOU CARE TO SWAP?!” Or maybe I’ll just start doing tumour status updates: “Tumour feels bigger today, think it’s terminal 😦 ” and see what response I get.

I promise I will never give tumour status updates on Facebook, in fact I hope I never have to talk about this insidious disease ever again (at least not my cancer), because on Wednesday something incredible happened. Last week I had appointments, with both the surgical and oncology teams, to get the results from surgery and discuss the rest of my treatment plan. The results were irrelevant, I knew I was starting chemotherapy again in December, I just wanted a date, so that I could book a much needed holiday from the cancer that’s taken over my life for the last 18 months.

My apathy turned to shock, when I received the news, that of the 18 lymph nodes removed, only 1 was cancerous. The minimum requirement for treatment is 4 positive nodes and I only had 1, which means no further treatment, besides monthly injections of Goserelin (Zoladex).

You’re probably wondering how did this happen again? The answer is nobody knows. They can’t tell if the tumour was completely new, or if it stemmed from cells which migrated from the previous site. I had quite a large gap between finishing chemotherapy and having my mastectomy during my last course of treatment, so there’s every possibility that a few cells jumped ship when no-one was looking.

Obviously I’m ecstatic that I don’t have to go through chemotherapy and radiotherapy again, but it’s scuppered my weight loss & hair removal plans. I’ve been fattening myself up in preparation for the chemotherapy I thought I’d be having. The chemotherapy diet is cancer’s best kept secret: ‘Feeling flabby? Watch the pounds melt away on the chemo-diet!’ I also expected to be as bald as a coot by xmas so I gave up on depilation: losing your eyebrows and lashes can make you look like an alien, however it means you don’t have to shave your legs for a whole 6 months. Perhaps if they emphasised these positive side effects of chemotherapy they might get more takers?

Alice

Dorothy and Alice contemplate the meaning of life

Those of you who know me well and who follow my blog will know that this recent recurrence has thrown my whole life into complete disarray, again. Friends and family have commented on how well I’ve coped with my recent diagnosis, but I’m a great believer in bottling things up & letting them out in inappropriate places. I’m joking, it’s actually really hard to contain your emotions when you think you’re going to die, and simple things like a trip to the supermarket are made even more stressful by the prospect of bumping into someone you know or bursting into tears at the checkout. You realise that the small-talk that people make in these environments is mostly just meaningless waffle. When people ask “how are you today?” they don’t want to know the truth and this for me is one of the most difficult parts of having cancer: it’s an exercise in people management. You’re continually thrown into situations where you have to predict and mop up other people’s emotions. Having the disease is stigmatising enough, but I’ve been in so many situations where I’ve lied because I can’t cope with other people’s reaction to my disease. It’s much easier to say “yeah I’ve got breast cancer but I’m feeling really positive and treatment is going really well” than to say “actually I’m beginning to question the meaning of my existence and wondering what I’ve got to live for”. It’s deep man, but it’s normal to ponder these questions when the grim reaper comes a knockin’.

I was ecstatic when they gave me the good news on Wednesday, however my elation has faded into quiet contemplation as I consider the enormity of what I’ve been through. I’ve survived cancer for a second time and I’m trying not to feel bitter about my recurrence, because if I do that, it means the cancer has won. I need time to lick my wounds and get my head around the fact that I’m not going to die before I start thinking about life again. I’ve earned my stripes, I’m hanging up my boots and I hope I never have to face this disease ever again.

I wanted to finish the year on a high and although I don’t feel like champagne & fireworks just yet, I might have a wee sigh to mark the end of my 2012.

Cancer can get to f**k

Last week I received the pathology report from my operation and it was mostly good news.

The cancer was an aggressive Grade 3 and although my 60mm tumour hadn’t shrunk, they assured me many of the cancer cells had died. It was an inside job, the FEC feckin worked.

Even better news is that they have removed all of the remaining cancer and I have clear margins, probably the best Xmas present I’ll ever have. If cancer is the Death Star, the margins are the energy shields of healthy tissue around the tumour and mine were fully activated. Although the margins were only 3mm in places, the consultant reminded me that cancer cells can’t jump, further verification that the cancer hasn’t spread. The Force is still strong.

The Grade 3 worried me however I’ve since learned that Stages and Grades are completely different. The Stage describes the size and spread of the cancer, whilst the Grading refers to the speed at which the cancer cells are growing. The Grade can only be determined once the tumour is removed. My diagnosis, back in June, of Stage 2B Breast Cancer, meant that the tumour was large, but hadn’t spread. The aggressive Grade 3, means that it had the potential to make its way towards my lymphatic and vascular systems although thankfully it hadn’t. I’m not completely convinced, but perhaps it’s time I start believing the results.

I used to eat, sleep and breathe cancer, but since the operation I no longer think about cancer all the time. Now the cancer has gone and it’s been replaced with new worries. Will it come back and how can I be sure that every last cancer cell has been removed?

These concerns will be answered in the New Year when I have the double whammy of radiotherapy and Tamoxifen to look forward to. It’s a belt and braces approach. What hasn’t been nuked by chemotherapy and surgery will most certainly be annihilated by radiotherapy. Radiotherapy is final reassurance that the cancer is gone and Tamoxifen will ensure the bitch don’t come back. As my mate Jenny succinctly put it “Cancer can get to f**k!!”

My annus horribilis

This year has been a surreal journey from diagnosis, through chemotherapy to surgery and my brain is still trying to compute the ride. I’ve lost 6 months of my life and it will probably be another 6 months before my life returns to some kind of normality. I feel a massive weight has been lifted since having the cancer removed, however the euphoria I’ve felt since the operation has turned into quiet relief as I know it could have been so much worse.

Having cancer is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me and although not something I wish to repeat, it’s definitely been memorable and almost certainly life changing. Staring death in the face brings everything back to zero and gives you a new appreciation for life. It’s strengthened family ties, reinforced existing friendships and encouraged new ones to flourish. I joke about it, but cancer really does bring people together.

Anyway, enough sentimentality I just want to say a BIG THANKYOU to everyone who has been there for me this year and to everyone who has taken the time to follow my blog. Here’s to a Cancer free Christmas…maybe there’s a song in that 😉 Merry Xmas everybody!!

Thank FEC it’s over

Posted: October 5, 2012 in The Big C
Tags: , ,

Today I am celebrating. 127 days since my diagnosis and 105 days since starting chemotherapy I’ve had my sixth and final dose of the delightful FEC. I also had my trusty friend, the Picc line, whipped out today so I’ve got my left arm back too.

I bid an emotional farewell to the Oncology unit today. I won’t miss the weekly trips, the smell of the ward – that hospital smell makes me want to barf now –  and being surrounded by illness, however I’ll really miss the banter with the nurses and the psychological security-blanket they have provided me with over the last few months. They’re a truly lovely bunch.

The after effects of chemo mean my celebration is very low-key. More of a “thank f**k that’s over, get cosy on the couch and stretch my left arm as far as I want” kind of celebration, than going down the pub.

I’m happy. From today there’ll be no more one-armed baths or wooden-arm and soon I’ll be waving goodbye to nausea, fatigue, ice-cream headaches, brain-fog and chemo-glow. I’ve got my left arm back and in a few weeks time I should have some hair. My parents are treating me to a wee break and I’m hoping to squeeze in a Manchester catch up before my big op. It will be so good to feel normal again. Thank FEC this part is over.

I’ve really struggled with writing this post. Not because I don’t have anything to say, but because I find it easier to write when I feel like crap. The emotionally charged, my world is ending, high-octane drama just pours out. When nothing is happening it’s much harder to come up with something newsworthy.

I realise I’ve been slacking so decided it was time to put pen to paper again. I’ve also realised that I miss writing. Apart from keeping family and friends in the loop, it’s very cathartic. It keeps me sane.

I had my third cycle of chemo last Friday and after a couple of days grace the nausea & fatigue have hit with full effect. I can’t decide if it’s getting worse or if of my brain conveniently erases all previous chemo memories. I really hope it’s the latter.

I talk about chemo assuming that you all know what it involves but I’m guessing most of you aren’t personally acquainted.

It goes like this. I sit in hospital once every 3 weeks for around 1.5 hours while I have 3 drugs, the FEC combo, pumped into me intravenously. I don’t feel much at the time although one drug makes your pee red and another gives you a nasty ice-cream headache. If a nurse is on hand, she’ll water it down with saline to soften the blow.

The nurses in the oncology unit are lovely and always makes me feel like this whole cancer thing isn’t such a big deal. Cancer brings out the darkest humour in people and there have been some comedy gold moments in the oncology ward. One nurse in particular, Nurse P, is very funny:

On being asked if I would be happy to take my GCSF injection home to inject myself:

Me: “mmmm, no I can’t even look at the needle when you’re doing it”

Nurse P: “neither can I, I just close my eyes and hope for the best!”

After 1.5 hours, I’m sent away with a cocktail of drugs to ease the worst of the symptoms. I usually feel a bit groggy afterwards, but the worst side effects don’t usually kick in until 3 or 4 days afterwards.

I can’t think of any other way to describe it, other than feeling like you’ve been poisoned. Your body feels toxic, you have an unquenchable thirst, you feel sick, you lose your appetite and did I mention your hair falls out!? Then there are the stomach upsets, constipation and blinding headaches. I also had hideous mouth ulcers on the first cycle but these have lessened since getting the GCSF injection. Think the worst hangover and you’re half way there.

Fatigue is one of the biggies and physical exertion is a big no. I tried doing a wee hill with my mum a few days after my last chemo session and I felt like I was going to collapse, which was pretty scary but found out this was probably due to anaemia (not enough red blood cells). So, no mountains while I’m having chemo.

Chemo does weird things to your brain as well as your body. As well as the general ‘chemo makes you feel like shitto’, there’s chemo-brain and chemo-glow. The brain-fug is slightly disconcerting. A few examples: trying to make a phone call on my make-up compact and trying to withdraw cash from an ATM using my Boots Advantage card. My speech becomes a bit dyslexic and words get all mixed up which does have its comedy value.

Another weird and wonderful side effect of chemotherapy is that it makes your skin look great. The week after chemo I wake up looking all sun-kissed and healthy in a Scottish kind of way: the infamous chemo-glow. My skin has never looked better and my eczema has pretty much cleared up too. Every cloud.

The delightful side effects usually dissipate after around a week, when your body starts to repair the damage done. I make it sound horrific, and it’s not great but I did expect it to be a lot worse. Considering every cell in your body gets annihilated, it’s no wonder your body reacts in the way it does.

I joke about the physical side effects of chemotherapy & the mental cloudiness that accompanies it, however I am anxious about my treatment and my prognosis. I’m half way through my chemotherapy but at this stage they can’t even tell me if it’s working and this won’t be confirmed until I’ve had another MRI scan in a month’s time. If it’s not working they will bring my surgery forward. It’s on my mind 24-7.

On the upside I got my new hair last week. I was really losing hope with wigs until I tried on Stevie (all the wigs have stupid celebrity names). She’s perfect, nearly the same colour as my hair and she looks pretty natural, at least I think so. It took my brother at least an hour to notice I had hair, even though he’d seen me bald the weekend before, so it must look pretty convincing. In other hair news, the tiny bit of baby hair remaining on my head is growing and my eyebrows, which I had threaded before starting chemotherapy, are still exactly the same shape. With any luck I may never have to get my eyebrows shaped ever again.

I’m now half way through chemotherapy and the end is in sight. Three down and only three to go.

 

I’ve now got my first chemo session under my belt and it wasn’t all that bad. My drug combination goes by the delightful acronym ‘FEC‘:  exactly what I was thinking when they strapped me in on Friday.

Worse was getting a Picc line (peripherally inserted central catheter) inserted the day before. Chemotherapy drugs knacker your veins, so I now have a catheter inserted into a vein in my my arm, which travels into a larger vein in my chest. It’s slightly disconcerting having a plastic tube & tap strapped to your arm 24/7 but I’ve got used to it now. The only rules are no golf, no tennis, no swimming and no baths. It wasn’t painful, just a very strange thing to get your head around. The tranquillisers came in very handy for this appointment.

After two hours of intravenous chemotherapy on Friday I feel surprisingly ok. I’m on steroids & anti-emetics to stop me feeling sick and they seem to be working so far. Aside from the nausea and a little tiredness, the only other major side effect has been my appetite which has all but disappeared. I’ve had some weird cravings for bananas and crisps although not at the same time.

I’m now on a juicing, cleansing mission cutting out all the bad stuff: no caffeine, no dairy, no wheat and no alcohol. The general feeling of queasiness means I haven’t wanted or craved any of the above.

I expect the worse side effects are yet to come. Between my 3 weekly cycles my immune system will crash, meaning I have minimal immunity. This means avoiding people & places where I might catch something. The slightest sniffle and I could be hospitalised. Scary stuff but I just have to be sensible and avoid people who are obviously germ laden.

I’ve also been told hair loss is inevitable. This came as a bit of a shock as Manchester had told me this could be prevented using the cold cap, however I’ve since found out, this isn’t an option. At this stage I’m willing to give anything a try, so I’m now making a super juice daily (Jane Plant), said to minimise hair loss. It’s a bizarre but rather tasty concoction of fennel, apple, carrot & ginger.  I’m not sure of the science but I know it’s something to do with folic acid.

The chemo scarf look really doesn’t appeal, so I’ve been stockpiling funky headwear & thanks to the Scottish government I also get a free wig. I hope the rest of my treatment is as straightforward as this but I have a feeling the worst is yet to come. Bring it on.