What’s the first round of chemotherapy like?

It’s October already – can you believe? On this day (2 October) last year I had my first chemo session. Many people remember the date of their operation but for me the 2 October is etched in my memory.

It was a day I’d been building up to since my diagnosis and there were so many unknowns and anxieties around what would be involved that I thought I should share what that first chemo session involved and hopefully it’ll help ease some of your apprehensions.

My first session was booked in for 10am and we were told to allow six hours for the appointment. This is so the nurses can monitor for any reactions to the chemo drugs.

We arrived early (as is always the case when my mum’s involved!) to be warmly greeted by the welcoming reception team (these guys have put endless smiles on our faces over the last 12 months). When we were called in, we settled ourselves into a bay where there was a large comfy chair, visitor chairs and drip holder.

The drugs

NB – these are the drugs I received but they may not be what you are prescribed. Your breast care nurse will go through your specific drugs and the side effects before your first chemo session.

First up was the herceptin, which is given as an injection in the thigh. It’s a slow injection (takes about 60-90 seconds), which is pretty painful as injections go but they inject it gradually to try to ease the tingle. They give you this first as this is the drug they monitor you for six hours for.

I’ve had 17 of these injections now – a year’s worth at three week intervals, which I think is pretty standard – and the first was definitely the worst. Once you know what to expect, it’s easier. I found these bruised my thighs (they alternate each time) but the bruising goes after a few days.

Next I was given some steroids via my PICC line – we’ll talk PICC in my next blog. This was the weirdest sensation – the steroids made my nether regions tingle, something I really hadn’t expected. At the same time I took some anti-sickness drugs. Both of these are to ease your reaction to the drugs.

Each chemo session you will be given anti-sickness drugs. You’ll also be given steroids to take in the days leading up to your next chemo but on the first session, you’ll be given these intravenously.

After the steroids, I had some saline (salted water) solution through the PICC to flush the line. Then it was on to the docetaxel, which was hung up to the drip machine, fed to the PICC and timed to drip over an hour. The vein around the PICC can feel cool, where the liquid, which has been refrigerated, enters but other than that, you don’t feel a thing. If you do feel any pain around the site, it’s important to tell the nurse as they can check the site and slow the drip to ease the pain.

Whilst you’re having the docetaxel, the nurses will monitor you for any reaction, including rash, itchiness, swelling, dizziness or sickness but the steroids are given to try to stop any reaction.

After the docetaxel, it was time for another round of saline (you’ll probably need to toilet multiple times throughout the day as you’re being given lots of liquid intravenously). The saline is also fed through a drip to the PICC so you just have to sit tight and relax. You can walk around with the drip so if you do need to pop to the loo, you can.

The third and final drug for me was the carboplatin, which is also given via a drip to the PICC line over the course of an hour or so. The drug comes in a liquid bag, like the docetaxel, but is covered by a black bag to protect it from the light. The drug is more effective if it’s protected from light.

Finally, before they let you go home, you’ll be given a huge bag full of drugs and directions of when to take them. This is pretty daunting, I won’t lie. There’s a combination of steroids, anti sickness tablets, sickness injections and tablets to help with constipation, should you need them.

You’re then free to go home.

How did I feel going home? 

I left feeling fine, nervous but fine. And the day after I felt fine too, just tired. The drugs really took effect two days after chemo, when I felt exhausted, nauseous and my mouth was full of ulcers. It’s a feeling I have never felt before so I can’t give you much insight but I could feel the drugs travelling to every part of  my body – to my ears, my gums, everywhere. Everyone’s reaction is different – some people continue as normal and others struggle. I struggled but you may cruise through it – I hope you do.

My tips for your first chemo session:

Take some snacks and something for lunch. You’ll be there all day so need sustenance – anything with ginger in is good for nausea – I went for ginger nut biscuits!

Take a good book, some sudoku or crossword games, your tablet or anything that will keep you occupied throughout the day. Mum and I used the iPad to shop online for Christmas pressies, which was a lovely distraction from what else was going on.

Try not to worry – it’s really not as bad as you imagine

Go through the list of drug timings with the nurse as many times as you need and make additional notes on the instruction page they give you. You need to get this right when you’re home it’s easy to forget what they told you several hours ago – especially with so many drugs.

When you get home, make a note of what drugs you’ve taken from the bag of delights and write a list of when you need to take the others. Tick each drug off when you’ve taken it. You won’t want to miss a dose and when you’re tired and have chemo brain, it’s easily done.

Be gentle with yourself in the days that follow. Listen to your body and rest.

Do you have any questions ahead of your first chemo session? I’ll happily answer any questions I can. 

Thanks
Becky xx

Packing a hospital bag for cancer-related stays

The optimist in all of us tells us we’re not going to end up in hospital after a dose of chemotherapy but the chances of it happening at least once over the course of treatment are pretty high. I ended up in hospital after half of my chemo treatments and learnt that having a bag packed ready was a good idea – an idea I didn’t have at the time!

Each time I rocked up at the hospital I went without a bag – you’d have thought I’d have learnt after the first and second times but no, not me. And that’s just it – during treatment your brain isn’t functioning at 100% so I though you might find in useful to learn from my mistake…

My advice would be to have a hospital bag packed and ready to go before you go in for your first chemo treatment. Pack it the day before treatment, when you’re at your healthiest and leave it in a safe place but out of the way – the spare room or your wardrobe perhaps. You’ll need to add your medication but it’s best to do that when you know you’re going into hospital.

Relatives can always pack a bag for you but often things get forgotten and there’s nothing like being prepared.What should you pack? Here’s my essential list:

  • Toiletries like your tooth brush, tooth paste, deodorant and sanitary towels (I’d suggest packing these even if your periods have stopped/been suppressed)
  • A nice soft towel – the hospital provide towels but you’ll get comfort in your own
  • Flip flops for the shower – in my opinion these are an absolute must
  • 2/3 pairs of comfy pjs and a week’s worth of knickers
  • A dressing gown – I found this useful at night when I was cold but also when the porters take you for scans and x-Rays at the other end of the hospital
  • Slippers and bed socks are a must. Take a couple of pairs of bed socks
  • A couple of comfy hats/scarves/caps – whatever you prefer wearing. Even if you have your hair, I’d suggest packing a couple if you’ve been told you’re going to lose it
  • Easy reading magazines and easy read books. I didn’t really want to read but having magazines to flick through kept me entertained
  • Jacobs dry crackers or something similar – it’s handy to have some food at hand for when you’re able to eat but not able to face the hospital food. Something very basic like dry crackers is best for your tum

Things to ask friends and family to bring:

  • Lemon and salt (sorry, no tequila here). It’s really good to add lemon and salt to water if you’ve had diarrhoea
  • Magazines and more magazines

What not to bring:

  • Treats like sweets and biscuits are likely to be off the list. Even if your taste buds insist on sugar, the doctors may well warn you against it as it can unsettle your vulnerable stomach

What did you pack that was really useful? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll  add it to the list. Thanks, Becky xx

 

What’s radiotherapy like?

This week I finished my radiotherapy treatment. The four weeks have flown, despite the 90 minute round trip in the car each day to Poole hospital.

Dan sent me some beautiful sunny roses to mark the occasion and we’ll be going out on Saturday to celebrate this as well as our five year anniversary and hopefully a Wales win in the rugby.

Before the celebrations, I wanted to share my experience of radio with you…

Before starting radio, about half way through chemo, I had an appointment with a specialist doctor to arrange the next stage of treatment. We discussed what radio would involve and the possible side effects. With all that was going on with chemo, I’d forgotten much of what was discussed but this wasn’t a problem as we went over everything again in the pre-radio appointment, about a week before starting.

At the pre-radio appointment I was given the tattoos that were mentioned in the initial appointment – permanent marks that would make life easier for the radiologists. I had imagined the tattoos would be a series of ‘blobs’ the size of bindis but instead I have three tiny pinprick dots on my chest which you wouldn’t notice for looking. Before having the tattoos I’d read forums where people had said they’d chosen not to have them because they didn’t want the ‘constant reminder’. I wonder if these people would have made the same decision if the term tattoo wasn’t used and if they’d realised how tiny the ‘tattoos’ would be.

In the radiotherapy department, there were two machines, named Elekta 1 and Elekta 2, on which I would be treated. At the pre-radio appointment, I was given a list of my appointment times and which machine I’d be treated on each day. Ahead of each appointment I put my appointment slip in the box so the team knew I’d arrived and got changed into the hospital gown I’d been given, before taking a seat in the waiting area.

Once called to Elekta 1 or 2, I removed the hospital gown from the area to be zapped, laid down onto the machine and the radiologists lined up the machine to the three tattoos, which was the part that took the most time. Once the radiologists were happy that I was positioned in exactly the right spot (the same position every day) and that the machine was lined up, they left the room and the radiation did its thing. During the first three weeks of appointments, I was zapped (I’m sure there’s a technical word for it) in three places; either side of my breast (where the cancer had taken hold) and the area around my collar bone (where cancer cells would spread next, if it were to have travelled).

My appointments were early morning, around 9:30 every day. This suited me well as it meant I could get straight back to work and settle for the day. On the first couple of mornings, I found the process very emotional, I can’t explain why. It’s odd being exposed where you’re never normally exposed to strangers and having them looking at and touching your chest. You’d think by now I’d be used to that but somehow it was different this time.

By the end of the first week, I was accustomed to the routine and the friendly radiologists kept me entertained with their chat and 80s music. Every one of the large team of radiologists was truly lovely.

In the final week they zapped the site of the cancer. This treatment was a lot quicker than the previous weeks as they had to line the machine up just the once.

Possible side effects include tiredness, aches and pains, lymphoedema, nausea/vomiting and a skin reaction similar to sun burn.  I was really lucky to only feel mildly tired. For the tiredness I drank lots of water and to avoid a skin reaction I was using My Trusty Little Sunflower Cream (a cream designed for people recovering from burns) twice a day from a week before radio started and I’m still doing that now as the peak of treatment is 10-14 days after finishing.

How did your radio experience compare? Are you about to start radio? Feel free to ask any questions and share your experience in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, here are my top tips for getting through radiotherapy treatment:

Don’t wear your best white bra 
They often use a pen to exaggerate the tattoos or to mark a specific area and the marks can transfer.

Take someone along to your first couple of appointments
Like everything unknown, it’s a bit daunting at first so it’s good to have someone waiting for you when you come out of your appointment.

Get some My Trusty
The rays can take their toll on your skin. I was really lucky that my skin didn’t react and I’m 99% sure it was because I was lathering on My Trusty Little Sunflower cream. Get into a twice daily cream routine and you won’t regret it.

Take it easy
The radiation can make you tired so you don’t want to be trying to do too much. Listen to your body and if that means going to bed at 8pm or getting someone to drive you to the hospital, that’s fine, just take it in your own sweet stride.

Those are my recommendations, what are yours? Please share them in the comments below.

Lots of love,
Becky xx