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

 

There’s something you can do to help people with cancer

Today, 14th June 2016, is World Blood Donor day so I wanted to take this opportunity to share my experience of giving and receiving blood.

I began giving blood in 2009. Like many things in life, I hadn’t woken up thinking ‘I’m going to give blood today’. Instead I was on my way to the gym at Bridgend Rec one evening and Give Blood Wales were set up in one of the sports halls. I thought, ‘what the hec’ and decided that giving up a pint of the good stuff was a better use of my time than pounding the treadmill and a great excuse to get out of a workout.

I have continued giving blood as I am blood group B-, one of the most needed groups, it’s a really fulfilling thing to do and it takes no effort at all.

Sadly, after my cancer diagnosis I was told I would no longer be able to give blood. I was really disappointed by this as I felt it was something small I could do that would make a big difference to others. But it wasn’t until I received blood myself that I realised just how much a blood donation means.

My second trip to hospital, after my third course of chemo, was one of the biggest challenges of my cancer treatment. At my weakest, I was given two wholesome bags of healthy B- blood. I can’t explain what a gift this was – I’ve never felt more grateful to a stranger I’ve never met. I felt so much better for having regular blood pumping through my veins and whilst I still felt rotten, I felt the impact even after the first bag of blood.

I felt incredibly emotional receiving the blood, all too aware that someone had taken time out of their day, at their own expense, to give me some of their goodness. I really can’t express how much it meant to me. Without the blood, I would have taken so much longer to recover, costing the NHS more in care.

I know not everyone likes needles and not everyone can give blood but if you can, I really would encourage you to give it a go.

It takes around an hour. Firstly, the team of nurses get you to drink plenty of water before asking you some health questions and checking your blood is rich enough in Iron (they take a tiny sample of blood from your finger tip). You then sit back and relax whilst the blood is taken from your arm, which takes around 10 minutes, before settling down for some sweet treats and a drink before going back to your day.

If you wish there was something you could do to help those with cancer and others in poor health get better, or make things that little bit easier for them, stop wishing and give blood. You can find an appointment here if you’re in England and here in Wales – you’ll be having more of an impact than you know and chances are you’ll save a life.

Stimulating hair growth after chemo

Like most people who have lost their hair through chemo, I couldn’t wait for it to start coming back. Being bald made me feel utterly ugly; I yearned for the first sign of regrowth for fear that it wouldn’t regrow at all.

hair growth first stages

Then, as soon as hair started to reappear I wanted it to grow thicker and fuller and quicker.

Slowly but shorly

I’m not alone either – I’ve seen lots of people asking questions on message boards and support groups about how they can encourage their hair to grow back quicker. Many people reply with shampoo recommendations, which is all very well but do they work? I have no idea but one thing I do know is: we are what we eat. Or what we put into our bodies, I should say.

Our hair didn’t fall out because of something we put onto it, it fell out because of the ‘poison’ we had running through our veins. So what we put into our blood is going to affect how best our hair grows back, far more than any shampoo can, right?

My hair started to grow back in February whilst I was having radiotherapy – slowly at first and now I’ve got a thick covering of gorgeously soft hair. I’m pretty pleased with it. Don’t get me wrong, I still feel like an ugly adolescent boy but it’s a start. And I’m pretty sure, although I can’t promise it’s the case, that my speedy regrowth is down to the pretty slick vitamin regime I’ve got going on. Oh yes, a healthy diet is far more than a good portion of fruit and veg and if we were to get all the vitamins we need via our diet alone, we’d be eating all the time (does sound appealing, doesn’t it – unfortunately chocolate and ice cream isn’t included).

So, ‘what supplements help with hair growth?’ I hear you cry. Here lies the secret:

BVitamin B The vitamin B group is called a complex – vitamin B complex. The combination of B1, B2, B3, B5 and B7 nourish the hair follicles. The B complex is found in high protein foods like fish, red meat, eggs and dark green veg. I’m taking these, which contain B1 and 2 and biotin (B7), which helps to improve the keratin structure (the protein than makes up hair, skin and nails).

Vitamin C Not only is this the saviour of the common cold, it also helps with the production of collagen which forms part of the hair structure. Get this in your diet via oranges and lemons (as well as lots of other fruit and veg) or keep your levels topped up with vitamin supplements. I’m taking these slow release tablets once a day.

EVitamin E Vitamin E helps improve the circulation of blood around the body, including to the scalp, which helps a steady supply of nutrients get to the hair follicles, boosting strong and healthy hair growth. It’s also good for your immune system, which is always a bonus when you’re building your body back up after chemo. I’m taking these but you should also eat nuts, seeds and leafy green veg to get it into your diet.

Omega 3, 6 and 9 Essential fatty acids aid skin and hair growth – they’re said to help nutrient absorption at the hair follicle by helping blood circulation and cell growth. You can get your fill of essential fatty acids via oily fish and seeds. To top that up, I’m taking a brand of oils called vertese, which came recommended by my gorgeous friend, Shiv, who’s a bit of a nutrition expert.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, it’s just this list of supplements I’m taking. If you’re taking any supplements to help boost healthy hair growth, please do tell me about them and your experience generally in the comments below.

And if you’re thinking of taking supplements to help boost your hair growth post chemo, don’t forget to ask your oncologist before you start taking them – you never know how they might interact with your medication.

Good luck with getting your healthy mane back. Don’t forget to enjoy all the styling options as you get back to your desired length. Thanks, Becky xx

PS – I’m not discounting hair grown shampoos/soaps/treatments, these products may have an influence, but how much of an effect they have, I really don’t know. Is it marketing schpeil? Are they any good? Let me know!

Closing the door on cancer

On Saturday Dan and I moved out of the flat we’d been renting since the week after my breast cancer diagnosis. We moved in during July 2015 and at the end of April 2016 we moved out. It’s quite a short time to live in a home but a lot happened in the nine short months we lived there – I had a lumpectomy and lymph node clearance, fertility treatment, six rounds of chemotherapy, three hospital stays and 20 rounds of radiotherapy. Our life revolved around my treatment and I wasn’t well enough for much else for the majority of the time.

Whilst my treatment is ongoing, my life is no longer dictated by chemo and radio and I’m able to rebuild my life; a life post breast cancer. I have a new job and Dan and I have become home owners. This exciting change has meant I can close the door on the home I lived in during the most challenging time of my life.

Moving out of my flat felt so symbolic. As Dan and I packed the car up with the last of our belongings, I had to go back to the flat one more time, alone, to say goodbye. Weirdly, I had to spend a moment in the bathroom. It’s a strange room to want to bid farewell to, I know, but it’s the room I associate most with my cancer; it’s where my hair washed away, it’s where I was sick, it’s where I sat in pain. It’s also where I had to dig deep within myself.

I’m grateful to those four walls, they kept me warm when I was cold. But now it’s time to move on and leave that behind, for good.

On Saturday, as the door to that bathroom clicked shut for the final time, I gave it an extra tug. I did the same with the front door. And the door to the carpark. Chapter finished – diwedd.

 
 

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

Top 10 tunes to get you through cancer treatment

Here are my top 10 tunes to add to your ‘get through it’ list. See it as a mix tape from me to you.

10. Fly Away Home is one of my favourite films and this song is one of the reasons why. It’s both uplifting and moving, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Mark Isham, First flight from the film Fly Away Home

9. This song does what it says on the tin – we can all be hard on ourselves and others even when we’re carrying heavy loads. This is definitely one to dance around to – forget your worries and throw some shapes!
Jess Glynne, Don’t be so hard on yourself

8. Sometimes running away from it all seems like the best option but by facing treatment head on shows how strong we are – stronger than we know.
Naughty Boy featuring Beyonce and Arrow Benjamin, Runnin’

7. This piece has a beautiful and strong cello part. Close your eyes and enjoy…
Ludovico Einaudi, Two Sunsets or Due Tramonti

6. Since moving to the sea, I’ve found myself sat on the sand watching the waves and feeling their healing energy. This song is about being thrown into the deep end and the tide creeping in.
Ellen and the Escapades, When the tide creeps in

5. I love Georgia Ruth and is one of my GR faves. During chemo, I liked to think about when ‘winter’, ie chemo, would be over and I could look back and say, ‘well that was winter’.
Georgia Ruth, Winter

4. This song makes me think of my Dan and how much he’s supported me – he’s held my hand through some hard times and I’ll always be grateful to him for letting me lean on him.
Jess Glynne, Hold my hand

3. We all need a good feel good power ballad sometimes – crank it up, girls!
Alicia Keys, Girl on fire

2. This song was originally written by the folk singer, Dafydd Iwan, about famine in Ethiopia, but recently it was re-recorded by a group of Welsh artists, including Iwan, to promote Irfon Williams’ campaign to get access to a drug that’s available on the NHS in England, in Wales. The good news is, after a long fought campaign, Irfon and his supporters were successful and the drug is now available in Wales. I love this version of the song and hope you do too.
Welsh artists, Hawl i fyw/Right to life

1. This one is for all the amazing women who have supported me through this shitty time. Thank you for being part of my sister act.
Patina Miller, Sister Act

Getting back to fitness after chemo

I’ve always enjoyed running but in the year before my breast cancer diagnosis I was running more than ever. It was a great way to get some exercise and made my commute from East London to Surrey far more tolerable. And now, living on the coast and being able to run along the beach makes exercise even better.

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Ahead of starting chemo I’d hoped to exercise throughout the treatment or on week three of each cycle, at least. But when my body was being put through its paces, chemo paces, getting to the gym or going for a run couldn’t have felt more impossible – basic tasks left me out of breath so their was no puff for running and the like.

Whilst I absolutely wasn’t capable of physical exercise, it didn’t stop me craving a run along the beach. The fact that other people having chemo were managing to exercise and, in some cases, run 10k races days after treatment made my frustration worse. In the days following chemo I was often found in a hospital bed, which goes to show how differently we all react to the drugs.

The fact that my reactions were quite severe made me even more determined to get exercising as soon as I could. The weight gain side effect of the drugs is also a huge motivation for me to get my heart pumping and muscles working hard, so much so that I signed up to two 10k races – Cancer Research’s Race for Life in Bournemouth in June and Cardiff in July – before finishing my course of chemo.

At the time of signing up, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to run them – when you get out of breath walking 10 paces, a 10k couldn’t feel like more of a challenge. I also had radiotherapy to go and wasn’t sure how I’d react. I’m now 12 days into four weeks of radio and whilst I’m still not 100% certain I’ll be running a decent 10k by June, I’m determined to give it my best.

So how do you get from zero to 10k in five months?

The eight week training plan from Women’s Running is my starting point.

I printed out the plan and joined the gym for a month to run on the treadmill. The first gym session involved running for a minute and walking for a minute for 20 minutes. The running-walking thing lasted for five minutes before I felt like my teeth were going to fall out from exertion so I walked for the remaining time. After three more gym sessions I managed the full 20 minutes of alternate walking and running – in the space of a week I’d come along way. It’s amazing how quickly the body adapts.

Running on a treadmill isn’t my idea of fun and now the weather is starting to feel spring-y, I’m back to beach running. The sun and the view really lift my spirits – I feel so lucky to have such a beautiful setting at my feet.

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With the beach calling and the sun beckoning, I’ve been on four four-ish kilmometer runs this week, which have taken about half an hour, including pauses for breath and a couple of speed walking intervals.

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My bloods are starting to get back to normal so breathlessness is less of an issue but keeping up the endurance is definitely a case of mind over matter. Whilst there’s no shame in stopping for a break, I feel like it’s my brain stopping me and not my legs. That said, it’s really important to listen to your body and taking it slow and steady is essential. That’s why I’m really proud of my ‘measly’ 4k. I’m getting into my rhythm and it’s going to get easier but I’m being sensible with my body. My next goal is to make the 5k run to Boscombe pier by the end of next week – I’ll let you know if I make it!

If you’re looking to get back to fitness after chemo, it’s worth speaking to your oncologist. My oncologist suggested starting with stair walking or getting a step for exercise if you live in a flat. Also, lots of gyms offer a free month or two for people referred by their doctor. I was really excited about this (I know, I need to get a life) but be warned, the gym may take their time in setting it up (I’m still waiting for my free membership weeks after being referred by my doc).

Good luck with your journey back to fitness and let me know how you’re getting on

Becky xx