Chemotherapy – one word that instills fear no matter who hears it. We have all watched the movies and seen the patients portrayed – gaunt, grey skin, bald head, no eyelashes and eyebrows.
That was going to be me.
I started chemotherapy on the 7th September 2020, less than 4 weeks after my Breast Cancer diagnosis (you can read about that here). I remember the nerves that morning. The fear of the unknown. The fear of what lay ahead of me over the next 5 months as I fought back against this cancer.
I was very emotional that morning and so sad that Nick wouldn’t be able to sit with me due to COVID protocols. I would have to do this alone.
Due to the fact that I had really good veins, we opted to not do a port which was a relief, and so the chemo would be administered through a drip in my hand or arm. The insertion of the drip became the thing I dreaded the most every session, especially as my veins started to harden up and collapse, as the weeks went on. It got more and more painful to get the needle in and more and more difficult to find a good vein to use.
My chemotherapy schedule consisted of 4 rounds of adriamycin and cyclophosphamide which were administered every 2 weeks, followed by 12 rounds of paclitaxel which was given weekly. The first 4 rounds of chemo were the most aggressive and the drugs that would cause my hair to fall out. These are also the drugs that make you feel the worst. I suffered from terrible nausea, 24/7 headaches, chemo brain, fatigue, heart burn and mouth ulcers to name a few.
One of the best decisions I made was to see a dietician during my first chemo sessions. She ran me through the diet dos and don’ts for during my chemo, as well as taking me through all of the items that are carcinogenic or bad for you in general. I found it to be incredibly informative and something I would recommend to everyone, regardless of whether you are going through chemo or not. Things that I wasn’t allowed to eat was anything raw (this meant no sushi, my favourite food, for at least 5 months), no shellfish, no long age cheeses like brie, camembert etc, no leftovers etc. This was due to the infection risks of eating these types of food while on chemo. The chemo destroys your immune system so your body doesn’t have the ability to fight infections like it normally would.
Then, some of the items that are known to be carcinogenic (have the potential to cause cancer), which I try to avoid as a whole, are pickled items, smoked and cured foods, processed meats and any burnt parts of food.
My taste buds changed almost immediately. I couldn’t stand the taste of coffee or alcohol and everything tasted bland and flavourless. I found bland chicken and rice to be tastiest thing to eat and Nick made me smoothies every single morning to ensure I was getting enough nutrients in.
Within the first 2 weeks I had lost 6 kilos. So we immediately started trying to find ways to get more calories into my body to keep my weight up.
Exactly two weeks after my first chemo session, my hair started to fall out. I first started seeing it on my pillow when I woke up and as the week drew on it began to fall out everywhere; on my clothes, on the floor, in the shower. It was an awful thing to experience, knowing what it meant. I eventually just had to tie it in a low pony so it wouldn’t be so overwhelming.
My hair was such a huge part of my identity. It was something people always complimented me on and it was also the thing that made me feel feminine. And I was going to lose that.
Five days after it had started falling out, I attempted to wash it for the first time and as soon as I put shampoo into my hair it all just clumped together on top of my head and all of the hair around my hairline came out entirely. I was devastated. I called to Nick who came in and confirmed that my hair was in fact coming out. He then climbed into the shower with me and began to cut the knotted hair off so that it would be short enough to shave.
I cried and cried and cried.
When he had cut it as short as he could he got the razor and I sat while he shaved my head. It is a moment that is forever engrained in my mind. A moment that no couple should ever have to experience together. The next day we went to my Dad who helped neaten it up a bit with his razor.
I was so terrified of what I would look like with no hair – a fear I never ever thought I’d ever have to have. When I looked in the mirror for the first time though, I was relieved because firstly, I didn’t look like Smeagol, as I had thought I would and secondly because now I didn’t have to fear the hair loss anymore. It was over.
And in time I managed to embrace my bald head. I even modelled for several photoshoots with no hair which was very empowering and went a long way to building up my confidence in this new version of me.
Chemo was a real rollercoaster. There were days when I felt like I had it totally under control and then there were days were I felt like I would rather be dead than suffer for one more second. And every time I felt like I was starting to feel better, it would be time to go back to the hospital for the next round.
Those five months were seriously tough. I had to find a strength inside of me that I never knew I had, to fight back against cancer every single day. I couldn’t let it win. I wouldn’t let it defeat me!
And it didn’t.
On 19 January 2021 I finished my 16th round of chemo. It was one of the happiest days of my life and SUCH a huge milestone in my journey.
However, it felt bittersweet because I knew that with chemo behind me my surgery was next and I was even more terrified for that…