“Chemotherapy is brutal. The goal is pretty much to kill everything in your body without killing you.” - Rashida Jones
Monday mornings are awful. The Monday morning of 2 December 2013 was particularly awful; my first chemotherapy treatment. I had so many thoughts running through my mind. The idea of going through chemo was just so foreign to me. What’s going to happen? Will it hurt? What side effects will I have? How long will I feel sick? How soon will I lose my hair? Will my eyebrows and eyelashes follow suit? What if it’s awful and I’ve got 6 to 8 of these to go through? What if it doesn’t work? What if I go through all of this pain and sickness and the cancer doesn’t reduce? My head was buzzing. I couldn’t even get myself ready for the appointment. I chucked on a pullover, leggings and boots and headed to the hospital with my Dad who had only days earlier arrived in London.
We walked in to the cancer ward. Everyone looked so sick. I didn’t feel like I belonged there at all. What on earth was I doing here? I had been a ‘healthy’ active person days earlier and now I was a chemotherapy patient. It wasn’t long before I was pricked with needles, a drip was put into the back of my left hand and my chemo began. I let my inner child out and held Dad’s hand when I was scared and played The Sims 3 on my MacBook when I needed a distraction. The day was long, 9am to 5pm, with bag after bag being drained into me - sodium chloride flush, anti sickness, Avastin, flush, Paclitaxel, flush, Carbolplaten and final flush. My nurse had a well practised ritual of hand washing and glove changing/disposal which seemed to occur at least a hundred times that day.
After we thanked the nursing staff, we headed home with anti sickness drugs, steroids and a list of possible side effects that could occur over the next two weeks. The first day I felt nothing. Dad joked that maybe the chemo bags contained only water. However, on the following day, a tsunami of tiredness and weakness surged in. I came to nickname it my chemo haze. It’s hard to put in to words the awful feeling I had to endure.
Imagine being so tired that you struggle to keep your eyes open, but not being able to sleep at all. Imagine trying to watch TV or entertain yourself on the computer, but not having the brain capacity or strength to do so. Imagine receiving text messages from your friends and loved ones, but being too numb to be able to type a simple reply. I felt like an empty shell. My brain was vacant. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t display much emotion, whether that be sadness or happiness. I could hardly think.
It wasn’t just my mind, my body was just as useless. I could barely walk across my flat (apartment). I wanted to go outside but even the simple journey down the lift (elevator) was just too far for me to handle. Literally all I could do was sit still, watch tiny snippets of TV (full episodes were too tiring) and then the steroids would kick in and my legs would get a pins and needles sensation. I’d have to walk around and shake them. I invented a silly chemo dance which would help the feeling go away. I’d soon be exhausted again, would lie down and of course, not be able to fall asleep.
It felt so hopeless, the light at the end of the tunnel was so difficult to see. I honestly felt that my chemo haze would be permanent. When I was in pain it was just so difficult for me to see that I would feel normal again. I would have to constantly remind myself that it would pass, that I could be well again. Usually, no matter how bad or hopeless a situation, there is something to keep you going. My inspiration was my family. Whenever I felt clouds of depression hitting me, after seeing their faces and how upset they were by my sickness, I was determined to fight to stay alive for them and to see their smiles return.
To use an analogy, it was like I was climbing Everest. I hadn’t even hit base camp and was already pushed beyond my limits. I took one step at a time, got myself through hour by hour, tried not to look at the clock and would repeat to myself positive thoughts - even though I struggled to believe them at the time. My chemo haze lasted between 3 and 4 days, which may not seem like long, but when every minute is hell, over 5,000 of them are a lot to endure.
I then had to prepare myself for a repetition of the ordeal in another three weeks, with the worst question of all still lingering; is it even working?