Everyone knows someone who has been touched by cancer. Everyone knows someone who has had chemo - but there in that short sentence lies so much sanitising - 'having chemo'. It's rarely explained, rarely delved into. Yes we have seen Hollywood actors and actresses bent over toilets vomiting as they play the role of someone with chemo!
But there is so much more to 'having chemo' than hanging your head over the toilet bowl vomiting.
I had two different types of chemo in 2007, three actually:
- Type 1 - oral chemo in tablet form
- Type II - liquid low dose chemo
- Type II - liquid chemo equivalent to setting off a nuclear bomb inside my body
Type 1 was a doddle, I wasn't sick, didn't lose my hair, was able to eat all the time I was having it.
Type II was bit more challenging. I vomited for a few days, had nausea and discomfort, and I was off my food for about a week. Not too bad on the grand scheme of things, but it was frightening to lose control of my body for a while.
Type III was like someone setting off a nuclear bomb inside me.
It was the worst experience of my life. I received the chemo over two days, in through a line in my chest. Within a couple of hours of the first dose I was vomiting violently. I went on vomiting for four weeks. I did not eat for 4 weeks. I could not swallow water or any liquids for four weeks. This type of chemo is known as high dose chemo and it had to be high dose as it had to kill everything in the bone marrow to allow my own stem cells to re populate the marrow after my system was attacked by multiple myeloma.
But type III chemo did more than just make me vomit and stay off my food:
I had explosive diarrhoea for four weeks
I had a hemorrhage into both my eyes
I had a hemorrhage from my womb which went on for days
I had a nose bleed which went on constantly for almost 3 days
My mouth broke open with sores and peeling skin, my lips cracked, my body was swollen and engorged from all the trauma. My entire digestive tract was in trouble.
I could not speak for a couple of days as I did not have the energy to form the words.
I banned all food programmes and talk of food. All food trays were banned.
I craved drinks, going through so many different types - lilt, 7up, ribena, appeltiser, coke, fanta - but I could not swallow any - I would sip and swirl and spit and this went on for 3 weeks.
The first day allowed some liquid down into my stomach, it came up immediately.
It was the most challenging time of my life.
I had read all the materials but nothing prepares you for these sort of effects.
Nothing controlled the nausea and vomiting. Nothing stopped the diarrhoea. For a time I wore nappies!
I had constant anti-sickness meds being put in through my central line, an anti nausea pump in my hand and my stomach, antibiotics all the time, minerals and nutrients, food, glucose, anti fungal meds were all being pumped into me to treat the side effects and to prevent infection and pneumonia.
Finally a day arrived where I did not vomit, did not bleed and did not have diarrhoea. It was the most amazing feeling in the world.
Eventually after four weeks of intensive treatment I was allowed home - I was four and a half stone lighter, I could barely walk from one room to the next, I could not lift my 2 year old. I was short of breath. I was nervous. I would throw up without any warning - once when I was standing talking to a neighbour out the front I vomited all over the place. I was unable to eat and lived on half a yogurt a day as that was all I could tolerate. After a few days I was able to manage a sip of soup. That was August 2007.
My ability to manufacture saliva had been damaged so it was October 2007 before I could have a biscuit or toast or bread. I lived on a very limited diet. I was emaciated. My bones stuck out and I felt very ugly.
I lost my hair but that was a minor detail in comparison to everything else.
The nurses and doctors were amazing - they were angels. My family support was amazing and I could not have done it without them.
I don't remember being in pain, but at times it was a painful experience
I don't think I suffered, like some people are suffering in this world, but at times it was hard and I thought I could not hang on.
So 'having chemo' is not just a matter of hair loss and a head in the toilet - it is so much more.
I am out the other side and thank God my chemo and stem cell transplant did the trick. I am in remission. My remission won't be permanent and I may have to have another transplant. In a way it will be better next time as I know what I have to face, but in a way it will be worse, because I know what I have to face!