For the first time since 19 August my life is not governed by when my next chemotherapy session is.
Now that I’ve had my eighth and final round – a five-and-a-half hour session on 25 November – I feel like I’ve been let off a leash that’s been tying me to the centre where I’m being treated since that first session in mid-August.
It is undoubtedly a huge milestone and while I do on one level feel very, very relieved, it’s also a little bit unsettling. An image springs to mind of those poor battery chickens that are liberated and put out to graze but don’t go anywhere as they’re so used to having been in captivity. I wasn’t even on chemo that long, just over three months, and in fact it seems to have passed quite quickly. It is pretty much all-consuming, however, and I would think especially so when your sessions are every two weeks rather than every three. On 19 August, 25 November seemed a long way off. The advice I got from lots of people to try and take it one session at a time turns out to have been very sound.
Despite the side effects and the obvious seriousness of the situation, undergoing chemo made you feel quite safe. The routine was comforting. You knew something was being done. In my case there were:
- blood tests two days before every chemo session to check whether my white blood cell counts were ok (they always were);
- injecting myself 24 hours after the end of the previous day’s chemo session with lipegfilgrastim, a drug that promotes the production of white blood cells, to strengthen your immune system and so lower your risk of infection after chemo;
- MRI scans once a month to check the response of the tumour to the chemotherapy (all good);
- the fortnightly appointments with the oncologist who, among other things, 1) appears to have done a great job of tailoring my chemo treatment (she says she “only writes the prescriptions” but I think we both know there’s rather more to it than that); 2) has patiently answered my many questions (sometimes the same ones two and three times until I got my head round the answer); and 3) has gone beyond the call of duty and reviewed some of my more “technical” blog posts (in one case adding for good measure some details about the toxicity of the particular chemo drugs I was taking); and
- the copies of the follow-up letters from the oncologist to my GP or to the breast surgeon that dropped through the letterbox a few days after each consultation. It was interesting to see how some of the layperson speak in which the appointments had been conducted turned into largely incomprehensible medical speak in the letters. I’d never heard of the word proprioception before, for example, never mind the concept the word describes. But what a lovely word. If you’re interested, it’s what the oncologist was testing when she asked me whether she was holding my toe in an “up” or “down” position (obviously I couldn’t see my toes; I had to “sense” what position they were in. This was in the context of determining the extent of the nerve ending damage in my right foot).
Lastly but most importantly, there were the chemo sessions themselves. These took place every second Wednesday in the chemo suite with the wonderful nurses and staff who always made me feel at ease and took care of me so well… and also answered lots of questions from me. I will miss them. Good natured, humorous, sometimes irreverent, gentle, calm, caring, competent, professional, attentive, watchful: they were all of that and more. I laughed when I opened my chemo record after the last session and saw that the sister had written “Well done, Maureen” and drawn a little smiley face on my notes. I can’t decide whether that or where it says “#8 Final” is my favourite part.
I got home from that final session at around 4pm. I pottered around for a bit then suddenly felt completely exhausted. There had been a lot to think about in the previous two weeks. Would my operation be confirmed for 19 December? Did I really need the lymph nodes taken out under my arm? Would I go for the immediate breast reconstruction option that involves rebuilding the breast from my own tummy tissue? Would the final chemo session go ahead? Big questions, and the answer to all of them turned out to be yes.
I took myself off to bed, supposedly for a nap but I wrote most of this post instead. I then got up for supper, and had a congratulatory glass of wine with my husband. Unlike the first two chemo drugs I was given in the first part of the treatment, the one I’ve just finished being given has not affected my sense of taste!
There will be various appointments between now and my op three weeks’ today, just not related to chemo. This coming Tuesday I’m to have a bone mineral density scan and later that day I also have a dental appointment (more on these later). Inbetween the appointments, I will enjoy having my life to myself again – even if it’s just for a few weeks at this point. I’ve already thrown myself back into work over the past couple of weeks and I’m loving it. I’d almost forgotten just how much I enjoyed it and got out of it. Looking at my diary for 9 December, my first “non-chemo Wednesday”, I see I’m having an evening out with my tennis buddies. Nice. I’ll need to make sure I do something special during the day too to mark my albeit temporary return to freedom.