Starting iv chemo and celebrating a special 21st birthday

A lot has happened since my previous post on 7 August.

The bottom line health-wise is that I have moved onto a new line of treatment, intravenous chemotherapy involving a drug called paclitaxel. I had my first treatment session on 23 August and my second session yesterday.

Life-wise, our younger son has turned 21 and it has been a real joy to be able to celebrate this milestone.

We thought I might be catching a bit of a break on the cancer front. However, blood test results from a few weeks ago showed that, overall, things really weren’t going well in terms of my bone marrow function. In addition, the important CA 15-3 tumour marker had gone up again, meaning the cancer was more active than it had been recently.

The situation was complicated but the consultant concluded that it was time to come off the treatment I’d been on for almost four months – a combination of two drugs called everolimus (Afinitor) and exemestane (Aromasin), taken once daily in tablet form – and move on to the next line of treatment, iv paclitaxel.

I knew it was coming and I understand the rationale for changing. We really need to get a grip on the bone marrow issue and we can’t ignore potential tumour progression. However, I’d hoped it might not happen for another few months. We’d discussed the matter at length and the consultant knew how keen I was to hold off iv chemo for as long as possible.

There were various reasons for this.

One reason is that I’m now tied much more to the hospital. I’m on a 28-day treatment cycle, with treatment sessions on Day 1, Day 8 and Day 15. Each session takes about two hours. You also need to have blood tests done before each of the three sessions of each cycle, etc, etc, etc.

Another reason is that I know this drug. I had it as part of my treatment for primary breast cancer way back in Autumn 2015. It had a very good effect on my cancer then and we obviously hope it will this time too. However, it is also responsible for the “chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy” – essentially nerve damage – that I have in my feet that even now can stop me from sleeping. During the day it’s not so bad, but it is there. We’ll keep a very close look-out while I’m on paclitaxel now for signs of additional damage. It would be too bad if the treatment worked well but again brought with it this distressing and, it has to said, potentially debilitating side effect.

Then there are all the other common side effects, including likely hair loss. I didn’t like losing my hair last time. If I lose it this time, I don’t think I’ll like it any better.

All in all, I think I can be forgiven for feeling rather nervous about starting this particular treatment again.

Despite my concerns, though, now that I have started treatment, I’m desperate for it to work and for me to stay the course. It’s not as if the previous regime I was on was a breeze. In fact, at times it was hideous, but you put up with a lot when you know there are limited options ahead of you, each potentially more toxic than the previous one.

Discussing it all with the consultant on 11 August, any hopes I had that my husband, two young adult sons and I might fly off to Spain in late August/early September went flying out the window. Following right behind were plans for a trip to my home city of Glasgow that I’d hoped to take before going to Spain. Other trips were and are – as of today, at least – still planned, potentially for later in September and certainly for October.

I’ve had dozens and dozens of appointments with doctors since my diagnosis of primary breast cancer in the summer of 2015. I’ve cried at only a few. This was one of those. It felt like we were definitely moving into new territory and I was feeling very sorry for myself.

The transition to chemo and the weeks preceding the move have been really quite traumatic. This may not be a complete list but they have involved tiredness and extreme fatigue, a lack of appetite, dry mouth, insatiable thirst, being tested for diabetes, sore feet, badly disturbed nights, joint pain that I’ve been told is not related to the bone mets, dental discomfort, a 2am trip to A&E with a high temperature and suspected serious infection (nothing was found), a couple of blood transfusions – and me feeling very, very low and dejected.

This is the fourth line of treatment that I’ve been on since I was diagnosed in April 2019 with secondary – incurable but treatable – breast cancer. When I was diagnosed, it had spread to my bones, with “bone marrow involvement”, meaning it was impairing the ability of my body to make healthy blood.

More than well over two years on, the various drugs I’ve been on have managed to keep the cancer from spreading outside of my bones and into, say, my liver, or my lungs, or my brain. I would say I have been largely healthy, despite experiencing some quite nasty side effects and, of course, despite having the illness in the first place. However, the real and serious problem at present is bone marrow suppression. We know the cancer itself is causing at least some of this but it doesn’t help that the treatments themselves can also cause your haemoglobin and neutrophils to fall. For those of you who are interested in the detail, my platelets are also not in a great way – that’s a new development and a new concern.

The plan initially is to have four 28-day cycles of iv paclitaxel, assuming it works and I cope with the toxicity. The number of cycles could be increased to six if things go exceedingly well. I’m not second-guessing anything. I’ve already had to have a one-unit blood transfusion and several neutrophil boosting injections between the first and second sessions.

Let’s hope things settle down, that I’m not afflicted with additional peripheral neuropathy, and that I can make the most of the two-week breaks between cycles.

I’m to have blood tests tomorrow before seeing the consultant for a mid-cycle debrief. They’ll take an additional vial of blood for a “cross-match”. This is when they test a patient’s blood against a donor’s blood to check that the two are fully compatible. This happens regularly now when I have my regular blood tests done, “just in case” I need a transfusion. I’m getting used to it.

I think I’ll need yet another set of bloods done the day before my third treatment session of this first cycle, which is scheduled for 7 September.

To say it’s been a tough few weeks – physically and emotionally – would be a huge understatement. Through it all, ordinary life goes on. Today, for example, I’ve felt great. I wrote this blog and this evening I went out on a three-mile walk. Earlier on, I had a nice chat on the phone with one of my brothers. Yesterday, between having bloods done in the morning and my chemo session late afternoon, I did a few hours’ work. I’ve been taking a bit of a break from work recently.

I’d been feeling so wretched that I hadn’t been meeting up so much with friends. You feel less like making plans to socialise in case you have to cancel at the last minute. A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I feared we’d have to pull out of at really short notice a lunch date in central London with friends we hadn’t seen since last summer. We’d really been looking forward to it. I’m so glad we made it – not just for the company, which as always was excellent, but to experience the zaniness of the place we had lunch. The photo is of Cath and me, somewhat over-excited in the sci-fi toilets; each pod is an individual loo!

Some days, I really haven’t felt like getting out of bed – especially when I’ve slept particularly badly that night. I do, though, one always feels better for it. On those days, even picking up the phone when someone calls to chat can be a real challenge. Friends and family know the situation well enough not to be offended.

It can’t be easy for my husband but, throughout this whole thing, he has continued to be an absolute rock.

Among all the turmoil, our younger son turned 21 – a real highlight and milestone for any family. Family-wise we did a couple of low-key things – not on the day itself as he was off in Cornwall with friends. After the year many young people have had, we loved thinking of him mucking about in the sea and on the beach and enjoying big wide open spaces on the very day of his 21st. We have no doubt whatsoever that he was feeling the parental love and affection from a distance.

I think I deserve a medal for the most quickly and imaginatively cobbled together birthday cake – a slice of malt loaf with a candle on top! A few of our son’s friends popped round one evening soon after his birthday for drinks before heading out to a party. I decided they should sing happy birthday to him. They duly obliged. You can’t say I don’t make an effort!

A welcome surprise and another lesson in unpredictability

Well, well, well. Not only did the PET CT scan I had a couple of weeks ago show no disease progression, my tumour marker level has fallen twice in a row over the past several weeks. The ongoing inability of my bone marrow to make enough haemoglobin to transport sufficient amounts of oxygen around my body continues to be a major challenge but there’s no doubting this is welcome news.

It was not expected. For me, it’s yet another lesson in how unpredictable this whole thing is.

I was more or less resigned to the breast cancer that has spread to my bones and “infiltrated” my bone marrow having spread further. This would have meant my moving on to intravenous chemotherapy. Instead, I am staying on my current medication – a combination of two (non-chemo) drugs, everolimus (Afinitor) and exemestane (Aromasin). This will be my fourth monthly cycle on these two drugs, which are taken in tablet form, once daily.

I know that iv chemo is an inevitability and I have to accept that. However, I’d be lying if I said the thought of it doesn’t scare me, with all of the associated additional and potentially lengthy treatment sessions and toxic side effects, including hair loss. Thus my relief at having dodged this particular bullet – for however long it may be.

Let’s stay with the good news. Not only was there no progression, there was, in the words of my consultant oncologist, “a hint towards better” in that the disease in my spine and pelvis showed up as less bright on the PET scan than it has done on previous occasions. The brighter an area is on a PET scan, the more active the cancer is in that area.

As for the tumour marker, this had shot up considerably towards the end of the second treatment cycle, suggesting there had been an increase in cancer activity. Now, going by the latest test results, it is back at almost exactly the level it was at when I started this current treatment three months ago.

On now to the issue of my bone marrow and the fact that the cancer is impairing its ability to make healthy blood – most critically at this stage healthy red blood cells, which contain the haemoglobin that transports oxygen around the body.

On the haemoglobin front, I’ve essentially been anaemic to one degree or another since my diagnosis in the spring of 2019, well over two years ago now. Up until now we’ve intervened with transfusions of red blood cells when it has fallen to a level that’s considered too low. I now generally know myself when it’s falling as I get breathless doing the simplest of things such as climbing stairs. That’s pretty much the current state of affairs.

Yesterday, for example, I went to Tooting Bec lido* for the first time since last summer. It’s baking hot in London at the moment so this is a great place to be. I swam four widths (the pool is 33 yards wide), breast stroke, after which I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest it was beating so hard! That said, it was fabulous to be there and I was fine after a rest.

The problem with blood transfusions is that you can only have so many before you get iron overload, a serious condition that can damage major organs such as the heart, liver and pancreas. We’re not close to that stage yet but it wouldn’t take long to get there if I were to continue to have transfusions as regularly as I’ve had them recently. Earlier this summer, I had two within less than six weeks of each other. We’re now therefore looking at ways of tackling the problem that don’t involve transfusions. I hope they work.

My tumour marker and haemoglobin levels will be monitored even more closely than usual over these coming weeks. The results of the other scan I had – an MRI of my spine – have still to come through. I should get those next week. 

I can also report that a good few of the drug side effects and/or other physical ailments that were making me so miserable on a physical – and emotional – level have subsided.

I’ve continued to stay to clear of the painful and spirit-sapping mouth and tongue sores that I had on and off during the first and second cycles. That sentence really does not do justice to how awful these sores are. 

The massive cold sore wound on my bottom lip that wasn’t healing and that’s been plaguing me for around six weeks seems to have a mind of its own. One day it seems almost to have gone but then it’s a bloody mess again the next. I’m not swearing here, it really is sometimes a bloody mess. However, it does seems to be going in the right direction, albeit very, very slowly. Also, the wounds from the two pigmented skin lesions that I had removed from the sole of my right foot and my right calf nearly three months ago have now completely healed. These two things combined allowed me to go to the lido yesterday, although I did keep my face out of the water to be on the safe side.

The night sweats have been much less frequent but are still pretty nasty when they do happen. 

The discomfort that I’d been feeling in some teeth has gone – at least for the moment. I have a session with the dental hygienist at the hospital next week, by which time I really hope the cold sore wound has fully cleared up.

The sore feet at night can be a bit of a nightmare, especially if I’ve been out on a long walk during the day. My plan to take sleeping tablets more regularly so as to basically knock myself out hasn’t worked as planned. You can’t take alcohol with sleeping tablets and at 7pm when I fancy a cold beer or glass of cold white wine (or both!), bedtime seems a long way off. The alcohol usually wins!

I’ve had some new joint pain, but I can’t tell whether this is cancer- or age-related. The pain either eases on its own or I take painkillers. 

My 58th birthday has come and gone.

There was so much going on and so much uncertainty on various levels in the weeks running up to the day that I had been veering from thinking I wanted to see as many people as possible to feeling that I just wanted to hide under the duvet all day.

In the end, I had a lovely time, with celebrations and events with friends and family spread over the best part of a week, or indeed longer.

On the day itself, we kept things low key, with a little but perfectly formed extended family group. The rain stayed off and the cake tasted as delicious as it looks in the photo.

Over the course of a few days, there were multiple deliveries of, among other things, cakes, pastries, chocolates and flowers – lots of flowers!

There was a trip to the Wimbledon tennis championships, with Dave, my friend and partner in seizing the day. I have incurable breast cancer; Dave is five years younger than me and has Parkinson’s disease.

My husband and I went to the Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival one evening. Friends treated us to supper at the smartest restaurant in our local area. Some very good friends visited and stayed over one evening. We had a very relaxing night away with our 22- and 20-year-old sons.

I also went to a gig at London’s Jazz Cafe on July 11th, the day after my birthday. This was the night of the European football championships final in which England – the “auld enemy” of my country of birth – were playing. I’d booked this evening out a while ago as a birthday treat for my husband, our sons and me. However, when it became clear that England was going to be in the finals, I started looking round for replacement company – friends who, like me, didn’t mind whether they watched the match or not. An Australian friend and a Dutch friend answered the call and we had a lovely evening – unlike the people watching the match, given the sad ending for England! I’m only sorry that one of the two friends had to self-isolating afterwards as she was “pinged” to say she’d been in close contact that evening with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19.

Suffice to say I have felt very loved over these past couple of weeks. The cutest and perhaps best birthday present of all was a promise (see photo) from our sons to become blood donors. I understand they were all set to donate before my birthday but they both contracted Covid and had to postpone it. I’m quite hardline on this in that I see giving blood as one’s civic duty but I have to concede there was a certain amount of persuasion and emotional blackmail involved here!

Back to my medical situation.

The bone marrow impairment is of course a big concern but one has to be grateful for the other, more positive news. I am delighted to have received this unexpected surprise. Nonetheless, it seems appropriate to end this post with a phrase that I’ve used many times before: let’s just see how things go.  

*At 100 yards long and 33 yards wide, Tooting Bec Lido in southwest London is the largest freshwater swimming pool by surface area in the United Kingdom. It holds a million gallons of water and is just a 15-minute walk from where we live.

A birthday, a bike ride and a breast cancer reality check

That was a fabulous weekend – despite there being a stonking big breast cancer reality check at the end of it.

On Friday I went ahead and started my sixth monthly treatment cycle for the secondary breast cancer with which I was diagnosed in April. A mix-up with bloods meant it didn’t happen the previous day as planned. According to the blood test results, things are still looking good. For that, I am incredibly thankful.

The following day was our older son Jamie’s 21st birthday. It was the loveliest of occasions.

My mum bowling!

The two boys came back from uni and my brother Peter, who is also Jamie’s godfather, came down from Glasgow. He brought my mum with him. Finally, my two adult nieces – the boys’ cousins – who live in London (and who very sweetly call me their London mum) were also there, with the boyfriend of one of them. We went bowling!

The cake

Since I was diagnosed with this treatable but ultimately incurable illness in April this year, milestones have even more special significance than they ordinarily would have.

At this one, there was a sense of calm and wellbeing with lots of joy, affection, love and laughs… and, of course, cake. 

Then on Sunday, the next day, the two cycling clubs I ride with – BellaVelo CC and Balham CC – joined together for a 100 kilometre bike ride in my honour and to raise funds for research into secondary breast cancer.

Up to 90 of us, including my brother Peter, rode out through Surrey in different pace groups and then all met up in a coffee shop back in London at the end.

After the ride

The Balham club has a nice write-up and more photos of it here. The charity we raised funds for is called One More City.

It wasn’t until I saw the photos that I realised quite how many colours I was combining on the ride. I decided it would be fun – and appropriate – to wear both clubs’ kit and then, with the gloves, I added a touch of “breast cancer pink” to mark the fact that we were doing this in October, breast cancer awareness month.

The debate over the whole pink thing is quite polarised. In my case, I don’t mind the use of the colour but I do object to the use of “fun” props such as inflatable boobs and pink wigs, pink boas, pink tutus and the like. I get the fact that people want to make public displays of support and/or need an outlet for their own fears or other feelings but I find a lot of it quite tasteless. I think it trivialises, infantilises and sexualises this killer disease.

Colour clash!

Now we’ve got the feminist speech out of the way, let’s get back to Sunday’s ride. The two-club kit combo was bright enough but I hadn’t taken into account the bike and water bottle. That took the whole colour thing to another level!

The bright colours were appropriate, though, as they kind of reflected my mood. I was quite overwhelmed that some 90 people had signed up to do this event. I was definitely feeling the love. The support and sentiment that led to this ride taking place meant a great deal to me on a personal level and on top of that it was great to get these two lovely clubs together. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who helped organise and took part in the ride and/or have supported the One More City charity.

Relaxing on the sofa on Sunday evening with a glass of white wine, I reflected on what a lovely few days it had been. Treatment had gone ahead and both the birthday celebrations and the bike ride had gone really well. It had all been very special.

Then I read on Twitter of the death from secondary breast cancer of Deborah Orr, a huge character and well-known personality from the world of journalism. At 57, Deborah was just slightly older than me; she was also a Glaswegian. Chillingly, she died just months after receiving her secondary diagnosis. She was clearly very ill, but her death came as a shock, at least to me. I suddenly felt terribly sad.

Right there on the sofa, I raised a glass to Deborah and felt even more grateful for the weekend I’d just had.