Note: I updated this post on April 15th to give a more realistic picture regarding what was happening cancer-wise even before I got Covid.
I managed to avoid it for the best part of two years, but Covid finally caught up with me. I had a mild dose and I seem to have recovered well. Of the five days that I was out of sorts, there was just one day when I felt really rough.
I was more upset about the fact that a session of chemo had to be cancelled than about the fact I had Covid. The only thing worse than being on chemo is not being on it when you should be.
It didn’t end there. When I next went to the hospital to start back on chemo, they took my temperature at the entrance to the treatment unit as they always do. It was sky high. I hadn’t realised. Almost immediately it was decided I couldn’t possibly have treatment. Several hours later, I was tentatively diagnosed with a bacterial infection and sent home with a seven-day course of antibiotics. I had now missed two chemo sessions – the equivalent of a whole cycle. I felt lower then than I had felt in a long time. I reckoned the last thing my cancer needed was a free rein to cause even more havoc than it’s already caused.
Back to Covid. After testing positive, I took up the offer of one of the new antiviral drug treatments for Covid that are now available for “clinically extremely vulnerable” individuals such as myself. There’s no way of knowing whether the drugs made a difference but my dose remained mild and I’m glad I was offered them.
I sent off the priority PCR test that I had at home soon after testing positive on an LFT. The NHS has been issuing these priority kits to people classed as CEV as part of a programme to get us tested quickly if we develop symptoms and, if positive and if appropriate, onto one of the new treatments.
The drugs have been shown to reduce the risk of CEV individuals with mild to moderate Covid from progressing to severe disease and all that entails – hospitalisation and worse. They have to be started within five days of you developing symptoms.
It was all very efficient. I was notified of a positive PCR result less than 24 hours after sending off the test. I got a call some hours later from an infectious disease doctor from the Covid Medicines Delivery Unit based at the hospital in southwest London where I’m being treated for my secondary breast cancer. I took delivery of a five-day course of an antiviral treatment called Paxlovid that evening and I started taking the tablets immediately. I started the course around 2.5 days after developing my first symptom.
Paxlovid is the brand name for the treatment, which is a combination of an existing HIV drug called ritonavir and a new antiviral drug called nirmatrelvir. The former helps the latter stay active in the body longer.
These are strong drugs. As the patient information leaflet says, “not many people have taken Paxlovid” and “serious and unexpected side effects may happen”. Within the CEV category, there is clearly a broad spectrum. Currently, I am clearly not at the most-at-risk end of it. Nonetheless, I decided to take the extra help.
Those of you who follow this blog know that I really only fully shielded for a few weeks at the very beginning of lockdown, back in March 2020. I did take care, adhering to guidance on social distancing and avoiding shops, supermarkets and public transport for a very long time, for example. However, I jumped at the chance to get out and exercise, socialise and travel as soon as it was allowed. With the Omicron variant being so transmissible, I’m aware I certainly could have been more cautious over the period when I must have caught the virus.
I know people with no underlying health conditions who’ve been far more cautious than I’ve been throughout the whole pandemic. Everyone decides on their own risk threshold but I do think that many people who were classed as CEV and who shielded for many, many months – and who indeed may be still shielding – were done a disservice by the government. Blanket guidance was issued for what very clearly was not a one-size-fits-all situation.
I was quite happy self-isolating while I had Covid. I work from home and there are some weeks where I don’t leave the house for a few days at a time anyway other than to get fresh air or meet friends locally. My symptoms were a sore throat, a headache and tiredness. I slept through most of the day I felt roughest. I’m quite happy in my own company so I didn’t suffer on that front. I listened to a book on Audible, my first time. I recommend the book – Unsettled Ground by Clare Fuller. It covers issues such as homelessness and it took on a special resonance, reading it as I was in the comfort of a big, warm, comfortable house.
My husband kept me fed and watered throughout (as he does anyway, it has to be said). He too likes his own company. He asked me on Day 5 when I thought I might stop self-isolating. When I said “possibly tomorrow”, he quipped back “steady on, there’s no rush”. Cheeky or what? In the end, I was in isolation for seven days.
The self-isolation was fine logistically but the disruption it caused was hard to deal with, emotionally and practically. Among other things, I had to cancel a trip to Glasgow that I’d really been looking forward to. I felt I was letting a lot of people down by not going. I had to send multiple begging emails in an effort to get refunds or credit vouchers for the cost of unused train tickets, hotel reservations and theatre tickets. I also had to rearrange or cancel several appointments or events in London.
I currently have treatment with intravenous eribulin at the hospital on Day 1 and Day 8 of a 21-day cycle. I have blood tests on Day 7 and Day 21. I also tend to see the consultant on Day 21 or Day 1. When you’re tied to the hospital so much, you have to organise your time really carefully. I’ve become very skilled at this but the slightest change to what you think is going to be your routine can cause havoc. For example, the upset to my chemo routine caused by these recent events in combination with a rescheduled PET CT scan will mean having to cut short a trip to Spain in the run-up to Easter, with the extra cost and inconvenience this entails. First-world problems certainly, but they’re still problems. I was so low and frustrated at one point that I told my husband I wasn’t booking anything ever again. That’s how bad it was. That didn’t last for long, you won’t be surprised to read.
It doesn’t look like the four weeks I went without treatment made much difference to my situation. Having been at its lowest level since I was diagnosed almost three years ago, my tumour marker level had already started to edge up even before I got Covid. It continued to rise during my time off treatment and it’s risen again since I’ve been back on chemo. Nothing about that is good in any way.
More positively, I haven’t needed a red blood cell transfusion since January 17th. I started on eribulin on December 1st last year. Given that I’d been having transfusions at least monthly for almost a year, I’ve been delighted at this outcome. Even here, though, while my haemoglobin level went up, it didn’t stay at that level and has been slowly falling – again even before I got Covid.
Rising tumour marker levels and falling haemoglobin levels. That’s not a good combination.
As I’ve said before, I’ve generally largely felt really well on this chemo. In fact, I would say it’s been the easiest of all five treatments I’ve had in the past three years.
I have had a couple of MRI scans done in recent months on a specific area to check for problems there but I don’t want to dwell on that here.
Also, I will find out for sure soon whether my cancer is now spreading elsewhere; my first half-body PET CT scan since starting on this treatment is scheduled for April 14th. It was meant to have been on March 12th but the scanner was broken and the appointment had to be rescheduled.
Covid and the subsequent infection – followed by a rotten cold, because I hadn’t suffered enough – didn’t spoil everything.
The four of us (my husband, our two boys and I) still managed to get away to the French Alps for a few days’ skiing that coincided with my husband’s 60th birthday. We had a fabulous time. It was so lovely that we were able to spend this important milestone together, in the place where we’ve had such fabulous family holidays in the past.
I then went to the beautiful Spanish island of Mallorca and joined for a few days a women’s cycling camp I’d been to a few times before; I did precious little cycling but the achievement was doing any at all.
Even going was a big deal. I was so deflated at having to miss a second session of chemo that I totally lost my mojo and couldn’t see myself summoning the energy even to pack, never mind get on a plane. My husband persuaded me to go and I’m very glad he did. I didn’t do any group riding; that was never in the plan. However, despite not having been out on my bike back home since last October but hugely inspired by the enthusiasm of the other women on the camp, I hired a bike. Among other things, I did a short ride to a beautiful cove that I’d never have visited had I not been on the bike. It felt unbelievably good to be on the bike again. I got to spend some time with a friend from London who was also there, hang out with some women who are members of Bella Velo, the women’s club I’m still a member of here at home, and see again some women I’d met before on previous camps run by the same lovely company, Mellow Jersey. I am so grateful to Emma and Tony of Mellow Jersey for suggesting I come out. The last time I was there was right at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when in very dramatic fashion we had to evacuate the island from one day to the next.
Finally, just last weekend, I made it up to my native Glasgow for my older brother’s 60th birthday party. It was such a joyous occasion, filled with so much positive energy. It’s not often my five brothers and I all manage to get together at the same time and it always feels very special when we do. I think the last time we were together may have been at our mum’s funeral in September 2020, mid-pandemic. The pandemic is very much still with us, with rates particularly high in Scotland. Regardless, the party went ahead and there was lots of dancing and singing – including a Karaoke rendition by my older brother and me of an old family favourite, The Gambler, that would have had the original singer Kenny Rogers turning in his grave!
All three trips were priceless, especially as it really wasn’t certain that any of them would happen pretty much right up until the last minute.
I’m relieved to be back on chemo, even though I’m aware I may not get too much more out of this particular one. I’ve had both sessions of Cycle 6 of eribulin and am now a few days into the two-week break.
Regardless of what the PET CT scan shows, it appears that an unconnected issue is brewing that may need addressing in rather a brutal way. Thus the MRI scan.
Back to today, though. One son is back home from uni for the Easter holidays and I’m already enjoying basking in his presence. Also, I’m looking forward to heading off to Spain next weekend where my husband and I will spend time with some very good friends, eat some good food and hopefully feel some sun on our shoulders.