Celebrities and Cancer

 

When you are first diagnosed with cancer, you can’t help but reflect on the experiences of people in the public eye and their dealings with cancer.  Of late quite a few famous people have died from cancer.  It started with David Bowie quickly followed Alan Rickman.  Then there was Victoria Wood and Caroline Aherne.

Although all of these cases are tragic, the responses by the media to them was quite shocking.  Three of these people chose to keep their diagnosis secret.  Caroline Aherne was slightly different in the fact that she did reveal that she was having treatment for throat cancer.  Although this was a shock, what also was equally amazing was that her whole life had been affected by cancer as both her and her brother were diagnosed with a type of eye cancer when they were very young.  Her mother, somehow, managed to put a positive spin on this for both Caroline and her brother and they both went onto lead extremely successful lives, with cancer being an afterthought.

This was equally true for Bowie, Rickman and Wood too.  They were all able to continue with their professional lives, without cancer intruding until the last possible moment.  In the case of Bowie, he was able to complete a whole album of work that reflected heavily on his own mortality.  When Black Star was first released, nobody questioned this.  It was only after his death that’s its hidden meaning was discovered.

The media were quick to judge these celebrities on their secrecy.  In a world where everyone’s tea is shared on Twitter or Facebook, why were these celebs keeping quiet?  Having cancer or any other illness is nothing to be ashamed of.  It should be embraced and brought out into the light.  Surely if they went public about it, it would make people who have cancer feel empowered.

In fact, the opposite is true.  When you have cancer, you turn inward.  Everything becomes about self-preservation.  However, those around you cling onto those stories of famous people conquering cancer.  My cancer is very unusual but my sister being the clever person she is, managed to find a famous person who had the same condition.  This person was Adam Yauch otherwise known as MCA from the Beastie Boys. Both myself and my husband thought that this was very cool, because well, the Beastie Boys are very cool!  Sadly, he died in 2012.  This crushed my sister as it felt that my fate was somehow tied to his.  What she failed to realise is that my tumour was probably very different to his tumour as my body is very different to his body.  Also he probably had very different treatment from me as he was American and I was British.  We both had very different experiences so trying to tie the two together was madness.  Easier said than done though…

That said the experiences of those celebrities who choose to speak out can, at times, be inspiring.  I remember when I was feeling down in the dumps after my first block of radiotherapy, seeing a picture of Michael Douglas frolicking around in the surf with his son.  The year before, he had been diagnosed with throat cancer and… well… it didn’t look good.  However, here he was, having a laugh with his son. For some reason it made me realise that I could get through this.  I too could be frolicking away somewhere in a matter of months.  In fact, Douglas, has been very open about his cancer experience and its impact on his family.  I remember watching an interview with him where he was publicising his film “Behind the Candelabra” about the life of Liberace. In the interview, he openly spoke of his anxiety about returning to acting.  He didn’t think anyone would want to give him any parts because of his illness.  I was gob smacked.  This was Michael Douglas! Married to Catherine Zeta Jones! Part of Hollywood royalty! And he was having doubts about returning to work?!?  It weirdly gave me some strength to know that if the son of Spartacus was having confidence issues about getting back in the saddle again, then I wasn’t the only one.

Another famous person who helped me a great deal is a controversial one.  However, his autobiography was so cocky and so arrogant that it gave me kick up the back side when I well and truly needed one.  That person is Lance Armstrong.  Everyone knows the Lance Armstrong story.  The all American sweetheart who bravely fought and beat testicular cancer and then went on to win a staggering number of Tour De Frances.  We also know in great detail of his downfall.  The drugs, the lies and the blackmail.  Lance Armstrong, it is generally agreed, isn’t a nice man.  But his attitude to his cancer was staggering.  Being a true competitor, his approach to cancer was aggressive to put it mildly.  I have subsequently found out that his autobiography was ghost written so how much of it was actually true, I guess we shall never know.  At the time when I read it though, all this wasn’t known.  I was amazed at his supreme confidence to take on his medical team about his treatment.  He tried to find out as much about his cancer as possible.  He ditched his first oncologist because he didn’t agree with the treatment that they were prescribing.  In some ways the American healthcare system is more suited to this but to me, this was a revelation.  I started to research a bit more about my cancer and question my oncologist more.  Although I think Armstrong did take this to the extreme, it gave me shot in the arm to not accept the status quo.  There would always be a man with a plan.

The final person with cancer who has helped me greatly is Christopher Hitchens.  Christopher Hitchens was a journalist and author.  He died of pneumonia from cancer of the oesophagus in 2011.  He wrote a book that changed my life completely.  That book was called “God is Not Good.”  Before I read it, I felt I was an atheist but was ashamed to admit it.  This book said what I had secretly thought, but had always been too afraid to say.

Of course being affected by a life limiting illness means that people pray for you.  Unlike Hitchens, I don’t mind this.  If it makes my friend, my colleague or my relative feel better, then so be it.  This is because, like cancer, religion turns people to look inward.  This is praised by practically all religions but it does create a very narrow viewpoint.  It automatically creates a Them vs Us outlook.  Although most religions will try and argue against this, I can’t fail to see it.

Also there’s a general view that if you are an atheist, you are boring and lacking in seeing the wonder in anything.  I completely dispute this point of view.  I love the fact that there are aspects in this world that we know nothing about,  This is what makes where we live such a special and unique place.  I love absolutely every single minute living on this amazing planet. When I die, I know that I have truly seen the best that life has to offer.  I don’t need the thought of some afterlife to make me confront my situation.  Knowing that I am alive, here and now, in all this wonder, is all I need make it through each day.

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First Dates – End of Chemo

I love First Dates.  I don’t need to explain what happens on First Dates as the title gives it away. In a restaurant near St Pauls cameras are set up to document how a series of couples get on, on their first, blind date.

Everyone is shown in an extremely positive light.  If a date doesn’t work out, there is no soul searching.  Just a gentle shrug of the shoulders and we all move on.  The staff in the First Dates restaurant are key to this.  There’s Fred, the French maître d’. At the start of every episode, he philosophies on what is necessary to have a good relationship.  He somehow gets away with this merely by being French.  This seems to give him some weird kind of authority on how relationships should be.

When the daters first arrive, after they have checked in with Fred, they are taken to the bar to get a drink.  This is where I would come unstuck, if I went on First Dates.  I would have no idea what to order from the bar.  Everyone on First Dates seems to know all these elaborate cocktails, that the barman mixes up.  You see such disappointment when someone orders a beer or lemonade.

First Dates is great because it peels back all the layers.  It doesn’t matter if you are rich, poor, gay, straight, bi, trans, old or young.  If you are single and looking for love, the First Dates restaurant welcomes you.  Strangely it’s a bit like that with illnesses too.  Once you are diagnosed, you are all treated the same regardless of where you have come from who you are.

There are some differences.  In First Dates, everyone’s individuality is celebrated.  In healthcare, your individuality is frowned upon.  In First Dates, there is always hope that the date will turn out well.  In healthcare, there is hope, but it gets lost in paperwork and poor communication.

At the end of the date, each couple is asked if they would like to see each other again.  Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.  As for cancer, you don’t get a choice.  You know that you will see each other again.

Finally, the eighteen weeks were up.  I couldn’t bring myself to buy any chocs or pressies for the chemo nurses.  I think it was because I knew that deep down, I would be back.

And I was.  Three weeks later in fact.  Only this time I wouldn’t feel like a zombie.  Yes, this time I was only to have the Herceptin, not the toxic Paclitaxel and its terrible pre-meds.  There was also even better news on the timing front.  Somehow the time it took to administer the Herceptin dropped drastically.  Instead of taking ninety minutes, it would now take thirty minutes.  Fantastic.  However, with every good thing that happens, something annoying must happen to counter it.  The annoying thing was that after the Herceptin was given, I would have to hang around the chemo ward to two hours in case I got a reaction to it.  Oh well…

The first day of the new regime went well. After the Herceptin was administered, I took my place in the waiting room to wait for the allotted two hours.  What our chemo ward was quite good at, was to get the people who were on the same kind of treatment in on the same day.  This meant that there were about three other patients who were also on Herceptin at that time.  We all started chatting away in the waiting room, mostly moaning about having to wait for two hours to anyone who was interested.

After about an hour, a harassed looking nurse came running into the room.

“Does anyone have any objections to the media coming in?  We have an MP visiting one of the patients and we have been told that there are some media coming in.  I repeat does anyone have any objections to this?”

We all shook our heads and I could see a few of my compadre getting a bit excited by this.  There was a lot of hair brushing going on and general make up checks, just in case we might be in the background of something.

In the end, it was a bit of a let-down.  The MP just popped her head round and said hello to us in the waiting room.  She really wanted to see her constituent, who was in one of the bays receiving treatment.  The “media” consisted of one photographer who seemed more interested in taking photos of the rather photogenic MP than of obviously ill cancer patients. So, we soon relaxed back into the monotony of daytime TV.

I think the reason why we all got a bit excited was that at last, our secret little world could be getting some publicity.  When you get cancer, or any other life limiting illness, people tend to shut it away.  Of course, people need privacy but strength can also come through discussion and publicity.   With illnesses, there seems to be a lack of discussion.  Whether it’s because people feel that if they talk about the illness, they are more likely to catch it, I don’t know.  However, it is through communication and listening that acceptance can be reached.

I had two lots of thirty minute treatments of Herceptin, when something strange happened.  I came to the chemo ward and my name was called.  Instead of going to a bay, the nurse took me to the room where they took the patients’ blood.  It was explained to me that I was to have my Herceptin by sub cut.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“By injection.  Basically, I will administer the Herceptin to you through a syringe over five minutes.  You’ll still have to wait for two hours in the waiting room in case you have a reaction, but there will be no cannulation.”

This was music to my ears.  No cannulation.  No more warm rice bags on the back of my hands.  No feeling guilty every time the nurse though she/he had got a vein, only for it to “blow” or wriggle away.  Although it still involved needles, at least this one would disappear after five minutes.

I took off my jeans and sat on the comfy chair while the nurse filled the syringe with the Herceptin and set the timer on her phone.

“Are you comfortable?” she asked. I nodded and she started to inject me in the top of my thigh.  At first it stung a little, so she slowed down her flow.  But after about a minute, it felt fine.  It takes great skill to slowly inject someone with something. I could tell that after the five minutes, the nurse looked more relieved than I did.

“Great!” she said. “Now off you pop to the waiting room.  It’s eleven thirty now, so you’re free to go at half past one.”

I bid her thanks and farewell and made my way back for the conclusion of This Morning.

I had two further sub cut treatments at the hospital when another nurse came up with a suggestion.

“You know, you could have this treatment at home…” she said about two minutes into the injection.

“At home?”

“Yes.  We offer this treatment at your home.  The nurse who gives you the treatment must hang around for two hours, but at least you would be at home.  You wouldn’t be stuck here…”

It sounded quite good.   At my next appointment with Dr H I mentioned it to her.

“That sounds like a great idea. I was going to recommend it for you…”

So, that is how it was supposed to be and how it is now.  Every three weeks a nurse comes to my house and injects me with Herceptin. Then we have a cup of tea and a natter in front of the telly for two hours. It’s been two years since we started this arrangement and so far, it seems to be working.

I still have cancer.  It’s there, smack bang in the middle of my head or base of my skull if you prefer.  My tumour is small and the Herceptin prevents it from growing any larger or spreading.  Soon the Herceptin will stop working.  When that will happen, no one knows.  Some of the nurses who come to my house say that they have been treating patients with Herceptin for decades.  I’ve met someone who has been on it for about fifteen years and it’s still working.  But that doubt is there.  One day it will stop working.

 

Adventures with Erin

Another side effect of chemo that everyone knows about is hair loss.  Up until now I had survived my cancer treatment without this.  I think this stumped people quite a bit.  I remember meeting up with colleagues from work just after I had finished round two of radiotherapy. One of them commenting on the lusciousness of my hair.  She looked quite upset when I told her that I had had radiotherapy and not chemo.  She just assumed that if you have cancer, you lose your hair end of story.

The drug that I was on, Paclitaxel, caused hair thinning and not hair loss.  My hair did fall out but it wasn’t a sudden thing.  It happened very gradually.  After about a month of treatment, I was trying to be a bit like Bobby Charlton in disguising my rather obvious baldness.  Finally, we took matters into our own hands and my husband shaved my head.  You could tell he had been dying to do this as soon as chemo was first mentioned, which I thought was a bit odd.  It was quite shocking to see how little hair I had.  My hair now slightly resembled my dad’s in the way that it made an M shape on my forehead.  Not a good look at all.

Now that the hair had gone, the next thing that followed was the purchase of a wig.  Just after my chemo induction I went to see a wig man who was fabulous.  His salon was on the top floor of an old Victorian factory in Nottingham.  As I huffed and puffed up the stairs, he stood on the top landing, clocking my hair.

“You my dear are a Mia!” he proclaimed and produced a blond wig.  He then gave me a hair net to stuff my hair in and demonstrated how to put a wig on correctly. I tried it on and it looked OK.  He also shared a secret.

“To make it look less…urm…wiggy, accessorise!”

He proceeded to put a headband on the wig as well as a variety of hair grips and clips.  It certainly did make the wig look a lot better.

I thanked him and put in an order for a Mia.

The following week I was chatting to a friend and the cancer support centre I started going to. She mentioned about her old wig.

“It’s a redhead but honestly you can have it.  It needs a wash. It’s just sitting at the bottom of my wardrobe doing nothing.  It might as well be useful for someone.”

The following week she brought it in.  I tried it on. The transformation was incredible.  It looked so much better than Mia.  The darker red colour made me look quite well which the blond from Mia, failed to do.  That was it settled.  I was to be redhead Erin during treatment rather than blond Mia.

I had lots of fun with Erin.  It kind of felt like I had another identity.  I was off work with quite a bit of time on my hands and an idea began to take root.  I have always been quite good at pub quizzes.  So, I decided to apply for some daytime TV ones to chance my luck.

The first one I applied for was Pointless.  In Pointless you must play in a pair, so I roped in my sister, who was on maternity leave at the time.  We had an audition for the show in a non-descript hotel near the train station.  We had to tell the production staff and our fellow audtionees an interesting fact about ourselves.  We struggled with this.  I plumped in saying that I had been a Gamesmaker at Wimbledon.  My sister could not think of a single thing.  She decided just to wing it. When the moment came, I mentioned my Gamesmaker experience very briefly. My sister could only pretend that she supported the same football team as one of the presenters.  In the meantime, our fellow audtionees had the production team fascinated by their interesting facts.  In the end a woman who went on and on about meeting Prince Charles and a bloke who collected cinema tickets got through.  We were told don’t call us, we’ll call you.  But I wasn’t defeated in my quest…

The next programme in my sight was Bargain Hunt.  Although it wasn’t a quiz as such, Bargain Hunt is a daytime television institution.  This time I persuaded my mum as clearly my sister was way too boring for TV.  So, on one sunny Saturday me, my mum and my dad were negotiating the winding roads of Lincolnshire to find the hotel where our audition was.  We finally got there and it lasted all morning, much to dad’s delight.  The audition itself was a run through of the programme itself, with eight other couples.  At the end, we had to don on the famous Bargain Hunt fleeces and do a little bit to a camera, talking about ourselves.  It went quite well.  A couple of weeks later I got an email to say that we were on the waiting list.  If any of the chosen couples couldn’t make it, we were next in line.  Sadly, they all could make their dates so we never got the call.  So near…

In my final attempt to get on daytime TV, I decided to ditch my family members altogether.  It was a task I had to do alone. My friend saw an ad for 15 to 1.  I vaguely remembered the quiz from my uni days and decided to give it a bash.  Soon I was sat in a basement in an hotel in Birmingham with some very strange characters indeed.  I had entered the world of the professional quizzers.  The audition seemed to go OK but I wasn’t brilliant.  I was completely shocked when I got an email inviting me to go to Glasgow to film a show.  I had no idea what to expect.  The hotel we were all staying at was lovely.  While I was having my lonely meal for one at the hotel, I was scanning the restaurant to see if I could spy my fellow quizzers.  I thought I saw a few, but was too scared to approach them.

At eight o’clock the following morning we were collected in some black people carriers and whisked to the studios.  The main topic of conversation were quizzes.  What they had been on, what kind of questions would come up.  I just smiled and nodded.  Once we had been security checked, we were taken to a side room with sofas and Danish pastries.  It was then I found out that I was to be on the first show that was to be filmed that day.  I had just enough time to have a Danish, when I was whisked to make up.  The make-up ladies were lovely.  They had something that looked like a chemical sprayer that they used to apply the make-up.  Lovely.  When she went to style my hair, I froze.  I was wearing Erin so I whispered to her about it.  She smiled, sprayed some hair spray over Erin and wished me luck.

The rules of 15 to 1 are complex.  We had been told them numerous times during the audition but I went in having no idea what I was doing.  As the name implies, it involves fifteen people.  The chosen fifteen then stand in a semi-circle.  Each person has three lives.  In the first round, you must answer your first two questions to avoid getting knocked out.  If you are successful in that you progress to round two.

Round two is where the fun and games happen.  In round two you nominate another player to answer a question.  If they get it wrong, they lose a life.  This madness continues until there are only three players left.  Then it’s the final.

We drew lots as to where in the semi-circle we had to stand.  Some of my fellow quizzers got a bit hot under the collar about this.  Apparently if you were number one or fifteen, you were more likely to be nominated.  I was number nine so nice in the middle.

We took our place on the stage and the show’s presenter Sandy Toksvig appeared.  She seemed ever such a lovely lady and shook hands with us all.  It felt a bit like meeting royalty. So, what do you do?

After a group photo was taken of us and Sandy, we took our places behind the podiums.  I don’t remember much of round one.  I remember the person on podium one had to answer a question on astrophysics.  I thought at the time that I wouldn’t last long but weirdly I managed to answer my two questions correctly.

Round two it was and so began the nominating.  Again, I don’t remember much of it. I only remember that there was a chap in a wheelchair and I nominated him.  He got his question wrong and was eliminated.  My dad wasn’t happy about that but that’s the dog eat dog world of daytime quizzing.

It all seemed to happen so quickly that before I knew it, I was in the final three.  How on earth did that happen?  All the other contestants were chauffeured off, licking their wounds, dreaming on what could have been.  All that was left was me, Daphne and Brian.

Daphne was a retired civil servant who had been on fifteen to one in the 1990’s.  She only made it to the second round then, so like me was a bit flabbergasted to be in the final three.  Brian was a breed apart from us two.  He had been on quite a few quizzes. He was the chairman of a group of quizzers in the West Midlands.  If there was a lion amongst us it was Brian.  Poor Daphne and I were injured wildebeests in his presence.

We got going and I still didn’t know what I was doing.  In the final round, you can either answer the question yourself or nominate.  You don’t know what the question is so it’s a bit of a gamble. I remember someone somewhere saying it was a good idea to have a lot of points. So, I answered as many questions as I could, rather than nominate.  I have no idea where that confidence came from.  When the programme came to air, my husband was gobsmacked by my rapid answering of inane questions.  Then I came unstuck.  The question was:

Which American actor, who died in 2014, stared in the television programme Maverick and stared in The Great Escape?

I knew it was James something.  Not James Cagney. He was long gone.  Not James Stewart.  He was The Wonderful Life guy. James…James…

I decided on James Coburn. Nope.  It was James Garner.  And off I went.  Walk of shame and everything.

As to who won well… it was Daphne.  She was completely dumbstruck when Brian got a God-awful question about the Indonesian rainforest.  Brian was quite chilled about it though.  You could tell it was just a normal dog eat dog day in the quizzing world.

Dragons’ Den

 

Dragons Den has become a bit of a staple on TV as it has in many countries around the world.  The main reason for this is that the premise for the show is so simple.  A person comes and pitches a business idea to the “dragons”.  The “dragons” decide if they want to invest in the company or idea.  Each pitcher has to decide on how much money they want from the dragons and how much equity of their business they are willing to hand over to the dragons.

When it first started, it drew, a lot of criticism.  This was mainly because in front of each dragon there is a table with a huge pile of money on it.  Whether this money is real or not is not known.  The presence of this money in a weird way gave the dragons even more power than they had already.  It was like the pitcher was performing monkey that the dragons only invested in a whim.

However, as the series went on and the dragons kept on changing, the programme changed a little.  You started to hear the back stories of the pitchers. It developed a kind of warmness to it.  You got to know about the dragons too and their backgrounds.  Occasionally the dragons genuinely wanted to help these fledgling businesses navigate themselves around a real dog eat dog world.  You can see the frustration sometimes with the dragons trying to make the pitcher understand that the business world isn’t full of sweetness and light.

The current dragons are Peter Jones, who’s been there since the beginning, Deborah Meadon and newbies Neil Jenkins, who founded Moonpig.com, Touker Sulyman, who’s described as a fashion tycoon and serial restaurant owner Sarah Willingham.  Each dragon has their own speciality.  Peter Jones is a bit of an IT whizz. Anything to do with websites or technology seems to get directed at him.  Deborah Meadon is linked with travel and hospitality. Any gadget to do with travel is normally aimed at her.  It’s good that they have a foodie in the shape of Sarah Willingham. Quite a large majority of pitches are associated with food.

All this is overseen by Evan Davies who has the rather annoying habit of repeating everything that has just happened.  However, you can block this out after a while.

Over time it’s quite clear what works, and what doesn’t.  You must know you finances as the dragons go through the figures with a fine-tooth comb.  I’m quite surprised that some of the pitchers are quite shocked at this.  They seem to think that as the dragons have a lot of money, they won’t mind parting from it.  One of the previous dragons, Theo Paphitis, would say “You want me to squander my child’s inheritance on this?!?” They may have a lot of money but they are just like us when it comes to parting with it.

There have been some success stories and not so successful stories associated with Dragons’ Den. The media takes delight in featuring ideas that the dragons chose not to invest in, which turned out to be successful.  Schadenfreude sells good copy.

The reason I’m writing about Dragons’ Den is I have an idea to pitch.  I have no idea how much money I will need or how much equity I want to release. Preferably none at all. My idea is this.  It’s a patch.  A patch like a nicotine patch.  This patch could do a whole manner of things.  It could administer medication.  It could take blood.  It could give fluids to dehydrated people.  It could give blood for blood transfusions.  It could give dialysis for people awaiting a kidney transplant.  It could administer dye for scans.  It could be used for chemotherapy.  It could do anything medically that involves a needle. Needles would become obsolete.  Nurses would have more time to deal with patients than spend countless hours cannulating patients.  It would completely revolutionise the medical establishment.  It would mean that we would be free from the pumping machines!

However, it would never happen.  I would have got something wrong with the patent and my finances would be cack handed.  My yearly profit predictions would be grossly unrealistic and my proto type would explode everywhere. So needles it is then. Wait for it…sharp scratch.

I was now on Herceptin which is widely regarded as a breast cancer drug. Dr C decided to relinquish me from her grasp and hand me over to Dr H. Dr H was a breast cancer oncologist. She was used to dealing with Herceptin and its side effects.  In my first appointment with her, she was honest and up front.  Yet she also gave me some hope.

“After you have finished the 18 weeks of Herceptin and Paclitaxel, you will just solely but on Herceptin.  You will need to have this every three weeks until it stops working.  Anna, I want you to understand that eventually the Herceptin will stop working.”

Myself and my husband nodded.

“After six weeks, we’ll scan you to see how it’s going.  If it’s going well, we may be able to stop the treatment with the Paclitaxel after six weeks and then go straight onto the Herceptin.”

When she said this, I heard – you will finish your treatment in six weeks.

Six weeks into treatment and it was Christmas.  I had my scan and I bought the chemo nurses bundles of treats thinking that I wouldn’t be seeing them in the New Year.  I was brought crashing down to earth with a bang.

My husband and I went to my oncology appointment to discuss my scan results.  It wasn’t Dr H but a confused looking registrar.  Confused because his speciality was breast cancer and I clearly didn’t have that.

“Mmmm…the tumour in your head is stable as is the one on your lung.  Could you now go and have your blood taken? You’ll have your next chemo on Thursday.”

“Tumour in her lung!?!” said my husband. “No one has EVER mentioned that before!”

The registrar looked up to see me open mouthed, on the verge of tears.

“Urm… well the report mentions some scarring on the lung…”

“Surely that’s from the radiotherapy which would also explain why it hasn’t changed!”

“Oh…”

“Plus Dr H said I could finish chemo after six weeks!” I said

“I’m afraid that’s definitely not the case.  You need the full eighteen weeks.”

I wanted to cry.  Although the tumour on the lung was a bit of a shock, I just couldn’t face the idea of more chemo.  Twelve more weeks of being tied to that God-awful machine.  Twelve more weeks of needles being stuck everywhere.  Twelve weeks of wanting to be anywhere than slumped in a chair earwigging the inane conversations of strangers.

We both left the appointment livid in our own separate ways.

Thankfully the following week, Dr H cleared up the confusion.  It was just scarring on my lung from the radiotherapy.  But I would still need both six week blocks of chemo. Drat.

Chemo – Part 2

When I look back at my cancer story I’m often reminded of a scene from one of my favourite films, Monty Python’s Life of Brian.  In the scene, our hero, Brian, is in hiding from the Romans. He seeks refuge with a political/terrorist organisation called The People’s Front of Judea (or is it the Judean People’s Front?) While he is at their hideout, the Romans, led by John Cleese as their centurion, come a knocking.  They start searching the place to find Brian.

While they are doing this, John Cleese tells the old man who owns the hide out, what penalty will befall him for harbouring a known criminal.  That penalty is crucifixion.  The old man shrugs his shoulders.

“Nasty eh?” says Cleese.

“I dunno could be worse…” says the old man.

“What do you mean could be worse?”

“Well…” replies the old man, “you could be stabbed.”

“Stabbed! That takes seconds! Crucifixion is much worse…it’s a slow painful death!” says an infuriated Cleese.

“Well at least it gets you out in the open air…”

“You’re weird…” responds Cleese.

I think if you substitute crucifixion for chemotherapy and being stabbed with radiotherapy you begin to get some idea on the difference between the two.

Radiotherapy is instant.  Although the side effects from it take longer to appear and last at lot longer than chemotherapy, the actual application of treatment is quick.  It’s all over in ten minutes.  It’s completely different with chemotherapy.  With chemotherapy the treatment is long and drawn out, like a crucifixion.  You go to the waiting room and wait an hour (if you are lucky) for them to mix and get your treatment.  Then, when you are called through, you spend ten minutes warming the back of your hands ready for cannulation.  After the back of hand warming, a good 10-15 minutes is spent inserting the cannula.  Once inserted, you are hooked up to a bag of saline for what is known as “a flush”.  This normally lasts another 10 minutes.  This is done to make sure that the cannula is working OK.

It is after the flush that you then finally start the treatment itself.  The treatments vary according to the type of cancer you have and how serious the cancer is.  What they all have in common is that they are all extremely toxic.  However long it takes, your life is ruled by the clock and the machine you are hooked up to.

When the treatment is finished, your machine starts bleeping.  This usually happens when there are no nursing staff about like at lunchtime or at a change of shifts.  It’s often quite awkward if two or even three machines start bleeping at once.  Then you start eye balling your fellow patients. If someone whose machine started bleeping after yours gets attention first, boy does it piss you off!

You usually then have a finally flush, just to wash the final residues of treatment/poison into your system.  When that is over the machine starts bleeping again and you are finally disconnected and free to go.

That is a basic outline of what you go through but as we all know, life is never that simple.

My appointment the following week was on a Thursday not a Wednesday.  Thursday was now to be my chemo day.  Every cancer patient who has had chemo has a chemo day.  You see them shudder a little when they tell you.

Again my husband came with me.  It was the first time I would have the Herceptin and the Paclitaxel so we wanted to make sure that my head wouldn’t fall off.  After about an hour, Sue, the nurse who led the induction, called my name.  I was cannulated quite quickly and up and running with the Herceptin.  So far so good.  Sue asked how I felt after last weeks’ treatment.

“Fine.  Although I did feel a bit fluy in the night.  I took some paracetamol and felt fine afterwards.”

Sue’s expression changed.

“You should have called us immediately.  That meant you had some reaction to the Herceptin.  How was your temperature this morning?”

“Fine…” I said feeling a bit ashamed.

“Good.  If you feel that way again you MUST call us.  I cannot stress how important that is.”

I nodded. After it was clear that the machine was pumping away happily and that I was fine, Sue disappeared.

“Well that told you.” Said my husband. It sure did.

After 90 minutes, the machine started bleeping and Sue reappeared.  I had a ten minute flush and then Sue appeared with a little tray with a variety of vials on it.

“These are pre meds.  We give you these before you have any chemo drug to lessen the side effects.”

There were about three vials and she injected each of them straight into the cannula on my wrist.  At first I felt fine.  Then I felt incredibly woozy.  It was if all the blood had rushed from my head to my feet.  I felt so lightheaded that I couldn’t speak to confirm my date of birth for the Paclitaxel.  I did eventually and the Paclitaxel pumped away for another 90 minutes.

When the 90 minutes and the ten minute flush were up, I was finally unhooked.  I immediately went to the loo as I had felt too weak to go during the treatment and then my husband slowly walked me to the car.

When we got home, I went to bed straight away to sleep it off. The next day I felt a bit hungover but was pretty much back to normal.

It was pretty much like that for the next 18 weeks.  What was making me so drowsy were the pre meds before the chemo.  One was Piritin which is an antihistamine.  It’s normally harmless in hayfever tablets but it turned me into a zombie all the way through treatment.  The nurses tried slowing the dose and all manner of tricks, but it had no effect.  I would turn into a zombie and that was that.

Although the Piritin was doing what it was supposed to do medically, psychologically it turned me into a bit of a wreck.  Each week normally on Wednesday evening or even on Thursday morning on the drive to the hospital, I would have a little chemo cry.  I think it was because I knew by the end of the day I would feel awful and there was nothing I could do to change it.  I’ve met many other people who also have had Piritin as a pre med and nearly always, it sends them to sleep for the rest of the treatment.  For some reason my body just refused to accept this.  It was like it was keeping me awake in order to confront exactly what I was going through, no matter how tedious it was.

The chemo ward is a peculiar place.  Time seems to stand still for everyone except the nurses who are dashing from one bleeping machine to another.  Chemo nurses are definitely a special kind of nurse.  They are a breed apart.  They always find time to deal with anything, not matter how annoying it is.  More than once I heard nurses telling their colleagues:

“I don’t care if she wants the meeting now.  I’ve got to cannulate this patient and then finish off that patient.  I’ll see her when I’m ready…”

They really put patients first and yet also possessed with a kind of sixth sense.  They seemed to know when you were up for a bit of a chat and when to leave you be.  It’s a very clever skill and one that I don’t think can be taught too well.

As for my fellow cancer buddies on chemo with me, they could be fascinating, kind beyond belief, irritating as hell, rude, obnoxious, sweet, helpful, generous, boring… the list could go on.  I only really remember fragments of it now because I was pretty much drugged up to my eye balls.

I remember an elderly couple and the husband was very poorly.  It was clear that the chemo being offered was for palliative purposes.  However they were both so kind and funny I used to really look forward to seeing them. On one occasion, the nurses had decided to put the radio on instead of the TV in our bay. This was actually a good idea because it was easy for you to drift in and out of the music being played. The song “A Horse With No Name” came on.  The wife of the couple knew every single word of this hypnotic song and seeing her singing it gently to her sleeping husband has stuck with me.

Another patient was chap called Sid who came with his son. Both of them didn’t really say much.  I remember when I was drugged up, Sid had just finished his treatment and came over.  I had reclined my chair and was trying to get some sleep.  He just waggled my left foot and said:

“Hang in there kiddo…”

It was the only thing that he ever said to me, but weirdly it did help.

I remember news stories at the time.  The downing of Flight MH370.  The awful ferry sinking in South Korea.  Bill Roache and DLT being cleared of sexual offences.  All these stories and many more were being discussed around me, but I just couldn’t contribute to the discussion.  I was there, but I wasn’t there.

I also remember thinking that weirdly, we were part of one big family.  It didn’t matter what type of cancer you had.  You were all the same in the chemo ward.  You could be a doctor, a builder, a housewife, a professor, an artist, a bus driver, a soldier, a baker or even a candlestick maker, we were all equal in the chemo ward.  We all had have our bloods. We all had to cannulated.  We all had to be scanned.  It was all the same thing.  It’s just where it was and what it was like that made us all different.

 

Chemo Pt 1 – The Beginning

We arrived at my chemo induction in good spirits.  I was going to be treated! Hurrah!  I checked in at reception. My husband and I made our way to the waiting room.  Like all waiting rooms connected with cancer it was packed.  There were people in there waiting for treatment as well as newbies like me, waiting for the induction.

Just as my husband arrived with a rather full milky coffee for me, a nurse appeared in the doorway and read out a series of names of which mine was included.  We squeezed passed the huddles and were shown into a room with about five rows of chairs in it, all facing a presentation screen.  There were about fifteen of us in the room and the nurse who had read our names out.

“Good morning everyone.  My name is Sue and I’m a chemotherapy nurse here on the Day case Chemotherapy Ward at City Hospital.  Today I will outline to you what will happen during your treatment with us.  Then I will see you one to one to talk about your specific treatment and answer any questions that you may have.  Ok, let me begin…”

She then began a presentation about chemotherapy in general.  I can’t really remember what she said as it all a bit general.  She did say that we would get a £70 voucher for a wig which sounded good.

After she finished the presentation, she then gave us the times for our one to one appointment.  Luckily I was the first one.  All the others filed out of the room to catch the end of Homes Under the Hammer and it was just me, my husband and Sue.

“So… Anna Read… I see that you are on Herceptin and Paclitaxel right?”

“Urm… yes.”

“Well your first appointment will be with us next Wednesday.  In that appointment, you will only receive the Herceptin but not the Paclitaxel.  The Herceptin takes 90 minutes to deliver and as it’s your first time you have to stay in the unit for six hours afterwards, in case you have a reaction to it.”

Six hours!!! I didn’t say this but nodded.

“The type of reaction is something that feels a bit like flu.  If you experience any of these symptoms you must tell a nurse immediately. Where do you work?”

I told her the name of the college.

“You can’t work at all during treatment.  The chemotherapy weakens your immune system so any coughs and colds that you could get could be extremely dangerous for you.  It’s vital that you monitor your temperature daily and if it gets too high phone this number immediate.”

She outlined my treatment further.  I would have the treatment weekly for 18 weeks.  I would have 6 weeks of treatment, then a break of two weeks, then a further six weeks, then another break and then the last round.  I would have to give blood for a blood test a couple of days before my treatment.  This would be to check that my body was still coping with the treatment.  I would see my oncologist once a week to check that everything was OK.  If I needed any further medication like anti sickness tablets, I was to let me oncologist know who would then add to my prescription.

Both my husband and I nodded.  It was a lot to take in. Although we knew all the facts, you can never prepare for it.  We bid our farewells to Sue and made our way to the reception desk.  My first appointment was made for 10am the following Wednesday.

Wednesday rolled around and soon I was stood in front of the receptionist ready for my first bout of Herceptin.  My husband came with me. We decided that he would wait until I was hooked up and then I would call him once it was finished.  If anyone was going to hang around for six hours, I would rather one of us do it rather than both of us.

I was called through and was hooked up quite quickly.  After my husband left, I got chatting to people next me.  It was a mother/daughter combo and the mother was receiving treatment for bowel cancer.  Her treatment was pretty epic.  She would have to be there for eight hours.  Blimey.  However, neither her nor her daughter seemed that bothered by it.  In fact, as it was the last week in November, they were both manically making Christmas cards and decorations.

“Chemo… It hasn’t been that bad has it love?” said the mother after finding out that it was my first time.

“I’ve been as fit as a fiddle.  It’s my last treatment in three weeks and I’ve even still got my hair…”she added while making pom pom baubles.

I smiled and looked around the room at the rest of the patients.  The lady opposite me sighed and shook her head as if disagreeing with the mother’s remarks.

After 90 minutes, my machine started bleeping and I was told to go back to the waiting room and stay there for six hours.  Lovely.  The six hours went past quite quickly as the waiting room was a fantastic place for people watching.  There were some people who reminded me of the Monty Python skit about Yorkshiremen who try and out do each other about how bad their situation is.  A typical conversation from these types would be as follows:

“I’ve been here since eight this morning for bloods, they can’t find my consultant so I’m stuck here not knowing if I’m going to have my treatment or not.”

“Can’t find your consultant?  You’re lucky.  We’ve been here since six this morning as his temperature went up.  Had bloods but we’ve only just found out that our consultant is on holiday so they are having to try and find his registrar…”

“Can’t find their registrar? You’re lucky…” And so on…

The next type of people would be the outwardly jolly people.  They would be wandering around with their machines, cracking jokes, making cups of tea and generally acting like that it having chemo was a completely normal thing to be doing on a Wednesday.  If you looked closer though, you could see that they seemed to be in some kind denial by the way they were calling out for people to recognise them for joking around.

The final type I noticed was the silent type.  There were either in a couple or just be the patient themselves.  They would quietly sit in the waiting room, reading a book or magazine.  You could tell that they were trying to block out what was happening around them.  Over time I would definitely evolve into the silent type.

When the six hours were finally up, I called my husband and went home.

Breaking Bad

You cannot talk or write about TV and cancer and not mention Breaking Bad.  For the benefit for those who haven’t seen this superb series (like my parents) here is a brief outline of what happens.  We follow the life of Mr Walter White.  Walter lives in Albuquerque and is happily married to a beautiful wife called Skylar.  They currently have one son, Walt Jnr, who has cerebral palsy.

We join the White family as they are due to celebrate Walt’s 50th birthday. Walt works as a chemistry teacher in the local high school and as Skylar is pregnant with their second child. He takes a second job at a car wash, in order to save extra money for the new arrival.  During the first episode, we get a glimpse into Walt’s life and it’s clear that it’s a very downtrodden existence.  Although he is a good teacher, the extra work at the car wash, you can tell, destroys him.  The boss of the car wash is a horrible man.  He gives Walt all the awful jobs to do and you can see how demeaning it is to such a proud man like Walt.

Then Walt’s world changes.  Although he has been feeling tired and run down, he just assumes it’s down to the fact that he has two jobs.  However, a trip to the doctors and a follow up scan gives Walt the news that both him and his family cannot imagine.  He has lung cancer.  There are treatment options but it’ll cost.

After receiving the news, Walt then thinks of another way he can get the extra money, not only for the treatment, but also for his family.  He decides to use his chemistry knowledge to become a drug dealer by both manufacturing and distributing methamphetamine.  He has the manufacturing side covered, by raiding the school for supplies.  In order to help with the distribution side, he recruits a former pupil, Jessie Pinkham, to assist him in such matters.

The following five series follow Walt’s and Jessie’s descent into the drug underworld.  Unsurprisingly, things get a bit messy.  But what makes Breaking Bad stand apart is the change in personality in both Jessie and in Walt.  By series five, Walt is no longer Walt but the drug lord Heisenberg who is on America’s Most Wanted.  In one telling scene, Skylar confronts Walt in a storage container that is completely crammed full with money.  She tells Walt that they have enough money to last two lifetimes rather than one.  So why doesn’t he stop?  Walt is completely passive throughout the exchange.  He knows that he is now too far gone.  He can never go back to the old Walt.  He is now Heisenberg and relishes and devours the power that this now gives him.

I can identify a lot with Walt.  When I tell this to my friends and family, they seem to recoil in horror.  Although I’m not about to start cooking methamphetamine any time soon, I can identify with the change in personality.  Cancer changes you.  It makes you assess your life.  You become more assertive.  You see life with extra clarity.  You know what you want and definitely what you don’t want.

You also sadly realise that cancer is not something that is beaten.  Even if you have been cancer free for decades, it still has a hold over you.  With Walter White it gave him an excuse for him to indulge in his psychopathic tendencies.  For me it gave me clarity for how to alter my work life balance.  These are life changing decisions and cancer or any other life threatening condition, gives you a weird confidence to enact on this.

Buoyed by the extra confidence from my Olympic experience, I prepared my battle plan for returning to work.  All the meetings I had were very positive and by September 2012, everything seemed to be back to normal. Then one day I was having a rare thing in the teaching world which is a proper lunch break.  I was tucking into some salad when a piece of rocket got stuck in my throat and I started to choke.  There was no one else in the staff room. I was just about to bolt it and get some help when it magically dislodged itself and I was soon rasping for air.  It was a bit of a wake up call that mouth wasn’t opening as wide as it should which meant that I wasn’t chewing food properly. I was pretty determined that if and when I was going to die it would be of cancer, not some errant piece of salad.

So began a barrage of appointments at the Maxi Facial Clinic to see if anything could be done.  I had an x ray of my teeth taken.  However, my mouth wouldn’t open wide enough to fit the slide in behind my teeth.  The radiographer seemed to relish this challenge that had been set for him.  Soon he managed to butcher a children’s x ray slide so that it finally rested snuggly behind my teeth.

I met another consultant, Mr P, who was a very jolly chap.  He wasn’t keen on surgery.  He thought it would create more scar tissue which could make the problem even worse.  I was prescribed a weird clamp like device to put in my mouth to try and prise my mouth further apart.  Finally, it was decided that I should have an MRI to finally rule out surgery once and for all.

I went to get the results in the summer of 2013.  I went with my husband and we both felt pretty good.  I had survived a whole academic year and had upped my teaching load for the next academic year in September.  We were also going on a cruise of the Norwegian Fjords the following week.  So we were both completely dumb struck when Dr B showed us in and said….it’s back.

I actually refused to believe it.  My husband refused to believe it.  Dr B said that when she read the report, she actually went to see the senior radiologist to query it, because she didn’t believe.

She pulled the image on the computer screen.  There it was.  It had reoccurred in the same place.  It was no longer in my salivary gland but was at the base of my skull, right in the middle of my head. It was quite small.  The size of a pea, Dr B had said.

“Can we treat it?” asked my husband rather tentatively. We both remembered the conversation we had had with Dr B after the second course of radiotherapy.  She had very clearly said that if it reoccurred that would be it.  Adios amigo.

“Unfortunately no.  The bone in the centre of your skull, Anna, has had such a high dose of radiation, that it could cause you severe brain damage if you were to have any more.”

We were dumbfounded.  I think I must have told Dr B that we were going on a cruise.

“That’s marvellous! Look go on your cruise, and we can discuss all this afterwards.”

It seemed like a good idea, so we made an appointment back in her clinic the week after the cruise.

We had a great time on the cruise and it felt that we had left what was going on in the centre of my head, back at home.  The only time it was mentioned was when I was eating some peas.  I said it was quite weird that something so small was creating all these problems.

The cruise also gave us time to devise some kind of plan.  As Mr N had sought advice from his colleagues at the Royal Marsden in London and they had advocated the second round of radiotherapy, it made sense that we should seek them out and see what they had to say.

I ran this idea past Dr B.  To my amazement, she wasn’t keen.  She supported me wholeheartedly in going there, but she feared that their conclusions would be the same as her’s.

After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, we finally managed to get an appointment to see Professor M at the Royal Marsden in Chelsea.  So I had gone up from doctors, to misters and now I had reached the pinnacle of professors.

There are two sites for the Royal Marsden hospital.  One is in Sutton in Surrey and the other is in Chelsea in west London.  My appointment was at the Chelsea one and for some reason my dad thought it would be a good idea to drive there.  This turned out to be a nightmare.  In the end, dad dropped me, mum and my sister off at the main entrance while he trawled the back streets of Chelsea, trying to find a parking space.

As we were in the private section, the reception area was quite plush.  There was free tea and coffee and an abundance of reading matter to peruse.  After about ten minutes, we were called through.  Still no sign of dad.  We sat in a big circular corner room that had three set of sash windows that poured light in.  Professor M stood up and we made our introductions.  He was quite young and reminded me a little of the comedian David Mitchell.  We just all sat down again when in entered a flustered dad.

“You drove!?!” said Professor M shaking his head.  It wasn’t a good start.

After we all calmed down a bit, he tapped on his computer and a photo of the inside of my head appeared on his computer screen.

It turned out to be good news.  There were things that could be done.  First he would test the tumour to see if there was anything chemically that could be done.

“Chemically?” asked my sister “We’ve always been told chemo wasn’t an option…”

“It may be.” Replied Professor M “It just depends on the tumour.”

If nothing chemically could be done, then I could have a course of further targeted radiotherapy.  However, this would be much more invasive.  The tumour would have to be a lot bigger and I would have to lose my left eye because the radiation damage to it would be too great.  I would also have to have the treatment at the Marsden which would mean staying at mum and dad’s for six weeks and commuting in.  We nodded solemnly.  Inside though we were all cock-a-hoop.  The man had a plan and that was all we wanted to hear.

I threw myself into work after the Marsden appointment to try and distract myself a bit from the seriousness of the situation.  I remember rushing off while in the middle of teaching to answer phone calls confirming follow up appointments.  It was becoming more of a nuisance to my everyday existence rather than a life or death matter.

Then one day an extremely important email dropped into the Junk Mail folder in my Hotmail account.

It was the news that we were dying to hear.  They had tested the tumour and found that it was HER 2 positive.  Basically a cancer tumour omits a whole load of proteins in order to replicate itself. One such protein is HER 2.  By being HER 2 positive, my tumour could be prevented from spreading by using chemical treatment.  This meant that although it wouldn’t get rid of the tumour completely, I could have chemotherapy to keep the tumour at bay.

I would also no longer be seeing Professor M at the Marsden.  Instead I would see Professor I who would then discuss the treatment with me further.

The next week me, my sister and my parents were all sat once again in the private clinic waiting room, awaiting our first appointment with Professor I. I seem to remember he was about fifteen minutes late, which annoyed my sister a bit.  Anyway we were called through to a small box room.  In the room there was a desk with a computer on it.  Opposite the desk was an examining table and a wash basin.  Squeezed into this room were myself, Professor I, my parents, my sister, a nurse and a registrar.  It was a tight fit I can tell you.  Professor I sat at the desk and I sat on a chair at one end of the desk.  Even though there were so many other people in the room Professor I focused purely on me.

“Ah… Mrs Read! Delighted to meet you.”  He said as he shook my hand.  It was hard to place an age on him but I would say that he was over fifty.  He had short, spikey white hair, big black rimmed glasses and a noticeable gap in his front teeth.  He was also charm personified.

He highlighted my treatment package.  Basically I would have eighteen sessions of chemo.  My chemo would consist of two drugs.  The first one would be a drug called Herceptin.  This drug contained the necessary chemicals to prevent the tumour from spreading.  The second drug would be Paclitaxel.  This was a standard chemo drug usually used in breast cancer.  The idea of using Paclitaxel was that it would make my tumour more receptive to the Herceptin.  After the eighteen sessions, I would carry on having just the Herceptin every three weeks.  I would be monitored every three months to check that the tumour was stable.  He stressed that eventually the Herceptin would stop working and then we would be back to square one.

“Would she need the treatment at the Marsden?” asked my sister.

The good news was that no; I could have the treatment in Nottingham.  We all breathed a sigh of relief.

“That’s fantastic!” I said “I know I’m seeing you privately today but could we revert to NHS funding as I’m funding this appointment myself.”

Professor I’s face dropped.

“Oh… I had assumed that Mr BUPA was paying for treatment.  That changes things entirely because I’m not too sure you’ll get the necessary funding for treatment.  Herceptin has got funding for breast cancer and I doubt that your trust will fund it for any other type of cancer.”

I felt that the rug had been pulled away from under us.  I can’t really remember much after that.  My sister was bombarding him with questions and the Professor’s jovial attitude before, turned somewhat sheepish.

“Who’s your oncologist in Nottingham?” he finally asked.

I told him Dr B’s name.

“Ah…Trudy! Yes, I know Trudy quite well.  Look, I’ll email her and let’s see if it’s possible…”

We then said our goodbyes but weirdly I felt quite optimistic.

The next day I got a called from Melissa.  She had made an appointment for me to see Dr B that following Thursday.  I carried on with work in the meantime and soon both myself and my husband were waiting for my name to be yelled out in the lovely ENT department.

It eventually was and we walked in to a beaming Dr B.  Apparently she had applied to the Cancer Drug Fund for funding for the proposed treatment, and it had been accepted!  This meant that I could have the treatment that Professor I had outlined in Nottingham.  There would be no awful commute to Chelsea every day.  I could have it and be able to collapse in the car and be whisked home.  An appointment had been made for my chemo induction in two weeks’ time. Crikey! That was quick!