As with most chemo drugs, there’s a long list of potential side effects for those I’m on (TC – taxotere/docetaxel and cyclophosphamide). When chemotherapy was confirmed to be part of my treatment plan, the side-effects I focused on were sickness and hair loss (specifically the wild mane on my head).
I’ll start with a bit of background as people have asked me how it works… Treatment (drugs, length of time etc.) is different depending on the situation but I will have four cycles or rounds of treatment. A cycle is 21 days. It starts with ‘Chemo day’ at the hospital. Then there is no treatment until the end of the cycle to allow time to recover from the effects. The cycle can be split into 3 weeks (a good friend suggested the following traffic light coding for each of the 3 weeks):
- Red: this week includes chemo day (day 1) and the start of side-effects (around day 4)
- Amber: where immunity is low (weakest around day 10)
- Green: side-effects have hopefully worn off and immunity is back up by this final week, ready for the next round!
At the moment, I’ve just finished my green week of round 1 (hence the revival of posts on here!) and about to go into round 2 (literally, I’m in the hospital waiting room!). I thought I ought to document my experience of chemo at this point in case I lose them to the ‘chemo brain’ (not a term I made up, it’s in the list of side effects!).
In the run up to chemo day, I had mixed and conflicting feelings. I was nervous but sort of ready. I had done everything I could to prepare – read the notes, taken the pre-chemo medication, consumed lots of water, packed a bag of ‘useful stuff’. Although part of me wanted to speed up time to get it out of the way, I wasn’t looking forward to finding out how I might react. I got close to tears the moment a cannula went into a vein in my hand as it conjured up emotions of what was about to happen.
Ice cap (head) and pack (fingers)
I opted to have the cold cap therapy in an attempt to keep my hair. I’m definitely begining to lose hair but it might just be thinning out. We’ll find out in a few weeks if it works on me! Scalp cooling aims to reduce or prevent hair loss due to chemotherapy by limiting the blood flow to the scalp.
Just before the cap went on, I wet my hair, smothered it with conditioner to flatten it and positioned a fabric headband to protect my forehead and ears from the icy helmet. It felt bitterly cold – particularly during the first 20 minutes of the 5 hour session. But it was bearable with deep breaths (and I suspect some odd facial expressions too!). It reminded me of how I used to feel when I left the house with wet hair on a cold (English) winter’s day, just more intense!
I also had ice packs on my finger tips which I found more uncomfortable than the cap as my hands are quite sensitive to the cold. A reminder that my nails could fall out helped to keep them under and it also diverted my attention from the head chills.
I had packed a lot of items to help pass time but I didn’t need them. I indulged in some daytime TV shows. My husband distracted me with chats, jokes and a foot massage. And encouraging messages from friends cheered me on during the final hour countdown.
The warm and cosy layers of clothes and blankets definitely helped with the cold. As did the warm bubble bath when I got home – even though the cold was on my head it felt like my whole body needed to defrost!
Physical reactions and side-effects
I didn’t have any major reactions during the actual session. I felt slightly nauseous but the nurse gave me some tablets that helped. I was surprised at how much I needed to wee. But all the water I was drinking plus fluids that went into my body (including the saline flushes in between the different drugs) was probably way more than my little bladder usually has to deal with.
I felt ok in the first few days – mild nausea continued but otherwise I was fine. Aware that side effects could kick in from day 4, I took the opportunity on days 2 and 3 to go for walks and even went to a café to write my to do list and check in with my boss.
As per the textbook, my side effects kicked in on day 4. I had fatigue, achy flu-like symptoms, back and tummy cramps, a mouth that felt swollen/metallic with food tasting of cardboard, night sweats, a spotty face and itchy skin (and an irritable mood). My son said he couldn’t tell my skin was bad when I had make up on but that it looked “a bit bumpy close up”!
So how was it for me?
It was pretty grim when the sick effects kicked in. I know it could have been much worse but there’s no denying there were some crappy days!
It wasn’t all bad though. Chemo day was much better than I thought. I spent the day with my husband. The wonderful people at my son’s lovely school community stepped into help with pick ups and dinner while we drove back from hospital. My son reminded me of the bigger picture when I said I wasn’t feeling too good wisely saying “yeigh, that means the chemo is working mummy”. The yuckiness is definitely outweighed by the reduced chance of cancer returning. On a day I felt particularly sorry for myself, listening to the “life sucks” Spotify playlist to match my mood, I found yet another box of treats waiting on my doorstep to boost my spirits. So whenever I have felt down, it’s not long before I’m reminded of the good things in my life and I’m thankful for that.
I’m more settled now that I have an idea of what to expect from the next rounds. I know it might be different, or even worse if effects are cumulative. Nonetheless, I find comfort in having some understanding in what might happen having been through it once.