Chemo side effects lottery

Four years ago, back in 2012, it was brought home to me just how important it is to know what medical procedures really entail and what the possible risks are. I’d foolishly thought the warning at the end of the TRUS Biopsy consent form that I was about to sign was just a standard thing that had to be there so I didn’t pay it much attention, but I found out different when infection from the biopsies led to my first bout of sepsis. Ever since I’ve made a point of reading up and asking questions whenever I’m about to have something done to me and, generally, I take medical matters much more seriously.

So by the time I started my first cycle of chemo a couple of weeks ago I thought I was prepared, but I wasn’t. The speed with which the side effects started and their intensity were a complete surprise to me. I’d expected a slow onset followed by a gradual build up whereas the reality was the exact opposite. 

From the little bit of personal knowledge of chemo that I’ve now got, and bearing in mind that we’re all different and I’m only an expert on me, it seems that the whole chemo side effect thing is even more of a lottery than those side effects that happen due to surgery, radiotherapy and hormone therapy, all of which I have first hand knowledge. There are lots of possible chemo side effects, the list is extensive, looks scary and can vary depending which chemo drug you’re on. Each one is like a number on a Lotto Lucky Dip ticket in that you know what they could be because you’ve seen the list, but you only find out what ones you’ve actually got after you’ve parted with your money or, in this case, had the chemo put into your body.

My side effects included hoarseness, hiccups, extreme change in taste, sore mouth, muddy feeling mouth, blood at the start of every pee, constipation, diarrhoea, sore skin, fatigue, feeling weak, a sickly feeling in the mornings, very weird dreams and, the worst of all, severe pain in every bone, joint and muscle. Some side effects, like the blood in the urine, only lasted for a few days, while others have come, gone, then come back again. 

Certain side effects happen to everyone, although to different degrees, so can be planned for and prevented. Sickness falls into that category and I was given steroids to deal with that, starting with intravenous ones and followed up with pills and so far, although I’ve felt a bit sick most mornings, I haven’t thrown up.

Other side effects, like hoarseness, are rare and might not happen at all so it’s a case of having to deal with them as they hit you. I dealt with hoarseness with a special mouthwash from the GP and gargling with bicarbonate of soda. They both really helped but because the onset had been so quick – within two hours of having the chemo – I wasn’t even sure it was a side effect and wondered if I’d caught a cold, but my chemo nurse said that it could be the start of oral thrush, a more common chemo side effect.

Another thing I didn’t have ready was effective pain relief because there was no saying I’d have any pain at all. As a result, by Day 3 I was really suffering and by Day 4 I was becoming less able to do anything because of the debilitating effect of not being able to sleep and not being able to move. I could hardly get out of bed and was feeling very down.

I tried “baby-dose” painkillers, the sort that most of us have handy at home, but they did nothing to alleviate the shooting pains in all my bones and joints, even my fingers and toes. I’d got to the point where I was having trouble walking, sitting, standing, laying down and just about every other activity and I felt as though every nerve was trapped and that I’d aged 20 years overnight.

As soon as I told my oncologist and my Macmillan nurse just how bad I felt I was immediately prescribed Co-codamol 30/500 (not baby-dose ones) and Ibuprofen 400mg. I could have got even stronger ones if I’d needed them, but luckily I haven’t so far. Once my pain was brought under control I managed to get some sleep again and was then able to do almost everything I wanted to with a bit of effort. Such was my confidence that on Day 9 I tried doing without my painkillers but soon found that I had tried too soon. Within a few hours I restarted them and began to feel much better. They work so well that later that same day, and the next, I was able to go for a couple of long-ish (very slow) walks. On both days the weather was too good to waste looking out of the window so it was good to be able to enjoy it. The walks knocked me out in a nice way, but relaxed me and helped me sleep like a log.

I’m now about half-way through the first chemo cycle, the point when my body should start to recover in preparation for it all to start again with cycle 2. Now that the pain is being managed I am pretty sure I can get through all the chemo but if you’d asked me a week ago before I had the right painkillers I’d have been very unsure. I was definitely faltering and had told my partner that if I said I was going to stop treatment that he was to talk me round using every reason he could think of. Whereas all the other side effects on their own were things I could have just put up with, the pain would have been the thing that mucked it all up. I’m really glad that’s not now going to be the case because it’s still my aim to live to be a cranky, cantankerous 90 year old and I stand more chance of achieving that aim with chemo than without it. Ask my partner and he’ll tell you, based on the last ten days alone, all I’m missing is the birthdays. 

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