Cancer 21: a turn for the worse

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Cancer 21: a turn for the worse

Paul Brasington 2023
Published by Paul Brasington in Good health · Sunday 21 Nov 2021
Tags: Cancer
I suppose it serves me right, when I was thinking I’d come through the chemotherapy with the same ease as my rapid recovery from the tumour removal. It serves me right for thinking I might have special powers of recuperation, or resistance to discomfort. But after a truly grim week at the end of my third cycle I can no longer claim to have got off lightly with the chemotherapy.

Then again, perhaps my mixed experience will now make this blog more useful to others. I hope so.

I have already noted that each cycle of the chemotherapy seemed to bring progressively worse symptoms. This third cycle had been hard, starting with the steroid-induced sleeplessness of the first week, and then from half way through the second week increasing problems with diarrhoea. The latter is strongly associated with the tablets, but in the first two cycles those problems had been limited to unpleasant wind. That wasn’t great, but it was manageable.

This time around the predicted full diarrhoea set in. I was awake through much of Sunday night because of it. I was getting increasingly painful gastric cramps, and by Monday afternoon my temperature had climbed above 39 degrees.

I had barely been able to get out of bed, exhausted and delirious. They warn about the danger. If your temperature tops 37.5 you’re supposed to call the hospital. You’re also supposed to carry a HEAT card, which means that if you go to A&E you will be seen immediately.

The risk of sepsis
All of this is because chemotherapy wipes out your immune system, and should you develop an infection of any sort (marked by the temperature rise) there’s a real risk that it could develop into sepsis and kill you (the latter killed my friend Eric Griffiths, and is all-too common a fatal complication when you have other illnesses).

So it’s not a good idea to hang around. Mary drove me to the hospital where, true to HEAT card form, I was quickly ushered through to a cubicle, hooked up to an antibiotic drip and put through the usual gamut of basic tests. They found a urinary tract infection, common enough in the circumstances apparently. After a few hours they agreed I could go home, clutching a box of antibiotics and some other pills to relieve the gastric pain (which were not very effective).

Over the next 48 hours the pain just got worse, but my temperature began to fall, so something was working.

In my delirium I managed to leave my phone on a bench outside the main hospital entrance, waiting for a much-relieved Mary to pick me up. Stupidly I’d also put my main bank cards in the cover, along with my driving licence (they’re not kept there anymore.) Happily someone found it and handed it in to security, from where I collected it the next morning.

Faith in human nature
I mention this because it’s very easy in the current climate of bitter division to feel that too many of our fellow creatures are truly hateful. It’s hard not to feel this when you’ve been nursed through a crisis by the brilliant staff in A&E, then read about some bunch of idiotic anti-vaxxers besieging and threatening hospital staff, in their ignorance and selfishness.

It’s hard not to feel this when our corrupt government continues to enjoy any level of support while working systematically to undermine those healthcare workers. It is a small but telling sign of quite how messed up the situation is that those same healthcare workers are required to pay to use the car parks in their workplace, diverting an element of their inadequate salaries to fund the profits of some parasitic private management company. This is what happens when you turn to the private sector for “efficiency” in health service management.

But, and it’s an important but, the fact that my phone was passed intact to hospital security is a necessary reminder that most people are essentially good and honest. (Sadly, catastrophically, this is more than can be said of the current government.)

Unlooked-for relief
Meanwhile, back with my body things were not so good. Although I was supposed to be enjoying my remission week before the fourth and final cycle I continued for the next few days in a lot of gastric pain and discomfort, as well as feeling exhausted all day from the energy drain it took to fend off the infection and the continuing poison of the chemotherapy drugs. I was dreading the next cycle, but speaking to the nursing team I was told the oncologist believed I could probably skip it. My chemotherapy after all was only adjunctive, or precautionary, there to minimise the chances of the cancer’s return. I had a CT scan already booked for the following week, and a consultation with the oncologist after that. Pending the results from that scan she was recommending that I have no further treatment.

I’d never imagined this would be possible, thinking I’d just have to endure whatever that fourth cycle brought. At the low point of my treatment it was a transforming relief.

Except that pain obliterates the mind. You lose sight of almost everything else.

I was out of it for the best part of a week, though since last Monday things have been returning to normal, with no more drugs going into my system. I’m not quite sure what “normal” is going to be like, since I had barely recovered from the tumour’s removal when the chemotherapy started. I imagine it will take another few weeks before those drugs have left my system completely, assuming I’m given the all clear on Friday by the oncologist.

A shift in perspective
But I’m feeling pretty well again right now (apart from the predictable return of my rheumatoid arthritis, which I can't do anything about till I get the nod from the oncologist). It’s only when you get to a happier place that you realise quite how far you’ve been from your well self. That’s certainly true for the duration of this year, when I’ve been suffering the effects of the unsuspected tumour, and then the worry about the tumour, and the after effects of its removal.

We’ve been having to live with the full impact of the pandemic since March 2020. As I write I’m reassuring myself that the coming year will be better, that I’ll be back to strength in mind and body, that I can begin to enjoy my married life as well as giving proper attention to the renovation of our house in France, while becoming an Irish citizen.

Then again the pandemic is far from over. I’ve had my booster jab (without any ill effects), so can enjoy a degree of personal immunity, and I sincerely hope we can avoid another lockdown, but nothing can be certain right now.

I will know on Friday whether my treatment is over, when I see the oncologist again to discuss what the CT scan revealed, and whether any further action is going to be necessary (apart from the annual checks for the next five years, presumably in the form of a colonoscopy). I hope at that point I can bring this cancer blog to its natural conclusion, reviewing what’s happened, what I’ve learnt and how I feel about what lies ahead, assuming all is well. The Conquest Hospital in Hastings has been great throughout, but I’m sure they’ll understand when I say I’ll be glad to be visiting a little less often.

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