My experience: ‘I decided chemo was part of the cure and I would tackle it head-on’
An expert oncology team’s care can turn even the side effects of chemotherapy into a positive experience
Tom Kenny during one of his chemo sessions in UCHG with nurses Sheila Hurley, Nicola Crowe, Claire Davey, Annmarie Bohan, Niamh Morrisey, Ann Wilson and Christina Farrell. Photograph: Karen Golden
I was offered a free bowel screen test by the Health Service Executive. The test results revealed tiny traces of blood, invisible to the naked eye, so I was sent for a colonoscopy. That revealed a large polyp which the medical team in University Hospital Galway (UHG) felt was about to turn cancerous, so I was operated on and the polyp was removed.
The histology revealed the polyp was cancerous and had affected two of the nine lymph nodes. The team had removed the cancer, but advised a course of 12 chemotherapy sessions as a kind of mopping up.
I had a cardiac history, so they gave me an angiogram to make sure the chemo drugs would not affect my heart. They then inserted a port, a device about the size of a 50-cent piece, under the skin to avoid infection. In the centre of this is a small, sponge-like area into which they can insert needles to take blood and to infuse the chemo drugs. This saves looking for veins and prodding you with needles in order to insert a canula. I have thanked the Lord many times for my trouble-free port.
A few weeks after my initial test I was ready to start chemotherapy. The process was explained to me thoroughly beforehand. I was told about the possible side effects such as nausea, tiredness, pins and needles (which can become permanent if not looked after), mouth ulcers and so on.
Some people regard chemotherapy almost as a death sentence, but I decided it was part of the cure and I would tackle it head-on. My cancer had been caught at an early stage so my chemo regime would probably be less debilitating than most.
At the start of each session you are weighed, your pulse and blood pressure are checked, and blood samples are taken. These are sent to the laboratory and if the balance between red cells and white cells is right, they will proceed with the chemo. Otherwise you are deferred and another session is added to your programme.
While I was there, nobody wanted to be deferred: everyone just wanted to get the session over, even though a deferral was almost like having a fortnight’s holidays, you came back to the unit refreshed and much stronger.
In my case, the chemo came in the form of drips, a saline solution that primed the port, Zofrin and Dix methadone for anti-sickness and, finally, Folfox, the chemotherapy. The process took about 2½ hours, after which a self-infusing bottle was connected to the port and took 48 hours to empty. It was disconnected by a public health nurse.
The first side effect came immediately after the first session, I bit off a piece of banana and it felt as if my jawbones were made of frozen broken glass. The pain was momentary, but it came as a shock. I experienced a little nausea, although anti-sickness tablets were a great help.
I had been warned about constipation in the days after a session, so I pre-empted it by taking small doses of laxative. I was told I would not lose my hair, but it did thin out quite a bit. The hairs on my upper body disappeared, as did the hairs in my nostrils, which meant a runny nose, especially in cold weather, and there was always blood in my handkerchief. During the winter I wore gloves to keep the pins and needles to a minimum and I wore socks in bed to keep my feet warm.
As for the tiredness, I simply had to listen to my body and rest until the tiredness gradually disappeared. It is frustrating to suddenly have no energy. A survivor of many chemo sessions explained it like this: “When you are watching television and you want to change channels, the remote is about two feet away from your hand and you look at it for about 20 minutes, wondering: ‘Have I the strength or energy to reach out and change it?’ Eventually, you say: ‘To hell with it, I couldn’t be bothered.’ ”
It was not always that bad: in my case the tiredness lasted three or four days.
You are warned about diarrhoea and I had it for several days after the seventh session of chemo. I was admitted to St Joseph’s oncology ward and was hydrated by a drip while we awaited laboratory tests to check if the diarrhoea was caused by something sinister. Happily it was not and I was sent home with plenty of Immodium.
The chemo sessions became routine for me. The oncology day ward is an extraordinary place. No patient wants to be there: everyone wants to get their session over with, one fewer to go to the end. In spite of this it is a very calm and dignified room, thanks to the nurses, who are simply wonderful. They are under constant pressure but their dedication, professionalism, humanity and care of the patients all make light of the pressure.
After the chemo course I was given a scan and, eventually, the all-clear. I am now in the system, and the level of aftercare is evidenced by the number of appointments various departments in UHG have lined up for me in the next few weeks.
So, to paraphrase the children’s prayer, “Thank you Lord for the birds that sing, thank you Lord for the oncology team.” They made the experience a very positive one.
If you are offered the bowel screen test, do it. You will most likely be clear of cancer, but if not, based on my experience, the HSE will do everything in its power to remove it.