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.