Mum had spent the morning in the flat cleaning with me. Worrying. Checking I was ok. Making me breakfast. She was looking after her eldest as best she knew how. The plan was we would go to Baker Street where we would meet Delphine, and head to my first session.
The problem was, I just didn’t know if Mum would cope well with the setting. Seeing her daughter in a room with other cancer patients. The needles. The drugs. I would be worrying more about her state. We discussed it and she agreed. Mum would stay at home and wait for me to come back. I would keep her updated as and when I could. I think we were both secretly relieved.
It was 12:45pm when I got to Baker Street. One hour and fifteen minutes till it would start. At the pit of my stomach I knew I was scared, anxious.
Delph had arranged to fly over from Austin to join me for my first chemo. We had spoken regularly during the weeks, but hadn’t seen each other for a couple of months. By the time we saw each other, we gave each other the biggest hugs and cried. Words cannot explain how much it meant for her to be with me for the first session. The besties were reunited!
After a quick stop for food, we headed to the LOC. It was Delph’s first “Harley Street waiting room experience”, I showed her where to get a cup of coffee with the fancy cups and saucers. We sat and admired the photos on the walls; the unnecessarily large mirror, and high ceilings. She sat and read through the info pack I had received, I cried as I listened to voicemails and read text messages from family and friends. We had tissues at hand. The waiting room experience was a bit different this time.
“Caroline, you can go down to the treatment suite now.”
The treatment suite
A few days prior to chemo day, the nursing team had asked me to come in for a set of initial blood tests, a run down of what to expect, and a tour of the treatment suite.
In comparison to the stately feel of the waiting room, entering into the treatment suite felt instantly clinical. There was a room with glass windows where the pharmacists and doctors sat. A nurses station in the middle of the room. The nurse had shown me the individual areas each patient would have. Walking in and being toured around while people were getting treated, it was awkwardly invasive of their personal space, and weirdly quiet. I didn’t want to be there any longer than I needed to.
This time around I was one of those patients.
Delph and I were shown to my pod. It was a spacious cornered area with the treatment seat. I had my own tv with WiFi access, a selection of TV channels and movies, Netflix, social media apps. We were given the menu for food. We had bottled water readily available. The area had a curtain for privacy. We realised instantly that they had everything needed to make this whole process as comfortable as possible.
Delph had packed a bottle of wine – because you know…wine! A blanket – in case I got cold. Sweets – for when my taste buds would change. A green drinking cup with a hardshell cap and straw – because I am a ninja turtle. A few packs of tissues – because, well there would be tears! She was far more prepped than I was with practical items. I merely brought my care bear figures, good luck charms/bracelets and a colouring book – because you know…obviously you colour when you have poison injected into you.
“Hi, my name is Jess, I’ll be your nurse for today.”
We both looked up, smiled, and it began.
Jess took me to get weighed. Unlike the routine of getting bloods or my breast checked, I still loathed getting weighed. Every time I would step on the scales, I would dread the number. I took my shoes off. I was wearing leggings and a top. I was as streamlined as I could be. Wah wah. I’d gone up in weight. I was the heaviest I’ve ever been. I had lost my routine of exercise completely. The home stays, surgeries and comfort eating were catching up. Better to be fattened up than stick thin I guess.
I discovered later that at the beginning of each session, I would have my bloods and my weight taken, which would then allow the team to have the correct measurement of chemo drugs for that day. It would never be a fixed amount, but purely based on my bloods and weight on the day.
The scalp cooling
For those that know, I have a lot of hair. A LOT! A lot of strands, of which are super thick. Suzy had mentioned in earlier meetings that using cold cap/scalp cooling would potentially work in my favour; so I was adamant to work through what I could to get this done.
My chair had a machine next to me which had a gel cap attached to it. The aim was to get the temperature of the cooling gel to as low as -1 degrees celsius. I would wear this for 30 minutes prior to chemo starting, and a further 90 minutes after chemo had been completed. The chemo itself would be done in approximately an hour; so I would be wearing the cap for a whopping 3 hours.
After a poor attempt of guessing my head size, Jess got the largest cap possible to fit on my head. She dampened my hair, and placed conditioner in it, placed a towel around my shoulders and neck, then the cap went on. The cap didn’t cover all the lower follicles near my ears, but it was the best I could have.
I’d taken two paracetamol prior to arrival, as I’d been informed that it helped in the first 10 minutes of starting. I started to get slight waves of brain freeze, but whether it was the insulation of my hair, or anything else, the sensation quickly calmed down.
Suddenly, I was sitting there, attached to a cooling machine, with a turquoise coloured neoprene cap strapped down as tight as possible, secured with a chin strap that accentuated my cheeks. Every now and again, I’d get an itch, and all I could do was pat the area with my palm; like a girl with a tightly sewn in weave.
“You look like a rugby player.” Thanks Delph! *i missed this girl*
The dressed up look from the Christmas party couldn’t have been any further from the epitomy of glam I was sporting at that point!
The chemo drugs
For the course of this session, and the remaining three of the first cycle, I would be having Epirubicin and Cyclophosphamide (EC) given. The E drug would be given via a syringe; the C drug would be given via drip.
“Can you give me your name?”
“What’s your date of birth?”
“Are you allergic to any medication?”
These questions were asked prior to each drug given. I made a mental note to record my voice and play it back for humour the next time I would be asked.
Jess sat down to my right and showed me the E drug. It was as red as cranberry juice and in two large syringes. The two syringes would take 30 minutes to administer via the portacath. I sat there and stared at the drug then looked away. Delph moved her seat to my left and held my hand. Jess started with the first syringe. I closed my eyes, covered my face and cried.
The chemo was starting. Everything felt like it was coming to a standstill as the E drug was going in. I cried for a few minutes while Delph drew red hearts on our hands and Jess stroked my shoulder. Never did I imagine I would be at this point. Sitting in a chemo treatment suite 10 days before Christmas. With a cold cap on my head, and red poison going into my body. Never!!!
By the time the first syringe was done, and the second started; I began to notice some changes. My tongue suddenly felt dry. I had a cup of mint tea next to me, which was my default hot drink. It tasted of metal, and smelled like burning rubber. I knew about the taste bud change, but my sense of smell. That was new to me. I instantly didn’t want to drink anything.
Delph’s solution? Order some cheese and biscuits from the menu. Everything feels better with cheese, and weirdly enough it did. You have to love the French. Cheese solves everything! The metallic taste died down.
The C drug followed, and by that point, I was in the zone. The tears had stopped, Jess had left the pod, and Delph and I just chatted. Despite the circumstances, everything suddenly felt very normal. We joked around and discussed what gifts we still had to buy. What we had been up to. I’m pretty sure the entire suite could hear our conversation, but at that point I didn’t care. I was just happy to have her there to laugh with.
I spoke to Mum, and heard the worry in her voice. She had told me the clock watching was driving her crazy. Chris had checked in with Delph a few times. For me, the time was passing fairly quickly. I guess for others it wasn’t.
Twenty minutes or so later, the C drug was done and I had 90 minutes left with the cold cap. I was in the home stretch. The pharmacist came in with instructions of anti sickness tablets. Immune booster injections and other meds to take as a precaution. I was given a 24 hour number to call for any reason whatsoever. A different nurse entered.
“How’s your head doing?” Ok, actually.
“You must have a metal head then.” I guess so. I’m pretty stubborn. *this has been confirmed by most people who know me*.
I was thankful for my hair insulating my head as the nurses were clearly expecting more discomfort. And before I knew it I was done. The cap was removed, and I felt ice on my head. I guess my metal head had disguised how cold the cap actually was.
I was the last patient in the suite. I would be back on the 27th Dec for a blood test. The upcoming week I would be tired and nauseous. The second week, I would have a drop in my white blood cell count- my immune system would be at its lowest. The third week I would be ready to start the next session again. And with that, I was done!
Delph, I think the wine will be a waste tonight. Week three. We will do wine week three.
Seriously, what were we thinking about drinking wine the night of chemo?!
“Did someone say wine? Can I come?” Sure.
We laughed and said bye to the nurses.
The welcome home
The journey home I felt groggy. Like a weight had been placed on my brain. A friend had mentioned that the C drug can do that to you. Make you feel stupid. Forgetful. They call it chemo brain. Delph was convinced it was too early and that it was just Caroline brain. For the record I beg to differ! *insert eye roll*
We entered into the flat.
“Hi Delphine. How are you? How is my baby? Did you look after my baby?”
Mum had been clock watching since I left in the morning. It must have been the longest wait of her life. But I was now home, in the comfort of her presence. I walked in the room and saw her cry. Mum isn’t the type to express emotion often, but at that moment it was in abundance. We hugged, I gave her a kiss on the cheek, I wiped her tears and sat down.
“Ok. Let’s eat. Are you hungry? We have pansit for you Delphine.”
Mum was in host mode. Filipino households simply revolve around food. I could see the relief in her eyes. Her daughter was back home, ready to eat. Delph and I were happy!
And with that, my first chemo was done. I was in the comfort of my own home with the closest people near me to see me through my first night post chemo. I was groggy. The metallic taste was still present, but at that moment, I couldn’t have felt more loved and cared for.