The first chemotherapy session was booked in to start at lunchtime on Friday 8th November 2013. The day before, after I’d had my hair cut short, Harriet came to the flat to take a blood test and to give me some tablets to take before the first session. It was called Emend, an industrial-strength anti-emetic, and it came in a pack of three. I had to take one tablet 1 hour before my appointment, a second the day after and the third on Sunday. Harriet explained that this was so that I wouldn’t feel so sick, but that they would still give me more anti-emetics before and after the first session. I remember thinking, Jesus, they’re really laying it on thick here…but believe me, I needed everything I could get.
The Rivers Hospital, Sawbridgeworth
We had quite a journey down from Stevenage to Sawbridgeworth; it’s right down south at the Essex end of Hertfordshire, so it took a good hour to get there. The hospital itself is situated in fields just outside the village; it’s quiet and picturesque with fancy houses. Andy came with me for the first session; I can’t remember if anyone else did. I remember nervously booking in at reception, my eyes scanning the waiting area and wishing that I was just here for physiotherapy or something.
But I wasn’t. When I booked in, the lady on reception asked if I’d been here before; I said no, so she called down for Harriet to come and collect me. She also said, “When you come back next time, you can just go straight down to the ward.” Thoughts raced through me: Oh, yes, I’ll be coming here a lot now over the next year. It’ll be like a second home. It may even be the place where I…..ok, Gemma, get a grip, just do what the doctor said. Get on with it.
The relief I felt when I saw Harriet eased my anxiety; I’d only met her twice, but she’d been one of the first medical professionals who’d be dealing with this stupid thing directly. Seeing her face almost made a switch in me, because my mind then focused on the task at hand, and I was confident from her manner and knowledge that I was in good hands. She’d guide me through whatever would happen to me today. I just had to go with it.
Harriet showed me to a very nice room, off a corridor. It’s hard to think of Meadow Ward as a hospital ward; being a private hospital, it’s more like a corridor with some nicely refurbished rooms on either side. I had a bed, a desk, LCD TV, phone and a chair for a visitor. I thought it was a nice perk, considering what I was there for. Well worth having the insurance for. As stuck-up as this sounds, I couldn’t imagine having to sit in a room full of other cancer patients, all hooked up together – I thought I’d be freaking out. I know many people have to do that, so I am grateful that I was in that position, thanks to my job.
Harriet checked my name and date of birth. Once she was happy I was the person the notes said I was, she said she needed to go and get some things ready. The pharmacist would be in soon with the drugs and we could start. She also told me there was another lady there, having her first chemo and her histology was identical to mine. She was 34. I got onto the bed and chatted with Andy; before long a lady came in with a menu and asked us what we wanted for lunch. Andy could order some too. Looking at the menu there was a really nice selection – maybe a perk – so we chose a few things to eat, later on, had some casual banter with the kitchen lady and tried to stay cheerful.
Evil Red Syringes of Horror
Then a woman came in wearing a white coat, carrying a large plastic bag which contained some of the largest syringes I have EVER seen. My memory is a bit hazy on exactly what I had, but I want to say I had a couple that contained a clear fluid and four containing an angry red substance. As I just about registered that view (Andy was gawping too), she asked me for my name and date of birth and she ticked a few things off on my notes. All I could see at that point was the labelling on the bag and the syringes themselves. Biohazard warnings. Handle with care.
I freaked out. Uncontrollable tears just came and that wave of sheer horror came back again – the one I had felt last week when Mr. Wood had told me I had cancer and would need some chemotherapy. I just couldn’t believe I was there. The angry-looking syringes and warning labels were too much. I think I just asked Andy why this was happening to me; what the fuck is going on, various other expletives. The pharmacist quickly scurried away and closed the door and Andy hugged me and tried to calm me down. Before long, Harriet came in; the poor pharmacist had told her I was having a meltdown so she came to check if I was OK.
I’ve never been hooked up to a drip before
And that’s true; to my knowledge, I hadn’t.
But I was surprisingly fine with the prospect; as I’ve said before, needles have never been something that bothers me. Harriet had a tray containing lots of drugs and a Huber needle – ever seen one of those? Even for someone who wasn’t bothered by needles, it looked bloody awful. It is long and attached to a pair of plastic wings, which almost make it look like a butterfly. It gets attached to an infusion pack, which, in turn, is attached to plastic tubes and a drip pump. She put her gloves on, got it ready (I noticed she squirted a clear fluid through it first – presumably to check it was working properly), then approached me with the needle. She ran her fingers over the painful bump where my port was, talking me through what she was doing, then stuck the needle into the centre of the bump. It stung, very unexpectedly. I guess, with the port having just been fitted, I should have expected that it would be painful. Luckily Harriet was very quick!! A dressing went over it, to hold it in place, then she flushed some fluid through it and the “worst” part was over. It didn’t take long to stop stinging.
Chilli Vodka, Piriton and Saline
I asked Harriet what the other drugs were in the tray she had; she explained that she had steroids and piriton to give me. The chemotherapy I was having had a high allergic profile, so the piriton was to help with that. The steroids were to give me a kick – I’d be given some in tablet form to take home with me. She warned me that in a minute I might have a hot feeling which would travel to my groin. She injected something into the line and I realised she didn’t mean hot, as in temperature – it was hot as in spicy! It felt quite uncomfortable. As it passed, Harriet told me she wouldn’t inject that directly into me again; it would go into the bag of saline I was to have before the treatment and I’d have a diluted version then. She’d injected it directly to test the port’s effectiveness, ensuring it had been fitted correctly. I jokingly referred to it as Chilli Vodka and that name stuck throughout the remainder of my treatment.
Harriet then injected the Piriton, which made me immediately feel drowsy, then hooked up a bag of saline and said she was going to sort out Beccy, the other lady who was there having her first chemo. Before she went, she told me I would have some more drugs to take home; this included an injection that I would have to give myself tomorrow. I had never given myself an injection before, so I told her I would need a tutorial.
Left alone with Andy and the bag of saline, being pumped into me pretty quickly by a machine, I was kinda OK. Just drowsy and cold. Having room-temperature saline entering your body can cool you down. I got into bed and we put the TV on, then when the bag ran out, the pump stopped pumping and started to beep.
The teamwork amongst these nurses was there straight away. My drip pump beeped for what seemed like ages until another nurse came in, said “Oh, it’s you beeping” and introduced herself as Jan; she was also a chemotherapy nurse specialist. She took my saline bag down and said I was ready to start the treatment; she would go and get someone to come and do it. I think I told her I thought we’d already started – “Oh no, the saline is to get your kidneys going”. After a short time, a young nurse came in; her name tag said her name was Amy. As she prepared the drugs I realised they were going to be injected into me by hand, not via a drip bag. It took quite a while to do since there were so many syringes.
So we chatted and showed her some funny YouTube videos that we loved; the first video we showed her was Dead Parrot’s YouTube Comment Reconstruction #1, which was doing the rounds, as it was fairly new at the time. We were killing ourselves laughing at it. The other video we had fallen in love with was Bad Lip Reading’s Walking and Talking Dead Part 1. As we progressed through the treatment, the conversation turned to this weird video we’d seen, quite old now, called Salad Fingers. It honestly is the weirdest thing I have ever seen on the internet; it disturbs me (my friend Giff, who usually has no line, says Salad Fingers is his limit), and to this day I still wonder what possessed us to show Amy that video – the poor girl!
After the treatment, I just remember feeling tired and like I was full of chemicals (yes, I know, but it’s really hard to describe). I was given another bag of saline to flush through afterwards. A lady walked past my door and was introduced to us as Beccy, the other lady who was having her first treatment. Harriet had mentioned earlier that my urine would turn red after the treatment – Beccy confirmed it, saying it was weird. She was going home now, but she hoped to meet me properly another time.
Sure enough, my wee was bright red when I went to the loo before I left for home. I had to take some more anti-emetics before I left. Then I was shown how to inject myself and given a big bag of drugs:
- Ondansetron (to put under my tongue when feeling sick)
- Domperidone (stronger, the advice was to take it before I started to feel sick, “don’t let yourself feel sick first”)
- Steroids to take for the next 3 days
- More Emend for next time
- Neulasta injection, to prevent neutropenia (low white blood cell count – can cause infections)
- Some soluble anti-constipation remedy
- A list of side effects to expect
I also had Harriet’s mobile number. I was to call her if I became worried about anything at all in the next 48 hours. I was told I wouldn’t feel well for the next 3-5 days, but in 5 days’ time, I should be right as rain. I hoped so – I was due to start my new job on 18th November. I would notice my hair start to fall out around 10 days after my first treatment and my next treatment would be 3 weeks later, on 29th November. I’d be bald by then.
I managed to get home without feeling too rough; in fact, I felt fine. By 6 pm, Mollie was home and I was starving, so I cooked sausages and mash while Andy played on his computer. The silly thing I didn’t do was take the anti-emetics before I felt sick, so they wore off by the time dinner was ready. I felt so ill, I had to go to bed without eating what I’d cooked; it felt like the world’s worst hangover. A few times I got up to vomit, but nothing came out. I just laid in my bed with my music on, ondansetron under my tongue, desperately trying to distract myself from the God-awful feeling and get off to sleep. Eventually I did, alone and crying, angrily wondering again and again why this stupid thing had to happen to me.