A year has passed by. A whole year. In fact, it’s a year and a month since the day I was told I had cancer. In most ways I’m out the other side now although you are never the same.
I’ve not posted much on this blog since then, and I never wanted to write a cancer-specific blog. It turned out that even if I’d wanted to, I wouldn’t have had the time! I started chemo in early September, the same week I think that Clover started school (a rather miraculous start to school given how ill she had been just before my cancer diagnosis). On top of this, I had a business to run and life just went on as normal in many ways, while I fitted in chemo sessions, oncology appointments, scans, days in bed and the occasional week in isolation.
It wasn’t a fun time, and having cancer isn’t funny at all. But during treatment I did encounter moments that I can now look back and laugh or smile at. There were also some truly horrible bits and I’ll tell you about them too.
During chemo I had a couple of unexpected hospital admissions due to neutropenic sepsis, a common but life threatening side effect of chemo. After each chemo session, your immunity is obliterated so if you get an infection you need careful looking after (and IV antibiotics) until your blood count starts to climb again. The first time it happened I was caught totally unawares; I was in the middle of a cushion photoshoot for my business and had borrowed a pumpkin from a neighbour’s allotment to use as a prop. I then spent most of the following week utterly mortified at my sudden disappearance into hospital and the late return of the pumpkin (what better way to distract yourself from life threatening illness than to fret over a borrowed seasonal vegetable).
During these bouts of sepsis, they isolate you until the danger has passed. It’s not pleasant to suddenly find yourself shut away in a hospital room for the foreseeable but it did give me the opportunity for a proper rest. And rest I did! Sleep was a bit tricky due to the round-the-clock observations and most days I just dozed and played with my phone. Occasionally someone would come in and ask if I wanted to sit in a chair today and I would say no thanks, I’m very happy with the bed. As if I ever got the chance to lie in bed all day at home!
Hospital food was a bit tricky at times because I’m vegetarian. I was quite good at wheedling double custard out of the catering staff (I know, steroids…) but occasionally my specially chosen meal (there is only one veggie option normally) had been snaffled by another patient by the time the trolley arrived at my room. My temperament was slightly frail at times and things like missing or insufficient meals threatened to send me over the edge. On one such day, I hit upon the genius idea of using Deliveroo in order to get the takeaway of my dreams. Then I discovered that Deliveroo didn’t actually deliver to the hospital which sent me into a huge bout of histrionics. Luckily a friend picked up a takeaway and I spent the evening in my hospital bed stuffing my face with curry.
My second hospital admission took me by surprise even more than the first as it happened only 48 hours after chemo. I started to feel rough (as expected) and had taken to my bed, only to suddenly have to spring forth from it rapidly due to being, er, violently ill. At the first sign of infection, you have to take your temperature as a rising temp is a clear indicator that you need to get to hospital. I nearly passed out on the loo but I was so attuned to temperature taking by this point my hand remained fully conscious and jammed the thermometer into my ear. It was over 38, and so I rang the oncology ward who advised I dial 999 and request an ambulance. Really? I said. Yes really, was the answer. It was only during the journey to hospital in said ambulance that it dawned on me that it was Saturday night. Fuck!! Who the hell wants to spend Saturday night in A&E? It was even more fun than I could have anticipated because it turned out they were having a massive IT implementation that weekend and given by the apparent mayhem it was going slightly tits up. My vital signs weren’t very vital by this point and hearing a nurse describe the department as being like a ‘war zone’ didn’t help. I meekly asked if I could nip to the loo (it was pretty unlikely I could walk) and was told I was going nowhere but could request a bedpan. I kept quiet after that and my legs firmly crossed. Thankfully by the early hours of the next morning they’d found me a side room on a ward and as soon as I arrived I was extremely violently ill again. Tests later showed I had norovirus and to this day I have NO idea how I held on for all those hours in A&E.
Having my hair disappear was hard. I wasn’t overly bothered when it thinned and had to have it closely cropped. But once my eyebrows and eyelashes started to go I no longer recognised myself. Makeup and hats helped a lot but one day towards the end of chemo I decided to buy a wig. It felt odd at first but it was nice not standing out so much and I wore it when I fancied a wig day. It did cause confusion when we went on a short holiday immediately after my chemo ended. When we checked in, I was bald (hello, room upgrade!!) and during our stay I wore it only some of the time. Bizarrely, staff and guests seemed to think I was two different people as no one said hello to me when I was wearing the wig and my name/room no was only asked for at reception when I was wearing it.
There are some things I’ll probably never laugh at. Let’s start with hospital parking! However many spaces the hospital provide, they are always going to be filled. Public transport was definitely not an option and so I often found myself driving around desperately, trying to park the car before I missed my appointment. Turning up for one chemo session, I thought I had struck gold as a rare space appeared but it turned out it was empty because most of it was under six inches of flood water. I parked and waded.
One of the horrible side effects of chemo is the endless confusion and befuddlement. Combine that with the shock of the diagnosis and the anxiety around treatment and life begins to fall apart. Missed appointments, parking tickets, forgotten birthdays, fines from HMRC, lost objects, smashed phone, dented car; the list goes on. I was constantly asked if I had enough support and in many ways I did, but it’s just that delegating/offloading is hard and stressful in itself. Things are easier now but I’m still dreadful at opening post. I fear bad news and even if an envelope bears the name of a local furniture company a tiny part of me worries that hidden inside is a fine or bad news about my diagnosis.
But here I am, a whole year later! My life is richer in some ways as I’ve met so many lovely people who are finding their way through cancer treatment (sadly not everyone has the happy ending though). I’m grateful also for all the help and support from family, friends and neighbours that kept me going through the really awful bits. The meals on the doorstep, the hats in the post, sometimes just the friendly hello and how are you.
Today is my birthday and the sun is shining. I’m sat on a lounger at the pool in front of a beautiful chateau in France typing this and I ran 4k before breakfast (fitness is coming back slowly). My hair has grown back but while most people let theirs grow and grow, mine remains a short crop, bleached and dyed a different colour most weeks (today it’s rose gold and last week it was turquoise).
We drove here in my van, a 2001 Mazda Bongo bought in haste one Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago. The school holidays were looming large and I seized the day. I always was pretty good at seizing days and now I’m even better at it. I’ll write about it more in a later post as it’s one of my favourite subjects now!
I’m thinking of future plans. I want to continue with my business but I’m also very keen to return to the IT industry as it’s been a big part of my life for the last two decades and besides, the indefinite loss of financial security is unthinkable. Not many people know this, but I like databases as much as textile design! Some days, I also miss the interactions, the meetings and collaboration. But never the commuting. Hell no.
Right – I’m off now to enjoy the rest of my birthday: we’re taking a trip to the beach with cake and wine afterwards. Life is good.