State of play: week 5

Let’s start with the good news.

I met with one of the plastic surgeons, then my oncologist, on Monday. The plastic surgeon was so pleased with my progress that I had to pose for some happy snaps to show off to her colleagues. The oncologist was happy, too, reporting that I was better than expected – if only she knew.

In fact, I’d been crook for days after chemo on the Thursday before. This was to be expected, but the ramifications went beyond full-body nausea and fatigue, I experienced.

Because of the nausea and the shocking taste in my mouth, I’d consumed the bare minimum over the previous weekend. By Monday, I was unsteady on my feet.

I had the chance to tell the doctor this, and after feeling momentarily disorientated in her office, had the perfect excuse. Are you alright? She asked. Without batting an eyelid, I gave the instinctive response. Instead of admitting to a stumble, I told her, ‘I thought I’d dropped something on the floor.’

Why do we do this? Is it pride? Some. Habit? Yes, a lot. Fear? Perhaps some. It’s a bitter pill to swallow when you get so sick you feel as if you’ve lost control. For someone who would habitually take stairs two at a time and who believed many personal obstacles could be overcome by force of will, it comes very hard. You realise how little control you have and that much of what you have taken for granted hangs by a thread.

I keep remembering how I was, how I was a ‘big, strong man,’ as if that meant something. How can you lose that so completely? I’m frail now. Being big or strong counts for nothing. And I remember what they say, the bigger you are, the harder you fall. To feel so vulnerable and helpless is a revelation.

I got worse on Tuesday and Wednesday. I was near collapse many times, though I never lost it altogether. It would hit me when I stood – my blood pressure would collapse: postural blood pressure. At its worse, your vision clouds, and there seems thunder in your hearing. You hold on tight to anything close by, though there were times I’d find a wall to slide down in an undignified fashion. On both days and Thursday as well, I needed a wheelchair to get around safely.

The main problem was that I was dehydrated. I was feeling slightly improved on Thursday, but they decided they needed to do something about it. So I was wheeled upstairs and put to bed in a room without windows, and they pumped 2.5 litres of saline into me. Since then, I’ve tried to maintain the levels, and the unsteadiness has passed.

One of the big problems, other than nausea, is the taste in my mouth. Chemo makes things taste metallic, on top of which I get the constant backwash of cells destroyed by the chemo and radiotherapy filling my nose and mouth. It’s a thick, viscous fluid that tastes salty, smoky and bitter. It coats my tongue and mouth so that I try to spit it out. It makes everything taste awful.

It blocks my nose, too. I’m clagged up almost 24/7, and the brief occasions I’m not, I’m subject to nose bleeds. The mucous membranes are being killed off by the treatment – that’s the idea of it – with the idea it will kill the cancer, too. The cells will regenerate; the cancer – fingers crossed – shouldn’t.

It’s a brutal method, but all we’ve got. I’m in the meat of the treatment now. This is when it’s really happening. They said it would be tough from here. They were right.

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