Chemo #1

I walked into the hospital with a sense of dread. This was my third round of chemo. I wasn’t worried but I just didn’t want to be there. I shouldn’t have to do this again.

There was a big queue to get checked-in. People were crowded around the reception. The hospital reeked of cinnamon, for me this is the sickening smell of chemo. I felt like I was going to collapse from the stress of it all. I wanted to shout, I’m going to faint if I have to stand any longer. Don’t you know I have cancer? But then so did everyone else so I kept quiet.

It was just a small wobble and I had my friend Tamsin with me for support. We drank cappuccinos and talked about happy things, anything other than cancer. Tamsin had brought me some lovely presents including a notebook to write my new List for Living.

The staff on the chemo ward were pretty much the same. Last time I was there I had my own hair. Despite wearing my Raquel wig for chemo#1 some of them still recognised me.

“Hey how you doing? You look well,” one of the nurses in a dark blue uniform said to me with a smile. I wanted to reply that I was only visiting, that I’d popped in to say hello.

“I’m back again for more.”

“Oh…..” Her smile disappeared.

Not much had changed at the chemo cocktail bar. The patient patrons were still mostly pensioners but at least there were some new high-tech reclining chairs.

Setting up the medical equipment, my nurse found it hard to get a vein. The chemo is delivered through an IV drip via an orange tube. My veins are rubbish and seem to run away at the sight of a needle. As my arm was gouged by the nurse, I looked away and towards Tamsin. She offered to pinch my other arm to take my mind off it. Now that’s what friends are for!

The chemo is so toxic that a collection of other things are pumped into you first to prepare your body. I was warned that one of them would make me sleepy. It actually made me feel drunk, properly end of the night and need to go home drunk. And I hadn’t even started on the evil chemo cocktail.

I pressed the recline button and settled back into my chair. I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.

It was time to visualise James Bond shooting the crap out of my tumour. It seems that I’m not the only one. A woman called Nicky sent me a message to say that when she had chemo she imagined Vera Duckworth from Coronation Street running around her veins killing the cancer with a rolling pin!

I slept almost all the way through the chemo. Now that’s my kind of a cancer kicking work-out.

I was woken by a loud man on the other side of the room who was visiting an older lady. I felt dizzy and disorientated as I came round. I watched the loud man talk to the nurses and other people’s visitors. He alternated between patronising and sleazy. What an idiot. If you’re visiting a cancer ward, then please shhhh, don’t shout. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of someone who’s under the influence.

As soon as the drugs were done, my friend and I made a swift exit.

Like before, I’m recovering at my parents’ house. Last night I slept in my childhood bedroom – the same place that I retreated to after all the previous cancer treatment. It’s very sad to be back in my old bed again because of chemo. But at the same time I have amazing parents who look after me. Not everyone gets that kind of support when they’re ill.

And very importantly I’m lucky to still be alive. I first had the disease when I was in my late twenties, since then I’ve been living under a cancery shadow. There are many times when really it should have killed me. Despite doing this all again I feel so very fortunate. I still have options.

Earlier I walked around the frosty garden a few times. When I’m recovering from treatment I always try to do some exercise. Compared to when I first did this after my massive operation last year, I now have masses more energy. I even jogged the final lap. Just because I could.

Most of the day has been far less energetic. It’s passed in a tired and dizzy haze. There’s a certain type of Ukrainian vodka that makes me feel like this and so I’m pretending to myself that this is just a hangover.

However this is a happy hangover. Getting a third cancer diagnosis was a huge shock but now I feel empowered. I’m back on the chemo cocktails and blasting that tiny tumour.

Smells like…

The other day I had a big cancer flash-back. I was stopped in my tracks by a strong smell. Straight away it made me feel very sick.

This wasn’t a disgusting smell. It was actually what most people would consider to be quite nice and Christmassy.

It was a waft of cinnamon and it was coming from a bakery.

For me, this is the smell of chemotherapy.

It was just before Christmas, almost 11 years ago now, when I was first diagnosed. After surgery I spent what seemed like far too much time in the hospital’s chemo unit. The treatment took twice as long as it did this year. Luckily there’s a lovely café. Based in the glass roofed waiting area, it has an inviting aroma of freshly ground coffee beans and warm pastries with a hint of cinnamon.

I was told that it was best to avoid my favourite foods as they could become forever associated with chemo. It meant that if I had all the things that I shouldn’t really eat, then afterwards I wouldn’t want them. It was my kind of diet!

I began with a cinnamon swirl from the café. I experimented with other cakes and chocolate too. And I tried really hard. Despite my best efforts, once the chemo was over, the only naughty thing that I hated was the cinnamon pastries.

When I was treated again a few months ago, the cafe and the smell were pretty much the same. This time I stayed away from the pastries. Even so, cinnamon remains the most evocative reminder of my fight with cancer.

It’s not just this spicy scent of Christmas that I have a problem with. For a long time I couldn’t stand the smell of coffee. These days though I don’t find it too bad. I have a mug of proper coffee next to my laptop as I write this.

Of course, after all I’ve been through, I continue to despise that distinctive hospital smell.

During the first lot of chemo I also became very sensitive to herbs. It was thanks to eating a cheese and basil sandwich during my first ever session of chemo. After that I found the smell of all herbs far too strong to stomach.

So it was very unfortunate that when I moved abroad soon after cancer treatment I chose to live in places that loved dill and I mean they absolutely adored it. In Russia and Ukraine it seemed to be on everything. I even once found some stray dill on a fruit salad in a cafe!

At Besarabska, the most famous market in Kiev, the smell of dill was overwhelming. The roof of the indoor market kept the cold out and the smell of the devil herb in. If that wasn’t bad enough, as soon as you walked in, some of the old lady stall holders would thrust bunches of herbs at you, ‘young girl, try my delcious dill’ they would try to tempt me.

Euuugh, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to willingly eat that herb again.

Just like with food, there’s the potential that your perfume too could provoke bad memories. Almost as soon as I found out about the my illness I stopped wearing my favourite scent.

When I ended up in intensive care after the operation, I was so sick that I could barely move or even focus my eyes. All that seemed to work well was my nose. My sense of smell became heightened. It was strange how it was suddenly so incredibly powerful.

I was aware of everything. Shampoo, soap and hand cream. But especially perfume. I had to ask my family and friends to stop wearing it when they visited. I was so aware of almost every smell. Mostly it made me want to throw up. As I got better, my sense of smell started to go back to normal.

Now that the whole cancery ordeal is over, one of the things I’ve done to celebrate is to buy a new bottle of my favourite perfume. I love wearing it again.

It’s a sweet reminder that I’ve beaten cancer twice. This is the happy smell of success.