Pains and needles

Here’s a tip. If you’re at hospital, about to have a medical procedure and someone asks you what your pain threshold is… careful what you say. As I found out, this question means that what’s going to happen next will hurt. A lot. And it involves needles.

I never used to be too bothered about needles. But the pain seems to get worse and worse as times goes on.

When the cancer came back almost three years, I had chemo through a vein in my hand. Each time a new needle would have to be used for the treatment and then taken out when it was finished.

The problem is that the more chemo you have, the harder it is to find a vein. They vanish from the surface of your skin. If I was one of my chemo veins I’d do a disappearing act too. It gets really painful hunting down a vein that can be used. Sometimes they even seem to dry up as soon as the needle goes in.

Then I graduated to a PICC line. Much easier. There is a small operation but after that there are no needles. The PICC line is basically a clear plastic tube which goes into your upper arm, it travels up a vein which ends up in the chest. There’s a short part of the line which sticks out of your arm and thats where the chemo goes into.

However my experimental drug seems to keep blocking the PICC line so I needed something more serious to enable me to continue with the chemo. It was time to say hello to the port. Or to give it the proper name – the port system for continuos vascular access.

The port is small device which is put under the skin in the upper chest on the right hand side. A tube is attached to the port and goes into a vein. The tube does a semi circle and ends kinda above the heart. Everything is buried under the skin. As you can’t see a thing, I was even given a wristband to wear in case of an emergency so paramedics would know I had a port.


You may be wondering you do you get the chemo into the tube? This is the gruesome bit. Basically every week a nurse has to stab your chest with a needle, go through the skin and into the port. Uggggh. At least the awful sickness and tiredness that I’ve having for months have eased up a bit.

So back to the question about my pain threshold. I was sat in a flimsy hospital gown waiting to go into the operating theatre with my friend Sally when I was asked about it. The procedure was explained and it didn’t seem too bad. I said I could handle quite a lot of pain. Haha big mistake.

Inside the operating theatre I was prepared for surgery. An orange liquid was spread over my right shoulder and chest to make it sterile. The stuff was cold, it stank and it was being rubbed into my skin, really hard. I must have looked upset as a nurse asked what was wrong. I could only reply “all of it.” I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be cut open. I didn’t want any of this. How do you explain all that when you feel so emotional that you can hardly talk?

Thankfully I was given some sedative. To get this port under my skin in the first place I needed a local anaesthetic. The first needle hurt, as did the second and the third and then I stopped counting. It was clear very quickly that I needed some painkiller after all.

My eyes were firmly shut to stop the tears so I couldn’t see the nurse who took my hand. Such a kind, compassionate gesture. She told me to squeeze her hand when I felt pain. The needles were bad but it was even worse when the anaesthetic had to be firmly massaged into my body. Finally the medication kicked in and the squeezing could stop.

It was only 11am by the time I became the proud owner of a new port. It felt like enough had already happened for one day. But I still had the weekly dose of chemo to go. Just to illustrate the seriousness of the op, I wasn’t allowed to walk instead I had to be wheeled to the ward on a hospital trolley.

The rest of the day was fine. Just a normal, horrible day at hospital.

Things picked up on the way home. While waiting for the train home, we were randomly offered some free cocktails. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed any alcohol straight after treatment but after what had happened, I just didn’t really care. We said yes. It was the best cocktail I’d ever had on a chemo day!


12 thoughts on “Pains and needles

  1. Helen, I hope the port proves to be a friend to you in time. Not today of course – because it is all so raw. I am glad they gave you some anaesthesia in the end – don’t suffer unnecessarily! Sending you so much love xxx

  2. Ha! When the oncologist said: “You have cancer”, the first question I asked was: “How do we treat it?”. The second was: “Can I still drink wine with my meds?”. YES! SCORE! It’s important to have something to return you to a sense of normality. Also, spaghetti without red wine would be barbaric. :-)

  3. Good to hear from you Helen and hope that you get another cocktail one day in that lovely bar where I think you drank champagne- the one on your bucket list. All best wishes

  4. just reading between the lines, I can tell that despite the needles and the pain that goes with them you are starting to feel a little better which is amazing! I couldn’t be happier for you Helen!

  5. Helen
    My veins are very bad to so I had a chest port-o-cath put in when I started chemo in 2005. I kept it for 9+ years and just had it out last month. I am a bit surprised they didn’t topically numb the area before they gave you the needles. That helps a lot.

    Oh a bit of advice . Ask for them to give you a prescription for Lidocaine cream. Put it on one hour before they access your port and you will only feel a tug.

    Good luck!

  6. Nothing I can say (type?) will make you feel better. But just to let you know that I, like many others on this site, like when you create a new post on your blog. It lets us know you’re doing ok. Even better, sipping cocktails :)

  7. You manage to capture what we go through so eloquently, the combination of fear, emotion and anticipation erodes pain thresholds no end. As someone on my own, I now dread the ‘informed consent’ aspect – I really don’t want to know in graphic detail what is about to be done to me as it’s hardly optional but clearly I would rather I wasn’t having it done! And don’t even get me started on flimsy hospital gowns which seem to have been designed to remove whatever little bit of self-respect we might have had left. Still at least you got cocktails at the end of the day

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