“Chemotherapy is a steaming sack of sh*t, trust me fam” – Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
Naturally, this quote is absolute bollocks – Madiba would never say ‘fam’. If the great man was still with us, however, I’m sure he would surmise chemotherapy in the first part of that quote as such. Because, you guessed it, it is. A steaming sack of sh*t. Oh, woe is me.
Over the past few months, I have pontificated about life after death; I have lectured on the value of making the most of your life; and I have dazzled you with a t-shirt that is far too small and tight for me. Ladies, control yourselves. I have conveniently omitted, however, the minor, insignificant detail of treatment; what magic concoction it actually is, what said concoction does, and what novelties there are in four months of intensive toxic juicing. Buckle up gang, and prepare to once again be bored out of your collective skulls.
I have been the oh-so-lucky recipient of four months’ worth of chemotherapy, which equates, roughly, to a 120-day hangover. Not your mild ‘Girls it’s Gin o’clock, let’s go wild and have doubles’ ‘hangover’, but rather ‘My Mrs and I have broken up, I’m a free man now, but actually I’m dead inside so let’s collectively lose our f*cking minds on absinthe in solidarity’ hangover. My regimen is a double-course of drugs by the names of a) Doxorubicin, which is a more recent (read: within my lifetime – sadly that’s the sort of progression in sarcoma research there’s been) targeted chemotherapy that has limited side-effects, and b) Ifosfomide, which has been in use for decades, and acts by killing everything it touches, which is about as effective as using an atom bomb to clear a wasp’s nest from your shed. For anyone that knows of anyone who has gone through just one drug during their chemotherapy (or has themselves), the side-effects of this double whammy of toxic deliciousness are... somewhat severe.
Fatigue, first and foremost, underpins the negativities of chemotherapy. And it’s bizarre, insofar as to say that this is not your average tiredness; it’s all-consuming, like the eye of Sauron. It’s comprehensively debilitating, and it renders you almost entirely unable to think (a phenomenon often called ‘chemo brain’), do, and speak. Imagine Sleeping Beauty (I realise that analogy doesn’t really work for me) had dropped enough acid to make that film at least a 15, and you’re coming close. It’s like no fatigue I have ever experienced, but more pertinent is the fact that by being so hampered by its effects, you’re unable to get on with doing what you want, and need, to be doing, like travel planning, book-writing, project managing and, erm… blog writing.
And then, like wave after wave of the Wehrmacht, comes the nausea. Now normally when one is sick, the nausea fades as the cause of the sickness is, well, removed. The underlying issue with nausea in oncological treatment is that your body is forcing itself to be sick to remove toxicity. Predictably, after each episode of sickness, the body continues to think that if it lights the vomcano constantly, it’ll purge itself entirely, ignoring the fact that as it is in the bloodstream, it cannot. This means that, every hour or so, an eruption occurs that is not doing anyone any favours, but particularly my nurses, making me even less attractive to them, if that was possible. But there are silver linings to it all; as everyone on the ward is regurgitating their dinners like a sparrow to their young, we all learned to sync our vommings, through the walls and curtains, like the syncing of periods. It's all very novel to boys in their twenties.
General pain, aches and discomfort come hand-in-hand with fatigue and nausea. There's the feverous hot flushes that feel like pregnancy, that are often a prelude to the bone-creaking, muscular soreness and stiffness (grow up…) you generally only see and hear from your grandparents, or after a particularly ticklish rugby match. Such episodes are fairly commonplace, and something that is very difficult to escape from with medicine and/or alcohol. Which is why it seems to be so critical to keep up appearances in the gym and out on the bike mid-treatment, so that your body doesn’t deteriorate any further than is to be expected. That, and the fact that I have shoddy gains to preserve.
The most visible and understandable aspect of chemotherapy comes in the form of alopecia. Not that I had too much hair on my head to lose anyway, but that and the loss of a beard isn’t the easiest pill to swallow, less so on a vain-glorious level, but rather as a matter of losing something so closely linked with your identity. More to that, your identity shifts from one that you're proud and comfortable with, to one that signifies to the man in the street that you indeed do have cancer, and not quite this season's best new look. But at least there's a robo-leg to deflect some attention (read: an opportunity for me to tell children I'm a robot sent from the future to save the human race). Over the cycles of treatment, so too eyebrows and eyelashes slowly make their leaps to freedom, like rats, tiny follicle-shaped rats, leaving a sinking ship, leaving one with no defence against constant optical irritation through dust and pollutants, something that sounds so trivial and inconsequential, but is in fact something, minute-by-minute, that causes a great amount of grief, frustration and eventually anger.
As anyone who has been suffering through this blog will know, I'm very much a cyber warrior against any form of sympathy or personal narcissism. I only wish to scribble these thoughts down about treatment so that others might understand the necessity of halting this sort of unpleasantness for those that come after me.
All of this fun will eventually subside for me at the end of this particular tranche of chemotherapy. And with that, I’m acutely aware that my experience of this hasn’t been anywhere near as bad as how some people react to treatment, including some of my dearest friends who have succumbed to it, and whose loss I carry with me every day of my hilarious little life.
One of these oncological amigos passed on a golden nugget of sagely advice to me a few months ago; “The cancer has to live with me, and not I it”, which when it comes to yours truly, sounds like the far, far worse end of the f*cking deal, believe you me.
None of my follow-up treatment, none of my palliative care will get close to this level. Only at the end of the race will I experience this sort of tickling again. Which, bizarrely, is somewhat of a relief. For that, I’m grateful, because it allows you to put into perspective varying degrees, varying levels of discomfort and suffering, to then allow you to relish and make the most of the times when you’re feeling tip-top and able to make the most of the finite time you have left. It’s a blessing, albeit in a very bizarre but revelatory way.
Whilst there’s chemotherapy to hold back the tide, there’s also turmeric that I’m told will not only cure my cancer, but also make me irresistible to women. The stench of the turmeric-laden curries I’m murdering may well negate the latter part of that, though. There’s also baking soda, that does a spectacular job of carbonating my blood, but again by all accounts will fix me right up. So there we have it; a triumvirate of treatment that’ll be sure to keep me pestering you for your ill-gotten gains at least a little while longer.
Enjoy the election. It’ll be more entertaining than this blog.
Another Billy Vunipola-sized thank you to all that have donated and got involved in various events and challenges over the past few months. We’re up to, including gift aid, a silly £24,000 in the space of three months. Not too shabby at all. You’re all wonderful bastards, every last one of you.