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When the body protests, the soul hardens; My cancer journey (Part 5)

Chemotherapy is a drug/chemical used to treat cancer, normally given as an injection into a drip or taken as pills. I have been given tablets on a daily basis (3 in the morning and 3 at night), then every few weeks I’ve gone in for the injection version too.

The doctor determines the type and frequency of medication depending on the type and staging of cancer. At the same time, regular blood tests are done to see if the body is ready for chemotherapy.

I started chemotherapy on the 13th of November 2019. This was after I had gone through further tests, scans and x-rays after my diagnosis, as directed by my oncologist, Dr. K. The session was at the doctor’s rooms. I was shocked when, after I was injected and set up for the drip, a nurse asked me if I wanted breakfast. I had spent a sleepless night anxious about what the session would be like.

Of course, the injections were painful, but I did not think that I would be allowed to eat during the session. Neither did I expect the friendly environment in which I was. Having gone through the consent form with my doctor to have chemotherapy and recalling the possible side effects I would experience, I expected a terrible experience from day one.

However, the opposite happened. Three hours went by so fast and I felt even more hyper than when I had gone in. Two hours after chemotherapy I went to Oncocare for radiation. This was to be my daily routine for ten weeks. A few days after I started treatment, the side effects started to kick in.

According to research, chemotherapy kills fast-growing cells, and cancer is made up of fast-growing cells. By killing these cells there is a likelihood of reducing the size of the tumor or cancer, thereby curing cancer in some cases. We also have in our body cells that are normal but fast-growing and these may also be killed during chemotherapy. When this happens one may develop what are called side effects of chemotherapy. These side effects can be immediate (acute) or delayed (late). Everyone reacts differently to chemotherapy and some people may never develop side effects during and after chemotherapy.

Common side effects of chemotherapy include; nausea and vomiting, poor appetite, change of taste, hair loss, infections, oral sores, diarrhea, constipation, bruising, bleeding, reduced fertility, reduced immunity.

The less common side effects include; allergic reactions, blood clots, hearing impairment, liver impairment, fluid retention, memory impairment, concentration impairment, tissue damage.

The long-term risks include; the development of second cancer, damage to the heart muscle.

Radiotherapy or radiation therapy is the usage of high-energy particles or waves such as x-rays, gamma rays, or electron beams to destroy or damage cancer cells. It can be used alone or in combination with surgery or chemotherapy in cancer treatment. In my case, I’ve had radiation combined with chemotherapy.

Radiation works by breaking the DNA molecules inside cancer cells. DNA is responsible for all the functions of a cell including growth, division, and spreading. Unlike chemotherapy which exposes the whole body to cancer-fighting drugs, radiation therapy is a local treatment. It is aimed at and affects only the part of the body being treated. The goal of radiation treatment is to damage as many cancer cells as possible, with little harm to nearby healthy tissue.

As I explained in a previous post, the actual x-rays do not hurt. You do not feel the radiation going through your body and it is not hot. However, a skin reaction may develop at the site of radiotherapy days or weeks after starting a course of external radiotherapy. That is, the skin through which the x-rays have passed can become red, sore or itchy.

Radiation side effects will depend on the part of the body being treated, the dose of radiotherapy, and how quickly the healthy cells are able to repair the damage.

Potential side effects of radiation include; skin reaction, tiredness, dry mouth, loss of appetite, diarrhea, hair loss, vomiting, low blood counts, discomfort on swallowing, hormonal deficiency, early menopause, changed sense of taste/smell, stiff joints, and muscles, lung fibrosis, hypothyroidism, heart complications, secondary cancers.

Therefore going through a combination of both chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment, the side effects have been terrible and in most cases unbearable for me 😔

A few days after I started treatment I began to feel exhausted, fatigued, and nauseous. Within a week I started having nonstop headaches and by the time we got into the second week I was continuously vomiting, having diarrhea, and having no appetite. I felt weak most of the time and I almost failed to go to a routine blood test which could have led to something tragic.

It was some hours after I’d had my blood drawn at Lancet labs, that my doctor called me. I must appreciate the efficiency of Lancet as, throughout my treatment, they have not taken more than an hour to send my lab results to my doctor.

On this particular day, 22 November, I’d say they saved my life by promptly sending my lab results to my doctor. My HB was below 7 and I urgently needed a blood transfusion. Because Chemotherapy causes bone marrow suppression (The major function of bone marrow is to generate blood cells) and being anemic contributed to my low blood count. At the same time, a prior injection gone wrong in previous weeks had seen me losing a lot of blood.

I was admitted after 10 pm and I was now on a first-name basis with the hospital staff, having spent two weeks thereafter surgery in October. My blood type is O+ which means I can donate to any blood type but can only receive blood from a fellow O+. Had I been admitted at a public hospital, I’d have received the blood for free, especially since I’ve been a blood donor since my high school days. However, private hospitals have their own way of operating and we needed to buy the blood first before it was administered to me. Through donations that I had started receiving for the cancer treatment, money for the blood was not an issue. The issue was the actual availability of the blood.

Finally, after 1 am I started receiving the first pint. I still do not know how I managed to keep calm as the nurse was injecting me. The length of the needle had me squirming and the pain was extreme. I should highlight that being a blood donor is fun, but being a blood recipient made me nauseous and uncomfortable. I tried to face away from the blood pint so as to get some sleep, but I was advised to keep my arm straight to ensure a smooth flow of blood into my veins. It was not easy to get any sleep that night because of my sleeping position, and at the same time, the nurses had to check on me ever so often to see if there were any signs of my body rejecting the new blood. The sound of the blood pressure machine was so annoying and the frequency of the nurse visits kept me awake all night.

It looked like all was going well as I finished the first pint after four hours. By then a second pint was ready for me and I wished they could hurry up because my doctor had said that I’d be admitted for just one night. After the second pint, we waited for almost three hours as more blood was being sourced. That was my chance to sleep although my arm was in a lot of pain.

When the third pint came I was well-rested. My doctor came through to check on me and check on my vitals. He was impressed by my progress and said that I was left with one more pint and I could go home once I was done. FOUR pints of blood!!

Well, the day went on well and the fourth pint was ready before I had finished the third one. At the end of the day, I was slowly overcoming my fear of the sight of blood and I was counting every drop of blood. When the pint was almost empty I felt a sudden pain in my head. It felt like a migraine and I pressed the buzzer to call my nurse in. As soon as he looked at me, he stopped the transfusion immediately and called my doctor.

In the meantime, my temperature was checked and it had risen sharply. I had a fever. The doctor’s response was to keep me in hospital overnight for observation as I was experiencing what he called a “late” reaction to blood transfusion.

No further transfusion was done because of that reaction. Overnight the headache became worse and I had to be given very strong painkillers. I somewhat became addicted to the pethidine drug because it suppressed the pain, made me high, and got me to sleep, sleep that I desperately needed.

The following morning I was served a hearty breakfast and the moment I took milk I instantly vomited. It was a mess as I continued vomiting till my ribs were aching. The headache still would not go and was persistent throughout the day. I tried to have lunch but again I threw up. At the end of the day, my doctor came to see me again and with the unending headache, vomiting and high fever he detained me for another night.

The following day I failed to eat and was put on a drip. My temperature was slowly going down to within normal range and my head felt better. Although I could not eat much I was relieved that I was vomiting less. I was anticipating being discharged that afternoon and the nurses agreed with me.

My doctor gave the confirmation that I could be discharged at 5 pm and I was quite excited. I had an afternoon nap and at around 4 pm I woke up feeling itchy on my neck and face. I buzzed a nurse in and when she came I was scratching my whole body. She took one look at me and I was all swollen. I had hives (munyaviri).

My doctor was called and he prescribed chlorpheniramine. Having grown up with grass allergies I new what this medication would do – deal with the swelling as well as put me to sleep. Again I had to be detained for another night for monitoring.

On Monday the 25th of November I woke up with a high fever and terrible diarrhea. I spent the greater part of the morning in the bathroom and refused to eat. When I could, I only took small portions of fruits and nothing else. Vomiting was pain and diarrhea was even worse, so I tried to keep my stomach empty.

I was confident that I’d be discharged that day considering that I was initially supposed to have spent just one night in hospital. I improved as the day progressed but again in the late afternoon I had a fever, the hives and headache were back. There was no question about this – I had to spend another night.

My doctor came in on Tuesday the 26th to check on me. I asked him to have me discharged but his decision was to be based on my progress. He provisionally told the nurses to let me go at 11 am unless something happened again. I immediately called my father and told him to pick me up at 11.

Then at 10:30 am as I packed my stuff, I started feeling itchy again from hives. The nurse, as per instruction, was supposed to give me a chlorpheniramine injection- I refused. Nothing was going to make me spend another night in hospital, I was tired of being injected and of being in bed all the time. I asked for tablets instead and over the phone my doctor obliged.

I was finally discharged after four nights (instead of one night) in hospital….

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