Archives for posts with tag: Christie Clinic

IMG_5658“Baby hairbrushes are like buses. You can’t find one for months and then five come along at once!” — Laura Price, breast cancer survivor and baby-chick hairstyle advocate.

Baby hairbrushes really are like buses. Those of you who read my last blog post will know I’ve been looking out for one to tame my nascent but increasingly unruly tresses. I bought one years ago at The Body Shop for my baby niece, but alas, they discontinued the product and I couldn’t find one at my local Boots either. So I issued a call on my blog for advice on where to find one. What ensued was an unprecedented flood of recommendations: online links to baby hairbrushes and combs and advice from mums and breast cancer gals alike from around the globe.

Without further ado, I clicked on one of the links and ordered a teeny-tiny soft hairbrush last Sunday night. So I was surprised when I arrived at work Monday morning only to see my very thoughtful colleague Joana bounding over to my desk to present me with a lovely baby hairbrush-and-comb set she had found in a much better stocked Boots. And then I got home to England on Thursday and of course, Mummy Price had bought me a baby brush too. So now I have three! It’s a good job I have an army of pregnant girlfriends to avail of these surplus hairbrushes once their sprogs are born and my locks are flowing once more…

IMG_5688So, Thursday hailed my return to a very snowy England for the nine-month check-up with my surgeon at the Christie Clinic in Manchester. It’s hard to believe it’s actually been nine months since that fateful day when I went under the knife, but somehow it has.

The appointment didn’t exactly go to plan, with the hospital emailing me at 11am on the day to tell me that actually the surgeon wasn’t going to be in and would I mind changing it to next week? Naturally, I kicked up a fuss as I’d had the appointment in my diary for six months and had booked flights months ago. Thankfully, they managed to squeeze me in under another surgeon, so off I went to Dublin airport for the 35-minute flight.

Arriving in Manchester was a bit like landing in an alpine ski resort, with more snow over the hills than I have seen in the UK in my entire life. (Turns out it’s the most snow since 1979, before I was born.) The drive home across the Yorkshire moors involved bright blue sky and roads flanked by three-metre-high snow drifts. I’m quite grateful I had my chemotherapy during the summer, because I wouldn’t have fancied making the 1.5-hour trek through the snow every time I needed an impromptu mid-night blood test!

IMG_5692To the left are pictures of the snow that greeted my parents’ on their front doorstep a week ago and the cat (Tilly) contemplating whether or not to brave a garden expedition. (As a side note, for those of you who’ve followed this blog since the very beginning, Nurse Molly and Tilly are both doing most excellently. Molly has taken a well-deserved break after being my chemo companion for six months and has decided to sleep for the rest of 2013.)

Happily, everything was just as fine as I had expected with my boob (see? No need to worry!). Because of the scar tissue, my breast can feel a little lumpy to the touch (but only in a totally attractive and sexy way, you understand) and I was reassured to know that this was indeed just scar tissue and not further cancerousness.

However, I did inquire about a tiny little ball-bearing-sized lump under my armpit that appeared after the surgery and has grown slightly, and it turns out it’s a sebaceous cyst that will need to be removed. I am reasonably convinced it came from the days post-surgery when I had surgical adhesive goop stuck all over my armpit area. In my very humble and highly experienced medical opinion, this must have blocked the pores and led to the little cyst. In any case, it’s absolutely no cause for alarm, nor is it dangerous, but nevertheless I’ll have to have a little procedure to get that removed back in Dublin.

IMG_5685Anyway, that’s a relief. Back to the hospital next week for another check-up after the radiotherapy. Now on to more important missions: there are Easter eggs to be eaten and snowmen to be made. (Okay, maybe I won’t do the latter…)

Happy Easter!

Phew! So yesterday I got back from an exhausting two-day tour of the UK and Ireland’s cancer hospitals.

It started with a 5am rise on Tuesday for my flight to Dublin with Mum, to meet the oncologist who’ll be looking after my radiotherapy treatment. By 9am I had trekked through two airports and endured a cramped Ryanair flight with a screaming, kicking child in the seat behind me, people coughing all around me and the constant intrusive din of Ryanair’s overhead advertising of refreshing J20, a selection of hot drinks and snacks and a very special, exclusive 2-for-1 scratch card deal. Let’s just say I understand why air travel is not recommend during chemotherapy treatment. It’s exhausting.

First up, I headed to work to see my colleagues and pick up my post before going to my hospital appointment. At 11:30, after greeting half of my department with a hug and being regaled with tales of how half of them had just got over the 24-hour vomiting bug that’s sweeping Britain and Ireland, I called my doctor for the results of Monday’s blood test and found out I was neutropenic again. My white blood cells and neutrophils had completely reversed their earlier gain and were so low that I had virtually no infection-fighting abilities and shouldn’t really be around anyone at all, let alone sitting on Ryanair flights and hugging germ-ridden workmates (no offense!). However, I was already in Dublin by that point and any damage had already been done, so the hospital said they’d test me when I got back to Manchester.

Next up, my appointment at St. Luke’s, a specialist cancer hospital in the leafy Dublin suburb of Rathgar. Now, for those of you who’ve been reading this blog since the beginning, you’ll know I was diagnosed at St. Vincent’s, which is a large hospital in Dublin, and I was expecting something similar. But as soon as we pulled up in the taxi outside St. Luke’s, I could see it was different. You can’t really tell from the photo to the left but it was more like a quaint old people’s home or an American chapel than a hospital – just one storey high and with a very friendly, intimate vibe. I loved it immediately. (Well, as much as it’s possible to love a hospital where you’re about to be blasted to pieces with radiation).

I walked up to reception and said “Hi, I’ve got an appointment with Dr McVey” and the response from the reception desk was a very hearty, smiley, “Ah, you must be Laura!”

Honestly, I have never felt so welcome (even at a hotel, never mind at a hospital!) It turns out I had been in touch with the friendly woman on reception via email, and when she saw me with my little wheelie suitcase she realised I was from out of town and put two and two together that I must be the young British girl coming over for radiotherapy. But still! What lovely people.

Unfortunately, after all that, it turns out I won’t be able to have my radiotherapy at St. Luke’s because they couldn’t fit me in on the public system so I have to go privately at St. Vincent’s instead, but that’s fine because it’s closer to work and my flat. I’ll write a separate post about my radiotherapy treatment plan because it’s too much information for this post, but basically I should start on 2nd Jan and finish at the end of February, with 33 radio sessions.

Flying Back to Manchester

On the flight home, with Aer Lingus this time, I was momentarily delighted when I saw that we were sitting in the emergency exit seats, i.e. plenty of leg room and as much space as possible away from my fellow passengers with their various vomiting bugs and winter flu. The delight was soon snatched away from me, though, when your lady from Aer Lingus looked at me, gestured towards the window I was sitting next to and said “You’re guarding the emergency exit there, are you willing and able to initiate an evacuation in an emergency?” (You see, I had taken off my wig by this point and was wearing a snazzy purple beanie and I obviously screamed “cancer patient/invalid” to her.)

I paused for a moment, recalling the opening scenes from series 1 of LOST. Was I really strong enough, after six rounds of chemo and one exhausting day of travel, to lift a 15kg aeroplane door off its hinges in a crash and lead my fellow passengers down the inflatable slide into the sea, making sure they all took off their heels so as not to puncture it?

“Yes,” I finally said. I was too exhausted to move and I really didn’t care that much about my fellow passengers anyway. (Apart from Mum, and I’d help her down the inflatable slide first anyway). Plus the evacuation procedure looked simple enough.

“Please ensure all electronic devices and mobile phones are switched off,” the cabin attendant said, eventually, preparing for take off.

“Oh NO!” Mum exclaimed from the seat next to me. She had left her mobile phone on, and the cabin lady had insisted we put our bags up in the overhead cabins so as not to block the emergency exit, and now we were all firmly belted in and ready for take-off. “What should I do?” she said, looking at me for answers.

I was in two minds. I knew Mum’s phone was unlikely to cause a crash during our 40-minute flight to Manchester, but I wanted to avoid any increased risk that I would have to get off my poor chemo-sapped arse and shuffle 100-odd passengers out of that emergency exit, so eventually we asked the cabin lady to get Mum’s bag down so she could switch her phone off.

The plane did not crash. We made it safely to Manchester. Then I got a paper cut from one of the items of my mail I’d picked up from the office. Will it ever end?!

Back to the Christie

Luckily, we had the good sense to stay overnight in Manchester on Tuesday, otherwise I don’t think I’d have even had enough strength to get myself back there on Wednesday (purely due to tiredness and still fighting this infection). I was in for my three-week post-chemo check-up, which truly marks the end of chemotherapy – hooray!

Because I was neutropenic on Monday, I went in for another blood test on Wednesday. Unfortunately, I was dehydrated from our overnight stay in a stuffy hotel room (I know people commit suicide sometimes but I really wish hotel rooms had openable windows…) and it took three painful attempts before the nurses could get blood from me. Yuck! Seriously, I must have had more than 100 needle injections so far in 2012.

Then followed a tense wait for my blood count results. If my white blood cells and neutrophils went down from Monday, I would have to be admitted as an inpatient and be hooked up to a drip again for a few days in hospital – possibly spending Christmas Day at the Christie Clinic. But if they went up, I would be allowed to go home. So you can only imagine how relieved I was when the doctor told me they’d gone up. Not exactly by much, but honestly, I couldn’t care less as long as I was able to go home.

Now please let me not have picked up any vomiting bugs in the past two days! (Not that it matters anyway, seeing as the world is going to end tomorrow…)

Yes, I really did wear my birthday bunny onesie to the hospital yesterday. It had to be done, given Monday’s good news re: the BRCA gene result and then the fact that it was my final chemo session. And guess what? Not a single person commented! A few people looked me up and down with amused faces, but not even the oncologist batted an eyelid when I turned around to leave his office, revealing my white bunny tail! (Pippa Middleton, eat your heart out). Well, these people have clearly seen it all.

(That’s mother in the background beavering away relentlessly at her work – she never ceases.)

The day in hospital took a little longer than usual, but the chemo itself flew by. Nurse Alison was one of the best I’ve had yet and she managed to get the needle and cannula into my hand with the minimum of fuss, effort and pain, much to my relief. The ice torture wasn’t even as bad this time – I swear the gloves were warmer, or maybe I’m just getting used to it. There was a period of about 15 minutes with the second pair of fresh ice gloves when my hand was completely numb and I thought it was going to drop off, but the fact that I knew it was my final chemo made it all easier to bear.

The good news is the oncologist agreed with the geneticist that I don’t need to have the mastectomy operation. The combination of surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and five years of Tamoxifen on my left breast is the equivalent of having a mastectomy, he said. Of course, there is much more of a risk of getting breast cancer on my right-hand side at some point, but if this happened, I could have the same treatment of surgery, chemo and radio again (God forbid this never, ever happens). And if I get a recurrence on my left side, I’d have to have a mastectomy then. He said the double mastectomy and reconstruction at this stage would be such a huge and fairly risky operation that my situation doesn’t merit taking the risk, so I shall now cast all doubts from my mind and concentrate on getting back to my life – a very, very happy day!

My blood count yesterday, even after two days of steroids to boost it, was still almost too low to have chemo, and the oncologist had decided that my infection and high temperature a couple of weeks ago were the effects of the chemo, so he has given me more steroids to take for the next few days, plus some other drugs to offset the side effects of the steroids, so this is the grand total of what I’m on at the moment:

– The Taxotere chemo itself

– Dexamethasone steroids (I’m in hot-flush heaven right now…)

– Once-a-day injection of Filgrastim for 10 days to boost my bone marrow/immune system

– Lansoprazole to offset steroid side effects

– Senokot to ward off the constipation

– A healthy cocktail of Co-Enzyme Q-10 and multivitamins

– Aspirins in a few days’ time when the pain sets in

– Tamoxifen starting in three weeks for five years!

Uff! That’s definitely the most drugs I’ve ever taken, I’d say!

So, the next steps… well, it’s not over yet. I have to go back to see the oncologist in 3 weeks for a check up. No doubt my blood count will be very low by then as it’s never recovered properly and I won’t be taking the steroids any more, but fingers crossed there’ll be no infections this time. Then I start taking Tamoxifen, the drug to reduce my oestrogen levels for five years, and in 3 weeks I also go to Dublin to meet the radiotherapy team.

Then, fingers crossed, radiotherapy in January and February, then back to see the surgeon in March, back to see the oncologist in June and so on and so forth returning to the hospital for the rest of my life!

I confess I had a bit of a sugar binge last night because I really felt the need for sugar and thought, if you can’t have some Haagen Dazs ice cream, ginger ale and prawn cocktail crisps on your final day of chemo, when can you have some Haagen Dazs ice cream, ginger ale and prawn cocktail crisps?! Plus, the oncologist is absolutely adamant that what I eat has nothing to do with my cancer so if it were left to him, I could just continue as normal. But I’ll give all those nutritionists the benefit of the doubt and continue with my healthy eating from now on…

Finally, thanks to Kimm and Howard, who sent me these gorgeous flowers about 20 minutes after I got my gene test result on Monday. Beautiful!

Now it’s off to rest for a few days… This bunny is DONE with chemo!

Barely a day goes by without a trip to the hospital. The occasion yesterday was my five-month check up after my surgery.

“Five months?!” I hear you ask. Yes, really, it’s been five months since diagnosis, five months I’ve been sitting on my bum getting fat and being frequently stabbed by needles while the seasons have changed and you’ve gone from wearing your summer frocks to winter woolies (or vice versa, for those in the Southern Hemisphere.)

To offset the unpleasantness of a trip to the Christie Clinic (lovely though it is), we decided to treat ourselves to a three-course lunch at Jamie’s Italian in Manchester, which opened in February. I thought I’d take some of you (namely Fe, Linz and one or two others) up on the suggestion of food-blogging, since writing about my life online has now become second nature and replaced my 20-year habit of writing a private diary, so you can read the first post of my fledgling food blog here.

For those of you who can’t be bothered to click the above link, or simply don’t have enough time in your day, I hope you will instead enjoy these pictures of a burger and – the pièce de résistance – the Thomas Crapper loo.

I digress…

I thought the check-up was just to see if my boob scar was in order, but in fact it was also a breast cancer check – to see if any new lumps had emerged. They haven’t, thank God, but it turns out I have to have these appointments every four months for the first couple of years and then have checks (probably mammograms) at least once a year for the next 17 years until I actually hit the age where they start screening women routinely – 47. (And after that, presumably more of the same…)

This really made it hit home just how much cancer is going to be with me for the rest of my life. Talking to the surgeon and hearing about how important it is to keep checking whether the cancer has come back just reinforced how rare it is to have breast cancer at my age and how it could return at any time. I’ve gone from never going to hospital up to the age of 29, to making it practically a second home. Hey ho…

My gene test result is due any day now and will determine whether or not I have a bilateral mastectomy, so Mum and I saw the consultation as an opportunity to grill the surgeon, who I will most likely choose to perform my operation in the event that I need one.

He explained that muscle would be taken from my back in order to reconstruct my breasts after they are lopped off.

“But do I even have enough muscle in my back for that?” I asked, imagining two great chunks missing from my shoulder area…

“It’s the biggest muscle in your body,” he said. “But we would use implants as well.”

Ahh, I thought, thank God for that! They would also normally take fat from my stomach, he said, but (un?)fortunately, even after putting on 3kg, I’m pretty sure I’m not fat enough to produce a pair of 32Ds from my tummy flab.

“Are you managing to eat ok?” asked the surgeon.

“Oh yes,” I said, “In fact, I’ve put on weight.”

(I didn’t feel the need to tell him I’d just wolfed down an enormous cheese-and-red-meat-based lunch at Jamie’s.)

Meanwhile, I’m fast becoming a local celebrity, with the Huddersfield Examiner contacting me yesterday for an interview. I’m not sure exactly how they found my blog with just one obscure mention of a nightmare taxi ride from Huddersfield to Manchester, but nevertheless I shall endeavour to give them some kind of exclusive. I am as yet undecided as to whether to wear hot pants for the photo shoot, like I did last time I appeared in the Examiner, in 2004 (see link).

Happy weekend!

My father, who doesn’t read this blog, suggested the most excellent title of today’s post on account of the fact that I spent the last 24 hours or so performing my toileting activities into a cardboard bowl so that the hospital could ‘measure how much I am passing’. This would have been vaguely bearable were it not for the fact that they were pumping several litres of saline into my veins, causing me to need the loo at least once an hour. I’m not sure what the nurses did with each cardboard bedpan every time they took it out of my bathroom… I have visions of them pouring the contents into a massive glass measuring cylinder, like they do on that programme Supersize vs Superskinny where they compare what a morbidly obese person eats in an average week compared with that of an anorexic person… Either way, my Dad was greatly amused by the proceedings.

Thankfully, the cardboard box experience is now safely behind me as I was released from my hospital quarantine this afternoon and am finally back home with a course of oral antibiotics. It was a humbling four-day experience that gave me new-found respect and sympathy for anyone who spends a decent amount of time living in a hospital. I am incredibly lucky to have spent time in a five-star private suite of one of the best hospitals in the country but even that was bad enough – the amount of freedom you lose and the things you have to do can really make you appreciate life outside the hospital.

Having grown men in suits come into your room while you’re lying in bed in your PJs, tangled up in your own sweaty bed sheets with sleep in your eyes is not the most dignified feeling in the world – nor is having your shit taken out in a box by various different strangers at regular intervals! Ditto having your food cut up by your Mum and having to buzz every five minutes for someone to come and perform the simplest of tasks for you, like taking the cap off a bottle of water so you can drink it. Getting body lotion out of a tiny bottle using just one hand was also a tricky task that resulted in me splurting it all over the bathroom wall, impressively managing to even splash it above my own head height. I am not sure what the cleaner thought I had been doing that particular day.

Last night the temperature was so tropical in my room I felt like I was abroad so I slept on top of my sheets on my plastic mattress. It reminded me of the time on my gap yah in January 2001 when six of us slept atop rubber mattresses in 40-degree heat with one tiny ceiling fan for ventilation in the Hotel Marajó in Rio de Janeiro’s Lapa district – at that time still the red light district. Both then and last night I woke up covered in similar amounts of sticky sweat, I can assure you. (Jo, Amy, Alex, Alice, Howie and Chanty, I am literally thrilled to have found a photo of the exact room the girls slept in for almost a month – I’m sure you’ll all enjoy reminiscing. Remember the breakfast?!)

I grew rather attached (literally) to the machine-on-a-pole that fed me drugs and saline on an intravenous drip night and day. So much so that, yesterday morning, I had a horrific nightmare where I was travelling up a slow-moving conveyer belt with a Russian man standing by my side, only the Russian man was actually my machine-on-a-pole and it had Hannibal Lecter’s head! As you can imagine, I woke up dripping with sweat and grinding my teeth ferociously after that one.

The same morning I had several other nightmares, including one in which I woke up and all the nurses suddenly dragged my hospital bed out into the corridor towards an operating theatre and wouldn’t tell me what was going on, which was particularly traumatic. All these nightmares were probably the result of eating an enormous cheese board before bedtime – which I only did because I couldn’t have a sweet dessert due to this flamin’ no-sugar diet!

Speaking of which, Horror of Horrors! I found out the little monkeys at the hospital were spiking my porridge with sugar!!! I know, right? No wonder it tasted so good. How dare they? I hear you ask. So, well, obviously I have inadvertently cheated but I think I’ll let myself off since clearly I had no control over the matter. Other than that minor indiscretion, the no-sugar diet is still going strong.

Anyway, I’m glad that chapter’s over. I could barely move my hand for two hours after the cannula (needle-tube thingie) was finally removed from it after four days and the skin on my fingers is all peeling off and my veins are all sore and painful. Apart from that, I feel right as rain, but I’m in desperate need of some pampering and resting for the next few days! Home sweet home, I shall never take you for granted again.

This blog post is dedicated to Helen Morecroft, my childhood best friend and co-executive-editor on a little publication you may never have heard of called the Toilet Roll Special (Circulation: one) that we used to edit, circa 1990. (We had a strong sense of toilet humour from a remarkably early age).

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