Do you know what other word starts with C? Chemotherapy.
Chemo is a funny beast – you’re grateful for it, because it’s saving your mother’s life; but it’s this hideous poison that “cooks” her from the inside out, kills off her healthy cells, and makes her so sick you think she might die.
The first round is the worst. You don’t know what to expect. There are doctors and nurses everywhere. You’re surrounded by patients who are at all different stages in their treatment, and you don’t know where to look, or what to say. Do you say hello? Do you smile and give them a nod? Is it rude to watch the nurse hook the patient before your mother up, because you’re scared and want to know what to expect?
The pain on my mum’s face on that first day is still very clearly etched into my brain. I thought I would pass out when I saw the needle. Mum screwed up her face and cried out in pain when they inserted the needle into her vein, and I felt an ache deep in my heart. “I don’t know how I’m going to get through five more rounds of this,” I thought. I choked back my own tears. It was awful, terrifying, overwhelming. But you have to be strong; you’re not allowed to fall apart.
In the movies, it looks like it’s a quick process, having everything hooked up. I thought they’d insert the needle, attach the cocktail of drugs, and away we’d go. But it’s not like that. It’s painstakingly slow. You feel like it’s never going to end – and you’re just watching. You have the easy part.
The session does end, though. Days later, Mum tells me that she can’t continue with chemo, that it’s too awful, too painful, that she feels like her brain is fried. You don’t want to tell her what to do, force her into her treatment, because you know she’ll resent you for it later, but you think back to that day in her surgeon’s office, where he shows you the numbers. She’s had the surgery, so her odds are better than if she hadn’t gone ahead with the mastectomy, but… the numbers aren’t great without chemotherapy. You tell her you’ll support her, whatever she decides, but you feel sick inside, and you (somewhat selfishly) go through the numbers in your head. She’ll still be here for my wedding – check… but what about when I have kids?
Mum’s first round of chemo was two weeks before Christmas. Hair loss usually occurs two to three weeks after treatment – Mum hoped hers would fall out closer to the three week mark. It started falling out a few days prior to Christmas. I bought her a beautiful Hermès scarf for Christmas. I was devastated when she told me months later that the colour had run – she’d. put. the. silk. scarf. through. the. washing. machine. I’m quite sure Thierry Hermès turned in his grave.
When she calls the day before her second scheduled chemotherapy round, the treatment you thought she’d cancelled, and asks if you’ll go with her you breathe a sigh of relief. You don’t want to ask why she changed her mind, but like she’s reading yours, she tells you: “I thought of your Godmother. I thought of the day her mother came to tell her that she was stopping treatment. She called and asked us to be there, to give her support, and I still remember the look on her face. I saw what that did to her. I saw what that did to her when her mother died. I couldn’t do that to you and your brother.” You’re not thankful that your Godmother’s mother died, but you’re thankful that because a conversation over twenty years ago, your mother won’t give up the fight. “And,” she adds, “I’ve already lost my hair, so there’s no point giving up now.”
Words that you don’t want to hear the Cancer Nurse say to your mother when she’s in the middle of chemo – “I know this drug stings, but you can’t move. If you move and dislodge the cannula, these drugs could spill all over you, and you could lose your hand.” You don’t know if he’s joking, exaggerating. But he gives you a look that tells you he is not, and you wonder what that heinous concoction is doing to her insides.
The chemotherapy cocktail that my mum was on had a cumulative effect. She was tired all the time, she had mouth ulcers and sores on her body that wouldn’t heal, some of her nails split and fell off, she lost her appetite, she had wicked nausea, she couldn’t sleep, she developed what we call “chemo brain”… The intensity of the side-effects grew worse with each cycle. We went out for coffee on one occasion, and walking around the shopping centre, I was so worried she was going to faint – but she insisted she was fine.
After Mum’s third cycle, and just before her fourth, she had a PICC line inserted after all her veins collapsed. That central line was a godsend – there was no trying to find a vein at the beginning of each session, no more needles, much less pain. The PICC line combined with the scarves on her head made her look sick – I know that she was sick, but it was such a visual reminder.
Mum’s final chemotherapy round was a cause for celebration. She made a lemon meringue cake to share with staff and patients, I brought along a batch of cupcakes. I was so happy, so excited that we were at the end of the road, I thought I would cry. I wanted to kiss my mum’s cancer nurse – I am forever thankful to him (and of course, also to her surgeon). Mum’s Cancer Nurse made cancer and chemotherapy “fun”. He was kind, compassionate, and he dealt with her intense fear of needles – but most importantly, he was always positive, and he made us all laugh. He made a very difficult time for our family much easier, and when I think of how I feel towards him, “grateful” just doesn’t seem to cut it.
As we walked out of the Cancer Centre, the staff cheered.
The story ends well for my mum – of course it is still very early days yet, and I feel terrified just writing this that I’ll somehow jinx things, but her Surgeon and Oncologist are happy with her progress. There is Hormone Blocking Therapy, as well as gene testing (which will give an indication of the likelihood of the cancer coming back), to get through yet, but the worst of it is over.
I think the fear will stick around for a long while yet – finding out my mum had cancer completely knocked me for six – but it’s no longer debilitating. I can breathe again.