Radiotherapy After Breast Cancer Surgery

So here I am, the beginning of my radiotherapy, four weeks of travelling up and down from the Beatson Hospital in Glasgow, Scotland.  The journey takes more than an hour each way and while the treatment only takes ten minutes, it rarely starts on time. Image When I eventually get called through I have to walk along a lengthy corridor with a large room at the end of it.  Two technicians were there setting the machine up for me.  It has to be changed and cleaned after each patient and that was still being done as I entered the room.  There is no where take off my clothes but in the room in the full view of the technicians.  Now, I appreciate there is nothing special about me, however I am, by nature quite reserved.  I am not given to disrobing readily and I was quite embarrassed when I was told just to strip to the waist and put my clothes on the chair near the entry to the room.  I was handed a paper towel with which to cover my modesty as I walked from the chair to the machine. This was horrid.  The paper was not wide enough to cover both my breasts at once and as often as not fell to the floor as soon as I got on to the machine. radio_treatment         On the occasion of my first treatment the technicians introduced themselves.  I believe they should have done this on each occasion that I had different people treating me.  That did not happen.  Indeed, even when there was a student present, whether male or female, I was neither asked for permission to have the student present, nor introduced, nor told that a male member of staff would be present. Now, I am being treated for breast cancer.  I am of an age and disposition that does not readily strip off in the presence of strangers. The stress is appalling anyway, and being treated like cattle, or meat, certainly not as a valuable patient, was very upsetting. It added to my tension rather than easing it. There was no consistency of times for appointments either.  I was fortunate that most of my appointments were between 11.00 and 12.00 each day.  However, speaking to other patients that was unusual.  Having to go to hospital each day is difficult enough, but if it is at around the same time of day you can get into a routine of sorts.  I found radiotherapy even more difficult to cope with than chemotherapy for these reasons.  It definitely intrudes into “real life”. Of course, I had heard that radiotherapy would make me tired and I would suffer from burns around the area being treated.  I had no such effects initially and, if you have read the rest of this blog, it will not surprise you to know that I believed none of this would happen to me. Neither will it surprise you to know that I was wrong again. MRSA After six or seven treatments I began to feel so very tired. Tired and bone weary. Getting up in the morning was increasingly difficult, although I always did.  However, I often needed to go for an afternoon nap when I  got home from radiotherapy.  The feelings of tiredness increased.  I could not work out whether this was due to the travelling or the treatment.  In the end I decided it was both, exacerbated by the chemotherapy that I had already received.  
Tiredness caused by the radiotherapy treatment itself, is thought to be due in part to the type of toxins released during the breakdown of some of the cells within the treatment area. Drinking fluids to keep hydrated,appears to help flush these toxins out of your system. Eating regularly throughout the day, and not missing meals, will also help to maintain your energy levels.   In addition my skin around the area getting treated by radiotherapy was becoming increasingly red and sore. Th radiotherapy is very precisely applied to the exact same area each day.  My breast around my operation scar became increasingly sore but the burning was worst underneath my breast.   Most patients will notice a reddening,  darkening, or burning of the skin within the treatment area, this is called erythema.   This reddening is sometimes likened to a mild sunburn. 220px-Aqueous_cream_B.P. There are some occasions for example when the doctor wishes to treat close to the skin’s surface.   In these instances the reddening may be worse, but you will have been informed about this in the initial consultation. Most patient’s will only have a very mild reaction.   The hospital prescribed aqueous cream and pain killers.   You can help reduce skin reactions by looking after your skin.   It is clear that skin that is well moisturised has less significant side effects than skin that is not. During my radiotherapy treatment I kept my skin well moisturised, and regularly applied (2-3 times per day) the Aqueous Cream provided by the hospital.  This is a pure water based moisturiser. Four weeks, or 19 sessions after it started my radiotherapy was over.  I walked out of the hospital and the routine I had built up during the period of radiotherapy was terminated.  The medical attention and support I had been receiving for months was brought to an end. What a strange feeling.

Valerie Penny

Cancer Treatment After Chemotherapy

My chemotherapy lasted 18 weeks.  The treatments were every 3 weeks.  At first, I really thought I had beat the system and that, with the help of the cool cap, my hair would not fall out.  I was wrong, it did.  I had thought I would not want a wig, what does it matter if I am bald or not?  I was wrong, I did.

The wig was useful for three reasons: first, it keeps your head warm!  Second, it makes things easier for loved ones who do not want to think of you as really ill, even when they know you are.  Last, it helped me to feel “normal” and not to advertise my illness.  I do not want to be defined by any one aspect of my life, especially cancer.

I had also thought, somewhat conceitedly, that I would not get so very tired from the chemotherapy and life would go on as normal, just punctuated by the treatments.  Guess what?  I was wrong again!  The chemotherapy builds up over the period of time and I got bone tired sometimes.  I was so tired that getting up was an effort and I accomplished very little some days.  However, every day I got up, I got dressed and I did something, even if it was just make a cup of tea, write my diary or phone a friend.  Some days I needed a nap and others I felt so good I would bake a cake, clean the bathroom and present my writing class.  Believe me when I tell you I paid for those days for 2 or 3 days afterwards.

Bearing in mind the number of times I had been wrong before, it will not surprise you that I was wrong again when I considered the 5 week break between chemotherapy and the beginning of my radiotherapy was unnecessary.  That period allowed me to be just a little less tired each day and my husband and I did a few things together that I could not have contemplated if I had gone directly from one form of treatment to the next.

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My husband took me to the Ayr Flower Show. We were only there for 3 hours, but it was lovely to see the flowers and stalls where the vendors had some useful things on sale.  Some fine plants and pretty accessories available too.  There was a stand showing birds of prey that was really interesting.  I was also surprised at the wide variety of stalls providing food and snacks.  We particularly enjoyed looking at the Bonsai Trees.

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All too soon the weeks of freedom came to an end.  My radiotherapy started.  There was one big difference between the chemotherapy and the radiotherapy.  I had to attend hospital every week day for 19 days to complete the required radiotherapy.

My sessions started on a Tuesday so for the next 4 weeks I must endure the 70 minute drive to and from home to the hospital  for my 10 minute radiotherapy sessions.  It was a huge intrusion into the day.  It was also difficult to lead any semblance of a normal life during this period because my days from 10.00 to about 1.30 were taken up by the daily trips to The Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre. It is a specialised cancer care centre in Glasgow, Scotland. I was lucky because there is a local charity, North Ayrshire Cancer Care, that provides volunteer drivers to drive people to and from cancer treatments.  This makes a big difference.  Patients are advised against driving after treatment and it would be difficult to find family and friends able to make the trip daily for such a long period of time.  There is such a time commitment each day.

So, radiotherapy, here I come.

Valerie Penny

More Reading Writing and Sharing During Cancer Treatment

In the time when I am undergoing chemotherapy I am unable to go out as often as I would like and often cannot mix with friends so I spend much of my time reading and writing.   Here I share some of my work and views with you.

SACRED HEARTS  

1570 in the Italian city of Ferrara, and the convent of Santa Caterina is filled with noble women who are married to Christ because they cannot find husbands on the outside. Enter 16 year old Serafina, howling with rage and hormones and determined to escape. Her arrival disrupts the harmony and stability of the convent, as overseen by Madonna Chiara, an abbess as fluent in politics as she is in prayer. She assigns the novice into the care of Suora Zuana, the scholarly nun who runs the dispensary and treats all manner of sickness, from pestilence and melancholy to self-inflicted wounds. As an unlikely relationship builds between the two women, others figures stand watching and waiting; most notably theå novice mistress, Suora Umiliana, a crusader for God and ever stricter piety and the mysterious, decrepit Suora Magdalena, incarcerated in her cell with a history of ecstasy and visions.

This book is well researched and well crafted, and the descriptions are detailed. Perhaps too detailed to keep the work interesting.  The author is keen for you too appreciate how clever she is and how much work she has put into her research. This gets old very fast.  The story line is completely unbelievable and a very secondary part of the piece when compared to the description of life in a 16th Century convent so I cannot recommend this work.

Believe  

Ultrasound then surgery

C T scan – lumpectomy

Felt great before they worked on me

Can you believe it?

To Glasgow for a hickman line

On good days, though I do feel fine

It hardly seems this life is mine

Can you believe it?

Coloured capsules: lots of pills

Hygiene, mouthwash ulcerous ills

Nosebleeds leaving bright red spills

Can you believe it?

Lethargy and long, long naps

Daytime TV: memory gaps

Sleepless nights spent reading pap

Can you believe it?

Urine dark as Grandpa’s tea

Baldy pate & sore left knee

The doctors say they’re curing me –

Can you believe it?

By Christmas time – I’m truly blessed

Accepting someone else knows best

Cured and  healed with time for rest

You can believe it.

Valerie Penny

Virals

Tory Brennan, niece of acclaimed forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (of the Bones novels and hit TV show), is the leader of a ragtag band of teenage “sci-philes” who live on a secluded island off the coast of South Carolina. When the group rescues a dog caged for medical testing on a nearby island, they are exposed to an experimental strain of canine parvovirus that changes their lives forever.

As the friends discover their heightened senses and animal-quick reflexes, they must combine their scientific curiosity with their newfound physical gifts to solve a cold-case murder that has suddenly become very hot-if they can stay alive long enough to catch the killer’s scent.

Fortunately, they are now more than friends- they’re a pack. They are Virals.  Unfortunately, this is a very poor book and not up to Kathy Reichs’ usual standards.  It really disappointed me. The storyline is far-fetched, the characters not well drawn and I certainly cannot recommend this work.

I can only do what I have the energy to do from day to day. If that is reading writing and sharing my views, as I recover, so be it. Bear with me while I heal.

Valerie Penny

Physical Effects of Chemotherapy

It is hard to imagine that I am already more than half way through my course of chemotherapy and I have now moved from the docetaxel to FEC.  

FEC is named after the initials of the chemotherapy drugs used, which are:

  • fluorouracil which is also known as 5FU
  • epirubicin
  • cyclophosphamide

FEC treatment can usually be given to you as a day patient. Before you start treatment, you’ll need to have a blood test on the same day or a day or two beforehand. You’ll also be seen by a doctor, specialist nurse or pharmacist. If the results of your blood test are normal, the pharmacy will prepare your chemotherapy drugs. All of this may take a couple of hours.  The first time I went for my FEC, though, the hospital was installing a new computer system, so it was over 5 hours before my therapy reached the ward.  Isn’t progress wonderful?!

The nurse will then insert a thin, flexible tube (cannula) into a vein in your hand or arm. You may find this uncomfortable or a little painful, but it shouldn’t take long. Some people have their chemotherapy given through a thin, plastic tube that is inserted under the skin and into a vein near the collarbone. This is what I have, a Hickman line.  A line can also be  passed through a vein in the crook of your arm instead. This is Known as a PICC line.

You’ll be given some anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs as tablets, or more usually by injection through the cannula, which is often connected to a drip (infusion).

The chemotherapy drugs are then given separately:

  • Epirubicin (a red fluid) is given as an injection along with a drip (infusion) of salt water (saline) into your cannula or line.
  • 5FU (a colourless fluid) is given in the same way.
  • Cyclophosphamide (a colourless fluid) can be given either as an infusion or as an injection alongside a drip of saline.

The chemotherapy will usually take about an hour, but it may take longer.

Although the epirubicin is often given first, the order in which the drugs are given won’t alter their effectiveness.

If you’re having your treatment as a day patient you can then go home, and the cannula will be removed before you go. If you have a central line or PICC line it will usually stay in place, ready for the next cycle of your chemotherapy. You’ll be shown how to look after the line or the District Nurse will call in once a week to maintain it for you.

You’ll be given a supply of anti-sickness drugs to take home with you. It is important to take these regularly as directed by your doctor. I was advised to start them right away even if I wasn’t feeling sick. This is because some anti-sickness drugs are much better at preventing sickness than stopping it once it starts.

I have found, so far that the side effects of the FEC are not so debilitating as the docetaxel, but they do exist.

I am not mentally tired, but I do get physically tired.  I am not a patient patient, so when I have some energy I tend to charge around and do as much as I can until I can do no more. It is then I often need a rest or sometimes even an afternoon nap. I should really pace myself, but I am not good at that and really feel excited when I feel I have the energy to accomplish something. I go at it until I finish, or until I run out of energy whichever comes first.

My urine is very dark and smelly but that is not as much of a problem as the constipation. That makes me feel bloated and sore, so laxatives are the order of the day!

My eating is also a bit unpredictable. There are times when I am not hungry and other periods when I graze constantly.  I also find myself craving salt, fruit, vegetables and strong flavours.  I fear I am the only cancer patient who has not lost weight, but the consultant tells me he does not want me to lose weight so he is happy. That makes one of us.

One of the most noticeable side-effects that continues to have a daily effect on my life is hair loss. My hairdresser came to the house when my hair began to come out.  She took my hair down to a number 1. This stopped it coming out all over my pillow and also stopped it clogging the drains when I had a shower!  The most obvious thing is that sometimes my head gets cold! I am also quite self-conscious of not having much hair. It has still not come out completely, but it is very thin on top (although it seems to be growing a the back).  I do have a wig but only wear it if we have visitors or I am going out. Otherwise I mix it up with my “wee hair”, my bandanas and my beanie hats.  My husband is wonderful and so supportive. He had his hair cut to a number 1 too. So now he has the same hair cut as me. The only reason for this is solidarity.  I appreciate it.

One of the things my cancer nurse told me to expect was losing the hair all over my body, not just on my head. This has saved me time and effort shaving my legs! However I have also lost all the hairs in my nose so it feels like it is permanently dripping.  I have mucus running down the back of my throat all the time and I seem to be constantly sniffing or wiping my nose. I am very self-conscious of this.

Another most unpleasant side-effects of the FEC is nausea.  It also causes vomiting in some people. That is even more unpleasant. One of my friends who had already had 2 courses of FEC while I was undergoing treatment with the docetaxel warned me about this and told me the hospital would give me anti-sickness tablets. My friend advised me to start taking them straight away.  The nurses in the oncology ward echoed this advice and I took it. I was glad I did because I did feel a bit nauseous, but never got sick so far.  I am glad of this.  I hate being sick. (Nobody enjoys it, but I really hate it.)

So there you have it, my physical side-effects with the new drugs I am being treated with are not as bad as I had feared, but I was on 21 tablets a day for the first few days after my chemo therapy!  14 of those were for the chemo side effects and the other 7 were my regular ones for my under-active thyroid and my depression. What a life! I plan to live it for as long as I can. 

Valerie Penny

The Psychological Effects of Cancer

There are other effects of cancer and its treatment that are not so widely known or discussed.  I have only discovered this recently and these are side-effects that affect not only me but also those close to me who are nearest. These are the psychological effects of cancer that make everything doubly hard: for everybody.

It was only when I was chatting to my cousin about cancer suffered by another member of our family and the outbursts of temper they displayed, that I began to understand that cancer results not only in physical, but also psychological effects.  The emotional effects of chemotherapy can be just as debilitating as the physical effects. From the initial diagnosis of cancer to the final dose of chemotherapy, patients undergo levels of emotional distress well beyond a healthy limit. The emotional effects of chemotherapy can be directly related to the medication or to external factors such as family, work and social life. The range of emotional distress felt by patients depends a lot on their particular support network and  their rate of recovery.  Emotions run high for the whole family during chemotherapy.  It made sense when I thought about it, but I never had.   

I asked my husband if I had ever displayed any outbursts of temper. I was sure I had not, until he reminded me of an uncharacteristic and ugly diatribe to which I subjected my daughter during a telephone conversation.  I felt so guilty because he was right.

The outburst to which I subjected my daughter is not the only evidence of my fragile mental state during cancer treatment, at present.  When the District Nurse arrived to clean my hickman line and take my pre-chemo bloods at a time different to that arranged I lost the plot and ended up asking her to leave. Oh dear! The problem is it all seemed so logical at the time.

Chemotherapy can have an emotional impact on patients because the treatment itself is a sign of emotional self-preservation. The choice to fight cancer does not end with the first dose of the medication and patients often feel emotionally taxed when recovery is slow. The physical side effects can contribute significantly to emotional distress. Insomnia, constant nausea, weight loss, hair loss and a diminished sex life can all make a patient feel emotionally distraught. Family and friends bear their pain too.

Chemotherapy also affects patients because of a perceived burden of loss on family, friends and work. Patients may feel isolated from participating in family activities due to fatigue and medical appointments. Social life is also dramatically affected by chemotherapy due to fatigue and often shame.  Therefore, some of the classical negative emotions during chemotherapy include anger, fear, anxiety, depression and isolation. The emotional distress from chemotherapy may come from a sense of not having any control over the matter.   Cognitive function and emotional health are strongly interconnected and chemotherapy can take a serious toll on both of them. In some cases, emotional distress can affect cognitive function, while in other cases, impaired cognition can alter judgment and emotional responses during cancer treatment.

However, I have to confess that, perhaps unsurprisingly, my worst outburst to date has been reserved for my long-suffering husband. This combination of temper and depression was my worst to date.  When I asked my cancer nurse if this was a normal side effect she replied in the affirmative. My husband just said very quietly, “But that does not make if acceptable.”  Of course he is right and none of the victims of my temper deserved it.

Depression is a persistent sadness that interferes with usual activities and ability to carry out roles at home, work, community, or school. Depression may also be known as sadness, feeling “down,” despair, or hopelessness. Depression and its side effects affect both men and women.  There are several risk factors that increase the potential for development of depression in the patient with cancer.  Medications commonly prescribed for cancer patients can be one of those risk factors.  There are many classes of medications that may have depression as their side effects.  Some examples are: analgesics, anticonvulsants, antihistamines, anti-inflammatory agents, antineoplastics, chemotherapy agents, hormones, immunosuppressive agents, and steroids.

Depression during chemotherapy, and generally can be managed, but it has to be admitted first.  You need to recognise what puts you at risk of depression.  Triggers include –

    • History of depression in yourself or your family.
    • Pessimistic view of life.
    • Living with a chronic disease like cancer.
    • Stressful events in your life.
    • Effects of some medications & chemotherapy.
    • Lack of support from family or friends.
    • Unrelieved physical symptoms (like pain).
    • Alcohol or drug abuse.
    • Unrelieved grief (not working through feelings of angry about how cancer & its treatment have affected your life).
    • Any persistent change in your mood, with the signs of depression listed above.
    • If you feel suicidal you must tell someone and get help. It is not safe to be on your own at these times.  

I am told it is not unusual to have times when you feel very low after a diagnosis of cancer, and during or after treatment. Many people feel physically and emotionally exhausted from the treatment, and this can lower their mood. However, for some people affected by cancer their low mood may continue or get worse and they may need specialist help or treatment. Some people find that their sadness gives way to a situation where their mood is low most of the time for several weeks or more, and they are depressed.

The relationship between cancer and depression is complex. Depression may be triggered by the diagnosis of cancer, other issues related to the cancer and its treatment, or the impact of the cancer on a person’s life. However, depression may occur by chance or be related to other difficult events, either in the past or in the present, which are nothing to do with cancer, such as the loss of a loved one.    Depression can develop slowly, making it very difficult for either you or your family to recognise when it started. In other cases it can seem to hit you suddenly – one day you wake up and realise that you feel hopeless and helpless and are engulfed in a ‘black cloud’ or, as Winston Churchill called it “black dog” of depression.  

Depression can affect anyone at any age. It is extremely common – one in five (20%) people are affected by depression at some time in their lives. Depression is not a sign of personal failure or inability to cope. You can’t ‘pull yourself together’ or ‘snap out of it’.  Depression can usually be successfully treated. The first step to feeling better is to admit the problem, then to get appropriate help.

Valerie Penny

Time for Reading and Writing and Sharing and Being treated for Breast Cancer

One of the things I have found while I am undergoing my treatment for breast cancer is that as I have less energy to do physical exercise or physical work, I am finding myself able to indulge in other interests. I find I am able to do more reading and writing. I enjoy this.

One of the books I read recently was “In The Dark” by Mark Billingham.  The book is reviewed here: https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/in-the-dark-by-mark-billingham/

On a rainy city night, a handgun is fired at random. A struck car swerves and plows into a bus stop, killing an unsuspecting bystander. In an explosive instant, a cold-blooded gang initiation ends one life and forever changes three others: the desperate teenager who pulled the trigger. A policewoman is on maternity leave and an aging is gangster plotting a terrifying revenge. The truth about the shocking incident will tie them all together in a lethal blood knot. And nothing is what it seems.

In the Dark” is the most powerful and unflinching crime novel yet from the remarkable Mark Billingham–a gripping journey into the modern urban darkness where violence is both indiscriminate and meticulously planned, and youth gangs take on established criminals for rule of the streets.

In a completely different vein is the novel by Jane Green ” Second Chance“. That book is reviewed here: https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/second-chance-by-jane-green/. Jane Green has become a nationally bestselling author with legions of fans through her novels about the true-life dilemmas of real women, their relationships, their careers, their loves, their triumphs and disappointments. In her latest book, Green tells the story of a group of people who haven’t seen each other since they were best friends at school. When one of them dies in a terrible tragedy, the reunited friends work through their grief together and find that each of their lives is impacted in ways they could have never foreseen. Warm, witty, and as wise as ever, this is a story of friendship, of family, and of life coming full circle.

I also managed to contribute work to the blog wkwriters.wordpress.com. Here is an example.

Jubilee  

So many years you’ve worked in a job

You never sought to do it did you, Ma’am?

But your Uncle married Wallis Simpson

It was then so unavoidable: so set

You would be Queen: you were: you are now

Those 60 years have passed, how fast they flew

With you upon the throne you saw the change

You see the change and yet you rise above

Consistent in a land you love, a land you serve

Duty, dignity, experience still

Few would trade you places if they could, you know

None could hope to do your job so well.

I also read the book promoted by my book group.  

The first novel by Peter Ho Davies is “The Welsh Girl“. It is reviewed here: https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/the-welsh-girl…eter-ho-davies/. The Welsh Girl is set in 1944, as World War II grinds through its final year. But of course his characters don’t know that they are within sight of the finishing-post. Instead, they inhabit the confusions of the present tense. Rotheram, a German Jewish refugee, came to Britain in 1936 and now works as a translator for Political Intelligence. Seventeen-year-old Esther, daughter of a Welsh shepherd, lives in a remote village where war impinges in the form of evacuees and English sappers building a prisoner-of-war camp. Karsten, a captured German naval infantryman, will become one of the first prisoners in the new camp.

The Welsh Girl is preoccupied with ideas of identity, belonging and alienation. Ho Davies explores the ways in which war ruptures the relationship between a human being and the place (or country) that is called home. Some forms of belonging are obvious as the novel begins to weave its strands. The sheep on the Welsh hills know their territory and don’t stray from it. This sense of belonging – cynefin – is passed on down the female line, from the ewes to the ewe-lambs, because the ram lambs are sent for slaughter. If the herd loses contact with its territory, it cannot thrive. This hard fact becomes a metaphor throughout the novel. It may be over-used, but it remains potent. Esther, who has lost her mother and is a little lost within her own life, will eventually give birth to an identity which allows her to reconnect, in her own way, with home and origins.

Language is a key marker of belonging in this fictional village. Certain thoughts and ideas belong within Welsh, resisting translation because they embody what is specific to that culture. Ho Davies describes his fictional setting as “a nationalist village, passionately so. It’s what holds the place together, like a cracked and glued china teapot.” However his treatment of the very complex and controversial subject of Welsh nationalist attitudes to the war is somewhat bland. Characters take an overview of their situation, and describe their feelings and thoughts to themselves in a way which robs these of life. Esther, for example, hears Churchill’s speech revealing the invasion of France, and reflects that “most of the locals are as filled with excitement as she is, even if they’re reluctant to admit it.” It seems very unlikely that a girl of 17 would think of the friends and family with whom she’s grown up as “the locals”.

Ho Davies is much more assured in his handling of characters who are uprooted. Rotheram, for example, has gone through a long battle over both his Germanness and his Jewishness. It is only towards the end of the novel that his Jewishness becomes real to him, because he has made his own bridge between what other people say he is, and where he feels he can belong. Karsten, like all the other prisoners, is stripped of the identity – or sustaining fantasy – supplied by Nazism. Already, however, a different fantasy is supplanting it: the prisoners begin to consider themselves both innocent and victimised, subtly entitled to resentment and furious when they are confronted with film of the liberation of Belsen. Esther, coerced into sex by her English sapper boyfriend, has to lie about what really happened for the rest of her life. Within this lie, the novel seems to argue that Esther finds a deeper truth which links her to her dead mother, and enables her to claim back her own territory.

The Welsh Girl handles its complex thematic structure with secure craft, intelligence and sense of direction. The introduction of a major historical figure into this fictional world may shake the scenery, but the novel recovers.

Rotheram is the most subtly-drawn and interesting character in the book. This may be because Ho Davies has not decided the outcome of his story as firmly as he appears to have done with Esther and Karsten, but has treated Rotheram with some of the uncertainty and passion which brings a character to life. In his characterisation of Esther, there is distance.

Ho Davies has already earned a reputation as a short-story writer, but that skill may not make it easier to risk the excess, embarrassment and commitment of a book which takes its author way beyond where he expected to find himself. Nevertheless, The Welsh Girl is good enough to suggest that he may become an impressive novelist once he is into his stride.

Everything has advantages and disadvantages. One of the few advantages of having breast cancer is that I have time to catch up with my reading, writing reviews of the books and even some poetry and sharing it all with you.

Valerie Penny

Symptoms of the Cure for Breast Cancer

My cancer is breast cancer but was found early and surgery (hopefully) removed the tumour.  As a result of that I had had no symptoms that I noticed from my disease. Looking back, there were several signs that I ignored. The discharge from my right nipple and the least exertion made me very tired. Still, It never occurred to me that I had cancer. That would not happen to me. It could happen to other people, but not to me. It is therefore, I am told, unsurprising that, when I started having symptoms from the cure, I became quite resentful of that.  The flowers friends and family continued to send made the long days at home more easily endured.    Visits phone calls, texts and emails helped too. I like to feel part of the world and community, even if I don’t get out much.  I am so very lucky to have that network of support and love and prayer: I do not take any of that for granted.  

I have, however, taken my good digestive system and ability to sleep well, whatever the circumstances, for granted for many years.  When the side effects to my chemotherapy included constipation that was so bad it made me scream followed, a few days later, by constipation that made me weep, I felt miserable.  I also have had difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep during periods of my chemotherapy cycle. I am not sure if that is caused by stress or by the treatment. Whatever caused it, I found it unusual and depressing.

I also find that food tastes a bit tinny this is quite unnerving. I find myself drawn to sweet and salty foods.  I also find that my eating habits have changed. I am finding myself eating little and often (or sometimes just little) rather than 3 square meals a day.

Another distressing side effect has been sudden, sometimes lengthy, nosebleeds. That has been quite upsetting for me and for my husband.  

I have found myself to be tired and lethargic. This has been compounded by pains in my joints, severe cramps in all the large muscle masses of my body and also tender muscles. These have required painkillers, easing with hot water bottles and comfort from cushions. I like to keep busy, with work, hobbies, interests and pursuits with family and friends. When I find myself so tired and my energy at a premium, I have just to get used to doing what I can when I can and not set my targets too high. That results in frustration and low mood. It is difficult to cope with this and having to take naps in the afternoon or sleeping longer into the morning. Still, I will just have to get used to my current limitations while my treatment is ongoing.

Late into my three week cycle two other side effects came to light.

The first of these was the dreaded hair thinning and subsequently hair loss. I had really not thought this would upset me too much as I have had thin hair due to an under-active thyroid. However, I did find it distressing and took up the offer of a wig financed through the NHS and am grateful for it.  It looks very realistic and is comfortable to wear.  I went to a local hairdresser and wig provider, Amanda who operates from Francis Hair and Beauty Salon at 29-31 Bridge Street, Galston, Ayrshire, Scotland.    I was very nervous and found the visits quite stressful. However, I need not have done. The staff were all so very kind and helpful and Amanda is knowledgeable. There were wigs to choose from in stock. She did, however, advise that she order up another couple of wigs so that I had an even larger choice to select from. as my hair loss was not so serious at this point, I took her advice to wait and make a full choice.

The second of the later side-effects was the development of a nasty chemical burn on my left hand. This, combined with the bad bruising caused by the use of a cannula to administer the chemotherapy, has resulted in a very sore and multi-coloured left hand.  The installation of a hickman line for future chemotherapies has been advised. Doubtless this will come.   I am not looking forward to yet another operation, but must be advised by the oncologist.

There is no doubt that many of the troublesome side effects do not become obvious for two or three days after the chemo has been administered and they do lessen towards the end of the three week cycle. Just about the time for the whole thing to start all over again!

Valerie Penny

The Longest Day of Chemotherapy

It was Tuesday, 5th June, Jubilee Day. Most of the UK was celebrating the 60 years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II with an extra public holiday.   I marked the day with my first day of chemotherapy.   It was certainly memorable!

I met with the oncologist at 9.30 am.   She told me my blood results and scans from the previous week were satisfactory as a result of this,  I could go ahead with chemotherapy today as planned. This was both a relief and a challenge.  A relief because, due to my depression, I am not good at dealing with changes in plan.  A challenge, of course, because this meant, again,  it was made real to me that I had breast cancer a condition that required lengthy and invasive treatment.  Reality struck again.

Fortunately my husband was with me.  His very presence keeps me calm.  It was during this appointment that my breast cancer nurse, Angela Wallace, began to explain some of the side effects of the chemotherapy that I might expect. These were difficult to hear. The cancer had been caught so early that I had not recognised any symptoms of the disease in myself.  I felt quite resentful to hear of the side effects I might suffer from the cure.

She explained to me that I would be entitled to a wig, in case I suffered from hair loss.  She also told me that the hair loss would be likely to be from all over my body and that I could expect, among other things, to suffer from a dripping nose. It all sounded distressing and disgusting.

I told Angela that I did not think I would bother with a wig.  I thought it would be too hot during the summer. However, she explained to me that it can sometimes be easier for other people if I wear a wig, especially my mother and my children.   She also drew to my attention that my treatment would last well into October and therefore it would be the end of the year, a much colder time of year, before my hair would begin to grow back.  This was another reality check.

Chemotherapy is a treatment which uses anti-cancer drugs to destroy cancer cells. The drugs work by attacking the cancer cells and disrupting their growth. Unfortunately, they can also affect the normal cells in the body, including the cells of the hair follicles. This causes hair loss, also known as alopecia. Unlike cancer cells, however, the normal cells quickly recover, so if you lose your hair due to chemotherapy it will almost always grow back when your treatment is over.  Before you start chemotherapy, your doctor or chemotherapy nurse will discuss the possibility of hair loss and other side effects with you.

Not all chemotherapy drugs make your hair fall out, and sometimes the loss is so small it is hardly noticeable. However, some people will have temporary, partial or complete baldness.  Some chemotherapy drugs make other body hair fall out, such as eyebrows, eyelashes, nasal hair, beard, moustache, chest, underarm, leg and pubic hair. The amount of hair that falls out depends on the drug or combination of drugs used, the doses given and the way that your body reacts to the drug.

If your hair is going to fall out, it usually starts within two to three weeks of starting chemotherapy, although very occasionally it can start within a few days. The first thing you may notice is that your hair starts to come out more when you brush, comb or wash it. You may also find hair on your pillow in the morning.

Hair may just thin and become dry, fragile and break easily. For other people their hair may carry on falling out over a few weeks so that they become completely bald. Sometimes the hair comes out very quickly over 1-2 days, which can be very upsetting. Some people find that their scalp feels tender.

It was all so much to take in.

Angela explained to me about a method of trying to prevent or reduce hair loss. By cooling the scalp.  It is sometimes possible to reduce the amount of chemotherapy drugs that reach the hair follicles on your scalp. This reduces, and in some cases prevents, the hair from falling out. It is done by using a ‘cold cap’ or a machine that cools the scalp.  I decided to try that.  I was to go to the ward for my chemotherapy by 11am, so my husband and I had time for coffee in the hospital canteen before we went up, but life is never that simple! It is Jubilee Day. The canteen was closed for the public holiday – so we settled for coffee from a machine. Yugh!

  When we went to the ward, I was reminded of all my friend, Margaret Boe, had told me. She had been given the all clear after her breast cancer last October. She said that the ward was a surprisingly happy place. She told me every body, staff and patients alike were very friendly. She said everybody was happy there, but her husband, Billy, said he had not been happy and he found the whole experience of being present at Margaret’s treatment terribly difficult no matter how pleasant the surroundings were. In any event, I was glad to have my husband’s company and support. While this was a long day for me, at least I was the centre of attention. It was an even longer day for him. I was nervous and anxious. It was so important to me to have him there.

I was shown into the treatment room. There were 12 treatment chairs and I was shown to one that accommodated the use of a cool cap too. In the corner of the room a TV high up on the wall ran the Jubilee Day celebrations all day. In our neck of the woods the weather was beautiful but we watched the Royal Family enduring the downpour in London, England for  hours as they stood waving to the crowd. While I sat on the chair waiting for my treatment to start I was anxious. I was pleased to be starting my treatment, anxious about what it held for me and even more pleased that I was not in London getting drenched watching the Flotilla on the River Thames.   

The first struggle for the nursing staff was to get a cannula fitted into a vein in my left hand. That proved to be more of a struggle than expected so the staff began talking about getting a Hickman Line inserted into my chest.  This was to make taking blood and inserting chemotherapy easier in the future.  I was put more at ease when a woman came round and offered us all a cup of tea or coffee and a biscuit. Even the visitors got offered one. My husband was pleased!

In the meantime my treatment today began with a saline solution being inserted into my vein before two different antihistamines were added to the cocktail.  Antihistamines are a type of medicine often used to treat a number of allergic health conditions. Antihistamines work by blocking the effects of a protein called histamine.

Histamine is a protein that the immune system uses to help protect the body’s cells against infection. The immune system is the body’s natural defence against illness and infection.  If the immune system detects a harmful foreign object, such as bacteria or a virus, it will release histamine into nearby cells. The histamine causes small blood vessels to expand and the surrounding skin to swell. This is known as inflammation.  

The expansion of the blood vessels allows an increased number of infection-fighting white blood cells to be sent to the site of the infection. The swelling of the surrounding skin also makes it harder for an infection to spread to other parts of the body.

Histamine is usually a useful protein, but if you’re having an allergic reaction it’s sometimes necessary to block its effects. Allergic reactions occur when your immune system mistakes a harmless substance, such as pollen, as a threat.  The release of histamine causes the process of inflammation to begin and leads to nearby tissue becoming red and swollen. It can also affect the nerves in the skin, making the skin feel itchy.

I had been in the cancer treatment ward for over 2 hours and the chemotherapy itself had not started.  The next excitement was that the woman who had come round with the tea earlier came back. This time with bowls of soup and a choice of sandwiches for all the patients and the visitors. By this point she was my favourite member of staff!

Another nurse set me up for more saline drip: another half hour passed. It was only then the chemotherapy began and I got hooked up for my course of herceptin. The time lapse was this was to be another hour and a half. My husband took an opportunity to go for a walk and buy a magazine and a paper at the hospital shop. This opened in the afternoon notwithstanding the public holiday. He needed to stretch his legs and move around a bit. I really didn’t blame him for that.  By now it was almost 2pm and we had left the house more than 5 hours previously, it was clear it was going to be a long day: a very long day.

While the herceptin dripped into my vein I sat and flicked through another magazine left by someone in the ward. Herceptin is a cancer medication.   It interferes with the growth of cancer cells and slows their growth and spread in your body.  Herceptin is used to treat breast cancer that has progressed after treatment with other chemotherapy.

I was glad when my husband got back. I know the day was boring for him, but I was happy to have his company and support. I am not sure I ever told him that. I just expected him to know. When he did come back I did the puzzles in the magazine. It was something new to look at and think about apart from the unceasing coverage of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh endlessly waving to the crowds in the rain.  

The afternoon rumbled on and my favourite staff member came round again, this time with another cup of tea or coffee for the patients and family members with them. This woman secured her place in my heart!

After the dose of herceptin had completed, I was given another dose of saline and then the cool cap was switched on so that it would be ready for me to wear by the time I was ready for my dose of docetaxyl. Time continued to pass.  My favourite nurse was the person who put the cool cap on for me. It had to go on a full half hour before I started taking the docetaxyl at 4.50pm.

My husband was getting bored again. Who can blame him for that? He left the ward to go down to the car park. It was emptying fast as staff came to the end of their day and clinics ended, yet evening visiting had not yet started in the wards. He took the chance to move our car closer to the hospital so that I would not have so far to walk when we, eventually were able to make our way home. That time still seemed so far away to me.

Almost all the chairs in the ward had been used during the day. Now there was only one other patient, no great surprise really, most of the staff in the ward finished their shift at 5pm. This really was a marathon session.

The other patient in the room was a woman who was further into her treatment than me. Her daughter and two grandchildren were with her. The grand daughter was asking about the cool cap I was wearing. It did look a bit like a cycle cap and felt a bit like it does when you are standing in New York City, New York, USA in January waiting for a taxi. The only difference is there is no wind in the cool cap!

It was quite re-assuring to notice how accepting the family were of the woman’s hair loss and treatment. I am not looking forward to the prospect of losing my hair. My hair has been thin for some years due to an under-active thyroid, but the thought of losing it all together makes me very self-conscious.

So another hour passed while I sat with the docetaxyl dripping into me. By 6pm even the woman with the grandchildren had left and my husband and I were alone in the ward waiting for a nurse to come and unhook my drip. Even then the day was not over. When, eventually, the last nurse on duty in the ward came back in she told us the cool cap needed to stay on for another 20 minutes.  The nurse’s shift ended and she left. My husband and I were alone in the ward. He had been given instructions by the nurse as to how to turn off the cool cap and remove it from my head. It felt strange to be leaving from a completely empty ward.

My goodness I was tired by the end of all that. Not just because it had been such a long day, but also because everything was new and strange and stressful. The shops were shut when we were driving home by the time we got there we had been away from the house for over 11 hours. It was as long a day and as stressful day as I could remember. We were both too tired to cook, so we decided to pick up a meal from our local Chinese takeaway restaurant. This was a welcome end to the longest day.

Valerie Penny

Surviving Breast Cancer: More Reading, Listening and Sharing

Breast cancer re-aligns your priorities. The importance of family, friends and time to be with them and do things you enjoy become paramount.

I was glad of the opportunity to re-read Bill Bryson’s “Made in America” The book is reviewed here: https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/made-in-america-by-bill-bryson/. The text is an entertaining compendium of possible and less possible word origins. Does “okay” come from Martin Van Buren’s nickname, Old Kinderhook? Or from the fact that Andrew Jackson was reported to write “oll korrect”? Or is it from the Greek ollakalla(all good)? Bryson offers a cogent discussion of sexism in the language, and there’s a lot of orthography, etymology, and toponymy. But this isn’t just a book about language. It’s also a bestiary of American pop culture, many of whose stereotypes Bryson debunks (a back-formation from Buncombe County, N.C., of course): Ellis Island, in its original splendor, wasn’t half bad; the Puritans enjoyed a good time just like the rest of us; and Ray Kroc hadn’t the inventiveness of the Brothers MacDonald, after all. Bryson tells us a lot we surely never thought about. There’s the cost of sending a letter by Postal Express and the reason for the bump on the fuselage of the Boeing 747. “Debugging” of computers began, we are told, on the day 50 years ago when a moth entered a Navy computer. There are, however, some facts that aren’t facts. Bryson places the Polish-born British writer Joseph Conrad among the group of Americans whose names were changed from awkward foreignness. And, surprisingly for a lexicographer, he indulges in the popular confusion of the 18th-century “long s” and the modern “f.” This offering won’t replace the popular works by Flexner, much less the majestic Mencken, but the style is engaging and the narrative diverting. An index is appended, but there is no useful list of words and phrases.

If, as Winston Churchill has it, England and America are two countries divided by a common language, here’s some disarming help sent by a Yank from the other side of the pond.

Gerry McGrath’s first collection of poetry is published in his book “A to B”. It is reviewed here: https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/from-a-to-b-by-gerry-mcgrath/. He read from this when he came to visit a meeting of wkwriters. 

As well as being a highly visually stimulating poet, Gerry McGrath is also a poet concerned with humanity, with nature, with love and loss and how the prosaic and the poetic interact in day to day life.  The use of unconventional metaphors and similes gave many pleasant surprises as I saw things expressed in a way in which made perfect and beautiful sense however strange. Gerry McGrath describes ‘Untamed Lightning, Knees like Emaciated skulls, the sky…clean-shaven, Drowsy sail-cloth of your skin, Gossamer rain, Zany Butterflies, Pastry Roofs and Nicotine Grass.’ These are just a few examples of the arresting imagery which runs through this poetry collection. Some of the poems are as delicate as the ‘gossamer rain’ described by McGrath in the poem Sycamores. His poem Elegy appears in full here: https://survivingbreastcancernow.wordpress.com/2012/07/01/time-to-recover-watching-reading-listening-sharing/

I liked the later poems in this collection more than the earlier ones, although I do not know whether this was because they carried more depth of feeling or because by the time I reached them (I was more accustomed to and in tune with the poet’s tone of voice. The poems Secrets and Gift, which explore the art of writing poetry, struck me as particularly interesting as the creative process is highly individual to all writers and it is always interesting to be given a glimpse at how a poet writes. In Secrets he refers to a poet beginning with nothing and holding it ‘until it bleeds a secret’ a metaphor I found at once eerie and beautiful. In the poem Gift he refers to the way in which poets have the gift to observe ‘tiny immensities’, a gift which Gerry McGrath certainly has.

I think that ‘Tiny Immensities’ is such a beautiful and truthful phrase that it would make a good name for this collection of poetry, better than the current title A to B, which I found slightly off-putting. I understand that the collection was called A to B as it represents a journey, yet I feel that this title does not do the work as a whole any justice. The poem A to B from which I guess the title was taken, is my least favourite poem in the entire collection. In the poem McGrath tells us about butterflies, red-backed beetles and a dead marten but ends with ‘But let me tell you about the butterflies.’ While I realise that this premature ending was intentional I didn’t like it and felt let down that the poem did not go on to tell us about the butterflies as it seemingly promised to do. It only occurred to me later that this might refer to the other poems in the collection, some of which are as vulnerable and glorious as butterflies.

Some of the poems, particularly in the latter third of the book, were not so much poems, but snapshots of incidents, told in prose as precise as poetry. This was most apparent in the poems Busy, Currency, A Milky Sunlight, Two Friends, Mint Tea, Blue Light and Basics. I liked these almost poems best of all for the simplicity and honesty with which they were laid out and the way in which they all told an entire story in a snap shot. The scarcity of the language meant that by using fewer words McGrath was actually able to say more by imbuing his words with a deeper sense of meaning. The poem busy portrays someone cutting the poets hair while hearing about her Grandmother’s worsening condition. The combination of the prosaic ‘hair-clippings went flying out’ with the tragic ‘age, infirmity, depression, were all getting the better of her, pulling her down’ creates a beautiful sense of pathos, which runs on through the poems in this collection.

Every day is precious. Sometimes, in this blog, I may sound ungrateful. I am not. I know how lucky I am that my disease was found and treated early. I just do not like some of the results of my treatment. Still, it has made me slow down and given me time to spend time with those I love. Reading new books and some old favourites, sharing these with my family and friends and listening to all their views.

Valerie Penny

A Pleasant Interlude Before Chemotherapy for Breast Cancer

There is a time of year, it is usually around the second half of May when school children and students are studying for exams. They spend hours and days inside and in the libraries, so what happens? The sun comes out!  

This year was no different. During that sunny weather at the end of May, before the chemotherapy for my breast cancer began. My husband and I arranged for my mother to visit with us for a few days holiday, before I suffered hairloss and other side effects of the treatment. A mother should not have to witness that, if it can be avoided. During that week I did have to meet with my psychologist for my usual two-weekly therapy session.

I was able to air my feeling of resentment that I have never smoked, do not drink excessively and do take exercise. Nevertheless, cancer was the card I had drawn.  One day was interrupted when I had to go back to the hospital, this time for an initial set of blood readings to be taken before my chemotherapy sessions start. The hospital even did a pregnancy test! As if my long suffering husband did not have enough to worry about! I also had to go to the hospital for a cancer clinic visit with the oncologist and collect medications that I would need to take before chemotherapy began at the beginning of June.

We went to lunch with Mum and she had time to visit her friend who lives in the South of the county. Sometimes it was warm enough, just to sit in the sunshine in the garden and relax.

I was glad my mother was able to visit before the chemotherapy started and to see me still looking and acting like me. I had felt able to do plenty of home cooking and baking so we were able to ensure that many of her favourite recipes were served during her stay.  My mother had been treated for bowel cancer about four years ago and is presently cancer free.

She dealt with her ailments with dignity and an uncomplaining grace, even when the hospital infected her wound with MRSA. MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.  Staphylococcus aureus is a species of bacterium commonly found on the skin and/or in the noses of healthy people. Although it is usually harmless at these sites, it may occasionally get into the body (eg through breaks in the skin such as abrasions, cuts, wounds, surgical incisions or indwelling catheters) and cause infections.

Patients may be colonised with MRSA when they leave hospital, and there has long been concern that MRSA might spread from hospitals into the community.  It was certainly true with my mother. Her condition was complicated by the fact she is allergic to penicillin.

I try to emulate her dignity and calm, but fall far short of the mark, I fear.  During my Mother’s visit the wkwriters had a visit from Gerry McGrath who read some of his poetry to us and focused on Blank Verse. One of Gerry’s anthologies of poetry is reviewed at https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/from-a-to-b-by-gerry-mcgrath/ My mother was able to join us for that meeting. I also re-read Made in America by Bill Bryson which I have reviewed at https://bookreviewstoday.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/made-in-america-by-bill-bryson/. The visit was a pleasant interlude and allowed me to divert my thoughts from cancer.

Valerie Penny

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