…or Chemo to it’s friends

If you have invasive breast cancer and there is any chance it may have spread into your lymphatic system, you’ll most likely end up having to have chemotherapy for about 6 months.  Being the bright young thing that you are, they need to hit the cancer hard as its usually more aggressive and you also have the rest of your life to spend keeping this bugger at bay.

For most of us the mention of chemo instantly conjours up pictures of bald, extremely sick, emaciated patients and that was indeed often true of treatment in the past – but the chemo of today is a different thing altogether.  Yes you’ll probably end up bald most places, get funny nails and sometimes a sore mouth or vagina as the chemo kills rapidly dividing cells (hair, fingernails, mucosal membranes and most importantly…cancer).  But modern anti-nausea and cytotoxic (cell killing) drugs mean that the chemo out-patient suite is usually full of pretty perky, bright and smiling people considering their circumstances.

Treatment regimes vary depending upon your Oncologist and location but the current ‘young things cocktail’ is usually a period of treatment with Adramyacin/Cyclophosphamide 2 or 3 weekly for 3 or 4 sessions and then treatment with a taxane like Paclitaxel (Taxol) weekly or 3 weekly for anything up to 16 weeks in total.

For your treatment you’ll probably visit a day ward or outpatient chemo ‘suite’ where you’ll be escorted to a chair or, fingers crossed, a lazy boy and warmed up ready to be hooked up to an intravenous (IV) line for the drugs and saline to enter.

For the needle-phobic chemo can be a nightmare experience and even for those less bothered, the constant round of blood tests, chemo needles and even more blood tests can leaving you feeling less than ecstatic to see anyone wielding yet another sharp instrument in your general direction.  In extreme cases or when veins are particularly hard to locate or even see – ‘a porta-cath’ (portable catheter) can be inserted into a vein under general anaesthetic to provide direct access to your bloodstream.

Once in the chair and all hooked up, that’s exactly where you’ll remain for about the next 3 hours (apart from wheeling your bag of drugs to the loo if you need to go).  The drugs will either be syringed, gravity fed or pumped into your IV, along with any steroids (warning – these can give you a prickling sensation in the nether regions) and saline.  Don’t be alarmed if your first wee takes on the colour of the red drugs (namely Doxyrubicin) and your brain turns to mush as soon as the chemicals hit your bloodstream – its all par for the course.

Drink as much water as possible and take all the saline they’re offering as the more hydrated you are the quicker the residual drugs and toxins will get flushed out of your body and the better you’ll feel.  Treatment can leave you feeling woozy afterwards so if this is the case its best to get someone to drive you home or come pick you up.

Chemo is usually given after surgery and before radiation but when the tumour is too large to operate or there is swelling as in the rare cases of Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) it may come before surgery and radiation in order to shrink the cancer.