A journey of cancer treatment through Covid19

Submitted by Kate
Nurse

‘Covid19’: Not the best time to get cancer.

Not only are the struggles physical and emotional; but added ‘Covid’ restrictions reducing contact, support and challenging health care systems have wholly changed the way health care is given and received. This change is ongoing and constantly altering, in itself, adding to the problem.

My diagnosis of breast cancer in 2020 came with all those challenges and I aim to reach out to those of you who may have or think you may have a lump; or are starting treatment for breast cancer.

I want to try to ease your minds a little and give you an idea of what to expect from the perspective of someone who has gone through treatment and has come out the other side, still fighting and very glad to be alive.

Firstly, however scary it is when you find a lump, putting off going to the doctor delays the fantastic treatment that is available, which can halt or delay disease spread. Ultimately, the sooner it is tackled, the more time you have with your loved ones; so, the importance of seeing a health professional as soon as possible cannot be understated.

These ‘Covid times’ we live in can be both frustrating and frightening. It has brought about a huge change in how the health service is run and how appointment and treatments are given.

It is daunting enough to go to the hospital as a cancer patient, let alone with all the ‘Covid’ restrictions and extra tests that are put in place for our safety.

It is, however as safe as it can be, as the breast clinic and outlying departments follow strict policies and protocols to protect staff and patients alike; which is helped by us all playing our part.

‘Covid’ tests prior to every chemotherapy treatment may be tedious and undergoing appointments and treatments alone more daunting; but getting to the end of treatment without infection is a goal that makes it all more palatable.

In fact, I’m sure having social distancing for all has kept me safer and free from other potential infections during chemotherapy treatment than perhaps I would have experienced without those restrictions.

However, I have not kept myself indoors or away from my friends, as, during the whole process, I aimed to keep as fit as possible; including doing home workouts every day prior to surgery, when I absolutely couldn’t leave the house (two weeks isolation was in force prior to any surgery) I had a mastectomy and ‘axillary clearance’; all the lymph nodes from the armpit removed.

I am convinced this helped me with my recovery and after the two weeks isolation post-op, I went walking in the (very!) fresh air with one friend at a time, mixing exercise and good conversation.

I have carried on walking every day or doing exercise at home when the weather has been too bad with the theory that keeping up the exercise, however much I can do on the day, means I will have less of a hill to climb at the end and before going back to work. Also, it is so important for our mental wellbeing to be able to still see friends, even one at a time, especially when friends can’t just pop in for a cuppa.

I remember how daunting my first chemotherapy session was; I had read all the information given to me and all the side effects loomed menacingly, even though I knew that I was unlikely to experience all of them; they had to be mentioned even so; and had been fully disclosed by the Oncologist.

The first dose of each treatment, were scary because I had no idea how they would affect me personally and for how long. Once that first round of each type was over, I could deal with the side effects I experienced because I had more idea what I would expect and also that they would not last for ever and I would be better the following week.

This spurred me on with the added thought that if it is just 16 weeks of this in a trade to live longer, then I will get through it. Positive mental attitude is definitely the way forward with this disease.

I got used to having a ‘Covid’ test and blood test before treatment. The only thing I would have changed on hindsight is to have a PICC line inserted at the start of all the chemo. I had in mind a portacath, but for me that was not possible, so I had cannulas for the first three treatments and consequently some veins in my arm are hard and unusable; so consequent blood tests/ cannulas are really difficult to put in.

I changed my mind and had a PICC line inserted and I highly recommend it.

The hair loss after the 2nd treatment (it was coming out in tufts; I had it shaved off) was offset by the fantastic wig I got (virtually paid for by the NHS) from an excellent shop in Rowlands Road, Worthing.

The staff were so helpful and absolutely knew what style would suit me. After tentatively wearing it out on my walks, I got used to the fact that no-one paid any attention as it looked just like my real hair. This gave me much more confidence.

Having finally got through eight chemo treatments, the next ‘chunk’ as I liked to think of it was radiotherapy.

A ‘planning CT’ and chat with a radiographer at Brighton Cancer Unit allowed them to measure and plan my treatment to the last millimetre. After three little ‘tattoos’; no more than a cat scratch, and lots of pen-marks later, the appointment was finished.

A home test set for Covid 19 was sent with instructions of what to do (making the box up was far trickier than any of the actual test!) and then came the actual treatment. This took no more than 20 minutes in all and most of that was for precise positioning. It was not at all scary and did not hurt at all.

I had been warned of overwhelming tiredness, maybe redness or blistering to the skin, but I was very lucky and initially only experienced the tiredness (although, I found it mainly kicked in when I finally sat down!).

However, a few weeks later and there was some redness and a small blister and a bra was not so comfortable by the end of the day. The point of which being that although initially nothing may show, there is a delay in effects coming out, so continued care of skin and checking of the area is essential.

[Following Chemo and radiotherapy, drug therapy was offered to me; although this is down to individual circumstances and an Oncologist suggests what the best therapy is for you for ongoing protection.]

So, this whole chapter has taken three quarters of a year and throughout the whole experience, my colleagues at the Breast Centre and the Brighton Cancer Centre were all kind, supportive, caring, professional at all times and knowledgeable; giving time for any questions to be answered, but also not rushing; letting the diagnosis sink in and allowing consideration for major decisions that needed to be faced.

This consequently sometimes meant there was a considerable delay for appointments; but, given the fact that as much time was given as needed to each patient, this delay is absolutely acceptable and at both centres, delay times were always prominently displayed.

I hope this small insight helps to put your mind at ease and to positively tackle this challenge in your life.

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