Archive for October, 2009

How to keep your hair on despite the chemotherapy

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

I was on my way to see my oncologist for my five-year check up this July.  This was a good trip:  chemo over, radiotherapy over, all mammograms clear… brilliant.  I was going to be signed off and get on with the rest of my life (not that I wasn’t already, but somehow that five-year timescale was important to me).

All I could think of was what a wonderful occasion it was, I didn’t even take anyone with me, why would I?

My oncologist, Dr Philip Murray, is quite simply brilliant.  He’s looked after me throughout it all, been straight with me, answered every difficult and daft question I’ve ever put to him but, most importantly, he feels about 50 pairs of boobs a week, and for that I am very grateful!  He felt something in my left breast, it was small, so small that I couldn’t feel it even when he showed me.  Dr Murray thought it was probably nothing, but it must be checked out.  The mammogram was clear, so I was starting to feel better, but when I had the ultra sound scan, even I could see this small  dark  pebble-like shape.  It looked remarkably similar to the previous pebble in my right breast five years ago, but at least I could feel that one.  “Could this be a cyst?”  I asked hopefully.  After the biopsy where a few samples of the tumour were removed for analysis, I was told that it didn’t look like a typical cyst.  I reckon everyone already knew that we were talking cancer here, but needed verification.

The hardest thing I then had to do was to tell my children, who had already been through this before, but were now more cancer aware: they knew that getting cancer again could be terminal.  We all had a good cry, and I remained as upbeat as I could when I explained that getting cancer in the other boob was most likely to be a new primary NOT a secondary, so very curable.  At the time, it was of small comfort.  A week later I was told that the cancer was definitely primary, a grade 3 just like the last one, but three times smaller.  Good, I thought, at least we’ve caught it early.  So, as the summer holiday was already booked, we all went, knowing what I was facing, and all feeling undaunted by it.

On return from holiday I had the operation to remove the tumour and lymph nodes.  What surprised me was that even though the tumour was only one centimetre wide, it had spread to two of my lymph nodes, and evidence of cancer in those nodes was macroscopic.  I’d never heard that word used in this way, but basically it meant a lot of cancer was in those nodes and it was visible to the human eye.  For me the shocking question that kept coming back was:  what if I’d only had a mammogram?  That was clear, so I could have waited another year for my next  routine mammogram, and hopefully the tumour would have shown up, but it would definitely have had another year to spread.  I’d already gone macrosc0pic!  For me the mammogram only goes so far, the combination of this, the ultra sound and an oncologist who absolutely knows what to feel for, would be more accurate, not to mention reassuring.

I’ve started chemotherapy, and I know what to expect, so am not concerned and nor are my children. I’ll have one week of feeling pants, followed by two weeks of feeling fine.  Believe it or not, I’m even running three times a week during those two ‘good’ weeks.  I am doing one thing differently though, I’m trying to see if I can hang on to my hair by using the cold cap.

Five years ago I was offered the cold cap (essentially it’s a method of scalp cooling, which makes the follicles constrict around the hair during chemotherapy), but no one I had spoken to said it worked, so I declined, and I was bald before I had my second chemotherapy session.  I’m having my second chemotherapy session tomorrow, on exactly the same drugs, administered at the same time of year, and I’ve got a full head of hair!  Yes, I am losing a few strands, but certainly not as much as my girls who use hair straighteners virtually daily.  I wear a shower cap or hairnet in the kitchen and we all take it in turns to vacuum the house daily.  (My kids have all eaten my hair in the cooking over the years, and know it won’t kill them, but I can’t stand seeing my hairs anywhere but on my head at the moment.)

In truth, being bald wasn’t all that awful; I had a great wig, your family and friends get used to the new you quite quickly, but it’s the six months or so after treatment, when you’re waiting for the hair to grow back, that’s a pain.  It’s a bit like ‘a watched pot never boils’ your hair just seems so very short, for a very long time.  So I wanted to see if I could avoid that ‘wait’, and emerge from treatment looking like the old me.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress after session two.