Believe it or not, the very first chemotherapy drug came from mustard gas used in world-war II. The US army employed two pharmacologists to find some use for a surplus of mustard gas after the Geneva Protocol banned its use. When its chemical formula was changed to make it nitrogen mustard, it was found to have an effect on cancer cells. Around the same time, some 1000 naval soldiers were exposed to mustard gas bombs in Italy. Their autopsies showed that lymphoid suppression had occurred and that somatic cells which usually divide quickly had ceased dividing. This evidence prompted further research using it as a treatment for lymphoma, seeing as it had an effect on lymphoid cells. It proved to be very effective in mice and later in humans. The very first human experiment was on a patient with non-hodgkins lymphoma and showed significant reduction in the patients’ tumour masses. Clinical trials were published and reported in the New York Times and cancer treatment by chemotherapy was born.
What is chemotherapy? It’s a word that everyone knows but we don’t know much about it. I thought I knew what it was until I started looking into it. I thought it was a dangerous, toxic drug that kills cancer cells as well as killing healthy cells. I was right, it is. It’s so much more though… There are over 200 types of chemotherapy drugs. And they are all cytotoxic. Cytotoxic means toxic to living cells. Examples of cytotoxins are snake venom and poisonous chemicals. So yes, chemotherapy is poison contrary to what the ice queen would have you believe. I received my medical records along with each letter she had written about me. In one such letter, she states that Mairead thinks chemotherapy is poison. It is poison, you should know seeing as you’re front line in using it in our national hospital. I still harbour resentment to her clearly!
So what is my opinion of chemotherapy? I’ve had a love/hate relationship with it the more I learned. Mostly I hate it, I won’t lie. It makes me feel really, really sick and does horrible things to my body. But surprisingly, I love it too. I love it because it has the power to kill some types of cancer cells rapidly. That’s the one redeeming quality. And actually, come to think of it, I don’t completely hate the chemotherapy itself. I hate the way it’s being used. It’s the pushy nature of doctors and the over use of it. It’s misused, overused, abused. I have heard of it being used as a preventative measure, being used in pregnant women close to their due date and being used in very old people. If I was in my late 80’s or 90’s, I think I’d take my chances and let the cancer kill me eventually instead of dying slowly in a sick bed. It is a cruel process and not something elderly people should have to go through.
When I originally wrote this post, I thought using it in stage 4 cancer patients was irresponsible. That is what I knew at the time. I had been offered palliative chemotherapy – for as long as my body could take it and it would eventually kill me in a few years’ time. You all know I didn’t accept this possibility and tried so hard for 10 months to go my own way and try to heal naturally. I had some successes and even though it spread further in the long run, I most definitely slowed its progress down. What I have come to realise, is that stage 4 cancer is a beast which needs taming and chemotherapy is the man to do that. But what I’ve also realised, based on my treatments abroad in an integrative clinic, is that palliative chemotherapy is not the answer if you want to overcome the illness and survive for any length of time after. The use of chemotherapy in my opinion, needs to be completely reassessed. The dosages, how it’s delivered, complementary therapies to increase its effectiveness. A whole body detox program after to make sure there’s no residue left to do further damage. Real, thought out nutritional support to help the body heal from the effects. Strategies like these can prevent further illness or complications down the line. A recent article in Clinical Oncology news, showed that the leading cause of death of women who have recovered from breast cancer, was heart failure. Its killing women in their 40’s and 50’s after they have won the dice with death! How tragic and easily preventable.
So what does it do in your body?
A quick look on the HSE website will give you all the information you need to see what a chemotherapy protocol looks like. I am just including a small bit of information below as I don’t want this post to be miles long but I have chosen to look at the triple negative protocol. (Carboplatin is part of my current treatment protocol.) Here it is:
Carboplatin is administered on day 1 and paclitaxel is administered on day 1, 8 and 15 of a 21 day cycle for 4 cycles or until disease progression or unacceptable toxicity develops.
This is then followed by 4 cycles of doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide administered once every 14 days for four cycles (one cycle = 14days) G-CSF support (using standard or pegylated form) is required with all cycles of DOXOrubicin cyclophosphamide.
Facilities to treat anaphylaxis MUST be present when the chemotherapy is administered.
This section on the HSE website was very scientifically worded and you’d need to be a doctor to decipher it but I have tried to figure some of it out using medical dictionaries. Here are the meanings of some of the side effects. The list is not exhaustive, there are many more but in the interest of keeping this blog post relatively short…
Neutropenia: a drop in white blood cell count to dangerously low levels which would allow for infection.
Hypersensitivity: undesirable reactions produced by the normal immune system. Covers all sorts of reactions from skin irritation to inflammation to organ damage and failure. Can cause anything from a minor inconvenience to death.
Neurotoxicity: A neurotoxin is a toxin that is poisonous to the brain and nervous system. Neurotoxicity refers to the sometimes, lethal damage to the brain and nervous system from exposure to toxins.
Ototoxicity: Ear poisoning, literally. Damage to the inner ear from toxic chemicals. Can result in balance issues or loss of hearing, sometimes permanent.
Peripheral neuropathy: damage to the peripheral nervous system, usually results in numbness in hands and feet.
Alopecia: Hair loss
Arthralgia/Myalgia: Joint and muscle inflammation and pain.
Extravesation: The leakage of the anti cancer drug from the blood vessel into the surrounding tissue. (This has happened in my arm and may compromise the veins used, rendering them obsolete)
Hepatic Dysfunction: Liver failure.
Cardiac Conduction Abnormalities: Disruption to heartbeat electrical signals.
Cardiac Toxiticy: The heart overloaded with toxins.
SIADH – Syndrome of Inappropriate Secretion of Antidiuretic Hormone: This syndrome causes dizziness, agitation, confusion, weakness.
The side effects are quite scary. If you have any underlying conditions, they could be triggered. A reason perhaps why people die due to complications from receiving chemotherapy.
So what’s my take on it all now that I’ve actually experienced it? It’s horrible but necessary in my case. My cancer had spread too far and was becoming problematic in my bones and I needed to take some drastic action. I absolutely don’t regret it. I wish I could have healed my body naturally but it wasn’t to be. I am glad with my choice I have made in regards to the clinic and treatment options and seeing such quick and very noticeable results, has well, cemented the fact that we made the right decision. Of course, I’m not finished with treatment and have yet to see the final result but I am sure this was the right thing to do and I feel very confident in the medical team and very looked after. They showed me my scans on the computer, something I was never allowed to see in Ireland even after I requested my medical records. They zoomed in on bits and pieces and were very honest about what we could see and honest about what we could expect to see after a few months of treamtment. And as it stands, the progress I am making is excellent and better than they expected.
This is all great, but I hate the thoughts of looking sick. It’s happening already. I’m gone very skinny and my hair has started to fall out. Even though I’ve had cancer for almost a year and everyone has known for that long, I have never looked sick and nobody has ever commented that I looked anything other than really well. I’ve never felt sick either. Cancer doesn’t make you feel or look sick, chemotherapy does. It makes people look and feel fucking awful. And I dread that happening to me. But it is happening and I have to let it. I know, I know it’s only temporary, think of the bigger picture, blah, blah, blah! I’ve been bleating that tune all along. It’s only for a while, it’ll all be behind me in a few months’ time… and it will. But I still hate the thoughts of looking sick.
I’ve been feeling sick since the first day I got chemotherapy just over two weeks ago. It hit my body hard. I didn’t expect such a bang, I thought it might be more gradual than this. I barely ate for the 12 days I was in Istanbul. Paul joked that I was leaving a trail of food behind me everywhere I went and he wasn’t wrong. I would be so nauseous almost all day, every day. I had some anti sickness injections a few times and they did prevent me from actually getting sick but I was completely off my food. I had no appetite and nothing tasted nice. Even the smell of food would make me want to hurl. Needless to say, every time I stepped out of the apartment and later a hotel we moved to, I was greeted by car fumes (very busy city for cars) and people smoking on the street. Everyone seems to smoke in Istanbul. The walk from the hotel to the clinic was a challenge every day due to the smells I would encounter on the way. And every restaurant in the area blasts out their kitchens hot air from vents on the side of the building or they waft up from the manholes on the street. I had never been so aware of so many smells before, and every single one of these made me sick. I couldn’t wait to return to Ireland to catch my breath and be able to breathe some fresh air again. I’ve never been so thankful for our green isle which nourishes us with such clean, pure air.
So now I’ve had an experience of chemotherapy, have I changed my views on how horrible it is now? Definitely not. It is so toxic and awful. It really is horrible stuff. It stings going into the vein from the IV. It may already have rendered at least one vein in my arm useless and according to my GP, it will continue to do that. Hold on to this one, he pointed to my best vein. Better not let the nurses in the clinic take that one! But it is really, really helping me, along with all of the other non-toxic, immune boosting treatments I am receiving in the clinic. I have had wonderful results already, in only 2 weeks. My breast has gone from being completely deformed looking (I’ll spare you the pictures, for now!) to coming back to resembling a normal sized healthy breast. I have a way to go but before I left for Istanbul, I was using 4 large dressings to cover it and it was weeping through them nightly. Now, there is no weeping and I’m only using 2 large dressings. I could probably get away with only using one but just to be safe from infection, I’ll stick with the two. There is new skin forming and healing over the wound which is not open anymore. At this rate of progress, I might be done with dressing’s altogether soon! It is such a huge relief.
Now to navigate this nauseous feeling and try not to drop too much weight… if I can manage that, maybe I won’t look or feel so sick.
Next time: hair loss, wig shopping and the amazing fundraising efforts being made on my behalf.
If you would like to donate towards the costs of my medical treatment, I would be very grateful. Here is the fundraising page which has exceeded half of the target already!