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  • Writer's pictureAustin Birks

The Dark Side Of Chemotherapy

Over the course of my 4 years and 6 months of living with cancer, a lot of kind people have said to me: “So, if you don't mind me asking, what is it actually like having chemotherapy? Does it hurt? Do you feel very tired? Does it ache ? Do you bleed?"

Well, the truth is as follows: yes, sometimes it hurts. I do not generally feel very tired. Does it ache - generally no, and do I bleed - yes, quite a lot more than I realise, although I am an easy bleeder. I don't mean that in a Cockney-sparrow, kind of classic Michael Caine/Bob Hoskins London gangster kind of way. No, what I mean is that over the course of my 83 chemo sessions, my skin is like tissue paper so any bumps, etc. result in cuts and bruises that look to the outside world far worse than the pain incurred.

So I thought that it might be useful to paint a quick thumbnail sketch of the side effects that I have personally experienced. On reflection there are actually a lot more than I realised. For the purpose of geography, I will start at the top and work my way down, so the head.

Before cancer, I had really thick, curly hair. It used to stand tall and proud. Indeed, not unlike a top hat a la Abraham Lincoln. Oh yes, at its prime I could be almost 6 inches taller. Sadly, not anymore; my hair these days resembles one of those wiry dog hair brushes available from Pets At Home (other pet retailers are also available). Long gone are the days of let me run my fingers through your flowing locks, more likely to advise wearing gloves before touching my thorny barnet. In addition, as an added bonus, my scalp has developed a thick hard crust, not unlike the surface of the moon, which I feel constantly compelled to scratch and pluck (question to self: could that be a new form of aerobics?). It is s constant source of stress as you unconsciously find yourself picking away at nasty little lumps of hard skin surrounded by hairs, for some reason it reminded me of an Ant Man version of red Indian scalping that was so popular at the turn of the 18th century, in the good old US of A. In addition, I was recently politely asked by a person who shall remain nameless if I would kindly refrain from dropping my DNA all over their nice newly valeted motor car.

Moving south is the whole face and neck department. To be fair, the main feature of this is my face being constantly covered in spots and blemishes, bit like being a teenager again with acne, which is not what I expected at the age of 62. The thing is, you just get used to it. What is annoying is the fact that my eyebrows are constantly under attack from the scalp-related infestation, this results in nasty spots and rashes lurking in the roots of the folicles (sounds a bit like a Victorian novel).

Clearly, a spotty pensioner is never going to be on the cover of Paris Match or Vogue magazine, but I do find that moisturiser helps ease the discomfort. Another bonus is the constant bleeding that arises after I have had a shower where robust towel drying results in spot busting (I do not know why but Ghost Busters popped into my head: “When you have got a nasty spot on the side of your nose, who you going to call? Spot busters “).

It would be rude of me if I did not pay homage to the joy that is mouth ulcers. Now, these bad boys have a habit of turning en masse. Normally, about 7 to 9 days after the chemo. They are, frankly, a damn irritation, with the ability to land right on the tip of the tongue, so providing maximum annoyance value. My record number is 8 at once, but as ever, liberal amounts of Bonjela does the job (I once asked a chemist if she had any Bon Jovi, not realising she asked me if I meant Bonjela to which I replied yes, but I am living on a prayer).

Next in my biological sojourn is the arms and legs. Here I found myself liberally covered with strange little puss -illed spots that just appear then fade away and then appear again not unlike Hayley’s comet. Again, strong self control is the name of the game, as I try hard not to pop the little blighters. Chest is not too bad, few spots but nothing to write home about.


What is worth commenting on is the daily joy of injecting myself in the stomach to try and manage the two blood clots that have moved in. On is in my left leg and runs from my knee to my thigh, its huge and as it stands at the moment X-rays reveal that it has now solidified, not sure what that means but I will take that any day. The trouble with blood clots is that they have a nasty habit of losing bits that then float off and attach themselves to your heart or lungs resulting in a sudden death. Now it’s best not to dwell to much on this, especially as the second blood clot attached itself onto my port (a port is a small round disc that in implanted under the skin in the chest, the chemo is then plugged into the port a bit like a pin cushion). After my little heart attack in November last year my port was surgically removed in the hope that the blood clot that attached itself to it might begin to disintegrate due to the stomach injections. As it is, I am waiting for the results of a scan to see if the clots are gone, or indeed if there are any others, obviously I'm hoping they have gone as if they did, then I would be allowed to fly but at the moment I'm not allowed due to the risk of deep vein thrombosis (originally I thought it was a German porn film but apparently not).

Next, a special mention in dispatches to my old friend stoma bag. Now, to be fair, it is normally well-behaved but does on occasion let me down with devastating consequences, as I have previously chronicled before on this blog site. Suffice to say when it blows. It knows no boundaries and causes utter devastation in its wake. An explosion of liquid poo unpleasantness that can last for hours and creates mayhem. Noticeable fails have included hotel bedrooms and bathrooms, and a horrific incident in a hired caravan, where it managed to infect several rooms and resulted in an industrial cleaning exercise that would have benefitted Chernobyl after the nuclear reactor took its toys home. Oh yes, I always keep a cautious but healthy respect for that bad mother let me tell you.

Hip hip hurray, they used to say - at the moment I am waiting to hear when I will be having a hip resurface operation for my now completely destroyed left hip, where the combination of 50 years of martial arts, and the combined chemo have destroyed all the soft tissue in my hip, so it's bone on bone. This results some days in walking with a limp, and other days it does not hurt at all, and I still teach Karate and go to the gym although my flexibility is nowhere near what it was. But, I am really hoping that post operation I will get that flexibility back with a passion, box splits here we come.

Legs are not too bad. The main issue is a constant peeling of the skin so wherever I remove my pantaloons a small dandruff-like cloud emerges like a fog and covers everything in its path.

Feet and fingers are arguably the worst affected, as I get constant and deep cuts that appear on the extremities of my fingers and feet. They hurt and bleed a lot and although small are completely out of proportion to the sheer pain and darned inconvenience. As ever, the solution is to apply a medical glue to stick them back together again.

So, there we have it dear chums a gallop through the joy of chemotherapy side effects as ever they are manageable just take the medication, try and avoid making things worse and keep calm and carry on.

Like everything in life, being positive and seeing the funny side of life will get you through anything and everything, my dear reader chum and never forget: never give up, never give in!

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