Thursday, December 13, 2012

Looking forward, looking back

As the year is nearing to its end, and I've now reached my one-year anniversary of arriving back to Australia after my diagnosis, I'm going to get reflective. I mentioned in a previous post that it's far more important for me to look forward than back, but now as a really difficult year draws to an end and I can look at it with a bit more perspective. Additionally, one thing I have never actually got around to documenting on my blog in detail was my last week in London and my journey home (and besides, the world's going to end soon, and I still have many more blog posts to publish). 

In the beginning ...
I started my first round of chemotherapy in London on Friday, November 25, 2011. The whole process was very rushed - exactly two weeks after I had walked into an emergency room with some abdominal pain I found myself hooked up to a drip getting toxic drugs pumped into my veins. I don't think anything could've prepared me for what lay ahead. I remember a group of cancer patients in their headscarves and beanies sitting near me in the clinic casually discussing their stem cells and when they'd be "getting them back" and all felt a little surreal. Little did I know at that time what a big role stem cells were going to play in my own journey. This was when I entered the parallel universe of cancer treatment, but I had no idea how hard it was actually going to be. 

That first round of chemo was really difficult, probably one of the worst ones I went through, physically and emotionally. The oncology nurses sent me home with a list of symptoms to look out for - if I got a fever, diarrhoea, vomiting I had to call the clinic immediately, no matter what the hour. I spent the first few days after chemo feeling relatively OK but I was a bit on edge about everything; I just didn't know what to expect.

A few days into chemo I got my first intrathecal, a chemotherapy injection into my spine. The chemo travels through the spinal fluid and to my brain, to protect it from the cancer.  I had to curl up in a ball while the doctor stuck needles into my spine. The worst part is the stinging of the anaesthetic they inject first that numbs the area before they inject the chemo. Intrathecals are also annoying because you have to lie flat in bed for at least an hour after it's done to prevent headaches. The recommended time is actually four hours but there's no way anyone was going to keep me in bed that long. I have now had six intrathecals all up and hated them all, they were just time-consuming and annoying. One of them, I think it was during my fourth round of chemo, gave me a lot of problems - ringing in my ears, heavy limbs and neck pain, it was just terrible. 

On the following Monday, I said goodbye to mum who had to take a very difficult flight home, alone, to attend my brother Sam's graduation in Australia. The next day after his graduation, Sam was going to take a flight to London, spend a week with me, then fly with me home. It meant I was going to have about three or four days in London on my own, and all I can say is thank God for Matt who had taken several days off work because it was around then that things turned pretty grim.  

Wednesday and Thursday I hit rock bottom. Thursday I couldn't keep breakfast down and ended up retching it up in the shower. I was pale and weak and kept having to go lie down. "It's like a really bad hangover," I said, "without the fun part." On top of this I was emotional wreck, which was probably a combination of the sickness making me feel so frustrated and helpless and my hormones wreaking havoc because of the fertility treatment I was on. Also, having to say goodbye to Matt was weighing really heavily on me. There were lots of tears at this point, lots of emotion. 

Friday I felt a bit better, and that night Matt and I went for a walk down Green Lanes with the housemates' dog. I realised this had been the first time I'd been outside since Tuesday. It was nice to get some ‘fresh’ air though not sure there’s much fresh about the air in Harringay, except for the fact it’s cold.

Saturday was horrible, I was back to feeling awful again. Weak, nauseous, emotional. Matt went home because he hadn't even changed his clothes in three days. I’d really enjoyed the time we’d got to spend together, even if I was in a bad state for a lot of it. We still managed to share some laughs, and tears, and I was impressed by his cooking skills. He went home after we shared lots of hugs and tears.

Sam arrived from Heathrow that afternoon, and my housemate picked him up in his car from Manor House station. I was happy to see him, but too fatigued and sick to really show it. It was a pretty mellow weekend, I couldn't do much but lay around.

On Monday, I had to head into the UCLH clinic for my routine blood tests. I woke up feeling terrible once again. I was pale, I looked and felt horrible. I spent the car ride to the clinic with my window down, wanting to throw up. The tests showed that my neutrophils were just sitting under 0.5, which meant I was neutropenic and at risk of infection. The lymphoma nurse sent me home with three days' worth of GSCF injections to boost my white cells. We got a cab back to Harringay, and I when I stepped out of the cab I threw up, right there on the street. I had to shut myself in my (tiny) room and avoid my housemates as one of them definitely had a cold of some description. 

A couple of days later I was feeling much better. My white blood cells had soared. A chest X-ray showed the tumour in my chest had shrunk significantly. This was the first time my lymphoma had been exposed to chemotherapy and it had really knocked it around. The doctor was happy for me to fly home. It felt awesome, but so scary at the same time. It was really happening, I was leaving London. Amazingly I managed to pack my whole life back into my backpack and a couple of extra bags - I had really accrued very little in my 18-month stay in the UK.

The care I got in the UK via the UCLH was exceptional. My lymphoma nurse Barbara was an absolute gem and really went above and beyond to ensure I was OK. She gave me a lot of her time and to this day we are still in contact. 

It was a cold, cold day I left London. It was Saturday, December 10, 2011. Saying goodbye was difficult. On the Friday night I'd had a wonderful farewell with friends in Stoke Newington until 3am. Still a rather subdued affair compared to what it would have been had I left in different circumstances. But I was happy to just relax and share some laughs with good friends. The perfect way to say goodbye.

Saying goodbye to Matt was really, really hard. We were on our way back from dinner in Islington and he got off the 341 bus at Church Street and walked away, down the dark street and I didn't know when I was going to see him again. I was already crying at Newington Green, and I cried all the way home. Sam and I were running a bit late to get our cab to Heathrow, and this was not helped by the fact that there was a car, engulfed in flames, on Green Lanes, which had stopped all the traffic. We got off the bus and walked home, as a crowd of people just stared at this burning car. A rather odd sight and end to my life in London. We grabbed all our luggage and piled into a cab. As I took my last bag, left my keys on the shelf and went to close the door, I hesitated for a moment, took one last look at what had been my crazy, but warm home for the past year. I was certainly going to miss it, and the people that lived there.

Bye London, I shall miss you
The roads to Heathrow were jam-packed with traffic and the cab was barely moving. I was having some major anxiety that we were going to miss our flight. After all these delays, re-booking of flights, all this drama, we were going to miss that plane home because of traffic? The cabbie ended up veering off the main motorway and taking a "short cut" to the airport along all these backroads. I have to say, I had my doubts but I have to hand it to him for managing to get us there on time. 

On arrival to Heathrow, we were greeted by a Qantas staff member who told us we had access to the British Airways Galleries Lounge and that we had been upgraded to business class. This was a big surprise to us; we hadn’t expected this kind of treatment. I know that one friend emailed the Qantas executives explaining my situation and my brother had also called them to see if maybe we could avoid having to wait in crowded areas or maybe get more comfortable seats on the plane. But being upgraded to business class was pretty awesome. We had our own little cubicles and seats that went all the way down to horizontal, which even had a massage option (which was actually rather uncomfortable). We had ample leg and storage room, decent food, private TVs with top-quality headphones, bubbly on lift-off - we even got complimentary pyjamas and an amenities kit. The staff were falling over themselves to make us as comfortable as possible. It was pretty amazing and I'm pretty sure that's the first and only time I will ever fly business class because I have looked up the prices and it does not come cheap. I managed to sleep a lot of the way home and it just made our flight so much more bearable. Really have to hand it to Qantas; they made a difficult flight a lot easier.

Me and Hippo Jo in transit
I can't even describe the feeling of coming home ... it was like a dream. Seeing my family at the airport, being welcomed by Melbourne's wide streets and breezy sunshine; it all felt so strange but familiar. Another amazing surprise when I got home to my parents' place was my old bedroom. In the weeks leading up to my arrival, my siblings, and uncle and cousins had worked tirelessly to repaint, recarpet, refurnish and decorate my old bedroom which looked absolutely fantastic. Everyone had also printed out a collection of photos which they'd arranged on the wall. A lot of time and effort went into it and I was really touched. What a homecoming.

Me, having just arrived home, and my photo wall

And the rest is history. 

In the past year and a bit:
  • I have had bucketloads of chemo. Three rounds of R-CHOP, 3 rounds of Hyper-CVAD, 6 intrathecals (chemo injected into my spine), 2.5 rounds of Gem-Vin, one round of high-dose chemotherapy (cytarabine, etoposide, carmustine, cyclophosphamide) one round of low-dose chemotherapy (rydarabine and melphalan). This also doesn't include the countless number of oral meds I have had to take daily all year.
  • I have had an autologous stem cell transplant (April) in which my own stem cells were collected and returned to my bone marrow after high-dose chemo.
  • I have had an allogeneic stem cell transplant (December) in which my sister's stem cells were collected and delivered to my bone marrow after low-dose chemotherapy. 
  • Had five infections during chemotherapy, all of which I was hospitalised for. 
  • If you added up all the days I spent in hospital, including those as an outpatient, I reckon they'd take up half the year. Easily. Maybe more.
  • My hair has fallen out four times. 
  • I have seen some wonderful places with some wonderful people. I have travelled to Perth/Margaret River, Brisbane, Sydney three times, Wollongong, the Hunter Valley, the Grampians, Meredith (Golden Plains), Falls Creek, Daylesford/Hepburn Springs, the Great Ocean Road, Wilson's Promontory and the NSW Far South Coast (Merimbula/Eden). 
  • I climbed a really big tree, went snowboarding, attended a couple of festivals and wrote and recorded a song.
And throughout everything my family, especially my mum, have been right by my side, have been my rock in times of darkness. In this respect I have been very lucky. Actually, I'm pretty damn lucky to even be here today, when it comes down to it, and I'm thankful for each day.

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