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Having the last laugh at my chemo

I felt giddy with excitement and relief as I attended my last chemotherapy session. Sixteen long weeks were finally coming to an end and my life would no longer revolve around preparing for chemo, having chemo and trying to get over chemo.

The nurses, Helen and Catriona, who had looked after me so well, were grinning from ear to ear. "Last one Marie. Bet you thought you'd never get there," said Helen. Too damn right, but then there is always Murphy's Law to contend with.

To start, the veins on the inside of my arm had all but disappeared. All that poking and prodding had taken its toll. Instead, the cannula was inserted on the outside of my arm between my elbow and wrist. I took my relaxant medication and the pre-meds were washed through my system. The relaxant medication is the best bit of chemo. I call them my 'legal highs' because they make you feel not just relaxed, but also a little 'out of it' all in a nice, warm, woozy sort of way.

After the pre-meds, the dreaded Taxol was inserted. The first three-and-three-quarter hours passed uneventfully. I was chatting to a young man next to me, who was also undergoing chemo, discussing whether he looked better with or without his cap.

SWELLED

He had some hair left and his girlfriend and I thought he looked better without, but he fancied himself in his cap. We were laughing at his vanity when the nurse suddenly noticed that my arm where the cannula was inserted had swelled. Feeling so relaxed, I hadn't felt the needle slipping out of my vein and, instead of sending Taxol into my blood stream, it was pumping it into my arm tissue.

I didn't realise how serious this was until a doctor quickly arrived and gave me six antidote injections on the spot. Cortisone cream and a compress were applied and I was told to go home and return the next day to see the oncologist, but to make sure to keep my arm upright. This is very difficult to do, especially when sleeping, so my father, an enterprising man who likes to fashion homemade gadgets in his spare time, stuck a fishing gaff behind the headboard of my bed, tied a scarf to the hook and made a sling. This meant I could sleep with my arm suspended.

The next day the swelling had disappeared but the inflammation had spread from my wrist to my armpit and the area was very tender.

The oncologist took one look at it, shook his head and said something about plastic surgery.

"I always wanted a nose job," I said. He didn't laugh. Instead, he wrote out a prescription and I was to come back in two days, which was the same day I was supposed to go to Kerry for a break. Now I was getting worried that, not only would I need a new arm, but I might miss it! I was even more worried when I saw the size of the antibiotics which had been prescribed for me.

"Are you sure these aren't for a horse?" I asked the chemist. She didn't laugh either.

BEGGED

But two days later I went back to the hospital and they were pleased with my progress. The inflammation had started to go down and I begged permission to go to Kerry. I was allowed on one condition; that if there was any deterioration I was to come straight back to the hospital.

I scuttled out of there as fast as I could. The bag was packed in five minutes flat and my 12-year-old son and I were on our way to visit our friends.

Down in Kerry I noticed that my balding pate was starting to look less like a peeled egg and more like a tennis ball. Sick at the sight of my headscarf and ferret fringe (which I had bought on the internet for $16 and, in fairness, had served me well) my friends convinced me to go au natural, so I whipped them off. It was a blessed relief to feel the wind in my . . . eh . . . bristle.

Gathering courage, I ventured out to a local pub for lunch. No one paid any attention to me except for two little girls who stood and stared with their mouths open. One of them had her finger up her nose. Of course, I would stare too if I were four years old and saw a baldy woman slurping a pint of Murphy's.

I was back with the oncologist this week and he was happy with my arm. There is no lasting damage and he was able to close the book on that particular part of my treatment. As I had a triple negative tumour (estrogen, progesterone and HER2 negative) I cannot be prescribed drugs to prevent recurrence. Nevertheless, chemo and radiotherapy, which starts shortly, will bring down my risk of recurrence to about 20pc.

"Sure, you could be run over by a bus in the morning," some people say when I tell them this. I could, I suppose, but I never think about being run over by a bus because I haven't been hit by one. But I do think about cancer because I've had cancer. I'm not complaining, just saying -- like.