'It put me off my favourite food forever': Women with breast cancer on what they never knew about chemotherapy

A cancer nurse has collected candid accounts of what treatment is really like

Kashmira Gander
Friday 23 September 2016 16:24 BST
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Millions of people are diagnosed with breast cancer each year
Millions of people are diagnosed with breast cancer each year (Getty)

Each year more than 14 million people are diagnosed with cancer. Among them are the 11,000 women in the UK who are told that they have breast cancer.

Yet, despite those startling figures, speaking about the reality of cancer remains a taboo - even more so when the area of the body is so intimate and fraught with meaning.

Few people have witnessed the stark reality of dealing with cancer like oncology nurse Alison Bailey, who has been working as specialist in the disease for almost 25 years.

To mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Bailey has compiled the truths and tips that she has learned from breast cancer patients during her decades of service into a book entitled One Step at a Time. She hope it will offer comfort and reassurance to women day-to-day, at all stages of their diagnosis.

Here are some of the most candid anonymous accounts featured in that book.

Hot flushes and mouth ulcers

“The first dose of chemotherapy was the worst – I felt so tired and nauseous after it. The hot flushes were bad and used to happen a lot at night. I had a lot of mouth ulcers and my teeth gave me a lot of trouble. My ankles were always really sore on waking but got better throughout the day.”

“I couldn’t sleep for four days”

“I couldn’t keep anything down [during chemotherapy], not even water. I absolutely hated the effects of the steroids which made me exhausted and hyper at the same time. I couldn’t sleep whilst on steroids for four days around each treatment.”

Migraines and orange skin

“During chemotherapy, my usual pattern was that a few hours after I would get a migraine-type headache and feel completely out of it. This would be a bit better the next day, but then I would have hot flushes and go orange (I was allergic!).”

Metallic mouth and burning feet

“With my second type of chemo, I felt worse. It would start a few days in, and some symptoms a week in – metallic mouth, burning mouth, sore nails and balls of feet. That would go on for a week.”

“Wine wasn't the same”

“A lifetime avid reader, I find I cannot concentrate on this currently. Wine is not as delicious as before, (but) Cinzano Bianco vermouth tastes delicious; I found that I prefer sweet things.”

Tender hair

“Losing my hair was for me more traumatic than being bald. As my hair was falling out, the hair follicles were really tender which surprised me. The veins in my arm gradually got more and more tender and getting the needle in was the worst bit.

Alison Bailey has worked as a cancer nurse for over two decades

"I developed an aversion to my favourite food"

“Perhaps avoid favourite foods at chemo – I developed an aversion to some of them. Cold food was tastier than hot. Water can taste disgusting post-FEC. Stock up with squash, juice and smoothies.”

"I couldn't get away from cancer in the mirror"

I found losing my eyelashes much more upsetting than my hair. I could disguise my lack of hair with a pretty scarf but there was no getting away from the ‘cancer’ image in the mirror.

Sea swimming made me feel normal

“Swimming in the sea, if you are able, made me feel revitalised and energised, and well and healthy and all things good. Like a normal person, not a chemotherapy patient at all."

‘One Step at a Time’ will be published on 27 Septemeber

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