Supporting women whose lives have been touched by breast cancer


by rb

The biopsy of my lump, taken the day after initial diagnosis indicated that it was a grade 3, progesterone and oestrogen positive and Her2+++. I had neoadjuvant FEC chemo (6 doses), a mastectomy with full axillary clearance, started tamoxifen and then had 15 doses of radiotherapy - all in the space of 10 months.

Although I had been told at the outset that I might be a candidate for herceptin, it was never mentioned again - until I went for an appointment with the oncologist after conclusion of all the treatments. I expected that I was going to have to ask about it at that appointment and thought I might possibly have to fight to get it. I had asked other women on the bcpals site for their advice in advance and went to my appointment armed with a series of points to make. In the event, the oncologist's opening gambit was to say that I should start on it right away!

I had to have a MUGA scan beforehand to provide a baseline assessment of heart function. The heart scan appointment came through quickly. It involves a radioactive injection (a very low dose), the same as for the bone scan and then lying on a table next to a scanner for about 20 minutes.

The treatment is delivered by drip at the chemo unit. A cannula is inserted in a vein in the back of my hand (just like for chemo), there is a short flush with saline and then the herceptin is attached to the drip. It takes about an hour and a half to deliver the dose. Another saline flush at the end makes sure the vein is clear. Herceptin can cause an allergic reaction, so for the first dose I had to sit around in the chemo unit for 5 hours afterwards (an exceptionally long day).

I can drive myself to and from the hospital for this as normal. I tend to feel very tired and a bit like I'm going down with a bug on the evening after treatment, but it passes quickly and I feel quite normal the next day.

I have blood tests (the usual blood counts, liver, kidney and bone function) and MUGA scans every 3 months while on treatment. My heart function has been (touch wood) fine throughout - I'm well aware that I am fortunate in this; not everyone has such a positive experience. I do, however, sometimes get palpitations. I had a 24 hour ECG monitor which showed that everything was well and that the palpitations are no cause for concern. I also got a swollen lip (mild allergic reaction) after one treatment and so I get a dose of piriton in the drip each time before the herceptin - it sends me into a lovely sleep for the rest of the treatment. I do get a runny nose and sometimes cracks in the lining of the nose - nothing serious, but an annoying minor side effect. A good wallop of vaseline before I go to bed usually does the trick.

Having had chemo, I knew the unit well already and that prepared me for going in for the herceptin. It does feel strange to sit there, looking and feeling well, often among some very sick people. There is absolutely no privacy in our day unit - the chairs are arranged in a circle around the room. It's impossible to have a consultation with either a doctor or a nurse without everyone else hearing. I know more about other people's health and ill health than I ever wanted to. At first I found it quite hard, taking me back to my own experience, but now I'm quite used to it - and it helps to sleep through the treatment... I've met several women who have been starting out on chemo and it's been good to be able to tell them that I went through it too and to let them see that the hair really does come back!