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Busting some chemo myths: I kept my hair, didn't have my head down the loo and looked well

Beth Purvis, aka Bowel Warrior, writes for the Indie as a 40-year-old married mother of two from Elsenham living with stage 4 cancer...

Before cancer, I knew nothing about it. I mean, I knew it could kill you, and I knew the treatment wasn’t very nice; I knew it meant an operation and often chemotherapy.

I had no idea about the way it changes both your body and your mental well-being. There were also things I thought I knew, but it turns out some of them were actually myths.

Since I now know exactly what it’s like to have cancer, how it makes you feel and what it does to your body and mind, I thought I’d do some myth-busting and share a little of what it’s really like.

So, which myth to bust first? This is easy. It’s the thing that seems to surprise people the most – I mean, it’s the one I've had most comments about.

Hair. No, I did not lose my hair on chemo – I kept it all. Lots of chemo does make you lose your hair, but not all chemo.

If I had a pound for every person who looked surprised when they saw me mid-chemo and commented about the fact I still had my hair, I wouldn’t have had to go back to work.

I don’t blame anyone for being surprised by this. When I found out I was going to have to have chemo, I had my hair cut short to prepare for it falling out – it was a happy surprise to learn I wouldn’t need a wig.

Next up is... you look so well!

Yep, I hear that a lot – and I do, I look really well. I look well because, contrary to popular belief, cancer patients aren’t all skeletal and gaunt.

Even when we’re on chemo we often put on weight and seem full of beans; well, that will be the steroids we’re given to help us tolerate the chemo. We do get tired, but it's up and down, we have good days and bad days. On our good days we are full of beans, and that’s usually when you see us out and about, but on the whole we do look pretty good thanks to the steroids.

This one is a bit confusing and takes a bit of getting your head around... So, when the cancer spread to my lungs, lots of people thought I had both bowel cancer and lung cancer. In fact, I still had just bowel cancer. The cancer in my lungs was bowel cancer that had spread, via my bloodstream and lymph system, from my bowel to my lungs and grown there too.

The biologies of bowel cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer etc are all different. Even when cancer spreads to a different organ to the one where it originated, it is still biologically the same primary cancer and known by the name of the primary organ in which it first started. Contracting stage 4 cancer was pretty unlucky, but to have two different cancers would have been extra unlucky and quite rare.

Back to chemo side effects... As well as not losing my hair, I also did not spend the entirety of my treatment course with my head down the loo. Yes, I felt sick at times, and yes, I vomited, but these days the anti-sickness drugs are really good. Oh, and those steroids that make us feel and look so well on the poison that is chemo also help in the war against vomit.

There are other side effects, however, that you would never expect and which differ for each different chemotherapy – and yes, different cancers get different chemo drugs to attack them.

For bowel cancer, one of the common chemos makes you effectively allergic to the cold, which is a little tricky if your treatment is in winter. I literally spent the whole of December 2016 with a scarf wrapped around my face and wearing gloves indoors and out.

Chemotherapy is not the only treatment available – there are also radiotherapy and immunotherapy, but not everyone gets all the treatments. I have never had radiotherapy. (No, radiotherapy does not make you radioactive, although that could be interesting).

Immunotherapy has some interesting side effects. One of the bowel cancer drugs makes your eyelashes grow and gives you acne, giving with one hand and taking with the other, although I’m not convinced it's a fair trade-off.

When I was faced with the possibility of acne, my husband Richard reassured me it wouldn’t affect how attracted he was to me, suggesting that was what pillows were for. I was a little alarmed and suggested that a paper bag was slightly less deathly – I mean, the aim of the game so far has been to keep me alive!

So there you are: myths busted and a little insight into living with cancer and its treatments. Wigs (or scarves) are not compulsory, nor is looking like Skeletor. While vomiting is likely, there are far more interesting, unexpected side effects to deal with – and at least you get free steroids on the NHS.

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