Campaign Against Cancer Begins
I started chemo and radiation November 16th. The chemo was difficult, but so far, no after-effects. It started with Benadryl as the toxins can cause an allergic reaction. My nurse thought she had found a vein, but it was a muscle, so my arm had a tennis-ball-sized lump on it before I could flag her down and get her to stop pumping in the fluid. That actually hurt more the next day than the second injection site.
The second injection was in my left hand. The Benadryl went in first. Then they administered Taxol. It is serious stuff. I have read that if a drop gets on your skin it will blister it. As you might imagine, watching them start the drip causes people with my sort of wild imagination to picture lethal injection. And my imagination did not play tricks. A couple of minutes into a two and one-half hour process my face was beet red. It was swelling. My airway was shrinking. I was tethered to a cart and my nurse was with someone else. They had made Barb sit somewhere else. It’s like an assembly line of chairs and IV stands. So no one was paying attention until I grabbed the nurse’s shirt to get her attention.
They shut off the drip and administered another bag of Benadryl. The nurse said, “Are you having back pains?” I said no and then boom, it felt like I’d been hit by a car. My back was on fire with pain. But the extra shot of Benadryl did the trick. And good thing because someone else had the same problem and for whatever reason wasn’t helped as fast as I was. He ended up in a bed on oxygen.
It helped that a tiny Indian woman who sat across from me started talking to me about nothing in particular. She just babbled until I focused on her and she kept it up until the danger was over. She has inoperable cancer that can only be treated with chemo and had lots of tips. Maybe if I hadn’t been so chock full of Benadryl I could remember some of them. I was really spaced out.
After that, nothing could faze me. I felt all kinds of unpleasant tingles in my hands, sometimes close to burning. Then there was an element of numbness, like when you are very, very cold. I was so glad to hear the alarm go off when that drug was done, but then there was a second drug, Carboplatin. It accentuated the tingling and the numbness, but it felt more like an irritant. I wanted to rub around the injection site, but you can’t do that.
I had a cheese sandwich with me. Just plain American cheese. But I ended up eating it in the last hour or so of a five-hour process. I think it settled my stomach.
Then I went to radiation. It’s not an environment for the soft-hearted. The nurses are into tough love and no one remembers your name or explains much. My doctor for radiation explained the initial side-effect of skin burns by putting one hand on his hip and then grabbing his crotch. I guess that at the county hospital he does not get many patients who prefer him to use his words rather than mime.
On Monday, I had gone through a simulation of radiation that involved CAT scans to identify targets and anatomical landmarks. It was difficult. They tape your feet to a Styrofoam block. They position you and keep you in that position for one-half hour. You have to have a full bladder so it gets nerve-wracking. People touch you without warning, sometimes in very personal places. Then they tattooed me so they could find their coordinates. I started radiation Wednesday after chemo and will go every day. Between chemo and radiation, Barb and I were at the hospital for about nine hours. I have a lingering headache today and some body aches, but nothing compared to what has come before them.
It sounds like both procedures get grim in week three and stay that way for up to twenty-one days after my six weeks of treatment. So February is when things will look up quite a bit.
I am resolved to remain positive. But I have already spent enough time in the company of cancer patients to know that I will never be the same person again. On Monday a woman died in her family member’s lap while I waited for radiation. I had offered the family member my seat so she could have the wheelchair beside her. I was watching when the patient’s eyes rolled back in her head and she just puddled down to the floor while this young woman tried to hold her. I have assisted people in pain after they have returned to the dressing area after radiation. Lying on your back and being still so long makes pains and aches worse. I cannot look away when I see someone crying and in need of help. Some others have stopped doing that. They just stare at the TV and pretend it is not happening. I understand them better, too.
It’s not all sadness though. It does not matter that the men have prostate cancer or lung cancer or brain cancer. When a woman–any woman–comes out of the dressing room in her ill-fitting hospital gown, their heads swivel to get a better look. As I walked to my radiation room yesterday one man called out, “There goes the one with the good-lookin’ fat legs.”
What Viagra can no longer assist still “springs” eternal after a glimpse of a hip with an X tattooed on it or a bra strap or a bare leg.
Yesterday I met a man who has brain cancer from drinking and smoking. He told me all about his attempts to quit both habits. He also insisted ladies go first when we entered chemo and later for radiation–even though it was first-come first-served and he had waited longer. He checked me out, too, but a little more politely. I do not recommend this as a place to make a pick-up, but some of the people are chatty. I am one of the few Caucasians there, so people ask me lots of questions trying to figure out why I’m there. I was already a bleeding heart liberal, but this is a place that is filled with souls in need of kindness. I may never be able to turn down a call from the American Cancer Society again.
On the job front, many friends wrote to the dean of the law school. My sister alone has mailed loads of letters to Knights of Columbus posts and churches asking for people to support my case. The dean finally called me. But he didn’t care much. He says my supervisor got some bad advice. Three professors approved the decision to reassign my students–the dean insists it was not a termination because I asked them to pay me and I’m welcome back. One of those three professors founded and supervises a clinic to help the disabled protect their rights. Another was management counsel on labor matters including before the EEOC. I have told the dean we can settle the matter if I am offered a full-time job. He says he has no intention of hiring a full-time faculty member this year. I told him I would teach part-time and work in career services the other time if he made it a full-time job.
He told me to wait until spring when I’m back teaching to come see him to talk more. I told him that I don’t trust the school and have insisted we talk the week after Thanksgiving.
Had they let me teach my class, I’d be finishing that week–before the crucial third week of chemo and radiation.
I do not think I will pursue the matter further until treatment is over. The war against cancer has begun. That is the fight I must win before pursuing other battles.