Crispy Cancer Critter
Wednesday, December 7th was week four of chemo/radiation. My internal organs are the consistency of steaming hot, crispy bacon. I scream when I eliminate. It is grim. Each time I think it cannot get worse it does. I really was smug to think I could fly through this treatment because I started out feeling so well after surgery. Never having had a serious illness I had no reference point for pain. I do now.
I rode the elevator with a stranger who asked me, “How did the chemo session work out last week?” I was puzzled. I had no idea who the man was. He continued, “My wife and I caught your act in the chemo lab last week when you wanted to change your chemo date from Thursday to Wednesday. We thought you were brilliant.” I smiled uncertainly and said, “My nurse fit me in for Wednesday.” The man said, “If it hasn’t already occurred to you to go to law school, you should. My wife and I think you’d be a great lawyer.” I smiled. He went on, “You really laid a guilt trip on those people. It was fantastic.”
I saw my doctor this week. She basically told me to suck it up–the pain, the other side-effects, everything. She shot down various suggestions from cancer books I’ve read giving me logical reasons for not trying the approaches. It’s the price of prevention. But the first thing she said was, “Why do you still have hair?” All three doctors commented that Caucasian women lose their hair immediately. I was thinking that my wig had not arrived yet. My hair cannot fall out until I have my wig. I’ll have to send a photo when I have it. It’s going to be red with blonde highlights because what is the point of a wig that looks like your hair? I do not have a plan B. There is the short Farrah Fawcett wig from when I sold Bernard’s wigs in college (but I haven’t found it yet in my storage room). There is a baseball cap (but I already have the mistaken reputation for being the first lesbian prof at school). I could cut my hair off (my friend Michael says he digs bald chicks).
Dominique took me to my appointment. She picked me up at 6 a.m. and dropped me off at my place a little after 5 p.m. It was a very long day. I really appreciated the support. We got to the hospital and waited in the line for the elevators (if I gave tours of the hospital this would be part of the tour as people are stunned to see the police directing people like they expect a riot). Then we went to the chemo lab where it was too crowded for patients to sit and the staff were yelling that guests should give seats to patients. There still were not enough seats. Like me, Dominique was stunned to see young people there. It doesn’t seem like a young woman or man’s disease, but it is.
My nurse was not working so I ended up waiting a long time. I sent Dominique off to the cafeteria. I was seated in a chemo chair at about 10 a.m. Cherry (yes, her name is Cherry and I own every book of the Cherry Ames Nurse series) was handling my appointment. She was very kind. She urged me into a comfy recliner and tried to get me under a blanket, but I explained that I intended to sit on the edge of my chair in case I had to leap up to flag her down due to a reaction to Taxol. She asked me to tell her about my allergy. She brought over the pharmacist. She called my doctor. We went ahead with her primed to react if I had an attack.
The Benadryl was like a college frat party with an unlimited budget for booze. When Dominique came up to check on me I told her I was feeling “loopy.” Then we started the Taxol and I could not breathe. My hands and joints ached. I had the start of that shockingly painful back reaction–the one that feels like I’ve been hit by a truck.
Cherry jumped up to shut off the chemo. She gave me a shot of Benadryl fed into my chemo line. Wow! Talk about intoxication. I was having trouble doing anything. But she was good. She got to me in time. She called the doctor. They discussed strategy. There is a possibility I will be moved to Taxol’s sister drug next week, but Cherry wanted a chance to try getting the Taxol into me because it has such a good record for helping cancer patients. I agreed to try. So we waited awhile while she pumped plain saline into me. Then she lowered the speed of administration from 700 ml/hr to 100. We tried that for an hour. No reaction. She upped the speed after an hour to 200. No reaction. Another half hour later she tried 300. We eventually finished at about 2:45 at 500. I was just starting to feel the allergy symptoms. We switched to the Carboplatin. I finished that in thirty minutes. She removed the needle without making me bleed and bruise like crazy (my blood is quite thin now).
During the session, Dominique came up several times to check on me, which was nice. And I was surrounded by my new cancer friends. There was Tom. He has brain cancer. Dominique thinks he has a thing for me. I think he’s just one of those gentlemen that it’s hard to find anymore. We first met on day one of chemo and radiation. He held doors open for me. He was at a crisis point Wednesday. He has been drinking and smoking. He has not been eating or drinking enough fluid. His kidneys are now in trouble. He has to go on dialysis. The doctor shut the screen, but I was seated facing Tom and right next to that curtain. Tom was honest about the problem. Radiation required the removal of all of his teeth before he started. Radiation to the head crumbles your teeth so they must be pulled before that can happen. Chemo and radiation attack the lining of the mouth and throat. He is very nauseated. He did not think his doctor cared. He has few joys in life left other than an occasional drink or cigarette. But he apparently refused to give a blood test sample, delaying discovery of the kidney failure. I could see both sides. When the doctor left to find him a bed for the night, Tom stormed to the bathroom, then stormed back. He forgot to plug his I.V. stand into the wall. I eventually pointed that out. Cherry offered him a sandwich and juice. He declined. The doctor said, “Eat it! That’s an order.” Tom threw it down but later put on his dark glasses, smiled at me, and ate it. Then he left the crusts and pieces of the insides of the sandwich on a napkin and refused to reach over and discard them in the trash. Very childish, I know. The doctor was right when he said, “I can’t save your life if you don’t help me, and you may have already signed your death certificate on this one.” Who, going through this, isn’t thinking that it might be easier to chuck it in?
I also saw Wanda again. We started treatment the same day. We had the same type of cancer as I had. But she had surgery in April and has already had a recurrence of cancer. She skipped about three radiation sessions after having some emergency dental work. The nurse and doctor said that she also skipped last week’s chemo session. Wanda was blase’ about the whole thing. There was a woman who arrived for chemo and could not be treated because she was jaundiced. When asked if she noticed that her face and eyes were yellow, she seemed surprised as did her daughter. I felt bad for her. She sat there for two hours while they discussed what to do for her. Another woman was there for chemo that she gets once every three weeks. She was to have it again at the end of December but wanted to put it off until the end of January. It took an hour for her to understand that she needed to be more serious about treatment.
There is a man that I see every day at radiation who has stage three to four lung cancer and COPD. He likes to say that if he’d known he was going to live this long he’d have been nicer to his body. He was sitting behind me and cheered me on as I fought my reactions to Taxol, “You can do it, Cheryl. You’re tough!” He called out to the nurse when I could not breathe enough to get out a yell.
Yesterday I sat next to a woman I’ve seen in radiation. She’s about forty and has two tumors in her lower intestine and rectum. She’s had a colostomy. They are trying to shrink her tumors before removing the intestine and rectum. She has very long hair. It’s her pride. We talked about losing our hair. She hopes hers will grow back fast. She has had a tough life. That hair is important to her. She seems more concerned about it than the cancer.
This week I met an Asian man and his mom. She had breast cancer. He is taking FMLA leave to bring her to treatments and his leave is running out. We talked about rides by the American Cancer Society, but he fears his mom could get lost or confused when dropped off. I wanted to offer to watch her a few of the days of the week when we both have radiation, but I’m getting fatigued, too. I didn’t want to let them down. So I explained about how you can get to the hospital between 5 and 6 a.m. and get a number for radiation and have a chance of getting out before 8 a.m. They hope to try that.
So I have my new cancer friends, my family, and my long-time friends getting me through this challenge.
When I finished chemo I was exhausted, edgy, and in some pain from the residual effects of the treatment. Dominique and I headed down to radiation, where I would turn out to be the last patient of the day. Dominique went with me into the “gowned seating area” and waited with me for my session to start. She was surprised, too, by the mess, the weird lighting (sort of pinky fluorescent bulbs), and the strangeness of men and women mixed together.
When I was done, I had to use the bathroom. She shuddered, but it looked pretty good by the hospital’s standards. She did think the staff had seemed very nice. I have two more chemo doses, ten more external radiation treatments, and forty-eight hours of internal radiation to go. This treatment will end while I am on winter break from teaching. It will finish before the start of the new year. Dominique picked me up at 6 p.m. and I got home at about 5:15 p.m. That was my longest day yet.
I now think of myself as a crispy cancer critter. This has tested me sorely. I have trouble remembering how good I felt until recently. Each day I am in painful contact with my body. I think it was Roberta who said that I must feel like my body has betrayed me. Actually, I feel like maybe I betrayed it. We aren’t nearly so comfortable with each other as we used to be. My blood pressure Tuesday was 126/73. On Wednesday it was 172/77 as I faced chemo and my fears about it. My cholesterol and urine have been pronounced perfect. I don’t have diabetes. I still have my hair. But it hurts to sit, to lie down, to move. My nose bleeds every day for a little while.
My boss at the DePaul paralegal program said, “I never thought I’d have to say you look tired, but you look tired.” I reminded him it was then week three of chemo and radiation. He said, “Cheryl, I’m so sorry. I forgot you had cancer. That was so insensitive of me.” I kind of liked having someone forget.
My mom scolded me a bit Tuesday when I showed up at her house to take a two-hour nap (on the couch because I only gave in once on sleeping on the bed) before my 6-9 p.m. class in Naperville. I was wearing what I will forever think of as my “cancer sweater” instead of a coat. I told her that it was important to me to still be tough about something. I had tears in my eyes as I said it. But I do want to be tough. It’s going to help me get through this. It got me up at 4 a.m. today to go back for more radiation. I have seventeen more papers to grade before my 6-9 p.m. class tonight in the Loop. Being tough has me teaching four classes a week. My online class will end this week. I don’t meet many cancer patients who work at all. They are on leave or disability. Being tough means I cooked a chicken Monday and made little packets of meat and force myself to eat it with rice so I won’t have kidney problems. I drank a bottle of Pedialyte this week to help keep up my potassium (yuck!). I have my care package of crackers, peppermints, and granola thins with peanut butter and my thermos of water that I carry everywhere. My care package even has toilet seat covers for times when the hospital bathrooms make me unwilling to back up next to a dirty toilet. I may find it tough to say any longer that I can do anything for six weeks, but I can do this one breath, one hour, one day at a time. And I would like to be a cancer survivor who makes it past that five-year mark.
I may be a crispy cancer critter, but I’m hanging in there.