My Breast Cancer Journey, part 2

I was never good with the names of my chemo drugs — I kind of intentionally avoided knowing that stuff because I didn’t want my identity to be as a cancer patient.  I wanted to be a college professor and wife who had cancer, not a cancer survivor.  I think the first drugs were called “A/C”… which stands for something I’m sure.  The icky one looked a lot like V-8 juice… and it made me pee red.

For the summer, my routine was to get chemo every other Thursday and some kind of booster shot for my blood cells on Friday.  I think the intention was to keep me from becoming anemic — but, it may have been to boost my immune system — whatever, those details were for the doctor and my mom to remember.  I really didn’t want to know the details.

Chemo day usually started kind of early — often with an appointment before 9:00… The night before I’d make sure to drink a lot of water and eat a light meal — with something equally light for breakfast.  I’d then put on my comfy shorts, a t-shirt and my red birkenstocks and either mom or the ex would drive me over to the clinic.  The ex often left, mom stayed (except when the new Costco opened across the street, some things are irresistible).  The ex wasn’t good with doctors, patients, waiting or seeing me all hooked up — so it was easier for me to do it by myself.  I usually had at least a couple of good books to read and often something good on my ipod, so I managed.

The first bit of the Cancer World process was getting your port accessed.  You go back to the chemo room and have one of the nurses put the needle into your port.  It’s supposed to click in and start working — drawing blood out and then letting fluid back in.  My port was never quite right — so I had to do all the different port-gymnastics and tricks to get it moving… including the arms part of jumping jacks, stretches and tipping the chair way, way back — eventually the chemo nurses would make it work, draw blood and send me back to the waiting room.

The next phase was more like a traditional doctor’s appointment.  Getting weighed, having your blood pressure and pulse taken and being asked about symptoms by the nurse.  I also saw the study nurse every time I was in — so the symptoms talk happened twice.  Eventually Dr. W would come in, we’d chat for a while and he’d send me back to the waiting room.

After the appointment, usually I’d end up in the chemo chair soon — Dr. W’s orders may have changed, mostly in response to my experiences with nausea or allergic reactions — so the only real delay was implementing those changes… .and I’d be off to the chemo room.

At Cancer World, most of the the chemo is administered in an open room.  There are a row of chairs in front of huge windows.  Each chair has a privacy curtain that can be pulled if necessary, but generally they aren’t.  There are also chairs for visitors, magazines, snacks and TV sets you can watch and listen to on headphones.  Of course, it’s all about the chemo so there are poles with pumps on them everywhere.  It wasn’t unusual to see folks eating take -out, having small family parties and generally trying to live their lives while hooked up.

The chemo chairs are kind of a wonder… comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time.  They were recliners with footrests that tilted way back — upholstered in easily cleaned vinyl… for obvious reasons.  Each model worked a bit differently, so one of the chemo skills I learned quickly was the secret to getting each model to tip back, put the footrest up etc…

The first set of drugs I got were usually anti-nausea and antihistamines.  They went in fairly quickly — after that came the one that looked like tomato juice.  That was the scary one and the chemo nurses sat with you and hand delivered it into the pump.  That’s because it’s so caustic to the skin that spilling it or a port malfunction could result in bad sores — and a chemo patient with a compromised immune system wouldn’t have good means to help them heal.  As they gave me the tomato juice, I kept ice in my mouth, which was intended to prevent mouth sores.  It worked…

Just a note about the chemo nurses at Cancer World — they’re fantastic!  They’re the ones who see the patients all the time, they get to know them and celebrate victories with them..  They watch you carefully for signs of trouble and make sure that you’re safe while getting drugs that are trying to kill parts of you while keeping the other parts whole.

It’s the tomato juice chemo that makes  your hair fall out — and mine did after the second treatment.  That was pretty traumatic, but being bald wasn’t actually all that bad…

After chemo I’d go home and take a nap — a long nap.  Then whatever sounded good for dinner — usually something non-spcicy and bed.  The next day I was usually more able to function and I tried to get on with my “normal” life.  Usually I’d be home by 2:00 or so, sometimes later depending on how busy the chemo nurses are.

I did the alternate week chemo until late August.  After that, I went in every Friday until the end of November 2008.  The challenge then was that I was pretty allergic to the agent that bound my second kind of chemo — so I had to take steroids the night before and lots of benadryl during chemo.  Sometimes, even then, I’d get a huge red hive on my head and the process would have to stop until it went away… sometimes that took a while — thus, more time at Cancer World.

The main side effects I had were the hair loss, some nausea, diarrhea, constipation and fatigue.  Yep — it was either shooting out of my but or wouldn’t come out at all — it couldn’t average out to being normal, my poop… The fatigue was probably the worst.  Eventually I had to plan to come home from school between teaching classes and take a nap.  I’d also have to spend all day Wednesday in bed just to rest up for the steroid insomnia I knew would happen on Friday and Saturday night.  There’s probably nothing worse than being tired but amped-up so you can’t sleep.. ish.

In early December 2008 I had my first post-chemo pet scan.  It seemed that it worked — so far, no cancer… and today — three years after I ended chemo, I got another clean PET scan report.. YEA!


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