Where the light enters

finding meaning in mortality

Tag: cancer treatment

Fighting cancer with the yew tree

Today I received my first infusion of the chemotherapy drug, Taxol.  Taxol is a plant alkaloid made from the bark of the Pacific yew tree or Taxus brevifolia.  I find this interesting in light of the magical associations that Druids had for the yew trees that grew in their region (most likely the English yew, or Taxus baccata).  The Druids worshiped the yew, and if this treatment cures me, I may start doing the same.

In order to get the Taxol infusion, you first get an infusion of Benadryl.  This helps prevent a severe allergic reaction to the chemo.  It’s evidently quite a large dose because its side-effects for me were excruciating.  First I felt very woozy, my head bobbling from side to side.  My speech sounded as though it were coming from somewhere far away, my thoughts were all scattered.  I tried to take a sip of hot chocolate from my styrofoam cup, but couldn’t.  But then it got worse.  My legs started crawling with what I can only describe as electrical “jitters.”  It was like “restless leg syndrome” on steroids.  I squirmed and twisted and whined like a spoiled Pomeranian.  I found that if I flexed my leg muscles, it helped.  But how long can you sit with your muscles flexed?  Sooner or later I had to relax, and immediately the feeling was back.  Thankfully, the woozy feeling eventually overwhelmed my senses and I was out.  I slept for over an hour, and when I awakened, the jittery legs had improved enough for me to relax for the rest of the treatment, although I still felt too groggy to read or carry on a decent conversation with Joy, my friend who accompanied me today.

The nurse said that as long as I didn’t have a reaction to the Taxol, she could decrease the amount of Benadryl for my next treatment.  Thank heavens.  If I had this to look forward to for another eleven weeks, I think I might have to consider learning to live with a tumor in my body.

I came home from the treatment center and went straight to bed.  After a nice long nap, I was able to get up and be fairly functional again, puttering around the kitchen and figuring out what to make for dinner.

I haven’t noticed any side-effects from the Taxol yet.  The nurse said that most likely in two days, I will feel flu-like symptoms, such as pain in the joints and muscles.  Also, there can be neuropathy (numbness and tingling of the hands and feet), nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, mouth sores, hair loss, and low blood counts.  All very similar to the possible side-effects of the two chemo drugs that I just finished, except for the addition of the aches and pains.

The main side effect that concerns me is neuropathy.  I got a taste of that from my last treatment.  I’ve already lost most of my hair, but I do still have my eyelashes and eyebrows, so I suppose it could get worse.  My blood counts have all rebounded in time for my next treatment except for my hemoglobin levels.

Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen through the body.  Because of my low levels, I’m anemic, but not iron-deficient anemic, so taking supplements doesn’t help.  There’s really nothing to do to improve it without a blood transfusion, and my doctor says my levels haven’t dropped that far yet.  But they are low enough to explain my racing, pounding heart and palpitations last week.  She told me to not perform any strenuous activities until my hemoglobin levels go back up.  And since I have another eleven weeks of treatment, my levels may not rebound for another three months or so.  Great.

When my mother was undergoing chemo, she had to have multiple blood transfusions.  She had a reaction to one of them, causing tachycardia, and had to be admitted to the hospital to slow her heart rate down.  Needless to say, I’m not excited at the prospect of getting an infusion.

Something I am excited about is a class that I took last Saturday called Film is for Everybody Workshop: Screenwriting 101 and Filmmaking Basics.  Taught by Najaa Young, President and CEO of NaRa Films and a professor of digital filmmaking, this class was a fun introduction to screenwriting for me.  I’ve always thought it would be a great project to take a book that I really enjoyed and write the screenplay for it.  Even if it was only a creative exercise that I did just for writing practice, I think it would be worthwhile.

Another thing that I’m excited about is the discovery of YogaAnytime.com.  For a monthly fee, I can take unlimited yoga classes online.  They have many teachers and yoga traditions to choose from.  They also have classes in meditation, the Bhagavad-Gita, and Ayurveda.  I’m hooked.  For the moment, I’ll try to take classes that aren’t too strenuous.  At least until my hemoglobin is back to normal.

So two things to be excited about this week.   That might be a record, at least for these recent weeks.  Now if I could only be certain that these chemo treatments were working…. That would be really exciting.

Chemo Daze: Pete the Port

A week ago last Friday, I had an out-patient surgery designed to make my life easier and safer while getting chemotherapy infusions.  My surgeon implanted a chemo port just below my right collarbone.  Instead of connecting my chemo IV to a vein in my arm, all of my infusions will go through the port.

I knew this was a necessary evil.  Evidently one of my chemo drugs is so caustic and nasty that if it leaks underneath the skin, it can do quite a bit of damage.  So the port is there to simplify treatments, as well as to protect me from the treatment itself.

I opted for only local anesthesia during the surgery because I wanted to have some idea of the process as it was happening.  Unfortunately, the anesthesiologist gave me something to “relax” me which made me promptly fall asleep as soon as the procedure got underway.  The only thing I remember is being wrapped up “like a burrito” as the nurse said, with my arms strapped to my sides.  The next thing I knew, it was over, and I was being wheeled back to the recovery room.

Two things surprised me when I first looked in the mirror at my new “implant.”  One: it was huge, sticking out of my chest like a ghastly alien who had decided to take up residence in my body.  And two: the tube wasn’t fed down into my chest like the surgeon had told me it would be, but was attached to a vein in my neck.

It was grisly.  It stuck out from my chest and neck in gruesome relief, a Frankensteinish adaptation that made my stomach turn.

My first impulse was to start shouting for the surgeon to come remove this thing from my body pronto.  I couldn’t see how I would ever get used to it being inside me, and worse, sticking out of me.  I couldn’t turn my neck, I couldn’t touch it.  I couldn’t even look at it.

But I stuffed my panic back inside and got dressed.  I told myself it’s only temporary.  I told myself other people get ports all the time.  Somehow they find a way to live with it.

For a few days, I tried to ignore it, tried to forget that it was there.  Which was pretty hard to do considering that I wasn’t able to do anything that required the use of my neck muscles without experiencing intense pain. The first night I was unable to lie down in bed, so I tried sleeping in a recliner.  I’ve never been able to sleep sitting upright, so that was a short-lived experiment.

It took me about a week to become resigned to the idea of this thing being in my body for at least the next six months.  Sleeping had become somewhat easier by then; I could even turn onto my right side for brief periods of time.  I bought a few shirts with collars that would hide the reflection of the weirdness every time I passed a mirror.

At the time of my first chemo, it had been in me for almost a week.  It worked as it was intended to during the infusion; for some reason, I was surprised that it actually worked so well.  My alien had proved useful.  It was at this point that I decided we needed to be on more intimate terms.

If we were going to be friends, he needed a name.  I decided after all of a three-second consideration that I would call him “Pete.”  I guess as in “Pete the Port.”  Not terribly original, but it seemed a good-enough name for a chunk of plastic.  My boyfriend suggested I call him “Starboard,” but I didn’t think that was funny.  My friend who underwent chemo several years ago called her port “Athena.”  But I wasn’t in a mythological mood. So Pete it was.

Pete and I have been together almost two weeks now.  I can’t say we’re best buds yet, but he is at least letting me get some sleep these days.  I suppose I may as well get used to him hanging around with me.  Like it or not, he’s going to be a part of my life for a while.  At least our relationship is a functional one.  He helps me get the drugs that will hopefully heal me, and occasionally, I let him peek out of my collar to watch the world pass by.

Chemo Daze: I Meet the Red Devil

Last Thursday was my much-anticipated first chemotherapy treatment.  I had read about the two drugs I would be receiving (Adriamycin and Cytoxan), and had been prepped by my friend who underwent the same course over four years ago.  But still, I was nervous, not knowing exactly what was going to happen.

I arrive at nine o’clock, a nurse draws blood through my still-sore port (I’ve only had it a week at this point), and we move on to the infusion room.  She tells me about a cream that can be applied to the port an hour before my appointment to make it somewhat numb.  I vaguely wonder why I haven’t been told about the cream before my appointment.  Seems like that would have been a nice tidbit of information to have beforehand.

I am then given a quick “tour” of the infusion room.  It’s a long room with windows on one end with multiple recliners.  Some people are already there, strapped to an IV.  I notice curiously that they all have hair.  There are snacks and drinks in one corner, and a nurse’s station in the other corner.  My boyfriend has come with me; we carry bags equivalent to a weekend getaway.  I have a blanket, a Thermos of ice chips, a cooler of snacks and drinks, and books and notebooks.  We settle into a pair of recliners near the window and wait.

First I am given a crash course in the drugs I’m about to receive.  A friendly nurse has me sign a paper that I have agreed to be treated with these chemotherapy agents.  I feel like I’m signing my life away.  She goes over the major side effects such as nausea, fatigue and hair loss.  She tells me I can avoid mouth sores by keeping chipped ice in my mouth during the Adriamycin infusion (which she familiarly refers to as the Red Devil).  I was forewarned by my friend about the benefits of ice chips, so I’ve come prepared.  But I find myself again thinking that this is the kind of information you should give your patients before they show up for chemo.

Before I can even start the chemo drugs themselves, I’m given pre-meds intravenously.  These include anti-nausea drugs and a steroid.  The friendly nurse tells me the steroid may give me facial flushing, and it may keep me up that night.  I have nowhere to go the next day so I don’t really care.  It takes about twenty minutes to get the pre-meds in my system.  All I notice at the end of it is a slight headache and a weird taste in my mouth.

Then the nurse introduces me to the Red Devil.  She pushes her syringe into the IV slowly; the drug in the syringe really is red (I thought maybe it was a metaphorical term).  It looks like red Kool-Aid going into my veins; it even feels cool since it’s kept in the fridge.  I try to make friends with the Red Devil, telling myself he’s helping me to kill the cancer cells in my body.  I even thank him silently as his poison enters my body, imagining the bad cells dying, and the good cells remaining unharmed.  I suck on ice chips the entire time this is going on; my hands are also cold from holding the cup of ice chips that my boyfriend continuously ladles out, so I’m huddled under my electric blanket.

It doesn’t take long before the Red Devil has spent himself, and I can ditch the ice chips in favor of some water. The Cytoxan will take a while to drip, so I settle in with a book.  I tell myself this will be good reading time.

It doesn’t seem as though I’ve been reading very long (although I’m pretty sure it was close to an hour) when my machine beeps, and my time in the reclining chair has come to an end.  We pack up our voluminous bags and head out.  I expect to feel strange, but I don’t really notice anything yet.  Not anything I can put my finger on anyway.

We head to the pharmacy to get the port cream and anti-nausea medication.  I recently had a bout of food poisoning and am in no mood to be nauseated again so soon.  We also pick up some Claritin; tomorrow I will get a shot of Neulasta to help keep my white cell count high, and one of the side effects of Neulasta is bone pain.  But evidently, someone discovered that it you take Claritin a few days before and after, you can alleviate some of that pain.  No one is sure how it works, which makes me suspicious, but I buy some anyway.  What could it hurt?

The rest of the day Thursday I expect to be sick or to start to feel some strange and disgusting symptom, but nothing ever comes.  Friday the same thing: I take my anti-nausea meds preemptively though, just in case. Saturday morning: nothing.  I’m beginning to wonder if they didn’t accidentally give me Kool-Aid and someone drank the Adriamycin at their picnic.  But by Saturday evening, I’m beginning to feel the fatigue that is so much talked about.  I come home from grocery shopping and c-r-a-s-h.

Sunday: pretty much crash-day part two . I stay in bed forever on Sunday morning, take a nap after lunch, and another nap after dinner.  Sunday is the worst day so far.  By Monday I’m recovering from it all, still feeling a bit bobble-headed, as I tell my boyfriend.  You’ve always been bobble-headed, he says.  This may be true.  But I’m thinking it’s what is referred to as “Chemo Brain.”  I prefer to call it Chemo Daze due to how long it seems to last.

My next meeting with the Red Devil is set for next Thursday.  I’m already wondering how our second date will go.  Should I make a special effort on my part?  A new outfit?  Pay more attention to my make-up?  And what can I expect from him?  Will he be glad to see me?  Will he at least bring me flowers?