Category Archives: Cancer treatment

Poison

When we are faced with the unknowable, we search for solace and reassurance wherever we can find it. Some people turn to religion, others to denial. Although I’m a big fan of denial, I have tried as much as possible to turn to understanding. Early on, I read that my hair falling out was good because it meant the chemotherapy was working. But then yesterday I read that, in fact, all it means is that the chemo is having an effect, not necessarily a good one.

arsenic

Chemo is, in fact, toxic and my hair fell out because the chemo damaged the cells in my hair follicles. It is, in fact, damaging cells in my entire body, as one would expect of poison. This is only logical. If the wife discovered her husband was cheating and started mixing arsenic into his lemonade, then he suddenly started growing taller and more handsome, we would know either she can’t read product labels or we are reading a fairy tale. There is some logic to the workings of the universe.

For chemo, the reality is that while the toxic concoction is damaging healthy cells, which have the capacity to recover, it is also damaging cancer cells, which do not recover, at least in theory. The problem here is that every cancer is different, every person’s reaction is different, and unless another tumor makes its uninvited appearance, there’s no way to know if any of this is working. Everyone has cancer cells in them; most of the time our immune systems can murder the little buggers. Perhaps my extensive surgery and clean removal of the tumor was enough and my natural immunity could have killed off whatever cancer cells remained. Perhaps not. There’s no way to know. And radiation, which is supposed to have the same damage/repair effect, can also cause further damage to my already compromised lymph system and/or ignite some new type of cancer and then we start the whole inexplicable, unreliable, horrible process all over again.

It pained me to discover that the only proof there is that any of this treatment works is statistics. Women who undergo chemotherapy and radiation have a better chance, just a chance mind you, of outliving those who don’t. I can’t help thinking of going to the floating duck game at the county fair and expecting to pick the duck that wins you the giant teddy bear instead of the cheap plastic key holder. Statistically, it is possible to win that bear, but I wouldn’t stake my allowance on it. There are to many variables, too many ducks.

big bear

Yesterday, with all those contradictions gurgling through my chemical befogged brain, we went out for my birthday lunch, and not far from home I managed to trip over a pothole and tumble to the ground, not in that adorable way a toddler falls-down-goes-boom, but arms and legs flailing, ending up on my butt in the middle of the street. At least, much like a toddler, I started sobbing. And it only got worse as concerned strangers stopped to ask if I was all right. One woman even offered to drive us wherever we might want to go and when we said I was all right, she fetched a towel-wrapped ice pack, handed it to me, and drove away. Perhaps my bleeding palm touched her heart. Perhaps the bandana on my head told her all she needed to know. Either way, that simple act of kindness made me cry even harder, not jut from pain but also from frustration and helplessness.

I keep expecting to wake up from this nightmare and discover that it was all a fairy tale after all, that I chose the right duck and won the giant teddy bear. But the fact is that I didn’t choose any of this. Who would? The thing I have to remember is it’s not about choices, or at least not about liking any of the choices. When offered a choice of Japanese sweets, which generally look pretty and taste awful, I can always say I’m on a diet. But what’s the correct answer to, “Are you ready for your chemo now?” And how do I say yes to radiation when I know it may do more harm than good? But at the same time, how do I say no?

Fighting the Good Fight

boxing glovesSomewhere around 2005, I wandered into a ‘Fighting Exercise’ class at the gym, which turned out to be a form of boxercise, and I fell in love on the spot. It wasn’t long until I was doing kick boxing at sensei’s private dojo. I indulged in that exercise heroin for the next ten years, a stress-reducing producer of cleansing sweat. I will always love the resounding ‘thwack’ of a glove hitting a mitt.

So I thought I knew what fighting was, and couldn’t really understand what people meant when they talked about ‘fighting’ cancer. For me at least, so far at least, the whole process has been pretty passive. I try not to squirm while people in white coats and shower caps take things out of me or put things into me, and then I try to make my peace with yet another scar, another list of warnings and precautions, another rope binding me to a tree just in sight of Emerald City, knowing the heroin is in the poppies, not the gym.

If you do a search for chemotherapy side effects in Japanese, the first to pop up is irritability. (The American Cancer Society list doesn’t include it at all. That tells you something about Japanese society. And American society, for that matter.) The Japanese are masters of understatement, and in this case, they’ve outdone themselves. I can’t vouch for Japanese women, but pile chemo onto my naturally testy personality and you unleash a scaly, fire-breathing dragon that wants nothing more than to lumber along the streets of Tokyo Godzilla-style, punching old ladies, squashing butterflies and stomping on kittens. I thought the Nicodemon was scary; the Chemomonster is worse.

nemo kittens
No, that is not Nemo. It’s Godzilla. Trust me.

At the same time, as the chemo works its toxic evil, I get progressively more tired, a type of bone-weary I have never experienced. I have to walk slowly, can’t carry anything heavy, am becoming horribly sensitive to loud noises. Sometimes breathing seems like too much of an effort.

The good news is that means old ladies, butterflies and kittens are probably safe. At this point, a blue-haired granny with a cane and a limp could probably outrun me.

The other good news is my nurse assures me this is all temporary. If I can hold it together for five more months, it will be done and if the Goddess is generous, I will never have to do it again. So onward we go, one foot in front of the other.

But five months? That sounds like an awfully long time. If the Chemomonster manages to bust loose and starts ripping flowers out of your garden or puncturing your tires or otherwise being a nuisance, please have the courtesy to look the other way. Thank you.

Power

Halfway through my treatment, at least according to the number of IVs I will have to endure, it became apparent that while I have the cast iron constitution of a German potato farmer, I have the veins of an anemic chicken. My internal organs are functioning perfectly and my blood cells are behaving nicely, but my veins have stopped dead in their tracks and refuse to take a single step forward; needles go in but nothing comes out. My wonderful nurse was close to tears; she knows how to do her job and certainly doesn’t want to hurt me, but the veins were obstinate.

So now I’ve got this creepy thing living in my chest.

power port

This is a port, to be specific, a PowerPort® MRI® isp Device from Bard Access Systems. (Perhaps the good folks at Bard might offer me a fee for mentioning them?) It was implanted under my skin below my right shoulder. The tail goes directly into a large vein, making for easy delivery and distribution of cytotoxins (cell poisons). It can be reused as often as necessary until no longer needed. I have mixed feelings about that. But it also means I will have no further needle jabs in my arm. This is a good thing.

Ah, my old friend irony. I project the image of a powerful warrior princess charging into battle on my magnificent steed, but in fact, I lie down on the table and let the medical people do their stuff, silent tears my only protest. I was hoping the little purple monster might give me mystical powers of some sort, but it just sits there and I remain powerless.

If you count the Colonoscopy from Hell, that makes a total of four surgeries this year. At least this time they were putting something in instead of taking stuff out.  This is also a good thing. I’m running out of spare parts.

I look at my increasingly disfigured torso and almost wish the marks were battle scars. “She fought bravely to the end of the siege, her blood-stained blade glinting in the twilight” sounds so much better than “She sat idly by while the invaders took what they wanted and then ate a lot of cookies.” (Thank you, Maya!) It’s not a very heroic picture, but to be honest, heroism has little to do with it. Bravery? Certainly, but not heroics.

Maya cat cookies

What’s happening to me sucks but it’s not a tragedy. Dominating this weekend’s news was the story of a woman who just died of breast cancer at age 34, leaving behind two small children and a grieving husband. That’s a tragedy. It was in the news because she was a TV personality and he’s a kabuki actor, but that doesn’t make their story any more or less tragic, just more public.

Oh, and she published a blog about the whole process. Now there’s a thought.

Farewell, Sweet Mousse

So much about cancer treatment is counter-intuitive. Granted, I found a lump in a place where there shouldn’t be one, but it didn’t hurt. Still, that led to an army of doctors and nurses and technicians and unemployed seamstresses sticking needles in me and lopping off parts I would have preferred to keep. And now they’re pumping me full of poison which is gradually and consistently making me feel worse rather than better. And they tell me that there’s no proof I even have more cancer nor that the medicine is helping if I do. The literature says chemo can reduce the risk of recurrence and aims to eradicate cancer cells that could grow and might result in tumors. ‘Can’, ‘risk’, ‘could’, ‘might’. Those are pretty wimpy words. What it boils down to is that all of this horrid treatment is done just in case, might merely be nothing more than a band-aid, and makes no promises. And don’t get me started on the word ‘treatment’. I used to think of it as a nice word. “I received surprisingly gentle treatment at the hands of the Hell’s Angels.” “Dali’s treatment of watches is a delightful blend of liquid and squishy.” For me, the word ‘treatment’ now means, among other things, pain, fear and fatigue. It’s very hard to cope with that reality.

So I keep looking for things to be grateful for. Here’s one: my support system. I have people, lots of warm, caring people who honestly wish the best for me. I’ve been offered prayers, Buddhist chants, the spinning of a prayer wheel, some Indian talisman stones and more good wishes than I can count. I gladly accept all with gratitude in my heart.

Rachel talisman stones

Here’s another: In time and with luck, the treatment will end and I can start working my way back toward some sort of normality, or at least accepting my new normality. At this point, each day is still more surreal than the last. It feels like I’m creeping up a slippery slope on my hands and knees, but at least I’m making progress. Somewhere on the distant horizon there is a unicorn sitting under a rainbow waiting patiently for me. When I finally get there, together we will sip honeysuckle nectar and nibble on fairy dust cookies.

Here’s a third: Hair care. I give the scalp a quick rub down with coconut oil after my shower and I’m good to go. I had not realized what I was being released from there. Google “hair care products” and you’ll get a whopping 47,200,000 hits. Yowza!

So at least for a time, I am freed from brushes, combs, shampoo, conditioner, treatment, rinses, dyes, tints, curlers, curling irons, straightening irons, perms, gels, mousses, waxes, pomades, barrettes, bobby pins, hair clips, elastics, scrunchies, hairnets and shower caps. I need no longer concern myself with ponytails, braids, bouffants, buns, cowlicks, bobs, waves, cornrows or dreadlocks. Oh, and let us not forget razors and tweezers. So long, my friends. Don’t slam the door on your way out.

OK, to be honest, there are only about six things on that list that were ever a part of my life anyway, but still, it’s a silver lining. Or silver plated, at least. Copper? Tin, maybe? You have to at least give me aluminum.