Yesterday was a good long day at the chemo ranch with some morning blood work that allowed seven hours in the comfy recliner chair while my system received three different poisons, dextrose, Zofran, and a bunch of other secret ingredients designed to massively assault the bad guys in a way that also lessens the likelihood of negative side effects, and then, for the next two nights and three days, live and sleep with a fanny pack containing an electronic pump that keeps the chemo flowing through plastic tubes that run from my waist into the port cut into my chest and then into my blood system.
If you think that was a long sentence, imagine living it.
I tell you, brothers and sisters, you cannot do this end-of-life journey through Cancerland well without a lot of love and support from your family and friends, the kind of love that endures without complaint, that helps you manage the pain and the changes and the nausea and the boring in-betweens, that keeps the fun stuff fun if not funner, and that holds on to you—the you that you were before all this shit—in their eyes, their smiles, their talk, and their hearts.
Nor can you do it and not lose your way to the bottomless grip to the grief and self-pity without an oncologist you trust with your life – our Dr. Rohit Sud - and without a caring, compassionate and incredibly knowledgeable staff working in a place that feels right: Monica, Tia, Jan, Gerry, Ashley, Sandy, Donna, Lauren, and Terry of the Four Winds Cancer Clinic.
In all of these parts of living as well as I can while dying of cancer, I have been greatly blessed. But if you have been reading my blog regularly, you know that. I just cannot stop saying it
It’s all part of the Chemosabe life. If you want to know what that means, keep reading.
On Monday morning we arrived a little before 8 a.m. at Four Winds Cancer Clinic for my sixth round of chemo. We were greeted by the first Lauren (front desk) in her usual cheery manner and immediately shown in for my weigh-in and vitals prior to the blood-letting (er, excuse me, blood work) that always precedes Dr. Sud’s okey-dokey for the treatment. I’ve regained some weight and now have plateaued, which is a good sign. So much so that when Jan, who is always busy doing a number of things designed to lift our spirits, offers fresh Dunkin’ Donuts to the chemo crowd, I take one. We then have a visit from Piper, a yellow lab whose owner visits the clinic with his dog, inviting anyone who needs a little dog love to give Piper a friendly rub. Piper always makes all of us smile.
The second Lauren (oncology nurse) then takes my blood in three vials while we exchange weekend news. She makes sure the vials are labeled correctly and hands us off to happy Ashley and her care-giving sense of humor coupled with that special smile, and its her smile that lead San and I back to the consulting room. By the time Dr. Sud knocks on the door, we are relaxed, in a good mood, and ready to begin the treatment.
As I’ve said before, Four Winds is a special place. I like to think of it as a truly American place inside of the State of Arizona where “working for the common good” is a clear and present value that finds its way into every action and genuine empathy is just part of it. It takes a special person to work in cancer care, and these are very special people. I’m afraid that statement is not always true elsewhere. But it should be true. In the remainder of this blog, I’ll explain what I mean. See what you think.
A full-body bone scan is “nuclear medicine.” This linguistically discomforting label when applied to my body means that the prep for the scan includes the injection of radioactive isotopes into my bloodstream via a suitable vein. In my case, it’s the one located on the back of my left hand.
Look at the back of your left hand. See the large green blood vessel? That’s it. Now imagine a slight burning sensation as a plunger releases the radioactive material into your body. It’s not painful, more like getting a flu shot, although the needle itself is larger than the one used for a flu shot, so the initial prick is more pronounced. I have found that if I just look away and try not to think about it, the whole thing is over before I can cry.
Just kidding. No need for crying. It’s not that bad.
Rebekah and I are in a faux competition with each other to see who finishes the long chemo day first. Since we are both on the same basic time protocol (but with some key differences in dosages and medicines given that I’m at least twice her size and we have different cancers) it is mostly fair faux race. At least that’s what we say to keep it interesting. And fun.
My guess is that unless you have been in a similar situation – in a full bodied all-out fight against cancer – or have been close to someone who has, the idea of “fun” is about as far removed from your thinking about chemotherapy as bacon is from a Kosher diet. But I’m here to tell you that it’s not just gallows humor that you hear in the Room of the Orange Chairs, in fact, there’s almost a total absence of it.
Instead, we have fun in the same ways you disease-free fleshies do: we play with words, we tell jokes, we make comments on news items, we laugh at ourselves, and this: we take something as not funny as the appearance of a fire truck, good looking young men in pressed uniforms, and an ambulance in the parking lot, and turn it into an impromptu performance script worthy of Daniel Tosh. Our combined laughter on occasions such as these can be loud enough to cause sweet Ashley to close our door, for fear of disturbing more serious conversations in adjoining rooms. In other words, we make a joyful noise. We crack each other up.
Pardon my grammar. But I reserve the right to mess with it. It’s fun. I also reserve the right for all of us to have fun. To have fun so hard our laughter causes doors to close.
We arrived at Four Winds Cancer Clinic early for our 8 a.m. appointment with Dr. Sud. Truth is I am always a little apprehensive in advance of the all-day chemo treatment, not because of the treatment itself so much as because I am at my best the week before it and I will be at my worst for the week to follow it. Inject your vascular system with multiple chemotherapies, anti-nausea drugs, magnesium, and steroids for six or seven hours, then slap on another chemo treatment in a 24/7 slow release fanny pack that you wear for two more days and nights, and it tends to wear the body down.
As readers of my blog know, one result for me has been is a low white blood count that gets countered on Thursdays with another injection that excites my bone marrow to work harder, but that by Friday produces aches and pains that with Advil gets dulled down to near zero over the weekend. By the following Wednesday, or one week after the fanny pack is removed, I am usually less affected by chemo brain and the chemo sweats, and feeling just fine and dandy. Just in time to anticipate the next all-day treatment on the following Monday. Or, as will be the case because we are at the 2/3 milestone, another series of CT-scans, blood work, and a bone marrow scan. Sigh.
The good news is that by the time you read this blog Round 8 of 12 will be history, except for the scans. The end of the chemo treatments is in sight! I am ready – and San is ready – to be done with this part of our journey into Cancerland.