Sunday, October 19, 2014

Chemo Sabe

The surgeon said to me, "see you in eighteen weeks," as he finished up checking his handiwork.  He had placed inside me a portacath through which I was to receive all four of my chemo drugs every three weeks and rehydration as needed.

At first it hurt to have this device just under my skin roughly below my right shoulder. I have gotten used to it.  It's like having a quarter sized lump.  What still amazes me about that surgery is that one moment I was hearing  the anesthesiologist nurse say, "I am going to give you something," and the next moment I was waking up.  I wondered afterwards, "who was that masked man," as I had no awareness that anything had even happened.   I told him as much during the office visit.  I am amazed at not only his skill but that of the entire team that was part of that surgical team.  I had undergone two c sections, and this was by far the easiest operation I had undergone.

The first time I had chemo, I had to watch an outdated video produced by Sloan-Kettering featuring cancer patients asking questions about chemotherapy. It was a half hour of a combination of eye rolling and notetaking for me. The video is so badly produced,  I half expect to watch someone stand in front of the camera stating, "Hi.  I am Troy McClure.  You may remember me from  such videos as, 'So You Think You Have Cancer.' "

There  were things I had forgotten, in my initial shock, to ask the oncologist.  I felt myself wincing throughout the viewing.  Frankly I felt that this type of video is needed, but I also felt that the presentation needed to be fresher.  I also hope that someone donates to the cancer center so that they can present this on more up to date equipment as well.  Either that or they need to hire some high school kid, so that I can at least feel nostalgic.  Take the edge off of having to receive chemo in the first place.

The first round of chemo is an excruciatingly long seven hour day.  For reasons still beyond my comprehension it takes longer for the drug delivery.  After that it is roughly half the time.  At least that is how it is for me.  The drugs used for chemo is just about as unique as there is for types of cancer as someone's fingerprints.

"What are you in for," I asked the man in the baseball cap who ended up in the chair beside me.  "Stage 3B lung cancer," he explains.  Suddenly my cancer didn't seem as difficult.  I saw how he had his oxygen tank, too.  At least I didn't have to roll around something like that, I thought to myself.  I am learning to be increasingly grateful for small favors.

While waiting to be called to a chemo chair  for round two, I picked up "Lilly Oncology On Canvas:  Expressions of a Cancer Journey."  It's artwork done by cancer patients, family, friends and healthcare professionals.  Commentary often accompany the painting and drawings.  Some of the artwork is depressing because the stories are not always happy endings.

As I leafed through the book, I thought about my mother in-law, Margaret,  who passed away July 2013.  She was an artist, and I cannot help but feel I was drawn to this book because of her.  I smile. I cry.  I feel triumph.  I feel fear and uncertainty.  How will things turn out for me, I wonder.  I cannot think about it.

The 78 year old man is so hard  of hearing that I can hear  his TV from clear across the room.  While waiting for my chemo chair, I talked to him and his wife.  He has cancer of the fluid of the lungs.  I cannot even imagine what it's like to be dealing with that kind of cancer and at his age.

The chemo nurse explains I am not yet hooked up because they fixing the CBC machine.  This delay is like being told the train is going slowly because they are working on the track.  I know this means it'll be a long day.

The old man's TV continues to be very loud. Sounds like he is now watching a war movie. My chemo neighbor, a cheerful elderly woman who is battling the same cancer she had twenty-five years ago also has her TV on loud.  She is pleasant enough.  I just  wish she didn't like shows  like The Talk.  I am really beginning to hate Sharon Osborne.

I end up taking my mind off of the loud TVs surrounding me by using my old fashioned technology of notebook and pen.  I start to write a poem about cancer.  Cancer Is An Unpretty Picture

Above the cancer center are doctors' offices.  I hear a baby crying.  Poor kid was probably given a shot.  Then down the hall I hear them sing Happy Birthday. Very chaotic.

I am waiting for a chair so I can be rehydrated.  The woman sitting across from me is both inspiring and annoying.  She is speaking to me about God in a way that makes me uncomfortable.  I don't have the heart to tell her I am an atheist. Nor do I wish to challenge her.  This is her second go round with cancer.  The first time was years earlier when she was a first grade teacher.  I am amazed when she told me she never missed a day of school.  How did she do chemo and not miss a day of work, and, how did she manage not to feel lousy?  Her explanation is that God took care of her, and continues to take care of her.

What about those who don't make it, I want to ask her.  What about people who lose their lives other ways?  I hold my tongue.  I learn later about those who have faith from those who approach me,  but right then I am inclined to interpret this woman all entirely wrong.  Why would God take care of her and not other people, I wonder angrily to myself.  That is what made me an atheist to begin with.

The weekend before round three, a friend insisted on visiting.  I  wasn't sure how  that was going to work.  He is an old fashioned traveling salesman. Drove in all the way from the Cleveland.  He took me to the Chicago Botanic Garden where there are a lot of benches.  Was a beautiful day.  Not too hot for a July day.

We are sitting over by the pond.  I joke with him that I ought to pretend to be struggling not to fall in.  He takes a picture of me pretending to flail.  That is still my current avatar.  Little did I know that was going to be the highlight of my summer.

While sitting through the third round of chemo, I write, "objects in mirror look larger than they appear."  What I mean is that the set up for chemo always takes longer than anticipated.  Longer for blood tests to come back.  Even when it seems there aren't that many people, the chemo nurses have a lot to do.  They mean to do things in a timely manner, but they have calls to make.  Paperwork to process.  IVs beep for various reasons.

The chemo nurses do the best they can to make people comfortable.  The furniture is old.  They don't have headphones for those who prefer watching TV. The best they offer are heated blankets and pillows.  Sometimes it seems I actually nap.  Before I know it, I am halfway  through a chemo round.

The chemo nurses have over fifty years of experience between them.  They sometimes need to hear back from the oncologist about various things.  Sometimes they have conversations with the patients.  Can be very enjoyable to overhear.  About food.  Old neighborhoods.  Old restaurants.  Cookies.

Shortly after round  three I had to return for rehydration.  Between diarrhea and vomiting, it was necessary.  As I wait for the chemo nurses to be ready for me, I speak to a woman who was/is Stage One.  She is waiting to be called into the lab for blood work.  I tell her I am here for rehydration.  I tell her that I  was Stage 3 and grateful that I am ONLY Stage 3 given the aggressive nature of my breast cancer.

When her name is called, she gets up, and much to my surprise, she kisses my hand and says, "God bless you." Is it out of  an acknowledgement that my journey is harder or out of gratitude or what?  Doesn't matter.  I am grateful to this woman for her gesture.   It's moments like that that not only make chemo and rehydration bearable, but remind me of the support I have received from total strangers.  Not just cancer survivors acknowledging each other's journeys, but people on Facebook and Twitter who I will never meet in real life.

So many people have offered thoughts and prayers.  Even as I struggle with fear and anxiety and anger, these moments of pure spirituality remind me of what really matters and that is love for one another.  To be clear, I am uncertain of the efficacy of prayer, but I greatly appreciate the intent.  And that is why I have tweeted repeatedly all prayers accepted.  All prayers.  All hugs. All thoughts.  Who am I to say what is effective and what is not?  I am grateful for all of this because I had no idea I would receive such an outpouring.

Early on in this process, I was talking on Twitter to an educator and cancer survivor, William Chamberlain.  He came up with the phrase, "spiritual clown car."  So many people have ridden shotgun on my journey.  When people are just with you in spirit, everyone can ride shotgun.  You have given me strength that I don't know if otherwise would have had.  I keep on being amazed how resilient I have been.  For those of you who have cheered me on, offered prayers, thoughts and hugs, I thank you.  You've all been part of my journey.


  1. Debbie, one of the things I learned from having cancer is that although there is a lot of support it is still a very lonely disease. Empathy can only truly come from a survivor and I am not sure a person with cancer really wants sympathy. I think that when we have cancer we have to be willing to understand that we really are different than those around us, even those with cancer. We also still need to be willing to allow others to show they care for us in a way that honors them. Basically having cancer can be really complicated :( Also cancer sucks.

  2. It is a very lonely disease. You're right. I don't want sympathy. Everyone's journey is different. I do allow people to express themselves in a way that they are most comfortable with. I genuinely do appreciate prayers on my behalf. I feel it's very gracious of people to offer prayers on behalf of this atheist.