Friday, July 24, 2009

medical yawnery & White Blood Cells

I haven’t written much about the chemotherapy experience. I’m sure that, in a way, I have felt that if I ignore it, it will be easier to deal with and will pass more quickly. There are a few too many things that I deal with this way in my life. So in the spirit of making some changes for the better, let me tell you a bit about it.

Along the same lines, I find myself in this small pickle of being keenly aware of how precious each day is, and yet yearning for August 6 to come and go. My last treatment is scheduled for that day, and I will be so glad to have it done. I’d like to assure you that I have been accepting each day as a special treat just for me, but there is no doubt that some days seem more like gifts than others. And not just because of the effects of chemotherapy. I’m guessing I’m not alone in this feeling. Yet another day of rain with cooped up quarreling kids and a headache does not make it easy to enjoy living in the moment. It makes me yearn for a vacation moment, actually.

But we are here to talk chemotherapy. The brief nuts and bolts version is that every other Wednesday Greg and I fly down to Boston via the wonderful pilots of Angelflights (a post on that soon to follow), and stay in deeply discounted hospital affiliated rooms overnight for early morning appointments on Thursday at Dana Farber. We get there and I’m almost always taken very quickly from vitals room to blood draw room to a meeting with my oncologist. The nurses who put in my IV and draw my blood are pros; it is quick and almost completely painless and I’m usually in and out of that room in less than 12 minutes. Since I’ve had past issues with blood draws and IVs, usually involving passing out, this is a very good thing. Then I see my oncologist and we talk about how the treatment went last round. This is my chance to tell her about my minor aches and pains, because really, this is all that I have had so far. Most of my side effects have been so minor that I asked her if that meant the chemotherapy was being less effective. I mean, even my hair, after an initial exodus, seems to be hanging around. Well, sitting around, short and stubbly. Not much hanging going on there. She assured me that it doesn’t have to be a wretched experience in order for it to work.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got my share of complaining to do, and Greg and my beloved workmates get more than their share of listening. On one of the first nausea meds (they have me on multiple), I experienced migraine auras. They replaced that one for round two. Most of the nausea meds are given right at the beginning of treatment. Then I take a couple more Friday and Saturday, and I haven’t needed to supplement them after that. I have yet to feel anything that I would describe as nausea.

After seeing my oncologist, we go up a floor and wait for the "infusion." Doesn't that make it sound nice? Like I'm in a good smelling spa or a bar with yummy vodka. They lead me to a big lounge chair and start me on a pile on nausea meds. After the nausea meds come the big drugs. Three injections of Adriamycin into my IV. It is bright red and is the one that can cause possible heart damage down the line in less than 1 percent of patients. That low number doesn’t stop my heart from skipping beats when I think of it every now and then. The second drug is cytoxan, and it is given through a drip into my IV that takes about an hour. That one can cause bladder irritation, but luckily my brain doesn’t seem to register the possibility in order to add its influence. The only discomfort I have ever felt during the actual treatment is at my IV site on my hand, and has been either the chill of the saline or an occasional icy burning when she injects the Adriamycin. If I put a heat pack on early it helps. 

On Friday, at home and at least 24 hours after my treatment, Greg gives me a shot of Neulasta. A shot that costs $4100, by the way. Even my insurance company, notorious for agreeing to pay only, say, $9K for $38K surgeries, is paying $4100 per shot. There isn’t anyone left in this country who thinks the healthcare system is just fine the way it is, is there? So he gives me this shot, which is formulated to boost my white blood cell production so that my body will be ready for the next chemotherapy treatment. Normally treatments are given every 3 weeks apart, but because I had been considering continuing with Taxol (which I think I won’t now) and also because there may be some benefit to having the AC 2 weeks apart instead of 3, here I am. I’ve decided against the Taxol for a number of reasons. Though there have been preliminary studies showing increased effectiveness in reducing recurrence, that increase has been primarily in hormone receptor neutral cancers, which mine is not. And one of Taxol’s potential side effects is numbing of the fingers and toes. It is not common and is usually temporary, but if I were to lose feeling in my fingers, I would be miserable. Most of the activities that bring me the most joy demand manual dexterity, and it doesn’t seem worth the risk at this point.

I spend Friday and Saturday feeling mostly fine; one of the drugs I take both those days is a steroid, so I don’t notice much by way of fatigue. Of course I’ve been taking it pretty easy those days, too, so certainly that helps. By Sunday evening I’m starting to feel a bit drained and Monday and Tuesday are a little long, just feeling vaguely headachy and pretty tired. But then I’m fine again until about a week after the treatment, which is when my blood counts must drop. But the Neulasta has been doing its thing, too, so I’m a little tired from low blood counts and a little sore in my joints from the action of the Neulasta. I limp around and complain a bit the second weekend. By Monday I’m feeling pretty swell again. Ready for another round on Thursday. And the next round will be my last. Let’s hope it’s for good.

On a lighter note, I’ve found one of those albums that I just know will mark this time for me for the rest of my life. And I don’t mean in a bad way. I have so many of those, full albums or just songs, that can transport me back to a night in Jen’s dorm room in 1988, or to waiting tables at the Lompoc in 1994, or to the evening my daughter was born in 2003. It’s really remarkable to me, and can be just as vivid a time trip as odors can take me on. I just got my hands on The White Stripes White Blood Cells. How apropos, right? I chose it before realizing the connection. I’m thinking that the kickass music and lyrics are helping to boost my own white blood cell count. I love it because it can be loud and a little harsh, which is one way that I might describe the chemotherapy treatments, but moves right into some of the sweetest moments. Also a byproduct of the chemotherapy experience for me. “Every breath that is in your lungs is a tiny little gift to me.” That line makes me swoon. And “It might sound silly, for me to think childish things like these, but I’m so sick of acting tough and I’m gonna do what I please.” Yeah, baby.


  1. August 6th? How very, very'll be channeling Grammy Moore...she would have been 107 years old that day! Thank you for sharing your journey...I understand so well about shots and blood draws and NOT looking! (I tend to pass out as well...must be a gene related response!) you...Mom

  2. Your posts are both gut wretching and inspiring. Keep up the good fight, my dear. Hope to finally meet you at the August meeting (16th).