(16-04-26) Difficult Questions

“Can I ask you a question?”

I could tell from her tone that she wanted to ask me something personal.  In any other teaching job, this would be no big deal.  Teachers are specifically taught the importance of forming bonds with their students; developing relationships with them is the key to making the most impact on them – not just with their academic growth, but with their self-esteem, safety, physical health, mental health, and interpersonal development as well.  In any other teaching job, this student’s effort to reach out to me would be embraced.

In OUR environment, this is not so much the case.  Personal questions are avoided, then squashed.  Teachers are specifically RE-taught the importance of viewing bonds with their students as a boundary issue; developing relationships with them is the key to being put under investigation.  In OUR teaching job, this student’s effort to reach out to me is feared.

“Yeah, you can.  If it’s not appropriate to discuss, I’ll let you know.”

“Are you going to die?”

I look at this 16-year-old mess of a girl in front of me, and I have no idea what to say.  It’s a legitimate question … and i am torn between being honest with a teenager who has serious (and legitimate!) abandonment issues, and lying to a teenager who has just-as-serious trust issues.  She’s staring at me intently, watching my face even before any words emerge from my mouth.

“I don’t know.  I’m doing everything i can to make sure that doesn’t happen.  That’s why i’ve been going to all these medical appointments.  The stage of my cancer is kind of scary, but i’m getting a lot of treatment from really great doctors.  I can’t make any promises, but I think I’m going to make it through this.”

Her whole body sags with relief.  “Good.  If i lose one more person in my life, i’m going to go crazy … and i’m already kind of crazy, but that’ll make me REALLY crazy.  Like, not coming back crazy.”

As we exchange a quick smile, I decide that my decision to use truth AND lies in my answer was the best approach.

(16-04-25) Pink

Pink scarves.
Pink tie.
Pink suspenders.
Pink lanyards.
Pink pens.
Pink composition book.
Pink bracelets.
Pink water bottles.
Pink belt.
Pink clothes.
Pink sunglasses.

Today, i felt their presence.  All around that dusty, barren, devoid of hope, unpromising campus, i saw them.  I drew from their support, drew from their strength, drew from their subversive rebellion.

Pink Mondays started out as half a dozen of us in the Education department color-coordinating our clothes so that we would all match the pink wig i wore one day a week … the wig that i wore to raise awareness about breast cancer … the wig that Admin approved and then banned two weeks later.  Now, in just under two months, our clan-of-six has spread not only throughout our own department, but also expanded across the facility to include corrections officers, sergeants, security, and recreation staff.  To go through my 8-hour-day at a place that makes me sick to my stomach to even be there now and see so many employees giving me subtle, nonverbal encouragement to keep fighting is just … inspirational.  Today, i was truly inspired.

(16-04-22) Conversation Etiquette

Dear Sort-of-Strangers-In-a-Bar,

I’m going to go ahead and give all of you a pass because you’re friends with my friend … and although Azure sometimes has *terrible* judgment in some of the choices she makes, she has an amazing heart and a strong will, which should – i think – result in her ability to form some truly solid friendships with decent people.

With that said, Sort-of-Strangers, here are some things it is *not* okay to say or do to a cancer patient whom you barely know (or, in fact, just met tonight).

(Picture a guy in the friend circle: White, brown hair, medium height, a little … puffy – probably from years of drinking beer [especially during college].  Aside from initial introductions, he doesn’t say a word to me.  Just stares.  Repeatedly.  Extensively.)

  • It’s not okay to stare at a cancer patient for extended periods of time.

(Picture wind blowing from the air vent right above us, tousling one womyn’s shoulder-length brown hair.) “Well, you had the right idea – coming out tonight without any hair on.”

  • It’s not okay to try to make jokes about a cancer patient’s bald head.

(Maybe she wasn’t trying to be funny.  Maybe it was her way of breaking the ice.)

  • It’s not okay to make comments about a cancer patient’s bald head just so that YOU can feel more comfortable while you’re standing next to her.

(Picture puffy man still staring.  I get the feeling he is trying to think of something to say to me.  Maybe he’s just really drunk?)

(Picture another womyn wearing professional-grade make-up, including perfectly manicured eyebrows and false eyelashes, standing extremely close (too close) to me – a person who lost more than 1/2 of her brows and about 1/3 of her lashes during chemo)  “You’re so lucky that you didn’t lose your lashes, too.”

  • It’s not okay to stand really close to a cancer patient and point out her eyelashes (directly) and eyebrows (indirectly), especially knowing that your own eyelashes and eyebrows are 100% on point.

(Picture puffy man still staring, then finally thinking of something to say.)  “I really like the Burberry case and the pink Converse that you’ve got going on there.”

  • It’s not okay to use half-hearted flattery to stimulate conversation – ESPECIALLY since the cancer patient just watched you take longer than 10 minutes to come up with that.

(Picture three decked out MILF’s, all discussing the spin classes they’ve been attending this week.  One of them turns to me.)  “You should totally go!  Why haven’t you been coming with us?”

  • It’s not okay to compensate for whatever thoughts or feelings you’re dealing with right now by putting that extra edge of high-pitched fake excitement in your voice and pretend like you’re all eager to hang out with someone you’ve never met.
  • Also, it’s not okay to invite a cancer patient who *seriously* doesn’t look so healthy right now to a fucking spin class.

(Picture Eyelashes, returning to start another conversation.)  “You’d think they’d have come up with a cure by now – right?”

  • It is not okay to use the politics of cancer funding as a conversation starter.

 

Sincerely,

a kind of annoyed cancer patient

 

(16-04-22) Herceptin

“You’re not in chemotherapy treatment any more.”

When Dr. Curley said this yesterday, a smile lit up across his face.  It was clear he was proud.  Proud because he was sitting across from a womyn the same age as his wife, from a womyn who – just five months ago – flat-out told him she wasn’t doing chemo, from a womyn whose blood cell counts have been so low at times that postponed treatment and hospitalization were both genuine possibilities.  Proud because – in spite of all this – that womyn was sitting in a chair across from him, alive and finished with the quadruple dose of chemotherapy injections that she endured every three weeks for the last four months.

“How am I not in chemotherapy treatment anymore?  I still have to take Herceptin until November.”

He dismissed the thought with a wave of his hand.  “Yeah, but that’s just a monoclonal antibody.”

Blink, blink.

“That’s just a medication we’re giving you for your HER2 protein, so we can keep the cancer cells from rapidly growing back.”

How is that not chemo?  I thought this question but held back on asking it.  I wasn’t sure if it was the chemobrain acting out … or my natural resistance to understanding anything science-related … either way, i felt stupid for asking, so i kept quiet.

He proceeded to tell me that the symptoms for Herceptin are “not that bad,” and he reminded me that I am “going to start to feel better soon.”  Clearly, he noticed that i needed a mini-pep talk.  It worked.  While the weak smile that slowly spread across my lips (but not my eyes) did not match his 100-watt grin, it was a start.

And that pseudo sense of progress and optimism lasted until about 5:20 this morning, when I attempted to get up and get ready to return to work for the first time in a week.

Pain in between my expanders
Pain all along my right arm

This i understand.  It’s clearly from my radiation mapping yesterday.

Nauseous when i move my head
Three trips to the bathroom in 50 minutes
Body weakness
Chills, then hot flash, then chills

Wait – what is happening?  I thought i was done with chemotherapy sessions knocking me on my ass afterwards.  How am i feeling these things when i am down to just taking Herceptin?

Ah.  Makes a little more sense now.

I know Dr. Curley had his reasons for minimizing my potential side effects … but i wish he would have been straight with me.  I was berating myself this morning for being a baby and calling out of work yet again.  I felt guilty for not doing my job.  I accused myself of playing up the victim role.  I worried that calling out today without a doctor’s note might costs me my job.  It took some text messaging with a co-worker and a Google search on Herceptin side effects before i could comfortably remind myself what i’m sure is obvious to everyone else but me right now: You’re fighting for your life here.  #1 priority?  Take care of YOU.

(16-04-12) Radiation Consultation

Sometimes I think doctors lose perspective that we are their clients.  They’ve spent all these years being super smart and pushing themselves through college, then the MCAT, then medical school, then a residency program, then licensure, then certification.  By the time they’re finished, they have used up over a decade of their lives and likely incurred a massive debt.  So, i get it: They probably feel a little entitled.  They worked hard to get where they’re at, and they want the satisfaction of knowing how much others respect, appreciate, and value them.

Hey, doctors.  I respect, appreciate, and value you.  I have no where *close* to what it takes to become a doctor.  I don’t have the brain, the patience, the funds, OR the stomach to do what you do.  Plus, I need you on a regular basis – now more than ever.  You make living more comfortable for me; in fact, you make living POSSIBLE for me right now.

… but sometimes I think you forget that you need me, too.  You need clients who choose to go to you.  You need clients to pay your fees (or, in my case, authorize an insurance company to pay your fees).  I don’t *have* to choose you.  Members of your profession are spread all over the city, the county, the state, and the country.  I have options; I can choose someone else.  So, when I *choose* you, maybe you could step down off your high horse and appreciate me like i appreciate you.

These thoughts were running through my mind as i sat in the waiting room of the Arizona Center for Cancer Care today.  My appointment was scheduled for 1:30.  I had to leave work early and drive 40 minutes to cross from Phoenix to Scottsdale.  I arrived 12 minutes early, my new patient paperwork and my ultrasound pictures in hand (as promised).  I checked in, showed my ID’s, and sat down to wait.

and wait

and wait

At 2:20, i approached the front desk.  “Could you let me know when I am going to be seen?  My appointment was scheduled for 50 minutes ago.”

I was assured that i was next to be called back, so i returned to my seat.  True to word, my name was called 5 minutes later, and i headed back with the nurse.  Standard procedure: weight check (129), blood pressure (116 over 78), temperature (97.3).  The nurse pointed to the pink paper gown, and i quickly changed into it as soon as she left the room.  I am always afraid i am going to still be changing when the doctor comes in, so i play this game of timing myself.  48 seconds to change into the gown and hide my bra/underwear underneath my pants and shirt.  I even sniffed my shoes to see if they smelled.  All good in the hood.

At 2:45, i opened up the door and stared nurses down until someone asked me if i needed anything.

“Do you know where my doctor is?  My appointment was 75 minutes ago, and I still haven’t been seen.”

They told me he’d be right there.  I ignored the unspoken directive to go back into my room and wait some more; instead, i remained in the doorway and watched them.  Someone must have gone to fetch the doctor because he was there a few minutes later.

“How are you today?”

“I’m a little annoyed.”

He looked surprised.  “Why?”

“Well, my appointment was at 1:30, and it’s 2:48.”

I couldn’t help but notice the LACK of apology.  “Well, I’ve been taking copious notes on your case.”  He held up a 1-page sheet filled with handwritten notes.  I’m not sure if i was supposed to be impressed.  I looked at this older man and wondered if he realized it was the year 2016, and handwritten notes have long been considered obsolete in the medical industry.  Even my general care practitioner and her medical assistant record all their notes on I-Pads and laptops.

“So… Tarah.  That’s an interesting name.”

I stared unblinkingly.  “I guess.”

“Where did that come from?”

“My parents.”

“What made them choose that name?”

“I don’t know.”  That was a lie.  I was named after a painting on my mother’s wall; the artist’s name was Tara.

“And you teach?  At a jail?”

“Yes.”

“What’s that like?”

I had already had enough.  “I don’t want to talk about my name or my job.  I would like to discuss my radiation.”

“Okaaaay….”   His tone indicated that he was slightly offended.  I didn’t care.

From there, he pulled out this sheet of paper from a folder.

image from radiologist

He proceeds to spend i-don’t-know-how-many minutes breaking down every T2 and N3A and UOQ and BRCA(-) displayed in the notes.  The longer he talks, the more infuriated i become.  Um, sir?  I have known about my breast cancer since October.  I have gone to ultrasound technicians, my primary care physician, a breast surgeon, a reconstructive surgeon, an oncologist, half a dozen LabCorp techs, and a cardiologist NUMEROUS times over the past six months to get treatment for my cancer.  I have been hospitalized twice to have my breasts removed and a port implanted.  IF I DON’T UNDERSTAND MY BREAST CANCER SITUATION AT THIS POINT, I’M CERTAINLY NOT GOING TO FIGURE IT OUT BY LISTENING TO YOU DRONE ON AND ON ABOUT MEDICAL ABBREVIATIONS.

By now, my eyes are dry and itchy.  I know it’s because i am forgetting to blink as i stare this man down.  He seems completely oblivious to my growing fury and pulls out another paper to further help his CLEARLY IGNORANT patient understand that she has breast cancer.

image from radioloist 2006

“Now according to this, it’s unclear what your survival rate is, but if you look closely at the numbers above and below your cancer stage, you can guess that it’s somewhere between 20 and 54% … Luckily, you’re in my hands.  I’m internationally known for my work with breast cancer and have won awards for some of my research, so your chances for success are definitely higher with me as your doctor.”

How lucky for me.  By the way, I have a 47-48% chance of survival after going through the mastectomy, the chemo, the radiation, and the hormone therapy … but um, thanks for that “figures not available” statistic that you circled above.  That was immensely helpful.  What would i do without you, doc?

By now, it is well after 2:00, and we haven’t even started discussing the details of my radiation treatment.  That’s okay.  I already know i am never coming back to see him.  I go through the motions, though.  I get on the table and lay back as his hands explore my palms, arms, breasts, glands, and surgery scars.  He measures my scars and infections with a brown, wood ruler.  He talks to his assistant like i’m not even in the room.  I start to get irrationally upset about his old White man putting his hands all over me, so i dissociate until i hear him tell me i can sit up.  Another doctor opens up the door, looks at us in surprise, mutters a quick apology, and promptly shuts the door.  I look down.  One of my breasts is hanging out of the gown.  That’s okay, i tell myself.  It’s not real, anyway.

The oncologist finally starts discussing radiation side effects.  He intersperses this long-awaited information with more self-accolades.  Apparently, he pioneered some research on alternative radiation treatment for people who have early stages of breast cancer – in other words, for people who are NOT me.  Sometime during this monologue, he finally issues an apology for making me wait so long in the beginning.  I barely respond.  Another staff member knocks on the door, opens it, and tells the oncologist that his presence is needed in a meeting.  He finishes up whatever he’s saying (by now, i’m not even listening), gets up, and leaves me in the hands of his assistant.  I tune in long enough to hear her tell me that i can’t wear aluminum-based deodorant on the days i have radiation.  I laugh at her.  It’s about to be May … in Phoenix, AZ.  No deodorant?  No thanks.

Two hours later, here is a summary of the details i learned about my upcoming radiation:

  • I will have it daily for 6.5-7 weeks.  (already knew that)
  • Radiation will take approximately half an hour each day. (knew that, too)
  • I can’t schedule my radiation mapping until after I have my final appointment with Dr. Walsh.  (also not new … but, for the record, why am i even HERE today then?)
  • Radiation there can be scheduled as early as 7:30 or as late as 4.  (no longer matters)
  • One-third of radiation patients experience fatigue.  It will not be as severe as it has been during my chemo, if I do get it.  (a silver lining, admittedly)
  • The most common side effect is sunburn.  It will begin around the 3rd week and crescendo into the last week of radiation.  It will look and feel like a “Jamaican sunburn.”  (I don’t know what that means.)
  • I will likely experience hardening all around my expanders; this is from scar tissue.  (According to Dr. Kuske, OTHER oncologists will cause more scar tissue than he will, but HIS scar tissue will be minimized because he blah-blah-blah.)
  • I may also experience rib pain.  This is normal.  I should not be concerned, unless i start having trouble breathing.  (Seriously, man?  Do you think i have mild mental retardation or something?)

Basically, this was the biggest fucking waste of time.  They never looked at my ultrasound pictures, and they forgot to give me my doctor’s note.  The two hours spent did not tell me much i didn’t already know, and it didn’t get me any closer to actually starting the process of radiation.  I left the office and immediately called Dr. Curley to request another recommendation.  I’m surprised he referred me to this narcissistic tool.  Dr. Kuske may be on point with his knowledge and his research and his pioneering efforts to start the first radiation-oncology clinic that solely focuses on breast cancer … but he SUCKS when it comes to customer service.

So.. yeah.  Radiation is currently on hold until i find a doctor whom i don’t want to punch in the face after spending an hour with him.

 

(16-04-12) Losing Weight, Not Feeling Great

Sigh. There is nothing quite like the feeling of waking up and being able to do an extended, whole-body, cat-like, multi-minute, smile-inducing stretch for the FIRST TIME in over FOUR MONTHS … only to spend the next 35 minutes puking and shitting your guts out.

Cancer: You are on my “Needs To Get Shanked” list. I’m sick of your cry for attention every. single. goddamned. morning.

(16-04-06) Quick Medical Update

This blog is just to let everyone know where i stand in my treatment.

  • Major chemotherapy is over!
    As of April 1, I have completed all six sessions.  I still have to keep going to my oncologist every three weeks to get injected with Herceptin, one of my four chemotherapy drugs; that won’t be finished until November.  However, out of the four medications, Herceptin causes the fewest side effects.  That doesn’t mean NO side effects; all drugs come with consequences, and I’m still going to be dealing with nausea, vomiting, gastrointestinal issues, back pain, trouble sleeping, a constantly runny nose, the possibility of mouth sores, and an increased risk of heart failure (Can you believe this is considered one of the EASIER chemo drugs to take???).  However, it’s not going to completely break down my body like the other ones have been, which means a number of things:
    – My hair is going to start growing back now.
    – Both my white blood cells and my red blood cells finally have a chance to start rebuilding themselves without getting knocked down every few weeks.
    – This 3-month cough should finally start to clear up.
    – In about five weeks, the burning all over my body should start to dissipate, and it should be gone completely in about four months.
    – Soon i can start trying to get myself back into the gym.  (Booty, I *miss* you, and I won’t even grumble about having to get on that damn stair climber three times a week, just so you and i can reunite again one day.)
  • Radiation is about to start.
    I have a consultation with my radiologist on Tuesday.  I don’t have a lot of information about this process right now.  At this point, all i know is that i will have to go to the Virginia G Piper Cancer Center five days a week for about two months.  Radiation itself doesn’t take very long (20-30 minutes); it seems to me that the biggest hassle will be having to drive an hour to Scottsdale every single day of the week.  I’ll have more on that later.
  • Reconstructive surgery is still up in the air.
    A lot of people keep asking me when i am getting these expanders out and the implants in.  I don’t know.  The doctors can’t schedule that surgery until after radiation, so i have at least two months before that is even a possibility.  As much as i hate these Tupperware containers sitting on my chest, i am okay with delaying the surgery as much as possible.  The main reason?  I have no sick leave, annual leave, or FMLA time left, so once i go out for that surgery, i have a feeling that is when i might lose my job.  I don’t know any way around that.  If anyone has suggestions, please feel free to pass them along.

(16-04-04) H.E.A.L.

“I can’t believe you waited so long to be friends with these people.”

My roommate had a valid point.  I’ve been working at Adobe Mountain School since October, 2011, and in the first three years i avoided my coworkers as much as possible, outside of work.  Sure, there were a couple of exceptions (Tyler and Jenna, you clever little buggers), but for the most part i had no interest in forming any sort of connections with my ADJC colleagues.  Even when i started loosening up more in 2014, i still considered those few coworker-buddies *exceptions* to my very strict rule: Keep the coworkers at work.  I wanted to avoid drama, repercussions, complications.  To me, avoidance was the best route.

My approach was all wrong.

Yesterday, i attended a fundraising event put on by the Happily Ever After League, (http://www.happilyeverafterleague.org/).  This nonprofit organization helps financially and emotionally support mothers who are dealing with cancer, and once a year they coordinate this fairytale tea to help raise money for those cancer-moms.  Normally, this is not something i would have attended, for a number of reasons:

  • I’m not a mom.
  • I’m more a quietly-and-quickly-write-a-check kind of donator, as opposed to a jump-in-and-join-the-crowd-for-the-event kind of donator.
  • I can’t paint, design, or build to save my life.  (Remember that previous post where i busted out my mom for doing all my art projects in grade school?)

Luckily for me, i wasn’t the one making the decision about this event.  Had it been up to me, i would have made excuses and missed out on what will most definitely be the best day of my 2016 year.  Luckily for me, this event was decided, planned, and funded by a group of people i would have never expected: my coworkers.

Dear Amy and Catherine,

I will remember this day for as long as i live.  The amount of energy, time, and money you two put into perfecting our “Wizard of Oz” theme continues to bring tears to my eyes even 26 hours after the event.  (Amy, you have stood by and listened sympathetically for months as i have vented about how unsupportive our administration is in dealing with my cancer; i feel like you took all that negativity and just transformed it into something exquisitely beautiful.  Catherine, you *barely* know me.  The first time we had an actual person-to-person conversation was at last year’s ACE conference, when we were all taking a break from workshops in Hileman’s room … and yet here you are, one year later, devoting countless hours into making our set design and costumes perfect.) The incredible details that you two put into the Munchkinland table piece (the apple trees, the tornado looming over a house, the lollipops everywhere, the yellow brick road dancing around the whole display, the lily pad pond, the hot air balloon, an EFFIN’ MOTOR underneath so that the whole thing constantly rotated!) had me starstruck most of the event yesterday.  I know there were other tables to view and baskets to bid on and people to network with and speeches to listen to … but seriously, i spent most of the tea time staring at what you two had spent weeks in Amy’s garage building.  

 

Dear Clayton,

As we all know, you can pretty much rock anything you wear (and we all enjoy watching you do just that!).  Today, though, you sashayed your way into winning our table the “Best Hat” award.  Perhaps this was just another Sunday for you; i could soooo see you struttin’ around Tempe or Scottsdale, schooling young men about the wonderful world of glitter wands, water guns, high hats, and goggles … but you seemed to go the extra mile in your charming ways today, and now Catherine’s “Wizard” hat is officially award-winning.

Dear Kate and Katie,

I know how super-busy you two always are.  You juggle work, extra duties with work, parenting, extra duties with parenting, and side jobs … yet both of you managed to find time to design awesome Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion costumes; find money to help pay for our group’s table; and find any opportunity yesterday to check in with me and make sure i was doing all right, since i was still recovering from my 6th round of chemo.  I love both of you.  I didn’t give either one of you a chance to get to know me for the first 2-3 years i worked at Adobe, and now i realize that was truly time wasted; you two are extraordinary womyn – STRONG womyn from whom i have so much to learn.  

Dear Christie,

My Arizona mom – you already know how much i love and appreciate you.  Your robust spirit has pushed me forward on many a day, and yesterday was no exception.  There was one moment during the tea when i was either spiking a fever or facing a serious hot flash … i was trying to conceal it so that no one would get worried about me, and just when i thought i might pass out, i heard the MC announce that our table had just won the “Best in Show” award!  I watched as you, Catherine, and Amy all went up on stage to claim the award, and i couldn’t help but burst out laughing as i watched you limp behind them all flying monkey style.  It was just like you to find a way to transform one of my miserable moments into one filled with laughter.  You don’t even realize how often you do that for me.

Dear Jenna,

You and i both know that i wouldn’t have even made it to that event had it not been for you.  You practically carried my ass to your car, drove me to Azure’s to get my makeup professionally done, and chauffeured me to the event.  I am willing to bet a paycheck that you were more than a little stressed in those final hours, knowing that your costume wasn’t finished but still making my needs a priority.  Thank you … and for the record, you totally should have won “Best Costume,”  but i am pretty sure those H.E.A.L. ladies were trying to avoid letting the Wizard of Oz table monopolize ALL the awards.  It’s okay.  We know the truth. 

15617

Dear Felecia,

You weren’t at the event, but you found a way to make sure i knew your SPIRIT was: with cake.  Holy cow, this is hands down the most amazing cake i have ever received (and that’s saying something since one year, my Penn State buddies made me a birthday cake in the shape of a vagina … with a clitoris … and pubic hair).

20160403_142241.jpg
a totally edible ruby red slipper perched on top of my FAVORITE: red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting in between the cake layers

I ate this cake for dinner last night; my roommate ate it for breakfast this morning.  Coworkers told me it took you over a week to “set” the slipper so that it would hold that shape.  I want you to know that we put the slipper in a plastic bag and moved it to the freezer; i am keeping that as a souvenir.

 

There were others who contributed to making this event perfect – like Kristine and Joni, for completing our group by adding a munchkin and Auntie Em in the mix; Langbehn, for putting an inscribed copy of The Wizard of Oz on the top of the table display; Lael, for building that motor and for taking time out of your Sunday to put up and take down the display; and the anonymous donors who helped our table raise over $500, which was on top of the $600 cost to hostess a table.  As i wrap this blog up with tears STILL STREAMING DOWN MY FACE, i want to make one thing very clear:

I owe my survival to the loved ones in my life.  You are all a part of my core being now … and once i beat this cancer, i WILL make sure i reflect the strength and sweetness that you have all bestowed upon me during this battle.

(16-04-01) Update on Chemo Session #6

Today was kind of an exciting day.  Funny how the meaning of “exciting” has so drastically changed.  I was on the phone with a friend this afternoon, and she told me Dinah Shore was this weekend.

… Dinah Shore was the kind of thing that i used to get excited about.

Now, I get excited as i sit directly across from an oncologist who is reaching out to hug me because i made it to the 6th and final session of my chemotherapy treatment.  On time.  Still walking.  Never hospitalized from side effects.  This was exciting to me.  Today, i got to see my white blood cell count go back up, and a big grin on my oncologist’s face, and tears well up in my roommate’s eyes, and it was an exciting moment for all of us … because this first major victory is proof of something that we all desperately want to believe in: I am on my way to beating this.

Dr. Curley did mention that my red blood cell count is significantly low: 9.0.  The report’s specific word choice was “alert.”  When Dr. Curley made a side comment about how a blood transfusion wouldn’t be necessary, my heart jumped.  Why did he say that?  I knew if I asked him, he would answer carefully; he’s constantly working to ease my anxiety during these office visits (regardless of whether i even appear anxious).  Later, during my chemo treatment, i looked online to find out how low someone’s red blood cell count needed to be before a blood transfusion would be necessary.  Imagine my dismay to come across a 2012 U.S. News & World Report article that mentioned how physicians used to consider a 9-10 RBC count anemic enough to require a blood transfusion!  To be fair, that requirement has changed after over 60 years of research analysis; these days, people don’t get blood transfusions unless their RBC count is 7-8 grams.  Still, it’s my latest worry: When my hemoglobins drop these next couple of weeks from chemo, will they dip low enough to require a transfusion???

I learned another (more positive) thing about my red blood cells, something that helped me better understand one of my biggest side effects.  Lately, i have felt burning in my muscles whenever doing simple tasks: walking from one building to the next at work, emptying the dishwasher, cleaning the litter boxes, or picking up a few items at Target.  The burning feels like i have just hiked several miles up a steep mountain incline, under Arizona’s hot summer sun, with only lukewarm water in my CamelBak.  I have felt increasingly weak and more fatigued every week since chemo started back in December, but this burning hits me a little harder (and the dozens of hot flashes i get throughout the day don’t exactly help with the burning).  Dr. Curley explained something i probably was taught in middle school science class but clearly wasn’t interested in learning about: red blood cells serve as transportation to the body.  Specifically, one of the things that it transfers is oxygen.  However, chemotherapy depletes my oxygen levels AND my red blood cells – more and more with each session i have.  So by now, my limited amount of red blood cells are trying to chauffeur an insufficient amount of oxygen to my muscles, but they slow and weak in doing so.  My muscles, when i try to use them even for simple tasks, are essentially screaming out for oxygen; that’s the burning i feel.  He told me that i will start to feel less burning in about 5 weeks, and in four months it should be basically gone.  5-24 weeks.  I can do that.