It’s funny how everyone has a connection to cancer, yet I’ve found that people’s knowledge of the disease is quite general and sometimes vague. I mean, the word is triggering, right? It sets off all kinds of alarms and bells within our minds and bodies, but we’re all sort of detached from its reality unless you’ve been by someone’s side as they underwent their diagnosis and treatment.
I think that’s why some people hear “I”m done with chemo” and think, “That’s it! You did it! Bye, cancer!”
Yeah. No. This disease weaves a complicated web and you’re stuck in it for a lot longer than treatment. You don’t just adjust back to normal life because life will never be normal as you knew it. One. Day. At. A. Time. I joke with one of my cancer buds (they’re called “lymphomies” and Zach legit can’t handle that that term exists and is real) how we need a new term for “the new normal” because that phrase gets so old and it doesn’t quite have the power behind it to really express how we feel after treatment.
During each chemo session, I received four different drugs (aside from all the premeds). Two of them are so dangerous that oncology nurses have to manually push them into your veins while they wear gloves and a protective disposable coat. The last two are regular old bags that hang and drip straight into my PICC line. When the bag is complete, the machine beeps to alert your nurse that you’re done. You hear those beeps all day while getting chemo – it’s part of the background noise in every infusion room. Yet that last beep on that last bag made my heart jump. It was louder, more powerful – it represented so much. It was the end of this chapter. I had never felt my body and my brain actively fight one another on which emotion to let pass through first. I had butterflies for the nervousness of not knowing what comes next. I was scared that I didn’t have chemo to protect me from my body, which I know is capable of producing cancer cells. I was elated because every bad day that had gotten so much worse as treatment went on was almost behind me. Even as I write this, I cannot control the tears that stream down my freckled cheeks.
So when Meredith, my awesome oncology nurse detached the IV from my PICC line, I just lost it. It was the kind of crying that comes from deep within your gut. The kind that is so involuntary that your face feels like it’s having seizures and your nose is competing with your eyes on who can release more feelings.
Seated in front of me was Zach, this beautiful person who had sat across from me for 4 months as I was pumped with poison and knew exactly how I needed my blanket wrapped around me during each session. Who bought donuts for the oncology nurses each week. Who never complained about being in this shitty situation.
I saw all the nurses who made me laugh, told me to take it easy, and always sat down to answer my questions. I was crying, they were crying, and Zach looked on uncomfortably in the best, most Zach-like way. The mind/body battle wasn’t over and I was pulled backward and forward with the thought of never wanting to see them again to never wanting to leave their care.
I saw some of them again a week later when I returned to Infusion Room #2 and had the dressing on my PICC line changed. I’m scared to get it removed in case I get sick and find myself needing easy access to a central line. And on that Friday afternoon, I was happy it hadn’t been pulled the week before. Because I was almost sent to the hospital.
Quick reminder: my heart and lungs are weakened by the type of chemo I received. When I walk a little quicker or do a quick sprint with Quincy at the park, I notice that my heart rate instantly shoots up and I need to stop and catch my breath. It’s terrifying. In those moments, it’s hard not to think about all the people who have kicked the lymphoma, but kicked the bucket when their weakened heart couldn’t handle much anymore. We’ll get to my obsession with those late night google searches another time, though.
Back to my exciting Friday at UCLA. Every time I go to the clinic (which is weekly, if not more) I’m checked from head to toe. Height, weight, temperature, pulse, blood pressure, etc. I casually told my nurse that my heart had been pounding out of my chest while I was idle the past three days. Sometimes for 30 minutes, other times for a couple of hours. As I said this, the blood pressure machine gave us an alarming beep and the words “LOW” flashed on the screen over and over. I was 80/49 and my pulse was faster than they’d like. Whoops.
So they took blood. And more blood. And then some more. They needed to check my counts, send blood cultures to the hospital to be monitored for infections over the next 72 hours, and they needed to test my kidney and liver functions. Then began the debate on antibiotics. My doctor was on vacation so another oncologist stepped in. I was so weak that day that I didn’t even have much left in me to panic or worry. I was surrounded by trained professionals, so if I passed out, I’d be fine. My OG oncology nurse, who is a boss bitch and I love her, came by and told me I was the talk of the 6th floor. And that I might have to go to the hospital to receive a bag of antibiotics. A pharmacist came to speak with me. Another doctor introduced himself. And finally, one of the head docs came by and authorized the use of oral antibiotics. YAY! No hospital. Just another pill bottle to add to my ever growing collection. Another pill that would fix one thing and destroy another. Wonderful. Let’s go.
So I’m keeping my PICC line. Because if I get an infection next week – which is entirely possible since my counts will take a while to get back to normal – I will be so mad that I took out my little catheter bud. She makes things so easy and needles suck, especially when your veins have been demolished by chemo.
Right now I’m on a high because this Friday I won’t be getting chemo. I won’t be counting down my good days and dreading the bad ones. I won’t get dry mouth and will be able to drink water without puking. I’ll be able to swallow food without the pain of throat sores. I won’t have debilitating jaw pain or headaches. I’ll have the energy to play with my dog. My body won’t feel like it has the flu. I won’t have sleepless nights because my muscles won’t ache and my nerves won’t flare. I’ll have room to feel real happiness again. And I’ll be one step closer to that damn scan that I need to be clean and clear.
Before I go, I wanted to leave you guys with an incredible story I first read when I began treatment. It obviously didn’t mean as much to me then as it does now, having lived it. It perfectly illustrates what chemotherapy is like and how it affects everyone. It’s a great read that is both real and humorous.
CANCER: THE MOUNTAIN LION IN YOUR FRIDGE by SomeHedgehog
What’s it like to go through cancer treatment? It’s something like this: one day, you’re minding your own business, you open the fridge to get some breakfast, and OH MY GOD THERE’S A MOUNTAIN LION IN YOUR FRIDGE.
Wait, what? How? Why is there a mountain lion in your fridge? NO TIME TO EXPLAIN. RUN! THE MOUNTAIN LION WILL KILL YOU! UNLESS YOU FIND SOMETHING EVEN MORE FEROCIOUS TO KILL IT FIRST!
So you take off running, and the mountain lion is right behind you. You know the only thing that can kill a mountain lion is a bear, and the only bear is on top of the mountain, so you better find that bear. You start running up the mountain in hopes of finding the bear. Your friends desperately want to help, but they are powerless against mountain lions, as mountain lions are godless killing machines. But they really want to help, so they’re cheering you on and bringing you paper cups of water and orange slices as you run up the mountain and yelling at the mountain lion – “GET LOST, MOUNTAIN LION, NO ONE LIKES YOU” – and you really appreciate the support, but the mountain lion is still coming.
Also, for some reason, there’s someone in the crowd who’s yelling “that’s not really a mountain lion, it’s a puma” and another person yelling “I read that mountain lions are allergic to kale, have you tried rubbing kale on it?”
As you’re running up the mountain, you see other people fleeing their own mountain lions. Some of the mountain lions seem comparatively wimpy – they’re half grown and only have three legs or whatever, and you think to yourself – why couldn’t I have gotten one of those mountain lions? But then you look over at the people who are fleeing mountain lions the size of a monster truck with huge prehistoric saber fangs, and you feel like an asshole for even thinking that – and besides, who in their right mind would want to fight a mountain lion, even a three-legged one?
Finally, the person closest to you, whose job it is to take care of you – maybe a parent or sibling or best friend or, in my case, my husband – comes barging out of the woods and jumps on the mountain lion, whaling on it and screaming “GODDAMMIT MOUNTAIN LION, STOP TRYING TO EAT MY WIFE,” and the mountain lion punches your husband right in the face. Now your husband (or whatever) is rolling around on the ground clutching his nose, and he’s bought you some time, but you still need to get to the top of the mountain.
Eventually, you reach the top, finally, and the bear is there. Waiting. For both of you. You rush right up to the bear, and the bear rushes the mountain lion, but the bear has to go through you to get to the mountain lion, and in doing so, the bear TOTALLY KICKS YOUR ASS, but not before it also punches your husband in the face. And your husband is now staggering around with a black eye and bloody nose and saying, “Can I get some help, I’ve been punched in the face by two apex predators and I think my nose is broken,” and all you can say is “I’M KIND OF BUSY IN CASE YOU HADN’T NOTICED I’M FIGHTING A MOUNTAIN LION.”
Then, IF YOU ARE LUCKY, the bear leaps on the mountain lion and they are locked in epic battle until finally the two of them roll off a cliff edge together, and the mountain lion is dead.
Maybe. You’re not sure – it fell off the cliff, but mountain lions are crafty. It could come back at any moment.
And all your friends come running up to you and say, “That was amazing! You’re so brave, we’re so proud of you! You didn’t die! That must be a huge relief!”
Meanwhile, you blew out both your knees, you’re having an asthma attack, you twisted your ankle, and also you have been mauled by a bear. And everyone says, “Boy, you must be excited to walk down the mountain!” And all you can think as you stagger to your feet is “Fuck this mountain, I never wanted to climb it in the first place.”