Want to know what chemo is like?

Not every cancer patient gets the same chemo drugs.  Some people get one drug.  Some get four.  I get two.  Here’s how it goes down.
The morning of my treatment, I get up and start my two week cycle of oral chemo.  This drug has a few side effects including nausea, weakness, fatigue, muscle aches and headaches.  I get all of them to varying degrees. But, so far, none to the point of stopping me from getting through a normal day reasonably well.  

My husband, aka, my driver, chef, and wiper of tears on bad days, takes me to the cancer treatment center.

In Pittsburgh, there is an enormous, fancy, well funded cancer treatment center called Hillman. It’s got sculptures, fountains and free lunch. The place I go? Is not that. But it’s close to my house and I like my doctor, so I’m ok with a boring, clinical setting. We arrive and wait a bit in the waiting room. I always notice the people there. I am always the youngest and seem the least sick. I’m never sure how to feel about that. I’m tempted to feel a little sorry for myself because, geez, these people typically have 30 years on me at least. But on the other hand, I’m feeling good enough to take a shower and put on lipstick and earrings and wear boots that once, an elderly but sassy patient loudly pointed out were not worn by “nice girls back in her day.” So mostly I feel thankful that, at least so far, we don’t really need to use the “cancer patient only” parking spaces.

So we get called back and they take my vitals. They then access Mort the Port. Mort is located below my collarbone on my left side. He’s about the size of a peach pit and he makes a weird little bump. 

 Via Mort, they can draw blood and give me medication. They also have to flush him with saline, which makes my mouth taste like metal for some reason. It is weird and gross. They then give me my pre-meds which include some fluids, steroids and anti-nausea medication. About then I meet with my doctor who is about my age, Indian, friendly and funny. I like him a lot. So far we’ve only gotten good news from him, such as stellar blood work and so far no evidence of cancer cropping up in other places. So my meetings with him have been pleasant and positive. He says I’m a trouper and he is impressed with my staying active, working, etc.

Then I head to the treatment area. It’s a large room with about 10 chemo stations. A lot of the people there are pretty sick. But most have a companion (spouse or friend or relative) with them and everyone seems to stay pretty positive even if they are weak and not feeling well. They hook me up to my IV chemo, a drug that causes all kinds of weird side effects. But during the infusion time, nothing major happens. My mom arrives.  My husband goes to work.  We chat, play Scrabble.

I watch hilarious videos on You Tube.  Have silly text conversations.  Answer work emails.  This all takes about 3 hours. It’s afterward that things get weird.

Different types of cancer require different types of chemo. So mine may be different than someone with, say, breast cancer. Plus even the same drug may affect two people differently. So this is just what has happened to me so far. When I leave the center, I have to keep my hands and feet warm because the cold paralyzes them and makes it feel like they are being stung by a swarm of bees. And I cannot breathe in cool/cold air. If I do, my breathing becomes like someone who has just climbed 5 flights of stairs quickly. I’m out of breath and cannot “catch” it even though I am not at all over-exerted. The cold air paralyzes and causes spasms. It’s very weird. So I wear a scarf and keep it tight over my face. Mind you, it’s only been about 45 degrees so far. So, I’m sweating because I’m wearing gloves and warm socks and a scarf. It is very hard to explain to someone that you are both overheated and fearful of letting the cold get to you. People have a hard time understanding this, but I wouldn’t understand it either.

The cold sensitivity also includes food and drink. Can’t ingest anything cooler than room temperature. If I do, it feels like I’m swallowing tiny porcupines. This is tough because dehydration is a major risk with these medications and one can only drink so much hot tea.   But I’m becoming a bit of a tea snob.

Also, anything sour, sweet or pungent (like a sharp cheese) is off limits. It feels like I just took a giant swig of pure lemon juice. So my diet for a week or so is warm and bland. Which is fine, because I am also nauseous. Not like toilet-hugging, stomach flu nauseous. Just unsettled and unpleasant. Nothing sounds good except, say, crackers, macaroni and cheese, toast. You get the idea.

A new side effect this time around is muscle aches. I also got a flu shot (my first ever) so maybe it’s from that. But this is for the birds. I keep waiting for a magical fairy massage therapist that does house calls to show up.

Another new side effect is that cool air or tears hurt my eyes. That’s just great. Because, you know, you never feel like crying when you have cancer. Honestly this one is just funny to me. Like…seriously?! My new motto is “There is no crying after chemo!” Seriously, I cried a little bit yesterday and immediately decided that there will absolutely be no more of that until this stuff wears off a bit. A friend’s daughter sent me a beautiful painting of a stained glass window from her church today. It was so sweet I got a tiny bit weepy and had to be like “Nope. No way. This is not adorable at all.”

So, it will be like this for a while. But it gets better. I still have to take the oral medication for two weeks, but my body seems to tolerate that much better than the IV chemo I get. Now, lest you think I’m just sitting here feeling bad and sorry for myself…I’d like to end with some gratitude.

I’m grateful for my husband handling everything while I am pretty much just capable of getting through the day. I’m thankful for my mom making sure I have everything I need and taking me out when I’m up for it. I’m thankful for the awesome care packages and cards and texts and shout outs on Facebook. I’m thankful that people care enough to read this blog. I’m thankful I’m not sicker. I’m thankful that God has been faithful every step of the way, giving me hope when I need it, grace when I need it and peace the entire time. I sincerely am filled with peace and even joy almost all of the time. Cancer does some terrible things. But it is making me tougher, wiser, kinder and more faithful every day. So, I’m grateful for this experience, even the messy, painful parts.  Besides…I’m a fighter, yo.

3 Replies to “Want to know what chemo is like?”

  1. Thank you for sharing. Keep up your positive outlook and your sense of humor. You are blessed!

    I hit the 10 year mark last summer. My chemo treatments were 96 hours straight, twice, with about a month between the two treatments. I started radiation the day I started my first chemo treatment in August 2003. One week from today is the 10 year anniversary of my big surgery.

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