The Circle of Death
This time last year, I was on my mom’s couch, feeling as if I had been run over by a truck. Thankfully, it was from the last chemo treatment I would have to endure. Hard to believe it’s been a year since then.
On June 16th, 2003 I showed up at the oncologists’ office bright and early for my first treatment. I was led to the back, to an area where about a dozen chairs were arranged in a semicircle, about half of them occupied by others already hooked up to their chemo drips. I thought to myself “Hey, it’s the Circle of Death”. Nothing like a little gallows humor to take the edge off. I took the last remaining recliner and waited for one of the nurses to get to me. I wasn’t sure what to expect – I knew I had to have blood drawn, an IV drip for the chemo, and a shot for some more chemo.
Thankfully, they were able to do everything with one stick… one of the nurses got the IV going, from which they drew blood to check my white and red cell count (more on that later), as well as my tumor markers. The two main markers they check in TC cases are AFP (Alpha-fetoprotein), and Beta-hCG. In my case, the AFP levels were high, indicating that cancer cells were still in my system. Over the course of my treatment and afterward, they would track it to gauge the effectiveness of the chemo, and to look for signs of recurrence.
Next, they started with the various and sundry IV bags… steroids and anti-nausea medicine to start. I was never quite sure what the steroids were for, and all they really did was make my face flushed. After the second day they eliminated the steroids completely.
Then came the “weed killers”: Bleomycin, Etoposide (VP-16), and Cisplatin, or BEP for short. The Bleomycin didn’t take very long – maybe 15 minutes. But the VP-16 and Cisplatin were mixed in with literally liters of saline. The stuff is pretty toxic, so it needs to be flushed out as soon as possible. To accelerate the process I was also given a diuretic (which made me feel like I had been punched in the kidneys), and found myself heading to the bathroom several times, IV pole in tow.
To push all those drugs and saline through me took a while… the first day I was there from 8:30 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon. Which was pretty much par for the course… sometimes it would only take four hours, sometimes over six. It was funny hearing the other people comment on all the large bags hanging off the IV rack, considering most of the other patients only had one or two small bags at most, and weren’t there for more than an hour.
I brought my backpack full of goodies each day – books, magazines, Gameboy, music, etc. And by the end of the week, I slept more than anything. Still, it was so boring – very little to do. Mom stayed with me most of the time that first week – I can only imagine how boring it was for her – she didn’t even have the benefit of the needles, drugs, and constant trips to the bathroom!
The Downward Spiral
The first day I felt pretty good. Went to play guitar at a youth event with John and Kevin, and played a little basketball afterwards. The next day, I was a little more worn out, but still didn’t feel “sick”. But by Wednesday I was thoroughly exhausted – I had to go into work for an hour or two to take care of some stuff, then went home and promptly fell asleep.
I was done with the first round of the BEP on Friday, which was a good thing because I felt like death warmed over. By that point, I was having all kinds of issues. There wasn’t one particular symptom that really bothered me, but the combined effects made life pretty miserable.
Just for starters, nausea was a constant – thankfully, I never vomited though. Sore throat, indigestion, tinnitus, headache, constant hiccuping. Nothing tasted good, nothing smelled good (in fact, the lotion/perfume/hairspray my mom and sister put on that Sunday nearly did make me throw up), and every sound was ear-splitting. I couldn’t watch TV or use the computer for very long, as any fast motion would make me more nauseous than usual. Add all that to just plain feeling sick – very sick. The worst part during that weekend was that I couldn’t eat – I was hungry, but nothing sounded good. When I did try to eat, it felt like the food was stuck halfway down – it’s hard to describe it exactly, but it was incredibly uncomfortable. The worst part is that there really isn’t anything you can do – you just have to deal with it.
Though that first weekend was terrible, there was a bright spot. On Saturday night, as I was trying to sleep, I felt God’s presence, even stronger than the night I accepted the fact that I had cancer. It was comforting – in the midst of this, every other concern was burned away – all that mattered was that He was in control. I knew I wasn’t alone, and that no matter what He would be there.
I spent the entire weekend in bed or on the couch at Mom’s. That Monday I had to go in for a checkup and another treatment. Thankfully it wouldn’t take half a day like the previous week. For the next three weeks, I only had to go in once a week for the Bleomycin. That first day though, I was still feeling very ill. Mom and I waited for what seemed like forever for the doctor to see me – he said I was doing very well all things considered. I can only imagine what it felt like for anyone who went through that and *didn’t* do well. He wrote a prescription for a couple of things that did help with my indigestion/heartburn thing and my hiccuping. The makers of Nexium are rolling in the dough – $5 a pill!
Second Verse, Same as the First
Anyway, I nearly passed out yet again when they got the IV going… bleh. But thankfully it was over for at least a week. That afternoon I went swimming. What they neglected to tell me is that the chemo would make me sensitive to sunlight. So on top of everything else, I had a sunburn that second week. I didn’t start feeling “normal” until the end of the second week – by that time most of the symptoms had gone away or at least faded somewhat.
That second week I also got a haircut. It was pretty much a given that my hair would go in the next week or two, so Mom thought it would be less messy if I got it chopped. It looked pretty good, I thought – I’m probably going to get it cut like that again next time I need a haircut.
I weighed myself on Wednesday of the second week. I was down to 187 – the lightest I had been since sometime in 2000. Unfortunately, I would only gain weight from that point.
Who Loves Ya Baby?
The third week I went back to work for at least a few hours each day. About that time my hair started falling out. I would run my hand through my hair and come up with a handful each time. It was kind of funny, actually. By Wednesday I had obvious bald patches, so I took the clippers, set them to the lowest height and took off most of my hair. The remaining patchy hair just *screamed* “Cancer Patient”, so I grabbed my Gillette Mach 3 and proceeded to remove it all for that classic Kojak look. I thought it looked pretty good, all things considered. For the next few months, people regularly guessed my age to be much lower than it actually is. I suppose if you don’t have a hairline to give away your age and no facial hair either (the chemo affected most of my body hair), you do look pretty young.
That Tuesday when I went to get my next Bleo treatment, my blood counts weren’t good. My white cell count was very low, which meant I was susceptible to infections that could seriously affect my treatment. So they wanted to get those numbers back up before giving me the chemo. For the next three days I got shots of Neupogen (yeah – more needles!) which kickstarted my bone marrow to produce more white blood cells. It felt similar to those growing pains when I was 13 or 14. On Thursday the numbers looked good enough, so they gave me another shot of Neupogen, as well as the Bleomycin.
That was the single worst day during the entire treatment. I went to my house, *intending* to play some Xbox, but all I could do was lay on the couch. I’m guessing that the combination of Bleomycin and Neupogen didn’t react well to each other. I would have these painful spasms in my back, my stomach, my legs, everywhere. Just out of the blue I’d have a shooting pain somewhere in my body. I’d readjust my body, which would help a little, then as soon as I relaxed, the pain would reappear somewhere else. On top of that, I had terrible chills… it was the middle of June, and I have the heat on, wearing a sweatshirt and a stocking cap. I eventually got the idea to take a hot bath, which did help tremendously – over the next few months, I would take *lots* of hot baths.
Thankfully I was feeling better by the next day. The Bleomycin was pretty rough, but usually the ill effects would only last a day, as opposed to the full BEP. Which is good, because I was heading to Vegas!
Well, I guess there will be a part three… stay tuned, true believers.