Drugs, drugs and more drugs

Once a month I take 15 pills, I do so over 5 days. This is my chemotherapy. I take it in the hopes to keep me alive for as long as possible. Presently I am very healthy, in fact I gained 7 pounds over the past holiday season. I stay at home to minimize my chances to catch the flu, for which I am immunized. On most days it does seem like I am feeling normal, I don’t have gaunt features and I do have a full head of hair. But I still fill my body with a poison which I hope kills the chance that my cancer, Adolph, will spread.

I will not kid you, chemo is the worst thing that will happen to you, you will bring yourself to the point where you wish you were dead, just for the hope that you will stay alive. I have yet to meet an oncology nurse who isn’t completely dedicated to her craft. They go about their duties, poking, plunging and reading input/output with all the grace and friendliness imaginable. Oh yes, you will be measured for how much fluid you are given and how much you pee out. Get used to peeing into a hat or urinal and be pleased when the output is substantial, this means you can go home. If you keep all that stuff inside they start to wonder about you and will keep you to be sure all that is well with you.

Your chemo day will generally start with blood work, just to make sure you are healthy enough to take the chemotherapy. If your numbers are too low, the risk of infection is too great. For someone to have an infection during chemotherapy is not a good thing. Once you have passed the blood numbers game you will spend the next few hours in a chair watching TV or playing Solitaire on the computer. It is a lonely time, for privacy purposes you are placed in either individual rooms or curtained cubicles. I have however been to one facility where the chairs all face a bank of windows and are separated by curtains only if the patient requests it.

The constant reminder of your situation is the “tree” a contraption that holds your bag of fluid and medication. This fluid/medication drips into a reservoir and then into the tube that is attached to you via an IV. You see most likely you will be fitted with a port. This is what I describe as a very small cup with a membrane over it similar to a small drum, this port is surgically connected to an artery and therefore your medication is directly put into your bloodstream. If this were to be done via an IV tube in your arm, you would develop scar tissue, much like a drug addict, the veins would soon be not usable and more areas would need to be accessed.

As you are continually given saline fluid, you are continually needing to go pee, very quickly you will learn how to unplug your tree and take it for a walk to to bathroom. Remember your very kind nurse must measure how much you have for output, so at some point in your travel from your room/cubicle you need to find your nurse and let her know you will be leaving her a present. There really is no privacy.

Depending upon how many treatments you will need you may go home with a needle in your port, my treatment was for three days every three weeks, so I could expect to go home with a needle access covered by a protective plastic. Do not worry, this is relatively comfortable.

Nausea; due to the magic of modern medicine I had very little nausea. I was given Zofran before my chemotherapy to counteract the nausea that comes with chemo. I kept up taking this medication on a regular schedule just in case. I did not want to spend any time throwing up, like most people, vomiting is not on my list of things to do.

The first round of chemo is pretty easy on your body, at least that is the hope. I was not so lucky, I ended up in the hospital with a mystery infection, and I was on precautions, basically this meant that anyone entering the room needed to wear a mask, gloves and a gown. Following this it was pretty evident that my initial mix of drugs was too strong and the second round was reduced by 25%. How did I feel about this? I was afraid, would this mean that the chemo might not work after all? I was reassured that the tumor was small and that the drugs would do the job.

Round 2, I started to feel like a boxer who was realizing he was in a bout with someone more talented. My hair began to come out in the shower, big clumps like they said, I would have to put these clumps on the soap tray so that they would not get caught in the drain. I decided that this was not for me and asked my 17 year old daughter to shave my head. Very theraputic, it was a way for the two of us to tell the cancer that we were in control. I felt stronger, until I got a case of diverticulitis which sent me to the ER, another inpatient visit.

By this time I had developed a terrible cough, and during the night, unable to sleep due to the hacking cough, I had my first serious feelings of hopelessness. I had been depressed by my first hospital visit and was prescribed medication, but no medication or counseling was going to help me this time. I did truly think about dying. I had sunk into a deep depression, I was unable to eat, I would put food to my mouth, but I could not take it in. Unless you have experienced this, you will never be able to understand how a depression like that works. My physician ordered nutrients to be delivered to my IV. Adding to my depression was that a dear friend of mine, a woman who had just turned 100 was passing away in the next room, I was on precautions again and could not go to her bedside. Her daughters came to me, kept me updated on her condition and gently told me when she passed.

This sounds like a cliche’, but one thing that kept me going was my husband. He was with me every day during my sickness. He is a seasonal employee and does not work during the winter. He drove me to every treatment, I took radiation at the same time as my chemotherapy, radiation is given daily Monday – Friday, we met many other patients, many other families during our time taking radiation treatments. Some were just treating and expected a positive result, some were simply trying to keep the demon at bay.

At this time we decided my best option was to go into isolation, other than going to treatment I would stay in the house. We did not accept visitors. I did break this once to attend my daughter’s school concert, you see this was my daughter’s senior year of high school. I missed her final school play. She attended the open house of the college of her choice with her Aunt standing in; as that was a treatment day. I would not have been able to attend as I was still in isolation.

Thankfully my final treatments were looming, then I developed a temperature, another visit to the ER. I had developed pneumonia; the decision was made for me to have a certain drug, I received an injection and a prescription to fill the next day. As I recall this was a Thursday, on Friday I started itching and with my doctor’s permission I took Benadryl, I kept itching, on Saturday morning another ER visit and it was determined I was allergic to the drug given to me for pneumonia. We immediately stopped that drug and began another. Having an allergic reaction while on chemo is probably one of the worst experiences a human being can have. I had no resistances to adverse effects of this drug and I itched for five weeks. I would just drop off to sleep and another itch would come up, I kept back scratchers in various places around the house. I can never find words to express my sense of helplessness during this period.

Pneumonia set me back for my final treatment and when I returned to my oncologist for my final dose of chemotherapy the nurse practitioner who met with me told me I could not have my treatment as I had “missed my window”. I was devastated. This, I was certain, had sealed my fate. The next week I met with my oncologist who said that was not the case and immediately set me up for the final dose.

When you finish chemotherapy there is a lightening, as if a burden has been lifted. You realize that you have survived the worst that the world can throw at you. And if God is merciful, you have gone into the lion’s den and reemerged whole. If not, well that is another blog for another day.

Cindy McIntire

About Cindy McIntire

Cindy is a lifelong resident of Waldo County, she is a wife and mother of three adult children. She was diagnosed with small cell carcinoma in her left lung in January 2014. Statistically only 2% of the people who are diagnosed with this disease survive more than 5 years. After trying to find literature written by others in her situation, Cindy chose to write this blog, in hopes that it may serve as a rough trail map for those who may follow.