This post is part of my “Cancer Chronicles” series. Each installment highlights an experience from my time as a patient and cancer thriver with the intention of creating a complete archive of stories.
It was still very much summertime outside at the end of August 2014, but inside I was facing chemotherapy orientation within the frigidly cold walls of the hospital. When I was first diagnosed, I never imagined that chemo would become part of my treatment. Based on initial biopsies taken during the laparoscopic surgery which discovered my cancer, it was originally thought that a debulking surgery would be enough to eradicate the disease. Following that debulking surgery, however, pathology reports indicated that further treatment was required, namely: systemic chemotherapy.
Last week in the conclusion of The History of Cancer Treatments: Part I, I described how I had a PowerPort surgically implanted in my chest the day before my 29th birthday to aid in the administration of chemo. With the wound still very fresh and painful, I returned to the hospital just 5 days later to endure my first course of chemotherapy.
With an iced coffee in hand I sat in the waiting room of the hospital on my first day of treatment, a completely different version of the person I was when I was diagnosed months earlier. I was down about 20 pounds and sporting new hardware in my chest that I instantly hated due to its painful discomfort. When I was called back to the room where my port would be accessed I was incredibly anxious about how that would feel, how the chemo drugs would make me feel, and fearful of every other unknown variable the day would bring. As I waited for the nurse to jam a syringe into the barely healed new bump on my chest (as horrifying as it sounds) I remember staring at a sign on the wall across from me which stated that you should not have any caffeine the day of treatment. Crap. Stopping at Starbucks on the way to the hospital had been my attempt at normalcy on a day that was anything but normal.
Each treatment took place on a Monday, where I would spend around 8 hours in the hospital. That was the average amount of time it took for all the various bags of fluids and drugs to drip in to my body at their own unique rate of speed. Once treatment was over I would go home, generally feeling okay that night. The following day, always Tuesday, I would return to the hospital for an infusion of fluids, at which point I would begin to feel as if the life had been sucked out of me. Tuesday was always far worse than Monday and it was a struggle to muster the strength to leave the house and endure a few more hours in the hospital. Upon receiving several bags of fluids I would return home again where I would spend three weeks recovering and getting strong enough to face it all again. In total I endured four courses of treatment from August to October.
Once my port had been accessed on that first day of treatment I returned to the waiting room with tubes hanging from my chest, framed by a large square of taped gauze. My coffee went in the trash. I was given the option to keep the IV tubes in overnight so that my port wouldn’t need to be accessed again the following day for fluids. As unpleasant as that sounded, I chose to keep them in and continued to do that for all four treatments. Nothing could be as unpleasant as the needle-jamming moment I had just gone through and I wanted to keep that procedure to a minimum. I was soon whisked from the waiting room back to my own private room for treatment. I was shown a luxurious looking chair (by hospital standards) where I sat and awaited my fate.
The first order of business was to flush the IV tubes hanging from my chest with saline to make sure they were clear and working properly. I was instructed by the nurse to pop in a hard candy to counteract the foul taste that flush would cause. It barely did the trick but I was thankful for it. I quickly learned that when it comes to cancer treatments, all attempts to alleviate pain or discomfort, no matter how small, are worth it. Once the IV’s were flushed and tested, I was given my first drug of the day: an anti-nausea drug, one that boasted the ability to be quite effective and last a substantial amount of time. Nausea is widely known as one of the worst side effects of chemo so I was pretty excited to get some ammo against it right off the bat. Unfortunately, I soon learned that I would not reap the benefits of said drug.
Not long after the drug started to drip into me, I began to feel very strange. I waited a moment to assess whether the feelings were temporary or cause for alarm. Before I knew it my whole body flushed a shade of red, my skin became hot and prickly all over, my face swelled up, and I felt as if I would vomit. Four nurses and an on-call doctor rushed back in and administered Benadryl, steroids, and eventually fluids to flush the drug out of my system. It was a terrifying moment which ended in the sad realization that I was allergic to this magical anti-nausea drug. I had never been allergic to anything before in my entire life, and now my body was rejecting something potentially very helpful. It was heartbreaking. My first day was not off to a great start.
Once my allergic reaction was under control, treatment continued and the rest of the day was uneventful as I received a myriad of drug cocktails and fluids. I sat with my laptop and watched Netflix as I tried to ignore what was happening right above my heart. Volunteers came around with soup, sandwiches and ice cream throughout the day. Truthfully, most of the day was just plain boring. I never knew that chemo took so damn long. When treatment had finally ended I went home with the set of IV tubes hanging from my chest and tried to sleep through the discomfort. I returned the following day where I received an infusion of so much fluid that I gained close to 10 pounds. I went home feeling heavy and swollen, and soon began to feel like absolute garbage.
The side effects from chemo were quite challenging and had a compound effect as I moved farther along through each treatment. My periods stopped completely, my face become puffy and plagued with acne, and I was too fatigued to get up from the couch most days. My long, thick hair began to thin and I became too weak to properly care for it so I chopped off about 8 inches. The worst part, however, was the perpetual nausea and spontaneous vomiting. I couldn’t sleep for longer than 4 hours at a time because I had to set alarms to make sure I kept up with my anti-nausea medications. If I missed a pill and had a gap in coverage, the nausea would spin wildly out of control. There were blue plastic barf bags in every room of the house, which I reached for and filled regularly. I survived on Wheat Thins, the only thing my body seemed content with. It was an utterly miserable existence.
Once I had reached my fourth and final round of treatment, I could not have been more relieved. I wasn’t sure my body could handle much more, and I was eager to be done and have the PowerPort removed from my chest. My last day of chemo was right before Halloween, and was followed by a PET/CT scan in early November. Thankfully the scan had come back clear, and by Thanksgiving I was able to celebrate the end of chemotherapy. I was incredibly thin and weak, but elated that I could put this chapter of treatment behind me. My doctors suggested leaving the port in for a year, just in case, but I could not imagine living with it any longer and decided to have it removed. I spent December 23rd in the hospital having it taken out. In addition to having a clean bill of health, it was the best Christmas present I could have ever imagined.
I returned to the hospital every three months throughout 2015 for PET/CT scans. Each one came back clear, until the very last one in late December. After enjoying a year free from cancer (albeit a very turbulent and difficult year) I learned that the disease had returned and I would have to endure treatment yet again. Thankfully systemic chemo was not going to be a part of this second round through treatment, and for that I could not be more thankful. My chest would remain port-free and while I would have to face chemo again, this time it would be administered in a rather unique way: directly into my abdominal cavity.
Coming up next week, The History of My Cancer Treatments, Part III: Debulking Surgery #2 and Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy