I think the most everpresent questions in my mind, even since before my official diagnosis, have been about the chemotherapy experience itself. I wanted to know so much:
- Does it hurt?
- Will it hurt afterward?
- Will I be vomiting and dragging for days, like in that movie with Julia Roberts? (whose name I refuse to say, because the memories of it have clearly shaped my unsavory images of chemotherapy to date; do NOT mention it here, ever, puh-lease)
- How fast will I lose my hair?
- What should I be doing/eating/drinking/thinking to support the chemo drugs in doing their job while maintaining my own body stores to help me get through this?
I wasn’t worried about the fatigue or bed rest. Hey, I can *do* bed rest! I wasn’t even worried about the hair loss, just curious about when and how. So here’s my take on what it’s like to walk into that chemo unit and sit down for treatment. I imagine everyone’s experience is different. I know Fenicle has a different and darker view of this, for instance, and she’s well-justified in having it. But I didn’t. I had a very good experience my first time in, and I intend to keep at it.
First, I should talk about the Young Survivors group. Now, this isn’t affiliated with the national organization, but it is a local group at the hospital where I’m getting treatment. Ten or so of us in our 20’s and 30’s showed up after work/treatment/resting/playing with the kids and nibbled on cheese and crackers while sharing our experience. Two of us were newbies and the rest in various stages of survival. (BTW, I’ve been informed that you’re a breast cancer survivor if you’ve survived past noon on the day of diagnosis. Whoo-hoo! I’m a survivor!) It was really nice to meet women in various stages of treatment, and I felt really good about it afterwards. But also more scared. Probably because I had more knowledge of what could happen. And since everyone’s body reacts differently to chemo, everyone will have a different set of reactions and experiences and levels of nausea, vomiting, fatigue, etc. So, in the aggregate, the possiblities were rather scary. But once I sat down and parsed them back to individuals, it seemed more manageable.
Plus, they wore great hats. Or scarves. Or weaves. And one woman in her 20’s had the most beautiful bald head that went perfectly with her business suit and engagement ring. Awesome.
So, I walked into the infusion unit at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday. I totally felt like the new girl in school, arriving a week late and not too sure if I was wearing the right shoes or trendy jeans, and overdressed in the worst way (surely everyone can tell I’m new) because I still had my hair. Part of it, at least. But even my close-cropped “do” would make a chemo cap stick out funny in all the wrong places. I hesitantly walked up to the desk, introduced myself, and began to sign in. The nurse smiled gently at me, took away the clipboard for an entirely different kind of injection, and helped me fill out the proper paperwork. We (WhyDaddy, who I’d like to rename here and now WonderDaddy for being with me through all this, keeping track of my myriad new meds, keeping me sane throughout the bad news and giggling through the good — and keeping me upright through the testing) took the paper-stuffed clipboard through the Hall of Quilt Squares Made By Cancer Patients into the waiting room which shall now be known as The Land of Jigsaw Puzzles.
In a few minutes, Nurse Nora (or is that the name of the nurse/walrus from the Richard Scarrey Stories? I forget) came to fetch us and show us around the place. We’d taken a quick stop up there last week, so we weren’t too stunned by its appearance, but it turns out that there was one crucial difference today. While the nurses’ station, pharmacy, bed infusion unit, and various support rooms where all just where they had been last week, the chemo room itself was different.
Where last week I had been encouraged by the fact that the patients each got their own little curtained area, on Thursday, at 8:30 a.m., the curtains were all open.
We would all be in one big room.
Hesitantly, so hesitantly, I stepped in, not wanting to really get my feet wet or feel the chill that I was sure would come. But the nurse was so nice, and so patient, and another woman getting treatment smiled at me. As the right side of the unit fills up first (better views out the windows, I think), we headed over to the left and chose a spot in the corner. I did NOT draw the curtains (thanks for the tip, Kimberly!), and we began to wait.
Despite the warnings that we’d have to wait hours for treatment, things moved along really quickly. Of course, I’d had my labs done last week, and didn’t need to wait for a doctor’s report, but they are also really efficient. A new nurse, who I’ll call my Angel Nurse, came over and was lighthearted and encouraging as she started my IV, chatted lightly, and coo’ed over the pictures of my babies that I had brought and set up along the windowsill. (She also laughed at the Milk Duds and treats that I’d brought for WonderDaddy; but she was pleased that he was there. Support makes all the difference.) Over the next few hours, she changed my drips (first 2 bolluses of saline, then the antinausea meds, then the first chemo drug, and finally the second chemo drug, which has to be “pushed” into my vein with a lot of drawbacks — a very not pleasant procedure, if you ask me, but at least it was over relatively quickly), did a lot of “patient education” about side effects and “when to call the doctor,” and laughed with us. She got quite a chuckle out of WonderDaddy’s wry sense of humor and my good spirits, and I think it helped. I know it helped me.
We also had a revolving door of visitors! During the 3 hours we were there, we were visited by the hospital chaplain, cancer social services director, my oncologist’s representative, and the oncology infusion nurse that I’d met at the Young Survivors’ Group (who works on a different floor). All were bright and cheery. Well, the chaplain was a little taken aback at our cheeriness at first, I think, but I think she was more understanding near the end, after we talked about all the support that we have. I don’t think she would have understood this blog-thing, but I know she understood that we’re (generally) church-going folk, who have church families praying for us. And that is the most wonderful thing. Being a hospital chaplain must be a terribly hard profession. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to hold people’s hands and pray with them and try to be encouraging, hour after hour, day after day, for people who you may never see again.
But back to the day itself. When we finished, I still felt pretty good. We split pretty quickly, stopping in the cafe for a teeny tiny sandwich while I still felt like eating. That was an incredibly good idea, it turns out, since I still haven’t eaten anything besides peanut butter crackers and apple slices. I felt good on the way home, hugged the babies, chatted with my parents for a while, and then went to bed. Then I started to feel pretty woozy. But eventually I was able to sleep.
And the answers to the questions?
- Does it hurt? Nope. Actually, the first antinausea drug made the injection site burn, but Angel Nurse hung it in a drip instead and it didn’t hurt after that. One of the chemo drugs tickled my shoulder. No hurt.
- Will it hurt afterward? Nope. Except for a splitting headache. Maybe a side effect. Controllable.
- Will I be vomiting and dragging for days, like in that movie with Julia Roberts? No on the vomiting. Maybe yes on the dragging. But I’m upright and blogging again today, so that’s a good sign. We’re hoping to go to playdate on Tuesday, so that will be the real test!
- How fast will I lose my hair? Stay tuned!
- What should I be doing/eating/drinking/thinking to support the chemo drugs in doing their job while maintaining my own body stores to help me get through this? Still working on this one. I have a fabulous book that NYfriend sent me that I’ve been working through and will talk with my nutritionist on Monday about appropriate supplements and natural helps. Eating so far has been hit-or-miss. I just can’t stomach most food, regardless of how good it would be for me. A lot like the first trimester of pregnancy, actually. And the tiredness as well.
Thinking, though? Thinking is easy. We’re thinking positively. And with your help, we will continue to do just that.