Yes, yesterday was a success. And yes, yesterday was exhausting and hard and there were sporadic outbursts of tears. But there were also so many love notes from you, via the blog and via email, and reconnections late last night with two friends from the past, coming alive out of history for me, and there are not enough words to express my happiness and gratitude for that. For them. And now I have some stories to tell, and a few minutes to tell them while the babies are both asleep and the pain is subsiding, here in the magic middle of the cycle, 2 hours after taking the pain meds and 2 hours from needing them desparately again.
The stories start two weeks ago yesterday, with the day that did not go so well. You know the outcome — no chemo — but you don’t yet know the story, so here it is. Stick around a while, and I’ll tell you the story of yesterday, a story of love, and a story of rediscovering two friendships that I had missed sorely. Or come back later and read. I know it’s a holiday weekend, and I hope you all get done early with work and home to cuddle your loved ones. Even. the. cat.
Two weeks ago yesterday, I was hurting badly from a sudden onset of neuropathy that caused me to lose all feeling in and most of the control over my legs. I was worried about chemo, but determined to go down to the hospital and try. When WonderDaddy helped me out of the car, I faltered a bit. My legs buckled under me, so he helped me walk a few steps over to the sidewalk and then a few steps more. At the first parking post, I stopped, supported myself on it, and could go no farther. WonderDaddy made sure that I was secure and went tearing into the building. He came back, whistling, with a wheelchair and without his bags. He had dropped them quickly in the front hall when he saw a wheelchair waiting there, and only picked up the snack-and-book bag and his laptop when he had settled me carefully into the chair and pushed me inside where it was warm.
I hated sitting in that wheelchair. Hated it, hated it, hated it. To me, it was a fate feared more than the chemo chair, even the chemo chair in Fenicle’s words, which haunt both me and her. I had wanted so much to a) stay out of the hospital during my chemo treatments and b) stay out of a wheelchair. I actually hadn’t realized the possibility of a chair until I saw other patients in them. Patients too weak to walk. Patients too weak to talk. To smile. To laugh. To hope, perhaps, and it made me sad to see them like that, knowing what vibrant lives they may be leaving behind. The only thing that scares me more than the wheelchair is the array of beds in the chemo ward. Around the corner, away from the cheery noises of happy nurses and chin-up patients, away from the patients with family and friends there to comfort them, away from the husbands sneaking yet another Lorna Doone cookie snack pack for their wives stuck in the chairs … away from the rolls of the dice, the impromptu poetry murmured to a spouse, the lunch cart offerings, and the new COWs (computers on wheels, really, but they are so heavy to cart around it seems like they’re always being herded from curtain to curtain), there is another room. A quiet room. A silent room. A room where we walk quickly past, trying not to hear the groans, the sighs, the discomfort and the pain verbalized. A room full of beds for those who are too weak to sit up to get chemo. Just thinking about it makes me shudder, and it makes me weep.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
In present time, in this story, my wonderful husband is pushing me back through the waiting areas to the sign-in area for the laboratory. His jovial mein and not-quite-serious attitude belies his fears, and makes a mockery of the sad faces that we pass, the old women and men holding hands on the couch whose faces change as we approach, so young and healthy, but me in a wheelchair and my handsome husband so close behind. His strength propels me, and helps me sit up a little straighter in this dreaded chair.
He signs me in, and as we wait for the lab tech (oh, the wait! it’s always an hour from sign-in to blood-draw at this lab, early in the morning, as the lab techs prepare their stations for the long day that they know is to come in this busy cancer center), he takes the opportunity to spin me around, to lighten the mood, and to practice, for he’s never driven a wheelchair before. (As it turns out, we both have a few things to learn today. Example for me: quitch’er bellyachin’ and just ride in the damn thing. Example for him: please to not to steer her into the wall again. Or leave your passenger sitting face to the wall; it makes a person panicky.)
As the nurses pass us in the waiting area, each one stops and takes a moment from her day to cheer me, to tap me on the shoulder, to pat me on the knee, and/or to wish me a blessed day. I take this as a good sign, a sign that my medical oncologist (the chemo czar) will also be kind to me and cheer me on as I go up to the chemo ward for chemo number 14. We wait for my blood to be taken, my vital signs to be measured, my weekly weigh-in (painful though it is to stand again, it only takes a moment), and then the nurse bustles us into a too-small room with a too-small door, where the furniture has to actually be rearranged to accomodate my chair.
WonderDaddy fills the awkward silences with jokes and news from his Blackberry.
When the oncologist and her entourage appear, moments later, their jovial attitude seems to melt as they step through the door and around my chair. “What happened?” shoots my oncologist, as I try to explain the sudden onset of Tuesday night, my panic, the call to her office that day and the next, and the reassurance of her nurse practitioner, who advised alternating tylenol and motrin. I saw the look she gave across the room, and, grateful that it wasn’t directed at me, looked quickly away. She helped me on the exam table, tested my reflexes, examined all kinds of new things, and pronounced “no neurological damage.” Then the typical exams, a sad look, and the next pronouncement, sotto voice, but hitting me like a ton of bricks: “no chemotherapy today.”
I was not allowed to have chemo that day, and it struck me to the core. It would be added on to the end of my treatment, taking us all the way to the end of the year, and that would be the best case scenario. I wrote about this part of the story before, so I will skip any retelling of that piece and only briefly mention my tears as my husband helped me back into my clothes, the snuggliness of the warm grey sweater that came in my chemo bag from friends that morning, the mocking pinkness of my cancer converse, and the futility of the bra that he so gently put back on my swollen breast.
He offered to take me out to lunch to celebrate, but I didn’t feel like celebrating at all. In truth, neither did he, but oh, the points he got for trying. Instead, he took me home, helped me up the stairs, and tucked me into bed for an afternoon of Mary Poppins with my three-year-old.
It was a sad day.
The next Thursday was happier, if only because I walked into the hospital myself and was allowed to get chemo, bringing the count down to 3.
And then we come to yesterday. Yesterday, I pulled on the grey sweater of friendship, I donned my black hat with the blingy halo, lovingly crafted by the women of my friend’s church, and I stubbornly stuck my toes into my lucky pink cancer converse shoes, which I’ve worn to every treatment and yoga class since diagnosis. WonderDaddy started the car, and we looked at each other with determination. Even though the neuropathy had returned and my walks were often loping or labored (especially up the stairs. oh! the stairs!), we were going to go down to that hospital and get chemo today, darn it, and we wouldn’t even be seeing the oncologist, so no worries there.
Except … except … except I barely made it back to the laboratory yesterday before admitting that it was just too hard to walk, that my hips ached and my legs screamed out, and that I needed the chair again after all. I sat down suddenly, and a kind nurse appeared to offer help. After WonderDaddy explained, she quickly reappeared with a chair, as if out of nowhere. And this time I had a little more courage and a little less anger about it, and I spent the waiting time learning to drive myself around, like a 15-year-old with a permit, and just as reckless. One nurse looked down at me as if disapprovingly through a pince-nez, but she relented when I explained that I was just learning how to drive this thing. After that, when she saw me taking laps, she smiled.
The lab tech was kind and jovial, and the doors to the laboratory nice and wide and easy to navigate.
WonderDaddy pushed me back out to the entrance and then to the chemo unit, talking to me all the way, and it went much better than it had the time before. I left the wheelchair in the hall, and sat in the chairs to wait for my treatment. (It takes 30 minutes for the blood test results to come back, and another 90 minutes for the phamacists there to mix the cocktail, so there is a lot of waiting. Usually the first 30 are in the waiting room, and then, after the counts come back high enough to permit chemo, patients are moved to the recliners in the infusion unit. Warm towels are put on their arms to raise the veins, IVs are started, premeds are given to ward off nausea and allergic reactions, and side effects are reviewed by the nurses to see if anything warrants a call to the oncologist. Unfortunately, and do you see where this is going?, today it did.) My nurse saw me lying in the chair in pain (having selected the last chair available, and just narrowly missing a stay in the room with all the chemo beds), and stopped to talk to us about it. She worried, and called the oncologist, saying that we may have to miss another treatment.
Of course this was the last thing we needed to hear.
But, wonder of wonders, the oncologist said “she’s only got two more treatments; let’s push ahead!” So we did.
The day continued to be one of pushing ahead. Woozy after the treatment, I agreed to be pushed again in the wheelchair down to the car. WonderDaddy took it easy and helped me into my seat. By the time we got out to the radiology center, I was more alert but in no less discomfort. We checked in again, fearing a replay of Monday’s vein fiasco, but this time we had a trick up our sleeves. Specifically, I had a trick up my left sleeve … a tube already inserted into my vein, a good thick vein, comfortably far up my arm. The chemo nurse had kindly left it in when we finished treatment, to facilitate the MRI that was to follow.
The MRI itself was just the same as any other breast MRI … I lay on my side, head turned to the wall, inches from the wall, breasts hanging down into cupcake molds, while ungodly loud noises pinged and banged and whirred inches from my skull, sending magnetic pulses through my breasts and returning for another pass. After 10 minutes of this, 18 cc of contrast was pushed fast into my vein, and we waited for it to burn, to sting, to hurtlikethedickens, and miraculously (was it your prayers? was it your thoughts? was it the combined requests of hundreds of friends at just that moment), it didn’t hurt. It didn’t sting. It didn’t even burn. And so I held my breath and we continued with the test. 20 more minutes of banging and pinging, and then the comforting voice of the technician: “It’s over.”
Relieved, I exhaled again and waited excruiating seconds for them to retract the bench and pull me out of the machine. The machine where I finally had had the test that would show if surgery was a go. Where I failed to complete the test on Monday. Where I was first diagnosed way back in June. And it was over. I sat up, put on my glasses and connies, and walked out to the waiting area.
Once again, I collapsed into WonderDaddy’s arms. He helped me change back into my shirt and sweater, and we waited for a copy of the films to take to the surgical oncologist on Monday. Yes, Monday. We’re getting so close to the end, friends. So close to the end.