Life Amid the Treatment

I”m a bit late getting this out. Goodness, December already.  Feels like it outside today, and the mountain is obscured by clouds. Lots of snow up there and the ski resorts opened early this year.

Teapot dropped by for a quick lunch just now, and the Jehovah’s Witness found his way to my door this morning to leave me his message and a couple of Watchtowers to read. I’m slurping down some homemade vegetable soup a gracious neighbor brought, trying to be conscious of eating healthful things, though I must confess I snarfed down some potato chips a couple days ago (salt and vinegar). Good thing I don’t work at the Cleveland Clinic.  An article in the current Newsweek notes that the CEO has banned potato chips from the vending machines there, and he actually refuses to hire people who smoke. At least he’ll keep employees from freezing to death on smoke breaks during those cold Cleveland winters.

The Popsicle Report:  I felt like branching out.  Same brand, different flavor: strawberry lemon.  Pretty darn tasty.

On the iPod, in addition to the regulars, was Cecilia Bartoli singing Bizet songs in her nimble, gorgeous voice; Moby, who’s nimble in a different way; Charlie Barnet and some big band music; Trout Fishing in America, a classically trained duo now playing family music; and Gato Barbieri, an Argentinian tenor saxophone player of free jazz, who had a Muppet fashioned after him.

Speaking of Muppets, they do a grand interpretation of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVB4kUK6UY8

Beelzebub has a muppet set aside for me.

Infusion #20 down (#8 of the Taxol), 4 more to go. White cell count is above normal at 15, meaning I can probably skip that Neupogen shot this week. The red cells are still quite low at 8.7, but increased from the 8.4 of last week, so the B vitamins must be doing their work. No sign of neuropathy or any new problems beyond what I’ve had so far. My fingernails have more spots, but I haven’t lost any, something the naturopath warned me could happen. I just have to keep on keepin’ on, trying to finish the chemo part of the treatment by the end of the year.  After the New Year comes 6 weeks of radiation, but I’m not able to wrap my brain around what that entails just yet.

The infusion center was quite lively this week.  I was anchored to the Barcalounger in the far back corner. Not much of a view out the window, but a direct line of sight to the large stainless steel box that warms the blankets they put over patients, and the tall stack of colorful fleece blankets someone had donated for the season. In the opposite corner of the room, a man reclined in his chair while talking with the Cancer Society reps. about what it would be like to go up to Seattle for a stem cell transplant, as he would be doing soon. The male rep. described his harrowing experience of several years ago, about how they used the chemotherapy to wipe out his immune system so they could do the transplant, how he was in the hospital for 3 months.  But there he stood, if not hearty, well very much alive, and I was again reminded of how much more some of these patients have had to experience than I have.  President Nixon signed the National Cancer Act into law back in 1971.  Thirty-eight years later, cancer is still with us, but there are numerous veterans of the war still here too.

Next to the man preparing for the stem cell transplant sat an elderly woman hunkered down in her wheelchair, getting ready for her 5-hour session, peering out at the room through large glasses that over-magnified her eyes.  She seemed frail, needing help to go to the bathroom, but she was definitely of strong mind. When another man joined her pod, she asked the nurse if she could be moved elsewhere because her area was too full of men.  I told the nurse that the lady, Jean, could come sit near me, but she had to keep her assigned place since all chairs in my pod were already reserved. The best the nurse could manage was to turn Jean so she could see over into my pod.

As I was waiting for my blood count to come back, a tall thin man with gray hair took a seat in one of the chairs opposite me. He wore a black baseball cap stitched with gold letters spelling out US Army, a dark T-shirt, and jeans. With him came his wife, a small stout woman neatly dressed in subtle shades of brown and cream. As soon as he entered the pod, the man began to joke loudly with the nurse who takes vital signs, saying he didn’t like her new hair color and she ought to change it back from brown to blonde. And so began a conversation about hair (he’d lost his too in the previous 3 years he’d been coming to the center), during which I noticed the man was missing his top front teeth. I asked the man if he knew how much time and money it took for a woman to be a blonde. Indicating himself, he responded, “Well we pay for it, so we should be able to say what color it is!”  His wife sat beside him smiling serenely. Her hair was strawberry blonde.  When he got up to leave after his blood draw, he gently took his wife’s hand as they moved out into the passageway.

A little while later, Jean’s granddaughter came to sit with her during the infusion. They talked awhile about the confusion of Jean’s transportation that morning (a van had come to pick her up before the granddaughter was scheduled to do so), and then the granddaughter pulled out the Trivial Pursuit game sitting on the shelf nearby.  As she started to read questions from the cards, the men in the pod perked up and began answering, and I chimed in with a few answers as well. (Quick now, the City of Light is ______.  And what was the fate of the three blind mice?).  Jean perked up considerably during the game and fell into conversation with the men about movies they had seen, and a new book that had come out. Maybe she decided men weren’t so bad if they knew answers to trivial questions.

So you see, life goes on even in the midst of serious illness.  And illness incorporates itself into everyday life.  Those of you dealing with chronic illness know this more than I.  Doing a weekly update about my health might indicate that cancer has taken over my life. As a matter of fact, when my internist called back in June to check in with me, she said, “Managing this disease will be a full time job.” (This was one of many times in life my brain consciously refused to believe the words I’d just heard.) It seemed that way at first with the appointments, the surgery, and even now it takes more time to deal with than I like.

But just how much of your life should any chronic illness — or any other life issue — take up?  Initially there are the cycles of grief, loss, anger, bargaining and numbness that you need to go through, and that recur even years later.  Yes, I’m spending a  lot of time reading and thinking about cancer in general and breast cancer specifically. This week, I’m puzzling over the news of a woman winning her lawsuit against the manufacturer of Prempro, that one-time popular hormone replacement therapy. She ended up with breast cancer and the jury has awarded her 3.5 million dollars. And I wonder: what’s the difference between hormone replacement therapy, which is now implicated as a cause of breast cancer, and birth control pills, which don’t appear on the lists of risk factors for getting the illness.

This disease caught me by surprise, sneaking up on me without warning while I was planning for heart disease, osteoporosis, hypertension, or any of those other illnesses that show up in my family tree. But every morning there are the two runs to the bus stop for the kids, managing appointments, mail, and phone calls (even scheduling the plumber and talking with the piano teacher during the infusion session), meals and dishes, cleaning out gutters, supervising newspaper students, preparing for my daughter’s birthday, planning holiday events. The illness has obviously made time for me, but I don’t have time for it. (Oh, go ahead, quote John Lennon if you must.)

But while we’re on the subject of time and seasons —

While putting away our Thanksgiving decorations this week, my son and I were taking down the garlands of shiny fall leaves we’d wrapped around the stair banisters.  The garlands are old and the leaves sparse, and as we worked more leaves fell off, leaving mostly a long shiny string bereft of foliage. I commented to him that maybe we should just get rid of the garlands, since they are so bald now.

He responded, “Not as bald as you, mom!”

Nothing like a 9-year-old to keep things real.

Here’s an inventive musical interpretation to start your Christmas season right:
http://www.metacafe.com/watch/2825215/glass_harp_dance_of_the_sugar_plum_fairy_tchaikovsky/

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