Of Saints and Omens

The Popsicle Report: It was popsicle time again at the infusion center yesterday.  And my favorite: blueberry-lemon.  The nurse even asked if I preferred a particular type (before, I just took whatever they brought me).  She brought over the box for me to see. So any of you interested in tracking some of these down can look for Dreyers (or was it Breyers?) real fruit bars. Other flavors in the box are strawberry-orange and strawberry-lemon.

Several other bits of good news to report:

My weight remains in triple digits, a state that might have been helped along by a slice or two of that luscious tiramisu cake a friend sent.

When I drove by my mailbox (you remember, that one at the top of the hill) on Saturday, I found the magic postcard that told me I could renew my driver’s license online.  I consider it my “get out of jail free” card.  That very afternoon, in a few minutes, I renewed the license, which means I won’t have to figure out the proper headgear for a 4-hour wait and a photo in a crowded office.  How convenient.  But it does bring up the question of license fraud.  How do the agents know if the person registering online is really who she says she is?

The third bit of good news is that, with the 3 Neupogen shots last week (and only a mild aching in my hips and legs after the third one), my white cell count rocketed up to a whopping 6.5, smack in the middle of the normal range.  The nurse told me that the drastic decline of last week isn’t uncommon and occurs as the cumulative effects of the chemo set in.  Sometimes the bone marrow just needs some time to catch up.  The dangerous territory is when it drops below 2.0.  That’s when I need to be careful about being in crowds or among sick people.  The problem is that you can’t feel your white count dropping (as you can feel the fatigue with the drop in red cells), so you don’t know when it bottoms out and no one takes a daily reading.  So much about science and medicine is impressive, so much of it is still guesswork.

The increase in the white count comes not a moment too soon. Yesterday, my son came home from school with a sore throat, runny nose and low fever.  I’m keeping him home today (where he is engrossed in building yet another Lego version of a spaceship), and when I called him in sick, the school office wanted to know what specific symptoms he had.  They are, of course, worried about swine flu.  My daughter said said 3 kids were out sick from every one of her 7th-grade classes yesterday.

I’m working hard not to let fear take over my days, which would be all too easy with the media reports on the flu and my current health status. The media tend to focus on topics that grab attention, and this could very well (we hope) turn out the way the Y2K scare with computers did 9 years ago.  My brain knows this, but still the doubts and fears creep in. So to keep an even keel, I remind myself that fear is real, but it is not fact (in the same way that food is not love).  Fearing an event does not mean that event will actually occur.   And I try to take the Buddhist approach — be here in the ever-present now — the lesson we all struggle to remember.

That’s not to say that I haven’t gathered a few protections and comforts about me during this trek.  I keep on the kitchen counter the stack of cards and notes people have sent in the past months as a reminder of how many people care and are looking out for me.  When I feel particularly vulnerable, I wrap myself in one of the prayer shawls given to me. It helps to know I am on several prayer lists: Lutherans in Skokie, Methodists in Detroit, and Catholics and Presbyterians in my hometown in Ohio. It doesn’t matter to me which denomination the prayers go through. I figure they’ve all got a direct line. It’s not about dogma, but intent.

Around my neck hang several talismans, tokens, totems, good-luck-charms, medals, whatever term you prefer.  On one chain are medals of St. Anthony, patron saint of miracles, and St. Peregrine, patron saint of cancer patients.  (Those Catholic saints can get pretty specific assignments.)  I’d like to add a medal for St. Martin (patron saint of the university where I work and St. Jude, whose feast day is my birthday (Oct. 28), and for whom my mother named me.  He is her favorite saint, and she says that people tend to confuse him with “that Judas guy.” Those of you who know of him (one of the orginal 12 apostles; the famous children’s hospital in Memphis is named for him), perhaps know that he is the patron saint of hopeless cases. I have to say I’m not fond of that image, and told mom that I’m certainly not hopeless. (She laughed and said, “well, no!”)  What’s lesser known is that he is also known for perseverance in the face of adversity, and it is under that quality that I’m claiming him.  When I spoke to Mom last night, she told me that she was drinking a Manhattan and talking to St. Jude on my behalf.  Now I don’t know in which order she was doing the drinking and chatting, but I gladly encouraged her to keep it up.

One other totem hangs on a leather cord about my neck. It is a small turtle — a body of white stone with a green etched shell.  When I first got the diagnosis and was talking with my son about it one evening before bed, he got up, went over to his little treasure box, and pulled out this turtle, which he had picked out a year ago as his souvenir from our trip to the beach in Oregon.  He hung it around my neck and told me I could borrow it until I’m better.  I’ve worn it every day since then.  Rumor has it these critters can live for up to 150 years.  I take that as a good omen.

No Popsicle Today

The day is full of nines today.  Yesterday’s paper had an article about the auspiciousness of the number 9. In some countries, like China, it’s considered lucky.  I must have been under the Japanese influence of the number, though, which isn’t so lucky.

No popsicle report.
No popsicle.
And no infusion either.

The day was rather hectic, and the appointment rather later than usual, at 1:30.  (I like getting the infusions in the morning, so I can get the most of that steroid effect!) I felt a sense of dread as I drove to the oncology center, but couldn’t figure specifically why.  I was thinking about the last blood count and hoping the red cells hadn’t declined further. The fatigue hasn’t really increased, but I can’t take stairs two-at-a-time, as is my usual habit (not to prove anything but because I’m usually in a hurry), and when I walk up the hill that is our driveway to pick up the mail, I have to stop halfway because the strength in my legs just isn’t there.

So there I sat in the vinyl Barcalounger in the infusion center, wondering about the popsicle du jour (I admit I peeked in the freezer before I sat down to see if I could spot any blueberry lemon, but no luckl).  The nurse drew the blood sample, and as I waited for results, I looked around and noticed a woman across the room carrying the same book I’m reading currently (Harry Potter #7 — the last in the series, in which Harry finally kills his evil nemesis, Voldemort. I can identify with his struggle.).  When the nurse came back, she said we would not be going ahead with the infusion because the WHITE cell count was down. Last week it was 4.5, the low end of the the normal range for females.  Yesterday it was 1.7, a significant drop that put me below the threshold of 2.0 to go ahead with the infusion.

I can’t puzzle this out.  The 2 Neupogen shots I took at first doubled the white cells and the next two increased them even further.  Last week, I back off to one shot, and the white cells plummet and the chemo has to be delayed.  It was scary, and disappointing. (How strange to be disappointed NOT to be getting the chemicals.)  I had counted off the sessions on the calendar and found that, if everything goes according to schedule, I’d finish chemo a few days before Christmas.

I’m waiting now for a callback from my oncologist, whom I hope can enlighten me about this particular part of the roller coaster ride.  My husband gave me a Neupogen shot as soon as I got home yesterday. As he noted, this was the first time he hadn’t been with me for the session (he was busy getting the kids to their respective day-before-school-starts activities). So perhaps, besides his many other roles, he’s also my good luck charm.

The good news is that my weight is back up to triple digits. Some good pasta, trail mix, and dark chocolate helped.  I couldn’t bring myself to chug the olive oil, but my daughter’s white-chocolate-apricot-oatmeal cookies are, I believe, a suitable substitute.  The kids started back to school today — fortunately, neither has a big transition this year — and I got to soak up some solitude this afternoon.  And though I didn’t get a popsicle, I did manage to snag a tub of chocolate pudding while I waited at the infusion center.

Another book I read this week was Robert Schimmel’s “Cancer on $5 a Day.” That’s a misleading title since he doesn’t really talk about cost, but he does describe his brutal experience going through chemotherapy for non-Hodgkins’ lymphoma.  I can’t recall how I came across the book, and I’d never heard of the author before. He’s a stand-up comic, a friend of Howard Stern, and his material can be pretty raw, but his book was worth reading for the humorous (and heart-breaking) account of his experience. One of the scenes he describes is taking half an hour to shuffle 30 yards out to his mailbox only to find a renewal notice for his driver’s license, and his subsequent conversation with the officer at the DMV about why he really can’t come down to have his picture taken.

And the lightbulb went off in my bald head.
I checked my license.
It expires next month.
Rumor has it that the County has closed two of the three DMV offices due to budget cuts.  I guess this is my next big adventure.