Tale of Two Cancers III

Once treatments began things proceeded in pretty much a straightforward manner. I tried to do the first round of chemotherapy through my veins, which was okay for the first three chemicals, but once the first drop of the fourth chemical hit my vein walls it was burn baby burn. I was surprised at the sensation even though I’d been told what to expect, but like many things in life, you have to experience something first hand in order to understand and appreciate what you’ve been warned about.

Following the first round I had what is called a port-o-cath inserted into my chest for the delivery of the remaining eleven rounds. A port-o-cath is basically a small plastic dome that attaches to the wall of your pectoral muscle and is also attached to a catheter tube that is inserted into a blood filled ventrical in your heart. It’s trippy to watch, on camera, a tube being fed through your vein and then into your heart, but the device allows a patient to have chemotherapy delivered in such a way that the drugs don’t come into contact with any vein walls. Which is good for two major reasons : 1) the patient doesn’t experience any of the burning pain that accompanies some of the drugs during delivery , and 2) those veins don’t get killed by the drugs, and you never know just how handy those veins will be later in life.

Basically, the way chemotherapy works is that the chemicals used in treatment are toxic beyond belief and certain chemicals will target different kinds of tumours. Each round or cycle of treatment is designed to work on top of what has already been put into the patients system so that the effect is accumlative, but the drugs also work their way through and out of your body over time and the treatment plan is designed to give the next treatment as soon as your body has rid itself of most, but not all, of the previous cycle of treatment.

So as I say, once the treatments began, life became oddly calm and fairly predictable. Caroline and I would go to Kingston every other Friday for chemo and ironically, that would be the best time of the two week cycle that came to shape our lives during this time because the chemo would have worked its way through my system by then and my blood counts would be their highest, bringing with it a feeling of more or less well being. For five consecutive days leading up to treatment day I was given injections of a drug called neupogen, a white blood cell booster that makes your bone marrow go into overdrive to produce a surplus of white cells, normally the thing your body does by itself when it senses an invasive virus or injury but which many cancer patients in treatment need help with because of the destructive nature of the treatments. And it only cost (in 1999/2000) $797.55 per ml., delivery included at extra cost.

Each time we had to go to Kingston, then, I’d be feeling the best I would for another treatment and Caroline and I would celebrate by going for lunch at my favourite restaurant in the world, Chez Piggy. Fortunately, the anti-nuasea drugs I was given were very effective, and I didn’t come close to throwing up once during my first time in treatment. In fact, I was the guy in the chemo lounge scarfing down pizza while having my treatment pumped into my veions. The downside to the accumlative effect of the drugs was that each treatment reduced the number of foods that held any appeal, and by the time I was at round 5 I was using plastic utensils because metal utensils were unpalatable. The reason ? The chemicals being used for most chemotherapy are metal based and sticking metal utensils into your mouth becomes an unpleasant reminder of that fact. One of the drugs I was on was, in fact, platinum based, and I don’t even want to think of how much that bag cost for each treatment.

By the time I was approaching my last couple of treatments, just about the only thing I was eating were Chinese chicken balls, and not because they tasted great or anything but simply because they didn’t taste like anything, and that was good enough for me.

The other surprise for me was that I was able to work four shifts a week as a bartender for most of the time I was receiving chemotherapy, which also helped to keep my mind off of things for a while at least. And I kept my hair, which really surprised the doctors.

But the biggest surprise for both my family and myself was the ways in which the people in our community surrounded and embraced us.

Before long people were calling to ask what they could do to help us, bringing us meals, taking the kids out for adventures, downloading all the information they could find about Hodgkins and its treatment options and planning fundraisier concerts . It was a bit overwhelming for us at the beginning, as we didn’t realise just how tightly we were integrated in the community, but once the ball got rolling it continued to snowball. And it took us a while to realise that people were doing this both for us and for themselves, because they were frustrated at feeling they were unable to do too much directly at the beginning of the process and so they came up with an organic approach which ultimately made everybody realise just how connected we all are.

It was a very old fashioned response to the situation, ultimately, a response that couldn’t have been predicted beforehand but made sense in retrospect. The thing that was particulrily humbling for me was that people told me two things about their responses : one was that people would tell me how I had helped them in one way or another over the years be it through listening and offering advice in my capacity as a barkeep and the other was how they couldn’t help but respond because they knew how much I had cleaned up my act over the years in becoming sober and starting a family without disappearing from the downtown/arts scene in our town. And as my coworker and friend Tim opined on one occassion, “if it were somebody else going through this, you’d be the first one there to give a hand”, which isn’t how I normally see myself though apparently others do.

I think another factor played a large part in the response of the community as well, and that is the fact that many of our friends and colleagues had laso begun to embark on the journey of raising kids around the same time and could see how they would be affected by something like our situation happening to them and therefore wanted to help us as a kind of karmic insurance–and I say this without any of my usual cynicism.

———————-

At the end of the 12 rounds of chemotherapy, the doctors retested me to see whether radiation treatments were required to fight the cancer. Much to my delight they decided to leave things as they were and to check the MRI and CT scans that I would be getting prior to my two and three month check-ups for the first 1 1/2 years of the 5 year period of testing that follows successful treatment. The week or so leading up to these appointments were nervous times, full of both hope and fear. Hope that there would be no change in my condition and fear that there would.

Everything returned to “normal”pretty quickly once the effects of the last treatment were past. I returned to working full time, got back to the studio and the gym, enjoyed my family life fully again (the drawback of having a port-o-cath in your chest is that you must avoid bumping the thing for fear of bleeding to death if it becomes detached from the muscle wall, which happened to a friends’ mother-in-law) and basically got on with life.

Caroline, meanwhile, returned to school a year later to attend teachers college in Kingston, a move that would prove to be precient, because as the title states, this is a tale of two cancers.

Next up will be the beginning of the second time around, and it’s not quite as nice.

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~ by Rocky Green on May 8, 2007.

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