Bill’s Tale of two Cancers # 11

Once my mouth had healed from having my wisdom teeth taken out, things were in place for the next phase of treatment : stem cell transplant. As I mentioned in the last post, the stem cells I was to receive had been harvested from my own body the previous month, and this process was therefore called an autologous stem cell transplant.

I was admitted to Princess Margaret Hospital on the Thursday before Labour Day in order to have my blood work done and so I could begin the process the following day. The process involved two days of lethally high doses of chemotherapy (something like six times the amount a patient can otherwise receive) followed by the reintroduction of the patient’s stem cells the third day, followed by what is usually a ten to fourteen day period of isolation in the hospital in as germ free an environment as is possible. Why this isolation ? you might ask. Well, once you’ve been given the chemotherapy there is a 36-48 hour window before the toxicity of the dosage kicks in. So after the two days of having chemo I was given my stem cells via injection straight into my chest in two very large syringes. The feeling of those injections was very weird, as it felt like somebody with very large and powerful hands was squeezing my chest, while at the same time the taste of creamed corn overtook my mouth.

So far, so good.

The next day, day four (the whole thing is very predictable in terms of when each sensation/process kicks in) I was transfered to Kingston, where I was to begin my isolation time. First I was taken by ambulance to an awaiting plane at the Toronto Islands airport, and then to the airport in Kingston. This is when things began to go sideways. There was supposed to be another ambulance waiting to take me to the hospital, but instead I wound up sitting on the tarmac for the next five or six hours, and as I was sitting there, I could feel the chemotherapy beginning to kick in. Not good.

I had the attendant call the hospital, only to be told that the ambulances were all busy. More calls, the same answer. Finally I got them to put me on with the dispatchers office and i told them that if they didn’t have an ambulance at the airport within the next half hour I’d be letting a tough little lawyer I know in Kingston be the next person they’d be dealing with, and that he’d be happy to sue their asses off if I wasn’t in the hospital within the hour. I was, I told them, now in the beginnings of chemotheraputic shock and needed to be in isolation, not sitting on a germ infested airplane on the tarmac of a fucking airport where I could easily become infected with ANY virus or germ that was passing by, and that adding to the evidence my lawyer would be using in any legal action would be the fact that the hospital and the dispatchers office knew in advance about the precautions that had to be taken in order to ensure that my condition wasn’t compromised. This was, after all, the endgame of a three month process, and the worst time possible for a scheduling conflict.

That got their attention.

I was in the hospital within twenty minutes.

And beginning to feel like shit.

In the previous courses of chemotherapy I knew I had been lucky to feel relatively few of the potential side effects that are possible, but now I was beginning to know just how lucky I had been. Once this amount of chemotherapy begins to make itself felt there is nothing to do but hang on for the ride. At which point I was thinking “Ten days to two weeks of THIS ? Fuckin’ hell.” Only hour by hour it just kept on getting worse.

By my best guessing, it was about a day and a half to two days of feeling progressively weaker and exhausted before things finally leveled off.

The whole point of the exercise, as I had been told but was now able to understand in a visceral manner, was to give such high levels of toxins to my body that any remaining cancerous cells would be burnt into oblivion . The downside is that everything else in my body that came into contact would also be burnt. And I would be in a position of extreme vulnerability because the toxicity also meant that I was left with no immune system until the treatment had run its’ course, hence my stay in isolation.

At this point all I wanted to do was to go to sleep until it was over. Unfortunately, that isn’t all that easy to do, because nurses were coming by evey 1-2 hours to check my temperature or to give me an injection or to help me roll over or get up for a visit to the bathroom, so I spent a good deal of the next days in and out of an uncomfortable consciousness. After a while it ceased to bother me too much because my transitions between various states of consciousness became “liquid” in that there was no longer the usual contrast between what I consider to be awake and asleep, and it seemed something like a long opium trip, only with less comfort and a whack of I.V. tubes to negotiate.

I don’t remember a whole lot about this time, because the drugs were so strong, but I’ll tell of a couple of things that stuck with me. I remember having a couple of visits from Caroline, and realising just how wonderful it felt to hold her hand, and how the only times I could forget the stiffness and pain that accompany long term bedrest were when she curled up on the bed beside me…..makes me cry while I’m writing this because it makes me realise how beautiful her love is and because I can recall exactly how I felt truly human only when she did this. The rest of the time I felt disembodied to a large extent, very much like I was watching this happening to some other version of me while being unable to do anything about it.

I remember closing my eyes and seeing beautiful abstract colour fields.

I remember looking at pictures of my kids and at the drawings they sent with me and realising I had to make it through this because there was more to do in life. That if I caved and didn’t make it how they’d be scarred .

I remember being unable to eat after a few days because it hurt to swallow and the food, so called, wasn’t worth the effort.

I remember being awakened each morning by my resident doctor hovering inches away from my face, and marveling at the difference between her beautiful and unlined face and my own visage when I looked in the mirror shortly after she left my room each day. And making her come and take a look at us together in the bathroom mirror and us laughing our asses off at the sight gag this image provided.

I also remember the fuss made by nurses and doctors when my temperature went to somewhere around 39 degrees Celsius and stayed there for the next 36 hours, because going in they tell you that if your temperature is 1 degree Celsius above normal (37) for an hour they call in the priest/rabbi because you’re probably going to die. No immune system, remember ?

Mostly I remember just laying in bed being exhausted to the point where it took 1/2 hour to open an eye, only to fall back into a sleeping stupor.

I do remember that on day five the doctors came and gave me one last injection of neupogin, a blood booster that makes the bone marrow go into overdrive producing white blood cells, and thinking that I was finally around the halfway point of this leg of the journey. And that three days later all of a sudden feeling a surge in my veins as the neupogin took hold and within hours feeling ALIVE again.

In all, I was in isolation for 8 1/2 days, a new record for speed, I’m told.

I wish I could tell you more, but between the drugs during that time and my mind actively pushing away big chunks of memory from that week, I can’t.

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~ by Rocky Green on June 5, 2008.

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