Just as I was finally fully recovered from my butt surgery, and before chemotherapy could begin, a simple surgical procedure was required to insert a Portacath into my chest.
Another surgery. Yay!
A Portacath (or “chemo-port” as it is referred to by cancer patients getting chemotherapy) is a device implanted just below the collar bone, which gives easy access to a large vein close to my neck. I was told this would be better than getting an IV in my arm, where the veins are smaller, and the toxicity of the chemotherapy drugs could do more damage to my blood vessels.
As you can imagine, after my last surgical procedure I was a little nervous. “If you’re going to move me around, please make sure my lower back is supported.” I told them the story of my lower back injury which had resulted from my most recent surgery. They assured me I was going to be on my back the whole time. “And I don’t want any intravenous painkillers.” I told them how constipated I got and how I never wanted to go through that again. They laughed and said I wouldn’t need more than a few Tylenol.
Good. Potential disaster averted.
My oncology team decided to attack my cancer on three fronts (which is fairly typical of most cancer treatment protocols viewed through a Western medicine lens): (1) surgery (check!), (2) chemotherapy, which is the systemic, full-body assault on my cancer, and (3) radiation, which zeroes in on the specific locus of my cancer.
Chemotherapy drugs are toxic. They just are. Their job is to poison the cancer so it withers away and dies. My drugs were: mitomycin and 5FU, the preferred chemotherapy drugs for anal cancer. I liked calling the second one, “Five ‘Fuck You-s!’ Cancer!”
There are many chemotherapy drugs out there. Some are much more poisonous than others. Some have to be given over a period of seemingly endless months. Some make you lose your hair completely and not just on your head. Some make you nauseous morning, noon and night. Some make your food taste bad and everything else smell weird. Some give you dry mouth and mouth sores. The list of potential side effects is much longer than I have time for here.
At first, I considered myself REALLY lucky as far as chemotherapy was concerned. I was scheduled for only two four-day rounds. How bad could that be, right?
I showed up on Monday, and they hooked me up to a portable capsule-like container (about eight inches long and three inches in diameter). A long tube was attached to it, which was attached to ME via a needle into the chemo-port. I carried the capsule around with me all day and slept with it at night. It provided a slow drip of chemo Monday through Friday afternoon, when I went back to the hospital and was disconnected from my capsule.
In the dark ages, cancer patients had to come to the hospital every day and sit for hours, or stay overnight to receive chemotherapy. I got to carry my chemo around with me. This seemed lovely at first. The charm soon wore off.
Before they sent me home that first day, they gave me a Chemotherapy Spill Kit. In case the capsule decided to spontaneously combust, I guess. The kit contained rubber gloves, a surgical gown, a face mask, paper slippers, and a magical substance you were supposed to pour onto the spilled chemo drugs to solidify the liquid so it could be easily picked up and disposed of as toxic waste. This made me wonder about the wisdom of having these drugs swirling through my bloodstream. To further impress upon me just how poisonous these drugs were, I was warned to flush my toilet twice, especially if I shared a bathroom with anyone else. “Great! Will I glow in the dark too?” No one was amused.
That first week of chemo I was immediately and constantly nauseous. It reminded me of “morning” sickness when I was pregnant with my son: I was on the verge of throwing up all day and night but never actually got the relief of vomiting. They offered me medication for the nausea, but guess what? Constipating! No thank you.
By the end of the week, my mouth was beginning to get sores, my teeth hurt and I had dry mouth. Also, by the fourth day of chemo, when I dried my hair after a shower, I noticed lots of it – much more than usual – on the bathroom floor. When I looked at my face in the mirror I saw pallor. All that, and my white blood cell count was perilously low.
The week before my second round of chemo, I got into it with my oncologist. I didn’t want to do it. By then, the radiation had made me very sick. I was already in a lot of pain, and the thought of repeating another week of chemo’s side effects in a now very compromised immune system scared me. We went back and forth for a few days, emails flying between us, and I finally succumbed.
I knew there were alternative treatments out there. I knew that it didn’t always have to be cut/poison/burn, the cancer trifecta, in order to beat this monster, but the truth is, I didn’t have the mental or emotional bandwidth to seriously consider other possibilities. The fear of death scared me more than the fear of more chemo. Once again I was struck by how the choices one has when muscling through cancer are often lousy ones. And yet…one must choose.
And then you pray.
NOTE 1: Several readers have expressed concern for my current well being, and have offered to help out in whatever way they can. I want you all to know I was finished with treatment at the end of April of this year, so I’m several months out, and feeling almost completely recovered. But thank you just the same.
NOTE 2: I chose the photos for this blog because of their bleakness. It’s kind of how chemo made me feel. I took the title photo in Cambria, California, and the other two in Alberta, Canada.