Tuesday, February 19, 2013
The Chemo Living Room
My good friend, Mike, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1988, was one of the first people I knew who was anywhere near my own age to have cancer. I remember feeling physically sick, as well as sick at heart, when I found out—and a lot of times along the way, as he endured six months of chemotherapy, then radiation. Within three months, it was back again and he had to start all over. A third bout several years later required a bone marrow transfer, daily chemo treatments that had horrible side effects and brought him just to the brink of death, and weeks in isolation.
He rarely complained throughout this long ordeal and, somehow, even maintained his wonderful, irreverent sense of humor.
‘Time to visit the chemo living room,” he’d say, heading for a treatment.
I didn’t quite know what he meant until I took him one day and entered the big room lined with cancer patients in Barca-Loungers and a big TV in the center. Some of the patients were watching whatever was on the screen—probably a game show. Others were reading or knitting or doing crossword puzzles. A few were swaddled in white blankets, sleeping or looking miserable. Mike was a friendly guy. He chatted and joked with the nurse, who settled him in to one of the empty Barca-Loungers and put in an IV. The chemo meds were in three separate bags, which would be administered one at a time. She hung the first on a steel “tree,” connected the clear tube to the IV. You could see it start to drip.
What you couldn’t see was Mike’s dread, which was so great that he’d gotten out of the car upon our arrival and vomited in the parking lot just at the thought of having to do this again.
Everyone’s heard about the horrors of chemotherapy—the violent nausea, the mouth sores, the fatigue, fingernails that turn yellow and crack and fall off. Who’s not afraid of it? I certainly was. I just hoped I’d manage it with a minimum of whining and a maximum or humor and irony.
The chemo living room at IU’s Simon Cancer Center is a circular pod. Each Barca-Lounger is tucked into its own cubicle with a half-wall separating it from the one next door. Each has its own TV, which I must say created my most anxious moments when, during one treatment, my neighbor, apparently deaf in addition to suffering from cancer, watched “The Price Is Right” at what seemed like full volume. And me with no iPod to drown it out.
The nurses there are pros with IV’s: sting and it’s in. They administer up the anti-nausea drugs first. Then the bags (two, in my case) of chemo drugs, one by one. It was not without some measure of dread that I watched them drip slowly into my system the first time.
I’m pretty good at guided imagery. I can put myself to sleep walking the stone streets of Assisi; sometimes I can banish a headache by imagining the headache as a block of ice and myself on a beach chair near the ocean, breathing in warm air to melt it away. So I gave it a try, visualizing the drip turning into a tsunami of death for the cancer cells in its way. But all I could see were the bright, cheerful good cells, who’d done nothing at all to hurt me, trying to escape. I felt bad, like I should apologize to them. So I just picked up the book I’d brought and got lost in its story instead.
I was prepared for the worst; that’s what I do. I knew what Mike and other friends and relatives had been through. I’d been to “chemo school,” a session at which my oncologist’s nurse assistant laid out all the possibilities, kind of like a little shop of horrors. Prescriptions for nausea were at home, at the ready.
But, thankfully, nausea never came. Mega-headache, yes; serious fatigue; whacked-out taste buds that that made everything taste awful; occasional bone pain in my legs that felt like fingers pressing the keys of a flute, hard—and a series of, shall we say “bodily function” complaints that are better left to your imagination.
Oh, and baldness, but that’s another story.
The worst thing that happened to me over the cycle of four chemo sessions was catching the flu over Christmas break, which sent me to the emergency room twice due to high fever and laid me low for the better part of three weeks. Nothing funny about that. Though I did return home from one of the emergency room visits with a pink band around my right wrist that read, “Limb Alert,” which made me laugh.
I’m very glad that my time in the chemo living room is over. I hope I don’t ever have to go there again. But I also feel incredibly lucky to have been diagnosed early enough that the treatment I needed was comparatively mild and to have been the beneficiary of the research and development of nausea drugs that, at least for me, put that most dreaded aspect chemotherapy out of the picture.
Probably in a hundred years, people will look at the idea of poisoning people to cure them the way we look at certain medical treatments in medieval times. But chemotherapy treatments have gotten a whole lot more bearable in the twenty-five years since Mike received his diagnosis. If you’re about to start treatment yourself, or someone you love, take heart. It may not be nearly as bad as you imagine it to be.