(I wrote the following on April 29, two days into a “rough patch” that now has thankfully passed. But I wanted to share it because it describes a predictable low point in one cancer patient’s quest to outlive/outlast a historically formidable foe. I’m feeling good again, grateful that last month’s chemotherapy has not extracted too big a toll on my health.)
Not much, mind you, just a little. No drama, no cow-like “BWAHAHAHA!” bellowing, wringing of hands or gnashing of teeth. Just a few persistent little trickles down my cheek that I quickly dispensed of with the back of my hand.
I deserve to cry-I have cancer-
…although this is the first time since the diagnosis was presented to me that I did. What took me so long to sink into this little pothole of self pity? I came to realize that I’m sick, even though until just a couple of days ago I hadn’t felt sick.
I had my first round of chemo 19 days ago. For eleven hours over two days Kristen pumped me full of the poisons designed to kill the cancer cells in my body. We’ve all heard the horror stories of the after-effects of chemotherapy: fever, chills, fatigue, loss of appetite, diarrhea…and let’s not forget the granddaddy of them all-hair loss! But none of them pitched their tents in my body. And I haven’t been doing anything terribly different either.
Yes, I nixed fast-food joints that use “mechanically processed” chicken or beef (pink slime), and I’ve become far more selective about the quality of anything that goes over the teeth & through the gums (fewer processed foods, more veggies, better Scotch). I’ve been getting more exercise, too. It’s tough to relate to a life-threatening disease when you’re taking brisk walks and gingerly pedaling your bicycle along the Monon Trail. But that’s changed recently.
Two nights ago I was awakened by a sense that my skin didn’t fit my body anymore.
It felt too tight, like it had been left in the dryer for too long. My throat was wheezing from all the congestion in my sinuses and I had a headache. (And of course, my bladder felt full-4:30; right on schedule!)
I stumbled down the stairs in search of a decongestant and a couple of aspirin. As I carefully navigated each step I noticed that I felt bad, but not in a way that I could recall feeling before. During chemo I’d been warned that my white blood cell (WBC) count would bottom out about now, leaving me vulnerable to…well, here’s what the Mayo Clinic has to say about that:
“With a low white blood cell count and, in particular, a low level of neutrophils (neutropenia), a type of white blood cell that fights infection, you’re at higher risk of developing an infection. And if you develop an infection when you have a low white blood cell count, your body can’t protect itself. Infection can lead to death in severe cases.”
“Death” still seemed a pretty unlikely outcome to this minor-yet-surprising discomfort but I couldn’t help but wonder if the white blood cell (WBC) destruction taking place in my body had something to do with the unsettling feeling I was experiencing. I suddenly felt that this was all real, that I was sick, that I had cancer and there were going to be unpleasantries to suffer.
I returned to bed and slept the rest of the night fitfully (after much fussing and tugging I finally got my skin to fit) and awoke without much thought of last night’s incident. But later that day, as I drove to have lunch with a friend, my wobbly-footed trek down the stairs the night before demanded my attention:
“Ahem; how you feelin’ t’day? How was you feelin’ 8, 9 hours ago?”
Our minds seem sadistic at times, don’t they? All the unpleasant memories that they keep bringing up, refusing, it seems, to leave us in peace. But our minds are not sadistic; to be so would be masochistic (did you follow that?) and masochism is a trait of the insane-and we are not insane, right? But our minds do demand we try to reconcile the disagreeable moments we all suffer; that we try to make sense, or explain, bad things that happen to us.
Last night I experienced a physical discomfort. Its intensity could have been explained by having eaten something that didn’t agree with me or having had one more cocktail than was appropriate. Not too big a deal.
But I’d experienced both of those discomforts plenty of times before and this was different-not in intensity, but in its nature. And if the nature of my discomfort was unfamiliar to me it could only follow that the source of that discomfort was unfamiliar to me also. What could it be?
Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy necessitated by the cancer that polluted my bloodstream, bent on my physical destruction. I’d been cancer-sick.
I was shocked and upset, and for the first time felt that I was standing face-to-face with the enemy that wanted to kill me.
I pulled my car to the curb and contemplated the gravity of my situation.
The tears began to trickle now, gently and deliberately, as if each one wanted to comfort me and assure me that everything would turn out alright for me. As I wiped them from my cheek I thanked each one for its concern and asked that they be very selective about times they may show up in the future.
Cancer, this round goes to you. But this fight is far from over and when it is, I will emerge victorious. You are “the dark side,” evil, vengeful and filled with hate. I fight with all the power of The Light on my side, fueled by the ultimate power of the Universe and the love of my family and friends. You are outgunned, cancer, and you will lose this fight. If you insist on continuing it, better pack a lunch ’cause you’re gonna be here for a while.