Life After Chemotherapy

One common misperception about chemo is that most people lose weight. Some do, I’m sure, but between the fatigue and inactivity, and my habit of eating to fend off mild nausea, I ended up gaining about 20 pounds. Prior to my diagnosis I was an avid runner for 23 years, year round, no breaks. It helped me keep my weight down, and my body got used to it. During my time on chemo I was lucky to walk the dog one mile a day. By December, when I was needing blood transfusions to keep going, I rarely walked at all. It doesn’t take much for me to gain weight.

My last day of chemo was January 2, 2018. I rang the bell loudly on my way out and received the cheers of everyone in the unit. I was scheduled for a CT scan a couple of weeks following that and an appointment with the oncologist. Everything looked good and my next appointment was made for April. He informed me that the first thing to improve would be my labs, which meant increased energy levels. The next thing to come back would be my hair, and finally, perhaps the neuropathy in my fingers and feet. We discussed my chemo port and in the spirit of optimism about my future, I was adamant about getting it taken out. He didn’t try to talk me out of it.

I thought about how best to spend my time initially in recovery before the chemicals slowly left my body. As a runner there are always times when you get injured and need to cope with that, and my philosophy was to ask myself, well, what CAN I do? That’s when I headed to the gym to exercise using body parts that weren’t hurting until the injury was healed. So, I figured I could do some things on the computer, and in the two to three months time I was sidelined, I accomplished an amazing amount of family history work in research and downloading pictures for future generations. I went through my recently departed husband’s files and shared hundreds of photographs online that he had stashed away.  So despite my physical deprivations, it turned out to be a marvelous and inspiring couple of months.

At the beginning of March I decided to start a new exercise program at the gym. I started slowly with a stationary bike and treadmill for walking and slowly increased the pace and distance. I was loving this new me and getting my mojo back, and losing weight too!

I saw my oncologist in April and my tumor markers were still in a good place. He said my hair growth was about 3 weeks behind most people at the same point. I was getting very frustrated with what I perceived as an exteremely slow growth of my hair, and this confirmed that it truly was not coming back as I had hoped.

Looking ahead to the summer and what I could do to grab hold of a good time in my life with an uncertain future, I perused the motorhome ads for a small, class B vehicle that would be just right for me and Izzy. I so enjoyed the time camping and RVing with my husband a few years ago that I wanted to recapture the magic and be able to go kayaking as well.

IMG_0797This is the motorhome I ended up purchasing in April. My first trip was to Waco, Texas to visit my sister and her husband who had just moved there from California. Although I don’t necessarily love long road trips I figured if I just drove 4-5 hours a day and camped in cities along the way I’d be fine. Most people thought I was crazy to be driving across the country by myself. When you are facing a cancer diagnosis like mine, there is not much to be afraid of. The featured picture above is me on this trip, eating at the Magnolia Table in Waco with my sister and brother-in-law. It was great to spend time with them and the motorhome performed splendidly over the hundreds of miles I drove.

Next time I’ll talk about some struggles through the rest of the summer and my follow up with the oncologist in October.

Starting Chemotherapy

As with anything new, and especially dreaded, we all have our own preconceived perceptions about what an experience is going to be like. If you’ve never been or accompanied anyone to a chemotherapy unit, it’s likely you have a negative picture in your mind. I know I did. I pictured very ill people being tortured by this poison going into their system, and a lot of throwing up. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Never once in 18 weeks did I ever see anyone throw up. Although in the picture I chose above, they do seem to be just a little too happy and put together for the chemo encounter.

Before picking the day of the week to start, my oncologist informed me that my “best days” would be five days after receiving the chemo. Since church was the only place I had to be every week, I chose Tuesday as my treatment day. The first time I walked into the unit was Tuesday, September 5, 2017, the day after Labor Day. It was quite crowded because all the Monday patients were there that had had a holiday the day before. I don’t care for crowds, so that made it a little more stressful. I was told to go sit anywhere but I think there was only one seat available. I wondered how the nurses would know who I was because I was new. Of course they have got these things figured out already as they have been doing it forever. So they knew who I was and I was warmly greeted eventually by a friendly and caring RN. Normally, the first thing they do is connect your chest port (as I mentioned in my last post) to an access tube. Although it is under the skin, and the skin must be punctured to connect the two parts, it usually requires a nanosecond of pain to endure before you are on your way. But, that is if everything goes as planned. As has seemed to be my lot in life lately, the nurse pushed through the access and nothing happened. “Well that’s strange–that never happens!” she exclaimed. She continued her pushing and apologizing for at least a half a dozen tries and by then it was quite painful. Add on top of that the anxiety I was feeling to begin with, the tears began to fall! I was embarrassed but my mind and body had reached the end point. She eventually got a connection after giving me a little rest. After that, blood is drawn from the tube for lab tests and you wait for the results. If your red blood cells and platelets are in good shape you are cleared to get your meds.

I was set to receive two drugs to kill cancer cells or keep them from reproducing: Taxol and Carboplatin. Taxol I would receive weekly and the latter, every three weeks.  My doctor called it six, three week cycles, or 18 weeks total. Taxol can cause some bad allergic-type reactions, so prior to getting the drug I would receive an infusion of diphenhydramine which is like Benadryl in order to avoid any trouble. After that, I received an anti-nausea drug infusion which worked great not only the day of treatment but for several days after. By this point I am getting a bit sleepy because of the Benadryl. I’ve now been there for an hour to hour and a half and have yet to receive the drugs I came to get! Those are the final drugs for the day and, in total, that can take another hour to an hour and a half to receive. I feel nothing while receiving them–they might as well have been saline. As I left the unit I thought that wasn’t too bad even though I was still sleepy from the Benadryl. I went home and took a nap.

Taxol is the drug that causes hair loss. It is not gradual. One day you have hair and you can pull on it and nothing happens; the next day you pull on it and it all comes out. It took 3 weeks and 2 days before that day occurred. I had already been to a fine wig shop in town and was ready for this day, if anyone is ever ready to have their hair fall out. Rather than try and hold on to it (and look rather sick and pathetic in the process–my own interpretation) I chose to just have my head shaved and get it over with. A good friend came over to do the deed–I was grateful I didn’t have to go out and have it done. I always found it easier to jump into a pool rather than enter inch by inch. The wig was okay but I looked different because there is no way to replicate my real hair. I wore it to church but I always felt a little phony, that’s just me. Out in the world I wore my self-described “cancer hat” which I bought at the wig shop (longer in the back) or a regular ball cap and felt much more comfortable about being seen.

My next blog post will be about complications I experienced, both expected and unexpected!