I arrived at my first chemo appointment on June 14th with my colleague in tow. She had worked the night shift at our facility and had offered to escort me to a full day of therapy early that morning. The outpouring of help had already started, so this was just a continuation of the love that was grounding me.
Once there, I received a text from another cancer survivor, my friend and yoga instructor, who was already on her way to join us. I would not be alone in this journey, not for one minute.
There's not much to report about a full day receiving chemotherapy. It was a long, slow, and tedious day being fed four different types of poison through a port on the right side of my chest that had been surgically inserted just two days before. The site was sore, but the port did its job beautifully.
I spent the time visiting with my friends, and happily accepted soup and sandwiches when lunchtime arrived. Another cancer survivor and neighbor brought tea and a celebratory sprinkle cookie, and two of my kids and my son's girlfriend arrived to keep us all company. The day actually went by smoothly.
There were stories, laughter, encouragement, but nary a hint of sadness.
It was just a few minutes after sitting down next to my chemo chair (which she calls the "Chemo Bar") that Dawn, my artist friend extraordinaire, spotted a painted rock in the beautiful garden behind my chair. It was another hour before the door to the outside was unlocked for her to quickly snatch it up.
A darling rock with a ladybug on it has now become my chemo buddy, and its significance is just one more indication that I'm being watched over and cared for:
"When the ladybug spirit guide appears in your life, it is acting as an omen of good luck. Your wishes and dreams may about to be fulfilled, so prepare yourself."
Later that week, I went to see my hairdresser to pink-up my hair; if I was going to lose it, anyway, it may as well go out in style. Unbeknownst to me, she has an affinity to ladybugs. She sees them everywhere, which always brings a message of hope and well-being. As she told her story about her latest ladybug sighting, I interjected with my own story about my chemo buddy, and reported that she needed a name. It was suggested by someone to name her "Hope" but that felt too pessimistic, like I was hoping to survive.
And that's how "Liv" was named. She doesn't spell it with an "e" because she is modern and chic.
While hanging out at the chemo bar, I was handed the PET scan report but I felt too overwhelmed to read it thoroughly. I already knew that I had more than one tumor in my chest and I really didn't want to be informed of just how many more there were while sitting in the recliner receiving the poison that would dissolve said tumors.
My official diagnosis remained the same: Aggressive, Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, Stage III-A. The "A" stands for "no symptoms of lymphoma." It's incredible that I can have a dozen small tumors in my chest and not have a single, classic symptom of NHL. No wonder they went undetected for so long. Sneaky bastards.
After reading a semi-complicated report, and if my count is correct, I have TWELVE tumors within my neck, chest, abdomen and pelvis. They range in size from 6 mm to 46 mm, but happily, I have no organ involvement and my bone marrow is clear.
It's now obvious why there has been so much burning, not only in my chest (where I knew there were tumors) but in my gut as well. The chemo has been busy dissolving a lot of cancer cells.
After a long, 11-hour day, I was dropped off at my house around 6 pm, exhausted. I also developed a specific craving for pasta, something I rarely eat because it feels too heavy on my stomach. But that night, it was all I wanted.
When I devoured a big bowl of it again the next morning, I decided that the chemo must have had an Italian component in it. I continued to eat copious amounts of pasta, pizza, tortillas, and any carbs I could get my hands on for the next several days.
My palate continued to be very specific for certain foods. After craving carbs, I switched (without warning) to needing protein, and lots of it. After a few days, I returned to wanting carbs and fruit, even now. It has been an interesting experiment in paying attention to precisely what my body is requesting and/or requiring. One day, I texted the cook at work with a request for red potatoes. By evening, a colleague dropped off a large container-full. Every few days, my boss brought over 2 containers of chicken noodle soup and rolls or crackers.
The next few days were uneventful; I was tired but I'd expected that so I laid low while others supplied me with food, drinks, and company. I ventured out for acupuncture that first Saturday but had to return home immediately afterwards from exhaustion. I continued sleeping well and any aches in my chest and back were alleviated with small doses of OTC's. My hacking cough disappeared and a lot of my referred back pain lessened, just as my oncologist had promised.
The worst part about the first few days was taking the f****** prednisone. It took a whole carton of yogurt to choke down five pills and I still could taste the bitterness. I was also nervous about taking anything that would trigger nausea, so when my sister suggested I take them with ginger beer, my son gathered up a six-pack for me and it worked!
Twenty-four hours after treatment I had to return to the Cancer Care Center to receive a shot of Neulasta, a medication that stimulates the growth of white blood cells. It is used to decrease the incidence of infection after receiving chemotherapy, but it also ensures that my white cell count doesn't take a nose-dive.
Unfortunately, it comes with side effects that began within a few days, and continued for most of the nine days that I felt out-of-commission. Because the shot stimulates WBC growth, it essentially causes my bone marrow to produce them artificially, so pain is the chief side effect. My jaws and teeth began to throb, like I'd been chewing on rawhide for days, and the left side of my chest continued to burn and ache. My hat goes off to anyone who deals with chronic pain because it was not only uncomfortable 24/7, but it was also frustrating to not be able to alleviate it for long with medications or heat.
I also began getting a periodic sore throat, and the first three fingertips on each hand quickly turned numb (they still are). At times, I felt off-balance when I got up to walk.
For the first 48 hours I had to be careful about protecting those who share my home with me because any bodily fluids were still considered contaminated. I instructed my son that if I vomited, he was not to clean it up (like he was going to, anyway?). I also had to flush the toilet twice after each use.
Looking back on those first few days now (10 days later), I can't imagine what I was thinking when I returned to work on Monday morning, bright and early as usual. But I felt so well, and I had already missed several days, so it didn't make sense to stay home. But within an hour of being there, the muscles in my left armpit seized up in immediate and unrelenting pain. I stuck a cooling pack under my arm but that only lasted so long. I was quickly wearing out, so by the time I had worked for 5 hours, I was toast. I returned home and crashed for the rest of the day.
I realized then that I would not attempt to go in Tuesday, especially since I had an ECHO scheduled. It's a test to determine if my heart will be able to withstand chemotherapy for the long-haul. Fortunately, my heart passed with flying colors, but the pain in my chest and back worsened. I called my oncologist and asked if perhaps one of the medications was responsible, so I was told to get my blood drawn. A few days later I was taken off that medication, which I was supposed to be on for thirty days, because the rapid dissolution of cancer cells had happened so effectively, I no longer needed it.
On day #5, Tuesday, I'd had enough! I am a woman who never deals with aches and pains so I was not at all patient with the annoyance of pain, round-the-clock medications, and a very slowed-down life. I appreciated that the aches meant that the cancers were being dissolved, but I was raising my white flag.
I was ready to give in. I didn't care about moving forward. This was it, I was done. I couldn't go through this suffering anymore.
It had been an emotionally and physically draining day, beginning with a trip to the cafe where I write. I was already teetering on the edge when a local patron looked me square in the eye and asked how I was doing. "Not great," I timidly replied as I burst into sobs. He touched my shoulder, then simply listened as I cried and cried.
One-by-one, a few others wrapped me in tight hugs.
If you're ever wondering how you can help someone in crisis, that is it. Just listen. Be there. Lend a shoulder. It was both healing and releasing.
By Wednesday, things only got worse. I was in constant pain, I hadn't slept much, and I couldn't take enough medication to alleviate any of the nagging and unrelenting aches. I felt like a woman in labor, who at 8 cm can't get ahead of the barrage of contractions that overtake her body. The irony is that I was once that woman who birthed three babies without any medication, so the need for it now was overwhelming. I was crashing, and crashing hard.
I had been offered a Reiki session by a local woman in town and she came by that afternoon. After a 45-minute treatment, I fell into a deep sleep on the couch until midnight, then climbed into bed until the next morning. It was the best, pain-free rest I'd gotten all week so I woke up feeling refreshed. I think I slept 18 hours straight.
And for the first time since I was diagnosed in early May, I also woke up no longer needing the constant company of my heating pad to alleviate pain that had been searing across my chest. I was also able to cut back on my pain medication to just once or twice a day. This was good, good news!
I visited my oncologist later that day and received more encouraging news: the cancer had probably already been dissolved about 80%, as evidenced by the 7-pound weight loss I'd had in three days, and my blood work was excellent. I was finally on the mend from a very harsh and exhausting week.
Sadly, that didn't last long because later that night, the pain in my chest, and then my gut, returned. And it returned with a fury. I was suddenly needing pain medication again every 4 hours and the heating pad was once again attached to my body. But this time, the pain would not abate.
After a few more sleepless nights and dreadfully long and pain-filled days, it finally broke on Sunday morning. Could I trust it? After spending the first day feeling almost-normal again, I knew that I could. It was amazing to feel so back-to-myself again that it was difficult remembering ever having a rough time the past week. Once I began to feel better, it was sudden and obvious.
The nine days post-chemotherapy were the most gruesome days I've ever experienced.
But the love, support, and well wishes from many in my life continued to buoy me. My admiration goes out to all survivors before me. Because it is in your path that I can see the light.