A Cancer Journey III

Chemotherapy: The First Course

Everyone knows what chemo is. Chemo is probably the most common. shared experience for people who have suffered through cancer. Cancer is prevalent among older folks like me (more stats here) and many of us have other conditions that make treatment challenging. The optimism and positivity of my initial appointments with my medical oncology team was already being tempered by the myriad of tests and surgeries in preparation for pursuing the cure.

By the time chemo was ready to start I had lost 40 pounds despite starting on my feeding tube regimen. I felt as if I was sleep walking into chemo. I was also facing the reality of the type of surgery that would be needed. The projected surgery had the tumor being removed along with a good deal of my stomach and esophagus. So the purpose of chemo wasn’t so much a cure but to stop the spread of the cancer and a second course would be needed after my surgery as insurance against cancer returning.

MSTI Volunteers make quilts and afghans for patients. I’ll treasure mine.

MSTI’s chemo suite is amazing. I’m lucky to know the ladies who designed the space and could feel their touch on it immediately. Nancy Armstrong’s team, including my good friend Maite, were my office mates for almost 6 years in their building in the North End.

I felt good here with the amazing nurses who are committed to their patients. I feel like Jo and Kelsey shared how I felt and they set about to help me be as comfortable as I could be during my 5 or 6 hour infusion sessions.

MSTI nurses rock!

My chemo was every two weeks for about 5 – 6 hours at MSTI plus a 24-hour, overnight “chemo ball” that I slept with. Those nights were kind of crazy. I was hooked up to the ball through my port and I would have my feeding tube running as well. Getting up to go to the bathroom was an adventure. I felt like I was sleeping in shifts mostly to pass the time instead of getting any rest.

The day after chemo I would head back to MSTI to have the ball removed and my port flushed.

My chemo IV tree

After the first couple of cycles I would also meet with a member of the medical oncology team, get my vitals done and give blood. There were weeks where I would have as many as 8 appointments. Jo and I would head to a coffee house like Flying M after appointments but after I started chemo nothing tasted right… everything started tasting like burnt hand lotion.

If I wasn’t careful I would get nauseated and sometimes it didn’t matter. I managed to avoid too many problems with constipation and diarrhea. At first I didn’t have a problem with neuropathy, the heightened sensitivity and sensation of cold that accompanies one of the main chemo drugs. It eventually kicked in in a big way during the break between my last cycle and surgery.

Noah being Noah

By the third cycle my hair was falling out. Together with my weight loss, which topped out at just under 50 pounds, loosing my hair was almost something I welcomed. I already didn’t like the gaunt, pale guy I saw in the mirror. Without beard and hair, I thought I looked like someone else. And sure enough, most people couldn’t recognize me.

My son-in-law Noah gave himself a buzz cut in sympathy with my hair falling out. I started getting compliments on my nicely shaped head… who knew??

On a couple of my chemo days Kelsey would work. I had assumed correctly cancer and chemo would disrupt my ability to work, and that it would take pretty much all of my energy and focus to get through each day. Kelsey got permission to work from the hospital and to help me with some of what I needed to do for Idaho River Sports. I had to let several other clients go and was finishing up with others but needed to keep IRS going. I am so blessed to have her able to take this on. She is, after all, a third generation designer and media professional.

During that last chemo cycle in July, as Kelsey was working and about half way through the morning I had a reaction to a chemo drug. As Kelsey watched my blood pressure shot up to 200 something over 100 something, my pulse and heart rate went through the ceiling and my torso was gripped with a pain I’ve never experienced before. My face turned beet red within seconds and I pushed the call button. The fabulous MSTI nurses walked then ran to help me.

The reaction I had would seem to fall under a Type 1 reaction which includes anaphyaxis. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction, which can cause shock, low blood pressure, and occasionally death. Yup, it was that bad – for more, click here.

This episode brought home the realization that everything I had been going through to achieve a cure for my cancer was risky and being positive in the face of uncertainty would be more challenging than I’d expected. To make things even interesting, my surgery prognosis took a major change in direction.

Part 5: Utah

As chemo was progressing my surgeon Dr. Huntington changed course and referred me to Dr. David Griffin, a well known surgeon in Salt lake City for what we hoped would be a colon resection. The change in course came about as a result of the tests and scans which indicated the extent of the cancer in my stomach and esophagus was more than originally thought. The surgeries that would be a remedy aren’t done in Boise and Intermountain Medical Center was the best choice. Go to Utah by clicking here.

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