Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Plugged Ports and Watery Eyes and Ginseng, Oh My!

Yesterday was my 3rd chemo cycle. We had a bit of an issue with a plugged port this time around. My port would give up no blood at all, so I had to get blood drawn in the lab from my arm in order to get the bloodwork going so I could do chemo. Good times. I was then given an anti-clotting medication in my port. We had to sit and wait for 30 minutes for the drug to work. Luckily it worked. If it hadn't, I would have had to go back to outpatient surgery for a dye test to check for kinks in the port. Honestly, I was surprised the medication worked. Frankly, a kinky port sounds just like something that would happen to me. Luckily, it was just a blood clot at the end of my tube and the anti-clotting drug cleared it right up.

I also met with my oncologist yesterday prior to chemo to discuss my progress and treatment plan. He said I was doing beautifully. All my bloodwork looked great. I seem to be managing the chemo side effects better than many of his patients do. Of course, being the obnoxiously competitive overachiever I am, I heard that as, "You are the best cancer patient I have ever had in my entire career!" I blushed. Why, thank you, Dr. Anderson, you blond cutie you!

I did discuss the eye problems I've been having with my doctor. My eyes feel like they are full of sand all the time, and they constantly pour water. It has been so bad in the last few days that I have seriously considered gouging my own eyes out on more than one occasion. It wouldn't be pretty, but it would be effective. The watery eyes seem to be the worst when I try to read. My eyes fill with so much water that I can't even see the page. Unfortunately, this seems to be a not-so-common side effect of chemo that you don't hear much about. AC chemo generally dries out mucous membranes and can also dry out the eyes, as well. I am using over-the-counter moisturizing eye drops, but they don't seem to help. Unfortunately, there is not much else to be done. So far, this has been the most annoying side effect I have encountered. For someone like me who loves to read, this is borderline intolerable.

We also discussed future MRI's. My oncologist was initially going to do an MRI after the AC chemo, and before I started the Taxol chemo, but he is now leaning toward not doing that MRI. He said that nothing that could possibly be seen in the MRI would change anything related to my treatment because there is no oncologist in the world who would look at my situation and not recommend completing ALL of the chemo. So, he indicated he would probably only do the MRI in between if I really pushed to do it. I doubt I will because, if nothing else, I don't want the MRI to show no change and be smacked in the face with disappointment. At this point, I feel positive. And I really need to believe that the chemo is working. So I am leaning toward completing ALL of the chemo before doing the MRI.

Ignorance is bliss, right?

I also discussed the all-encompassing fatigue that hit me the last cycle. I spent a full 5 days completely incapacitated on my living room couch. Unfortunately, there is not really any medication that is used to treat fatigue. He recommended trying to be active--going for short walks--when I feel up to it. Activity helps, apparently. Ugh. But he also told me about a recent study that my clinic did with the Mayo Clinic regarding the use of ginseng to treat fatigue in cancer patients. Here is a link to the press release from Mayo:  Ginseng fights fatigue in cancer patients.

Normally, my doctor said, he is not a big proponent of herbal remedies, simply because the industry is not highly regulated and you never really know what you are getting when you buy an herbal remedy at the drug store. Also, there haven't been many sound scientific studies done of the effectiveness of many of these herbs. One quote in particular from the article struck me as rather scary: "Off-the-shelf ginseng is sometimes processed using ethanol, which can give it estrogen-like properties that may be harmful to breast cancer patients," said Mayo Clinic Cancer Center researcher Debra L. Barton, R.N., Ph.D.  How would I know if I picked up a bottle of ginseng at Target that it could be processed with ethanol? And how would I possibly know that ethanol gave ginseng estrogen-like properties? I am pretty sure this info is not prominently displayed on the bottle. 

My oncologist really liked the Mayo study because it was a nice large sample of patients at 40 different treatment centers. It was a placebo study and 60% of the study participants were diagnosed with breast cancer. The study showed a 20% decrease in fatigue symptoms after 8 weeks in the patients who received the 100% ginseng. That said, he warned me against just picking up a bottle of ginseng at Target. The Mayo press release includes a link to where you can purchase the exact 100% Wisconsin ginseng (no ethanol!) that was used in the study. I ordered an 8-week supply this morning from the Ginseng & Herb Cooperative in Marathon, Wisconsin and I am going to give it a go. I would happily take a 20% decrease in fatigue, so we'll see how it goes.

All that said, my 3rd chemo cycle was pretty uneventful. It's becoming business as usual. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. It's just a thing, I guess.

Onward and upward.  

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Tomorrow is Cycle 3 (Yay! Ugh.)

For those of you keeping track, tomorrow will be my 3rd cycle of AC chemo. To say that I am not looking forward to it would be a gross understatement. That said, I'm not really dreading it either.

It's a weird thing, this knowing that tomorrow will begin another week of almost complete debilitation. I fully expect to spend the next week on the couch with no energy to do much more than walk myself to the bathroom 14 or 15 times a day (because 80-100 ounces of water is a LOT of fluids). It's not something that is fun, but at the same time, I want to get this treatment over with. So I desperately want to go to chemo, too. It's sort of an emotional roller coaster of desires--to want to do something desperately that you totally have no desire to do. This is a new emotion for me. I wonder if it has a name...? Desperanguish? Eageravoidance? Shittypoopooness?

This time, Ruanita is not going with me. My sister, Amy, will be taking me and sitting at the hospital with me for five hours. Lucky girl! Amy is sort of like me in that she has a totally unnatural and borderline freakish interest in all the blood and gore. Whereas Ruanita will never go back with me to have my port hooked up and my blood drawn, Amy is looking forward to seeing me poked and prodded. I am pretty sure she will not look away squeamishly when they pull out the big red syringes. So it might be nice to go to chemo with a kindred spirit who will ooh and aah at all the the gory medical accoutrements right along with me. If nothing else, it will prove interesting.

And there's always the post-chemo McDonalds run to look forward to.

But there are also some definite downsides to chemo this time around. My twins both have their annual Spring school music programs this week--Tuesday and Wednesday. I will not be attending either. I have not missed a Hale Elementary School music program in eight years, so that kind of sucks. Ruanita is going to videotape it for me, but it's not the same. I will also miss my oldest son's annual Spring concert with the Metropolitan Boys' Choir scheduled for Mother's Day. The Sunday after chemo is still an iffy time for me--I am usually still pretty couch-bound on that day.

And the truly sucky part is that I feel SO GOOD today. The sun is shining. All the trees are blooming. My kids are being especially lovely and hilarious this morning. I have two Kentucky Derby pies in the oven making my house smell like a bourbon-soaked Promised Land. I just want to keep this feeling going. I want to be ME for just a little while longer.

You know what I mean?

Friday, April 29, 2016

An Ode to Nasal Hair

Oh, nasal hairs, you lovable lout!
I never once thought of you
until you fell out.
Now I heartily miss you
every day.
I wish I had the
words to say
just how much
you meant to me,
you sadly overlooked
carpenter bee. 
Always working,
always true,
always there for me
when I needed you.
Collecting moisture,
not allowing it to drip
onto my unsuspecting lap
with a slosh and a slip.
Keeping that snot
firmly entrenched in my nose,
and not on my laptop
and not on my clothes. 
Spring is tough
on a nose like mine,
but you always saved the day
working overtime.
I miss you so,
I can't sufficiently express
how you've left a hole in my heart
and my nose under duress.
I hope to see you
once again, one day.
growing healthily and happily
in my nasal passageway.
Until that time,
please know you are missed.
I love you, nasal hairs,
now grow back before I get pissed!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Speaking Whale and Other Unexpected Cancer Side Effects

Cancer is the great mystery eraser. The great magic killer. If there is anything your partner does not know about your body before your cancer diagnosis, it will be completely out in the open by the end.

Ruanita has watched me poked and prodded. She has watched me drugged and doped. She has watched me puking and peeing on myself. She has sat stoically through numerous breast exams. More people have touched my boobs in the last two months than in my entire previous 43 years of life. There are no more mysteries. I am all out for Ruanita to see. In all my gorgeous glory.

Case in Point: Just yesterday, as we sat in the Mall of America parking lot--on our way to Sears to buy a new dryer to replace the 15-year-old dryer that finally gave up the ghost because major appliances have the nerve to die even when you have cancer--Ruanita reached over to me with a tiny pair of scissors dangling from her keychain and plucked a long white wayward hair from my neck. I could have probably wrapped it around my index finger a few times and plucked it myself. But there was Ruanita with her keen eyesight and her tiny scissors at the ready.

All the mystery is gone, people.

Ruanita and I have been together for 18 and a half years. We have seen a lot of each other at our best and at our worst, but cancer has a special way of erasing the last vestiges of any veil between you and your partner.

Every morning, I sit at the kitchen table and drink a big glass of what I call my "poop juice" (1% milk mixed with Nestle Strawberry Quick and a healthy dose of Miralax--it's the only way I can seem to stomach the Miralax). Constipation is a real (and incredibly painful) concern with the type of chemo I am receiving, so I talk about poop a lot. I thought when my children left diapers behind, I would give up my weird fixation on poop for good. I was wrong.

Chemo also causes a lot of gas issues. Honestly, my stomach pretty much churns all day and all night. I will admit that I fart in bed now. And on the couch. And bending over to feed the dog. Ruanita and I call it "speaking whale" (a throwback to Ellen Degeneres' character in Finding Nemo). It is not ladylike. It is not pretty. My only consolation is that Ruanita is fluent in "whale" as well. And she does not have my chemo excuse.

And today, Ruanita is going to shave my head. My sisters gave me a very tight miltary-style crew cut a few weeks ago, but now even my extremely short SHORT hair is starting to fall out in patches. I look like a dog with mange. And my head itches constantly. So I am biting the bullet and allowing Ruanita to shave me completely bald with a pink Daisy razor today. Yet another veil ripped away.

Cancer is not pretty. It's a fact. But here's the thing...I never aspired to be pretty. Pretty intelligent. Pretty kind. Pretty creative. Pretty fierce. These are my aspirations. And cancer can't take them away no matter how hard it tries. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Get the pot! Get the weed!

When I first announced that I was going to be undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, one singular refrain rose up from all of the people in my life who had previously undergone chemo.

Get the pot!
Get the weed!
You MUST get the marijuana!
It's the thing you need!

As someone who is more terrified of nausea than losing any body part in my possession, I listened to the masses. I agreed wholeheartedly that the weed was something I most certainly needed. 

But, believe it or not, I had never smoked pot in my life. I was raised in Kentucky where our drugs of choice are meth and Mountain Dew. I was never really exposed to pot growing up. My friends didn't smoke it. My friends didn't sell it. It was a non-issue.

When I went to college, I am pretty sure it was around. But again, my friends were more concerned with creating the perfect Bourbon Sour than smoking pot. We chose alcohol. We wholeheartedly chose alcohol. Again, pot was really a non-issue.

So here I am...a 43 year old woman who has had a pretty good time in my life, but I have never smoked pot.

Having never smoked it, I had NO CLUE how to get it. I wondered if I should ask my doctor. Some oncologists are all for it, others not so much. Mine had not mentioned it at all. Being a "good girl" by nature, I felt weird going to my handsome blond oncologist with the brilliant white teeth and going, "Yo, dude. Can you give me a script for weed?"

I was kind of at a loss.

(So we've reached the part of our story now where my beloved brother THE COP can stop reading, thank you.)

Luckily for me, a good friend messaged me one day to say, "Yo, I know a guy." That may not have been an exact quote, but pretty close. My friend gave me all the details. This particular person is not actually a guy, but a woman. She sells pot in all its varieties. One of her clients happens to be an epileptic 7-year-old who has fewer seizures when she eats her "special" cookies. She has several chemo clients. So she definitely provides a public service.

I thought long and hard about the options and settled on oatmeal raisin cookies. I have a weird thing about inhaling carcinogens into my lungs--particularly when my chest area is already riddled with cancer cells--so I didn't think I could smoke it in good conscience. I am not a huge chocolate fan, so brownies did not seem all that appealing. There was also Monster cookies as an option. Again, not a fan of chocolate. So oatmeal raisin cookies seemed like the best choice.

I paid $50 for a dozen cookies and had them in my possession in a matter of days. I carefully unwrapped them (they were amazingly, professionally bagged) as the aroma (and I'm not talking raisins) filled my kitchen. I quickly shoved them in a Ziploc freezer bag, wrote a cryptic "DO NOT EAT!!" on the bag with a Sharpie marker, and hid them away in the back of my freezer for another day. I had the cookies in my possession for a full week, too nervous to try them.

As I said in my last blog, I've been better able to control my nausea with medication this cycle. However, for a few days, I do have a constant queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. It's not enough to send me running to the toilet, but it's enough to be annoying to this nausea-hating girl.

So a couple of days ago, I decided to bite the bullet. And bite the cookie. I placed the cookie on a pretty, appealing dessert plate on my kitchen counter to thaw. (It's all about presentation, right?) Then I sat at the table with a tall glass of water and one rather small cookie.

Remember me saying previously that I have a pretty strong gag reflex? Well, I took one bite of the cookie and obviously, immediately gagged. I quickly ran to the kitchen sink, certain that I would need to spit it out, but somehow, against all odds (and with healthy gulps of cold water), I was able to swallow it.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Oatmeal raisin pot cookies do NOT, in fact, taste like oatmeal raisin cookies. Rather, there is a very slight cinnamony raisiny sweetness followed by the intense flavor of front lawn. Yes, it tastes like I would imagine my lawn would taste if I felt the sudden, unprecedented need to chew some cud.

I was able to choke the small cookie down after about 15 minutes--with a few more gagging episodes in between.

It was a chore, but SO worth it, right?

Yeah...not so much.

I did feel the effects of the pot. I felt a brief sort of lightheaded silliness, followed by an intense desire to eat everything in sight. Considering that I was all alone in the house, the silliness was not particularly enjoyable--to me or my dog. And considering that eating large amounts of food in one sitting contributes to my nausea, that was equally unsatisfying.

Then I fell asleep.

Kind of a non-climactic ending to the story, huh? I thought so, too.

I must say that I do not feel I was really missing anything all those years I opted for Mountain Dew. Perhaps the pot you smoke is more pleasant than the kind you eat in cud form? But again, I don't like to smoke. So maybe I'm just a fuddy-duddy after all. At this point in my life, I am strangely okay with that. I will stick with my Bourbon Sours.

Considering that I really have no trouble sleeping during the week following chemo, I am not sure that the effects of the cookie were worth the effort involved in eating it. That said, I do plan on holding onto the cookies. After the initial 4 cycles of AC chemo, I will start weekly Taxol infusions. There are fewer side effects with the Taxol, I am told, but severe joint pain can be a debilitating side effect.

Those cookies may just come in handy after all...if I can get aboard the cud-chewing train. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Holy Fatigue, Batman!

I came to a rather startling conclusion in this, my third week of treatment for breast cancer. You might want to sit down for this one because it certainly took me by complete surprise.

Chemo is NOT fun.

I realize this may sound like an obvious assumption, but look at it from my perspective. A busy mom of three. Always running here or there. Laundry, groceries, karate tournaments, choir concerts, violin recitals. Kids who always expect to eat. Three times a day, even! A few weeks laying on the couch watching Netflix did not sound like an altogether unpleasant notion.

I am here to say right now that I was completely wrong. Stupidly wrong.

This week, I've managed to control the nausea that plagued me during the last chemo cycle much better. I am not a person who likes to take pills. Perhaps because I come from a long and distinguished genetic line of addictive personalities, I am kind of weird about taking pills...drinking too much...gambling...I am weird about all life's exciting vices. BUT, I learned this week that if one DOES take the "as needed for nausea" pills as needed for nausea, they actually work. By taking the as needed pills preemptively, I've managed to really control the nausea this time around. Weird how medicine works, huh?

So with the nausea under control, this week should have been a breeze. But it wasn't. I was hit this week by that ugly fatigue that everyone talks about with chemo.

Let me tell you, this fatigue is like nothing I've ever felt in my life. It's like some sort of weird half-life that you sink into and cannot seem to climb your way out of. It's like a fog that envelops you. You know that life is going on around you, but you are too tired to care. Too tired to take notice, even.

When I was in college, I got really drunk one night on fuzzy navels in my friend's dorm room. It was probably the most I had ever drank in my life (previously or since) and I ended up spending most of the night paying homage to the porcelain gods in the girls' dorm restroom. That same night, I wore a sweatshirt that said DUCKHEAD in large letters across the chest (stylish in the early 90s, believe it or not), and spent the entire night repeating over and over, "It's a D! It's a D!" To this day, my college friends refer to me as Duck. And to this day, I cannot eat or drink anything peach-flavored or scented. Ruanita just went to the grocery yesterday and bought peach-scented face wipes. I may be ill. But that doesn't really matter to this story. The point is that, after being carried to my room by a couple of athletes I had never met and to this day cannot name, I slept until late afternoon the next day in a sort of alcohol-induced, chemically-dehydrated stupor that is the only thing I can think of in my lifetime that comes even close to the chemo fatigue.

It is all-encompassing. The simple act of rolling over in bed is exhausting. And I had no interest whatsoever this week in watching Netflix. Keeping up with the story line of any television show was too taxing to even attempt. Most of the week was spent laying on the couch with my face buried in the cushions and my back to the television (and the world). I could hear what was going on around me, but I couldn't seem to stop myself from drifting in and out of sleep. I was totally checked out.

I did try to get out on Friday. I was hungry (maybe the first sign of digging out of the stupor?), so Ruanita suggested we go to a local burger place near our house and have lunch. I donned my trusty cap and wrapped up in a sweatshirt to head to lunch. Walking in, I was acutely aware that I was not nearly as spritely as Queen Elizabeth, who had celebrated her 90th birthday the day before. I had to ask Ruanita to carry my purse because it was soooooo heavy. I heaved myself into a booth and thought, right then and there, that I would surely pass out from the sheer exhaustive will it took to walk in. Picking my legs up to walk took concerted effort. I had to physically fight the urge to climb up onto the table and lay down. Queen Elizabeth would have been absolutely mortified.

I did manage to order a meal. I took one bite of my burger and immediately gagged on it. I didn't attempt a second bite and it became Ruanita's 2nd lunch later in the day. I managed to choke down a few Jo-Jo potatoes (my personal favorite), so I felt accomplished in that regard. We cut lunch a bit short, and afterwards, I took a completely unconscious 2-hour nap on the couch. I do not think it could quite be called a successful outing. Probably too much, too soon.

Today, I am finally feeling a tiny bit of my normal energy seeping back in. I'm still tired, but today's the first day I've successfully been able to string together a coherent sentence for this blog, so I'll take it. I used to complain about having no energy, but I am so freaking excited to get back even a fraction of my previous sedentary-sit-on-your-ass-lazy-fat-girl energy. I would pay large sums of money for Queen Elizabeth's 90-year-old intensity at this point.

I never believed that the fatigue could quite reach the level of how I had read it described.

I am a firm believer now.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Bit About My Family

So I have had a lot of people ask me how my family is dealing with my cancer diagnosis and treatment, so I guess it is about time I write something about that.

I think I have done a pretty good job of keeping my spirits up through it all. A lot of it has to do with the family in which I was raised. My large, loud, rowdy family has a tendency to turn tragedy into comedy. I have spent many a day sitting in a hospital waiting room laughing my head off. It's how we handle trauma. We laugh about it. Loudly. Probably completely inappropriately. But it seems to work for us. And it works for me.

My wife, Ruanita, was not raised in the same type of family. She tends to approach tragedy a little differently. I should probably set this up by explaining that Ruanita and I share everything. I tell her everything. We discuss everything. We share the same weird sense of humor and slightly askance view of the world. To put it in Gray's Anatomy terms, she is my person. And I am hers.

I am very much a glass-half-full person. I tend to look on the bright side of things. I search out the silver linings...even in situations where silver linings are unlikely. Ruanita, on the other hand, is much more of a realist (with a heavy skew toward pessimism). She sees worse case scenarios clearly. And, of course, the obvious worst case scenario of cancer is that I won't survive.

This is her greatest fear. Losing her person.

That said, however, this is not something she can talk to me about. I believe 100% that I am going to beat this. I have to believe this, and I have to surround myself with people who believe it, as well. So it's been really difficult because she can't talk about her greatest fear with her person. So there have been a lot of tears shed. On her part.

Weirdly, I have not cried at all since my diagnosis...until this past Sunday.

Sunday evening, I shaved my head. My hair was coming out by the handfuls all day on Sunday, so I decided to bite the bullet and shave my head. In my family's typical fashion, we made a party out of it. My mom and my two sisters came over to watch. My sisters, my 13-year-old son, and my 13-year old nephew took turns with the clippers. The four or them enjoyed it probably a little too much, if I am being honest. We shaved me a cool green mohawk before shaving it completely. We took lots of pictures and had a grand old time of it.

Ruanita wanted nothing to do with the party. She stayed in the room with us, but did not care to shave my head and did not really join in the festive nature of the gathering. Afterwards, as everyone was posing for pictures with my bald head, she refused to be in the pictures. Obviously, the whole scene was difficult for her to watch.

After everyone went home, Ruanita busied herself with chores around the house, saying very little to me and not really looking at me for the remainder of evening. It was uncomfortable, as you can imagine.

As I was preparing for bed, I walked past a mirror and caught a glimpse of myself. I looked like the one fat women at the concentration camp (there had to have been at least one with a glandular issue). In actuality, rather than a concentration camp victim, I looked like something I never wanted to be...a cancer patient. Everything kind of hit me at that point. And I believe my finally looking like a cancer patient brought everything painfully home for my wife, as well.

At bedtime, I cried for the first time. Not so much about my hair. Honestly, the hair didn't bother me nearly as much as Ruanita pulling away from me that night did. I thought that she clearly saw me as hideous and that was why she didn't want to look at me or talk to me. I even told her "You need to do better," which was a really shitty thing to say, considering that she has been an absolute rock through this entire thing.

I think everything just hit her that night when I suddenly looked like what I am--a cancer patient. Ruanita worries about the things that I cannot worry about. She worries about how we are going to manage with my making only 60% of my normal pay on short-term disability. She worries about how we are going to pay the medical bills that have started coming in. She worries about how the kids are going to handle everything and how we can manage to keep their lives and schedules as normal as possible. She worries about how sick chemo will make me. She worries when she is at work and she worries when she is at home. Everything has fallen on her and it was incredibly unfair of me to tell her she needed to do better. She is doing the best she can. I think we sometimes say the cruelest things to the people we love the most. Maybe because we need them the most. Or maybe because we know they are the only ones who can take us at our worst--our pettiest, our most afraid--and still love us. Still stay with us. Still hold us tight.

So I apologized. And she apologized. And we are fine. Well, as fine as two people can be in the midst of cancer treatment.

And we are doing our best to keep the kids' lives as normal as possible. Sophie still goes to karate and violin lessons. Lucas still goes to choir. We've shifted some things around and found a way to make it work. We've been honest with them about every aspect of my treatment. They are handling everything like champs, all things considered.

Lucas, my 13-year-old,  is a born care-taker. He is constantly asking, "Do you need me to get you anything, mom?" "Do you need me to do anything for you, mom?" He has become the water police, making sure that I am drinking my 60-80 ounces of water a day. The first thing he says to me when he gets home from school each day is, "Have you been drinking your water?" He wants to know everything that is going on with my treatment. He asks lots of questions. But he has been, first and foremost, my #1 caretaker.

Nicholas, my 9-year-old, doesn't want to talk about cancer. He's prefer snuggles. He wants lots of snuggles these days. And his two blankies that he has slept with since birth now go everywhere with him. If we go to a restaurant, his blankies go to a restaurant. If we go to a movie, his blankies go to a movie. They are his constant. His source of comfort. He's quite sensitive and he cries at the drop of a hat. His tears seem to come much easier now than before my diagnosis. He is easily overwhelmed. So I try to be gentle with him. We rarely talk about cancer, but we snuggle A LOT.

Sophie, my other 9-year-old, has become our cancer comedian. She doesn't mind talking about my diagnosis or treatment, but she has to make a joke or a snarky comment every time (I have no idea from where or whence her snark comes). And she is very hot or cold with me. She vacillates between sitting in my lap snuggling for hours on end and hating me with every fiber of her being. It's kind of like our pre-cancer relationship, but on steroids. It's difficult to manage at times, but I try to remind myself that she is not only dealing with a mom with cancer, but also all of the other trials and tribulations of a typical tween existence. It's not always easy being an almost-ten-year-old girl.

All-in-all, I would say that my family is handling everything quite well. They've impressed me, for sure. You never know what to expect when something like this happens. You don't know how people will respond. How people will treat you. In this regard, I have been so pleasantly surprised by everyone I know. And no one has surprised me more pleasantly--more perfectly--than my wife and my kids.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Chemo #2 and a New Low Point

I am officially halfway through the AC portion of my chemo. Session #2 was today. I knew what to expect going in this time, so it was much less nerve-wracking. And we had the same nurse as last time--a soft spoken, no-nonsense, middle-aged Catholic mom named Mary who finds Ruanita and I pretty hilarious. Considering that I'm being treated at an inner city hospital with a "colorful" clientele (for lack of a better word), I appreciate that Mary enjoys our distinct sense of humor. I am aware that it can be an acquired taste.

I took some pictures of Mary (covertly, without her knowledge or consent) giving me the Adriamycin (also known as The Red Devil) today. This stuff is brutal.

My port decided to be troublesome today. Apparently, sometimes the needle that goes in can end up against the wall of the vein, making it difficult. Mary had a really hard time drawing my blood. The port would accept fluids, but did not want to give any back. When she does my Adriamycin, Mary will inject some of it into my port, wait a second, and then pull back on the syringe to draw a little blood back out. She does this multiple times while injecting the three syringes. I am not sure what the medical function of this is, but I suppose it's necessary. I ended up having to lean on my left arm ("Thinker" style) and inhale deeply each time for my port to give up the blood. I also received a whopping total of about twelve syringes full of saline today (Mary kept trying to flush the port so she could draw blood), as well as a full IV bag and a half of fluids. Which leads to a funny story...

So, the chemo irritates my bladder, which means I sometimes feel like I can't empty my bladder completely. I will use the bathroom, walk into the living room, sit down, and immediately have to go to the bathroom again.

It's annoying, at best.

At worst, I leave chemo after five hours, walk about ten feet to the nearest bathroom and proceed to pee ALL OVER MYSELF before I can get my pants pulled down. Not a trickle either. A deluge of day-glo orange pee. In my defense:
  1. I am 43 years old. (Enough said.)
  2. I spent seven months with not one, but TWO, human beings Riverdancing on my bladder.
  3. Bladder irritation is one of the known side effects of AC chemo. 
  4. I received so many fluids today because of the pissy port that I was looking all over the infusion center for anything that could be used as an inflatable in the event that I began to float out of the hospital. 
So yes, I traveled all the way from downtown St. Paul to my house in south Minneapolis sitting in capri pants soaked with my own orange urine. It was definitely a low point in my cancer treatment--thus far. It did not, however, stop me from making Ruanita detour through the McDonald's drive-thru.

Chemo makes this girl hangry.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Failure on a Massive Level

Just yesterday, I posted about the struggle of being fully cognizant that my hair was going to fall out within days of my second chemo session on Monday. It's something that I've been a little obsessed with despite my declarations that I am anything but vain. I think I've managed to find a sense of peace with the inevitable.

Or so I thought.

Imagine my surprise--two days before my second chemo session--to find the following while blow drying my hair this morning:

 What the fuck?!

Then  I made the mistake of running my fingers through my hair and pulling out this:

What the holy hell?!

Now I can't quit running my fingers through my hair. It's quickly become a compulsion. At this rate, I am surely going to pull every single hair from my head by dinner time. I will be bald before bedtime.

I can think of only two explanations for this phenomenon.
  1. Pansy-ass hair follicles. They couldn't hold on a few more days. They couldn't manage to cling to life for 36 more hours. Like the rest of me, my hair follicles are apparently lazy-ass, couch-surfing, Netflix-binging, pacifist wusses. Ooooh, the chemo! It burns! It burns! Let's just lie down here and give up without even a semblance of a fight! I hope they have Black-ish in follicle heaven! Well, guess what? You're going to follicle hell where the only sitcom you'll be watching is Fuller House, pansy-ass hair follicles!
  2. Overachieving hair follicle. Perhaps my hair follicles are well aware of my reputation for being hyper-competitive about really stupid things. Like that time I just had to win at Trivial Pursuit, resulting in a complete and total embargo on all trivia related board games in my household.  Perhaps my hair follicles, having witnessed first-hand the devastating fallout of my hyper competitiveness, were just trying to keep mama happy. If the average hair dies within a few days of the second chemo treatment, we'll do better! We'll overachieve on a phenomenal level! We'll kick some average follicle ass! We'll kill our hair BEFORE the second treatment. That will show them just who they're dealing with. The BEST, mother fuckers! Apparently my overachieving hair follicles curse a lot, too. It's an intimidation technique I like to employ myself. But I digress.
Either way--whether my hair follicles are pansy pacifists or competitive assholes--they have failed me on a magnificently unforgivable level.


Friday, April 15, 2016

Feeling Good. Getting Nervous.

I have my second chemo session on Monday and I am starting to get very nervous about it.

Here's the thing. Chemotherapy goes completely against the natural order of the world. In the normal, sane world, one does not see calamity coming. Ailments and accidents and maladies of every variety typically come as a surprise. It's not like you get in your car in the morning and know that you are going to get in a car wreck on your way to work. It's not like you step outside your door and realize ahead of time that you are going to slip on a patch of ice and land like a clumsy giraffe--all lanky limbs and tangled parts--in a heap with a broken ankle. You do not feel a concussion coming. You do not sense a splinter waiting to embed itself in your unsuspecting thumb. Most disasters, big and small, come as a surprise.

Because we don't see it coming, our brains go into survival and recovery mode when disaster strikes. You don't have time to contemplate the possible repercussions. You don't have time to dwell on what you will miss. What you will lose. You just sigh a hearty "dammit" and move on. Time to heal.

Chemotherapy, on the other hand, spits in the face of the natural order of the world.

I feel great today. I've felt amazing all week. Almost normal. It's easy, when I feel so incredibly, deliciously ordinary, to forget that I even have cancer. It becomes easy to pretend that everything is fine. All is well. But it's Friday now and I can clearly see the catastrophe looming on the horizon.

And frankly, it sucks.

It sucks to know that, in a few days, I will be completely incapacitated. It sucks to know that there is probably a little vomit and heaping doses of nausea in my very near future. It sucks to know that I will be exhausted to the point of absolute uselessness. That I will not be taking my daughter to karate next week. I will not be dropping the kids off at school. I will be not be facing a bright, shiny sky as I happily head to Caribou Coffee for my morning cold press. It just really sucks to know these things in advance.

And I am also painfully aware that this Monday is the chemo session that will kill my hair. I am not an incredibly vain person. Not by any means. And frankly, I'm really not all that devastated by the idea of losing my hair. It's the least of my worries, obviously. But there is something about knowing that this will be THE DAY that makes it somehow worse. The red drug that gets pumped into my port on Monday will kill every hair follicle on my body. Within days of my second chemo session, my hair will begin to fall out in droves as my follicles give up the ghost. I will lose the hair on my head. On my legs. In private places no one wants to hear about. I will lose my nose hairs. Those tiny hairs that keep all the vile smorgasbord of dust and pollen and infinitesimal critters from one's nasal passages.

That's really a little nugget of knowledge no one should be burdened with knowing in advanced.

So yeah, I feel great today.

But I am getting nervous.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Fun with Drugs

This is a photo of all the medications I currently take. Interestingly, not a single one of these kill cancer. Or fight cancer. Or have any effect whatsoever on cancer. Every one of these medications (with the exception of a drug for high blood pressure that I was on previously) are used to combat the effects of chemotherapy.

I am not a pill-popper by nature. I have a ridiculously childish gag reflex that prevents me from swallowing more than one or two pills at a time. Seriously, I gag on everything. I gag on pills. I gag on liquid medicine. I gag when I brush my teeth. I gag when I bite into something that is not the consistency I expected. (Eggs are a big gag-inducer for me if they are not cooked exactly how I expect them to be. Hence, I avoid eggs for the most part.) I could never be one of those pill-popping suburban housewives of where-the-hell-ever.

In summary, Shannon Ralph is a big old egg-hating cry-baby sissy gagger. Duly noted.

So what exactly are all of these medications? And what do they do?
  1. Miralax - I think most people know what Miralax does. I was warned ahead of time that my chemo meds would cause constipation, but did I heed that warning? Noooo....of course not. That is, until I spent all day Sunday doubled over on the couch moaning in pain. Since that day, Miralax has become my first-thing-in-the-morning ritual (it's not that bad if you mix it with a tall glass of strawberry flavored milk) and my best friend. 
  2. One-a-Day Women's Multivitamin - This is to combat any lack of vitamins and minerals I am ingesting...or not ingesting, I suppose. I have never been one who takes vitamins regularly because, frankly, they are too damn big and I could never take one without gagging profusely. But then I discovered that they actually make gummy vitamins for namby-pambies over the age of 7 like me. Score!
  3. Tylenol PM - I had to start taking these as soon as I received my diagnosis because I absolutely stopped being able to fall asleep or stay asleep on my own. I know it is anxiety-related, but I am one cranky woman when I do not get enough sleep. My doctor said it was harmless to continue taking them, so I take them every single night. I just today had to purchase the gel-cap variety, however, because I was gagging every night on the simple caplets I had. I am such a pantywaist.
  4. TUMS - Oh, Lord...do not even get me started on the heartburn! Never in my life have I had heartburn like the chemo variety of heartburn I have almost daily now. IN. SANE.
  5. Docusate sodium & Senna - Stimulant laxative plus stool softener. A party in a bottle. 
  6. Dexamethasone - A steroid that treats inflammation. I take this twice a day for 3 days following each chemo session. It causes trouble sleeping, increases appetite, and can interact dangerously with alcohol. Good times.
  7. Zofran - This is an anti-nausea drug. I take it three times a day for 3 days following each chemo session. Then I can take as needed after that.
  8. Compazine - This medication also treats nausea, but it has the added benefit of being an anti-psychotic, as well. It is used to treat schizophrenics, which seems somehow comically appropriate. I take as needed. You know, when the miniature purple elephants dance across my living room floor taunting me.
  9. Ativan - This is a sedative used to treat anxiety. Supposedly, as a sedative, it should help me sleep. It does not. 
  10. Neulasta - This is not a medication I take at home. I could, if I wanted to wear a on-body injector on the back of my arm that would give me an injection exactly 27 hours after applied. Sounds like my kind of hell. So I go into the clinic the day after chemotherapy to receive a Neulasta injection from a nurse instead of a box taped to my body. It is a bone marrow stimulant. It makes my bone marrow produce white blood cells at an accelerated rate to replace the white blood cells that were massacred the previous day by my chemo meds. It is kind of the Olivia Pope of cancer. Clean up the mess. Hide the evidence.
  11. Claritin - I find this medication incredibly interesting. It is not, as one would think, used to treat allergies. The Neulasta injections I receive twice a month can cause debilitating bone pain. I guess bone marrow doesn't appreciate being put on a super accelerated assembly line and often protests. I picture it kind of like this scene from I Love Lucy:                                                                                                                                                                                                       The bone marrow finds it hard to keep up and, as a result, can get quite overwhelmed and a little bit pissy, resulting in pain. Something in the antihistamine properties of the Claritin help with this bone pain. The nurse couldn't explain the science behind it to me, so I just had to take her at her word. I didn't have any bone pain this go-round, but I am prepared just in case.
  12. Thera-Tears Eye Drops - I just bought these today. This it to treat a side effect of chemo I was not warned about--apparently chemotherapy drugs can cause dry, sore, gritty eyes. I just noticed this within the last day or two. It started with my eyes watering constantly. Now they feel like I have been wearing contacts for a week or two too long. Dry and gritty. I was trying to read this morning and my eyes were watering so badly that I could not even see the page. Cancer can take many things, but it ain't getting my books! I hope the eye drops will help. 
  13. Biotene - This is a non-alcoholic moisturizing mouthwash. Chemo can cause both a dry mouth and painful sores in the mouth. I am not really a fan of open sores---particularly of the oral variety--so I am using Biotene prophylactically to try to avoid mouth sores. I have not had a problem with this yet, but I woke up this morning (for the first time since getting chemo) with a super dry cotton-mouth. Like I had slept all night with my tongue hanging out. I assume that was not the case (I am sure Ruanita would have let me know otherwise), and that this is another latent side-effect rearing its ugly head. 
So there you have it. All of my ain't-doing-a-single-thing-to-kill-cancer medications.

Please try to contain your jealousy.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Today is the first day I have actually been home alone since my chemotherapy last Monday. When Ruanita has had to work in the last week, my mother has come over to babysit me all day. But I've been feeling better the last few days and I have managed to convince the POWERS THAT BE that I no longer need a sitter. Ruanita left for work at 9:15 this morning, and I was on my own.

And I had plans...

With no one to ask me every five minutes if I was feeling nauseous or if I was drinking enough water or if I thought I should maybe eat some more lean protein, I spent the morning lounging lazily on the couch watching Samantha Bee videos on YouTube with my trusty old dog. I've decided that Samantha Bee is my spirit animal.

As I watched Sam (we're on a first-name basis, of course) giddily cursing about all the crap-ton of asininity in this world, I kept one eye on the clock. With no one except my own dangerous self in charge of my nutritional needs for the day, I fully intended to get my junk food on. Arby's started serving lunch at 11 o'clock on the dot, and there were some curly fries with my name on them.

At 10:50, I took a Zantac (constant and unyielding heartburn is one of the lesser dramatic side effects of chemo no one talks about), donned my trusty dog-hair-covered hoodie and UK baseball cap, kissed my confused puppy good-bye (What? Huh? We're leaving the couch?), and skipped to the car. (Actually, I rather sauntered to the car because I tend to function at the energy level of a stoner sloth these days, but we'll say I "skipped" for theatrical effect.) Needless to say, I was excited about the prospect of a lunch completely devoid of nutritional value.

I pulled into the drive-thru and was instantly overwhelmed by the menu of "food-like" options. I definitely wanted curly fries. And a  full-fat soda. Chicken or roast beef? Oohhh...cheesesticks. I opted for a #1 combo with curly fries and a gargantuan Pepsi that somehow passed for "medium." Oh yeah...and the mozzarella sticks. I paid the 9+ dollars and pulled away, excited to dive in.

I had a whole plan. I was going to drive around a couple of the lakes in town. I was going to blare the Hamilton soundtrack (which I have been woefully neglectful of since I rarely get out in my car anymore) while scarfing down my secret lunch. 

Then a funny thing happened.

I smelled the "food-like" refuse I was about to ingest. Rather than feeling giddy about my successfully covert meal, I suddenly felt ill. Not guilty ill. Pukey ill. But by-dammit, I was determined to eat my lunch. I WAS going to drive around the lakes. I WAS going to listen to Hamilton. No one--especially not fucking cancer--was going to tell me I could not have some goddamn curly fries!


I managed to choke down two curly fries, one mozzarella stick, and two bites of my roast beef sandwich while sitting in fume-filled congestion on Lake Street. I never made it to a single body of water--unless you count the sweat pooling under my baseball cap. I ended up turning around and heading home. My covert lunch is now at the bottom of my trash can--all 9+ dollars of it. And that giant soda? Poured down my sink and replaced with a nice cold bottle of water.

My rebellious lunch was a total, tragic bust.

And to make things even worse, I came home to find that I had started my period. Are you kidding me?? It should be against the laws of humanity to have chemo AND your period at the same time. Where is my fucking infertility?! Where is the menopausal barrenness I was promised?!?

But fear not, today was not a total loss. When I came home, there was a package at my doorstep. Look what my dear friends, the Conners clan, sent me:

I think it's time to curl up on the couch (again) with a good book, a Compazine/Zantac cocktail, and my trusty (I'm so glad you're home, mommy! Don't ever leave our couch like that again!) dog.