Last Chemo: The Anti-Climactic Victory
My last chemotherapy was on December 5th, 2013. The evil Taxotere, the vile Carboplatin and the wicked Herceptin. I dreamt about it for weeks, for months. It was going to be a glorious day marking the end of my torture but instead I sort of felt like a kamikaze fighter – going into the battle, terrified of the outcome.
When I walked in the infusion center for my last poison fix, I instantly got a Pavlov’s dog reflex and started breathing fast, my heart speeding up. I knew it was going to be a rough ride, my body bucking at every drop of the clear devilish bead sliding down the plastic IV tube.
As I passed armchair after armchair with their own tethered inhabitants, prisoners to the IV stands and to the snakes of clear plastic tubing, I felt my body tightening with revulsion. Shriveled looking bodies occupied the seats, heads with white hair peeked from under the hospital blankets. Some people managed to sleep while the husk of their body was pumped with chemicals, their jaws slack, ajar, revealing an empty abyss of a mouth. Were they even alive? My eyes darted from one to another and my throat felt dry.
My nurse took me to an empty chair and set about preparing my port for the infusion. We both had to put on a mask for the initial puncture. It kept tickling the bottom of my lower eyelids every time I blinked. I felt my breath fill the mask with hot air. The needle went in under my clavicle bone. The nurse attached the plastic snake of a tube and hooked it up to its cousin leading up to the bulging bag of clear agony. I noticed she put on two sets of gloves when handling the sealed bag and tubing. Then she pressed the start button on the machine and the first droplets started making their way down to my port, directly into my heart and out into my body.
Almost four hours and three deflated bags labeled as hazardous waste later, I was unshackled from the IV stand and the armchair. It was close to 3PM. I knew my time was ticking. In about five hours I was going to start feeling it. I drove home and took my dog out for a 3 mile walk knowing this was the last long walk for at least a week now. I cleaned the apartment as much as I could, put fresh sheets on the bed and as the evening approached, I started feeling the first signs of my misery.
I woke up around 3AM, eyes wide open and felt it. The bowling ball in my stomach and the first shivers of the fever. I pulled the sheets over, begging the chemo poison to let me sleep. A few hours later my alarm clock went off. I shivered uncontrollably at this point. I felt the sting of my tears and the headache that comes with it. It was not even 24 hours after the infusion and I already felt like hell. I brought my laptop to bed and emailed work that I was out sick. Then I took my temperature. It was 101.2F.
“A fever of 100.4F or more is an emergency for a chemo patient” I heard my oncologist’s voice in my head. Whatever. I stopped following all these stupid rules weeks ago. The first time I had a fever I paged the doctor on call and was told to take Tylenol and wait a day and a half if it gets better or worse. So what was the point of calling this time? I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I just wanted to feel warmer, not have a headache and not have a stomachache. I also didn’t want to take the Tylenol yet because I knew it damaged liver and my liver was already being hammered by the chemo. The idea of getting in a cold shower to bring down the temperature made me pull the blanket over my head and squeeze my eyes shut. I could barely make myself get up and get dressed. My face was flushed, my eyes were red and I had to hold on to the bathroom counter while brushing my teeth.
I had to leave the house for my eye appointment because my oncologist asserted a few days earlier that she thought my eyes were not aligned and urged me to go to an eye doctor the day after chemo despite the fact that the CT scan showed nothing abnormal. The thought of driving for 45 minutes in traffic made me dizzy so I called a cab. I knew I was going to pay through my nose for it but I couldn’t fathom trudging to the subway and teetering at the edge of the platform. I put on my puffy winter jacket, my red cotton scarf, a fleece hat over the scarf and went downstairs to wait for the cab.
At the eye doctor I could barely follow the directions to look this way and that way and press buttons when I saw flickering lights in some weird peripheral vision test. While waiting for the verdict, I slumped in the eye exam chair, holding my face in my hands. I considered lying down on the floor. The doctor finally came in and told me that everything looked normal. I couldn’t even feel relief, all I wanted to do was lie down, cover myself with blankets and pass out.
I had to catch another cab to go to the hospital and get my white blood cell forming shot as usual one day after chemo. Bleary eyed I approached a nearby hotel bellhop trying to solicit his help for a taxi. I took off my hat so I could play the cancer card with my scarf head. It must have worked because he called a cab for me and soon I was on my way to the hospital.
I got my Neulasta shot in my goose bump covered arm. I needed to use the restroom before I left and I stood there looking at my red eyes with circles under them and cursed the cold water only faucet. It took all my will not to lie down on the floor of that bathroom and just give up.
At last I was in a taxi on the way back home. It was only 24 hours after the infusion but I was already in the full blown purgatory of side effects. I had to stop on every landing on the way to our 3rd floor apartment, dizzy with vertigo, the steps floating in front of my eyes.
At home I lay down on the couch, covered myself with blankets and closed my eyes. A little while later, I woke up and felt my face was slightly swollen. I took my temperature again and the thermometer indifferently informed me I had 102.3 fever. Time for Tylenol, liver damage or not.
I woke up many times that night, always hoping my fever would be gone but no luck. In the morning, the vertigo, the fever, the headache and the bowling ball in my stomach were joined by Ms Nausea. It took me an hour to drink 12 ounces of my green juice. I half lay in my bed, my head propped up by several pillows, holding the glass, sipping slowly, the room spinning in front of me.
My German Shepherd must have known something was wrong because she walked sheepishly by my side as I shuffled out of the apartment. I managed to take her to the edge of the apartment complex. It felt like I just climbed Mt.Everest. We turned around to go back. My dog didn’t protest and I was forever grateful for that. It took me 10 minutes and 4 breaks to get to the third floor. I had to rest on each stair landing, feeling the panic spreading its nasty fingers over my body.
“I can’t do this.” I said to myself, looking up the last flight of stairs. “I can’t do this.” I started crying. I felt like such a fool. I was within a rock’s throw of my apartment but I might as well could have been an ocean away.
I collected all the willpower I had and pushed forward. I unlocked the apartment, closed the door and collapsed to the floor. I took my shoes and jacket off while sitting on the floor and then went on all fours into the kitchen to feed my dog. Finally, I could go back to bed.
The same scenario repeated many times over the next two days. I barely ate, I forced myself to drink water, I took Tylenol when I absolutely had to and wished someone would put me out of my misery. By the end of the fourth day after chemo, I was able to get up and walk around a bit, half bent, like an old person with a back problem. I lost 7 pounds again.
On the fifth day after chemo, I woke up and my body finally allowed me to feel a little glimmer of hope. I did not have a temperature, the bowling ball in my stomach shrunk to a ping pong ball and my head stopped hurting. The room still swam in front of my eyes and I couldn’t make quick movements but I could finally eat solid food, stay up and at least watch TV.
I expected to feel some huge wave of relief now that chemo was over. I expected to hear fanfares and see fireworks. I expected to feel happy and grateful and excited. Instead I just felt strangely empty and tired. Like after fighting a battle that one wasn’t even sure meant anything. Now what? I asked myself. Nothing, I answered myself right away. Nothing. I enjoyed just sitting there, watching TV, thinking and doing nothing.