Today marks another World Cancer Day, where we, the world, attempt to focus our attention on the deadly disease. There are many misunderstandings, misconceptions, and myths about cancer that could be eradicated rather easily with only a little effort on all our parts. It is hoped that by educating ourselves about the disease, and then, educating others we can increase awareness, ease minds, and most importantly, save lives.
Knowledge is contagious. Please spread the facts.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably never witnessed a bone marrow biopsy procedure before. That’s right, even though I’ve had more procedures done to me than I care to remember, I have never actually seen the procedure being performed on me. This is because, 1. I always have to lie on my stomach, and 2. I’ve always been too scared to try and look.
But during today’s procedure, I mustered up the courage and asked my herculean wife to take pictures of it so I could finally see what it was all about. I call my wife herculean because she’s been exceptionally strong and courageous for me throughout my entire cancer experience; and after I saw the pictures, it amazes me even more how strong and courageous she really is. I know for certain that if the roles were reversed and I had to be there to support her during one of these procedures, especially during the first time, I would pass out. For real.
I also asked my wife to take the pictures so I could share them with others who may be interested in learning and seeing what a bone marrow biopsy is all about. But please be warned, these pictures may be disturbing for some people. If you’re still interested, please click the more link. Continue reading
Warning: This is potentially a TMI post. Read at your own risk!
Before my cancer and all the chemo, I saw myself similar to how Ricky Bobby saw himself in the movie Talladega Nights: I’m just a big hairy American winning machine, you know. That was me. I was confident, happy, had a wonderful family, a great job, felt strong and in okay shape, and I had a thick mane of hair on my head and a decent coat of fur all over my body. I was no back shaver, mind you (not that there is anything wrong with those of my friends who feel the need to shave the back…you gotta do what you gotta do) but I definitely had some hair to be proud of. But all of that, especially the confidence, the being in shape, and the hair, changed after the chemo.
Now I know some of you are wondering—I know I was before I started getting the chemo, so I asked my nurse—does one lose ALL their hair from the chemo treatments? The answer I got was that it depends. It depends on the person, the type of chemo, and the amount of chemo received. I would just have to wait and see.
It turned out that during the first phase, things moved slowly hair loss-wise. It took several weeks before any hair on my head started falling out and a couple more weeks before my beard began thinning out. I never noticed the loss of any body hair. I will say, it was very unsettling when the hair on my head began falling out in earnest and I would wake up in the morning to see big piles of it all over my pillow and bed. Once that started happening, I went directly to the barber and had my head shaved.
It’s not as easy as you think to get your head shaved. When I went, my regular barber was crowded so, not wanting to have to sit around and explain to the regulars about my cancer, I went to another barber that I had only been to once before. It was empty so I went in. The barber was a female and after I sat down and explained that I wanted my head shaved, she almost seemed offended, but in a cheesy, middle-aged flirty kind of way. She gave me the third degree and wanted to know why I wanted my head shaved. Still in no mood to discuss my cancer, I just said something rather curt about me being sick of having such thick hair to mess with. She reluctantly began shaving it off, but as she did, she went on the whole time about how a guy should never shave off such a nice head of hair. (I have another story about my hair and my youngest son’s ill-fated attempt at trying to shave if off…but that’s for another time.)
I had a couple of weeks off between phase one and phase two treatments. During the time off, the hair on my head and face started growing back in rather quickly. But again, after a few weeks of the phase two chemo treatments, both head and facial hair began thinning out. Again, I did not notice the loss of any body hair. This time, because the hair on my head was so short, I was able to shave it off myself.
During the first two phases, while I did lose a lot of hair, I never lost all of it on either my head or face. But all that changed after I received the large doses of chemo in preparation for my bone marrow transplant. About two weeks after the treatment, hair everywhere began falling out. And by everywhere, I mean everywhere. After about a month, the only hair I had left on my body was my eyebrows and my eyelashes. My body was smooth as a newborn baby. I won’t go too much into details, but I will say, things feel a lot different without hair in the places where you’ve been used to having it. I was left feeling very incomplete and somewhat insecure. I didn’t like it at all.
But now, finally, it’s all coming back and I’m beginning to feel much more like my old self. And by old, I mean much older. As you can see, even though I looked older than my age before, this whole cancer ordeal has aged me even more. And even though I’ll still be completely gray on top, I’ll be glad to have it back and I promise not to complain when it once again gets too long and too thick and too hot on my head. And I won’t, in frustration, ask my son to shave it off (again, we’ll leave that story for another day).
It seems to me that the word “chemotherapy” is one of those rare words that can instantly conjure up fear and images of pain and suffering, similar to words like “Holocaust” and “September Eleventh.” Perhaps those comparisons are not exactly appropriate (and bordering on bad taste), but my point is, just hearing the word chemotherapy tends to scares us.
And for good reason, too. Chances are, we know someone close to us, maybe a loved one or a friend, who got cancer and who had to receive rounds of chemotherapy. And from them, we heard firsthand how tough it was on the body. We heard about the nausea and vomiting, we heard about how it attacks the intestinal tracks and causes mucositis, we heard about their inability to eat and the loss of weight, we heard about the lightheadedness and dizzy spells, and we heard about the hair loss.
But chances also are, even though we know the word and are familiar with all of the effects associated with it, we really don’t know what it is. Now, I’m not about to try to cover the many different forms of chemotherapy treatments that are available, you can do a quick search and find out all about them if you’re really interested, but I do think it’s interesting that one word can have such an impact on our collective psyche without us really knowing much about it.
One thing I can tell you about chemotherapy, the stuff is toxic. Take a look at the picture of my nurse at the top of this post. She has to take special precautions to ensure that she doesn’t come in contact with the chemotherapy. She has to wear a mask, a disposable suit that wraps around and completely covers her clothing, and special gloves that go over the standard gloves she wears. What you don’t see in the picture is that the nurses also have a special hat that has a clear guard to protect their neck and face. It looks similar to what a spot welder would wear. And then, after she is completely protected, she pumps that toxic junk right into me.
From my experience, it seems that whenever chemotherapy is discussed, we tend to focus on all the negativity associated with it–just like I’ve been doing in this post–and barely focus at all on its most important quality: CHEMOTHERAPY SAVES LIVES! It saved my life. And, like a miracle, it’s saving countless of other lives every single day. We all should give thanks to God for it.
At the beginning of any new journey, maybe it’s starting with a new company, going back to college, or signing up for fitness classes at the local gym, it seems that you can easily identify those who are just starting out. Like you, they are the ones who are just learning the ropes of the new system. They don’t know exactly what to do, where to go, or how to get there. Like you, they just look new. Over time, whether intended or not, a bond will form between you and the group of new travelers and you will begin to identify yourselves as a sort of class. Maybe you will become friends with some of the people from your class or maybe you won’t, but the chances are you will always feel a special kinship with those who traveled on your journey with you.
My cancer journey was no different. Practically from the moment of my diagnosis, I began to notice others who had also just begun on their cancer journey. New cancer patients are especially easy to identify: they are the ones who have a constant stunned look of disbelief on their faces; they are the ones who are irritable, stressed, and anxious, not just from recently having learned about their disease, but mostly from the side effects of the steroids and other new drugs they had just started taking; and they are the ones who still have their hair.
After diagnosis, I was immediately admitted to the hospital for the first two weeks to begin my initial phase of chemotherapy and medications. From time to time I would see other new cancer patients as either I or they walked laps around the ward; or, I would see them pass by my door on their way to the little kitchenette for the always available ice cream or cup of noodles. Sometimes we would wave or nod our masked heads at each other. Oftentimes, we would just simply shuffle by each other without any acknowledgement.
After I was discharged from the cancer ward, I was admitted to the Inpatient/Outpatient Clinic. At IPOP, new cancer patients usually have appointments every day. Every day, my wife—my caregiver, my inspiration, and my guiding light—would pack me up and drive me to the hospital. The drive could take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on Baltimore traffic. When I got to the hospital, I would reluctantly don my mask, reluctantly disinfect my hands, reluctantly enter the clinic, sit down, pull my ball cap down tight over my freshly shaved head, and glumly wait to be called by the nurse. Meanwhile, my wife, always positive, always cheerful, would sign in for me in the registry, make herself a cup of coffee, grab a magazine, and then sit beside me and try to cheer me up. Other familiar masked faces would also be there waiting with their caregivers.
Soon my wife became friends with several of the other caregivers and, through her reports, I would be able to track the progress of the other cancer patients from my class. It helped me to hear about them from my wife. Knowing that others are on a similar journey as yours, that others are just as confused, just as sick, just as scared as you are, provides a certain level of comfort and a sort of release. I was able to let go many of my fears and better accept my condition because I learned that nothing that I was going through was unique just to me.
Unfortunately, there are many, too many, cancer patients in my class. And even though I was familiar with all of them and drew strength from their silent encouragement and solidarity, I only came to personally know a few of them by name. And of those, I only know the current fate of two, which is too bad because I often think about all of those faces who I had come to know so well and wonder how they are doing now. I try not to wonder who didn’t make it.
Next year my cancer class will graduate. Sometime next year, we will meet with our oncologist and we will be released from his or her care. Our disability insurance will stop and we will hesitantly and apprehensively return to work. After graduation, we will be free and encouraged to begin other new and exciting journeys, which is why graduations are often called commencement ceremonies. And when our new journeys do commence, we will look around and see that there are others who are also just starting the journey, too. And, while we will hope that we never have to travel down the same road as we did on the journey we just ended, we will know that we will all be better travelers for it.
Thinking back, the amount and potency of the chemotherapy that I received during phase one and phase two of my treatment were a pittance compared to what I received for my bone marrow transplant. During the first two phases I thought to myself, ha, this chemo stuff ain’t living up to all the hype. Sure, I lost my hair but it started growing back not too long after the end of each phase. And I never got so sick to where I had to become intimate with the toilet. Not so during the two weeks of chemo treatment before and after the transplant. The doctors really laid it on me with a vengeance then. I got pretty darn sick, especially in the mornings. It’s almost three months later and I would even say that I may still be suffering somewhat from the effects of the chemo I received prior to and after the transplant. And it doesn’t help any that I’m still getting a small dose of it shot into my spine every two weeks.
While I don’t get sick to where I have to pay homage to the toilet anymore, I do get some bad heartburn for a couple of days after the spinal taps. I also still get light-headed when I stand up and, because of my low energy levels, I can only contribute minimally to chores around the house. My counts are steadily rising to normal but they are all not there yet. My platelets are still low which makes it very easy for my skin to cut and bruise and very hard for the injuries to heal. I’m still anemic. It seems that I have a symptom of Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD) in my mouth: it is almost completely dry all the time, which makes it hard to eat and sleep, and there are tiny bumps all over my cheeks and gums, which feel gross. I have poor circulation and swelling in my legs, especially my left leg. This is probably because the blood clots that I had at the beginning of all this were in my left calf and have left the veins and arteries a little worse for wear. The toes on my left foot are numb. My vision frequently blurs. And, I’m still mostly hairless which is really starting to annoy me; although some peach fuzz is starting to sprout about the chin.
Considering how bad I felt immediately after the transplant, all that I described above is almost irrelevant. I actually feel pretty darn good and I am very thankful for how well I am progressing and all of the support I am receiving. My days are always light and relaxing. I mostly divide my time between reading (my reading list is found at the bottom of this blog), cruising the Internet, taking naps, sitting by the pool, and watching the boob tube. I try to take long walks every other day or so. Fortunately I live out in the country so when I walk I get to experience the beauty of nature. I get to see wildflowers and woods and ponds and creeks and cows and horses and sheep and goats and all kinds of birds (if I’m lucky I’ll get to see majestic cranes either walking the creeks or flying above the tree line) and friendly folks along the way. My dog Shikibu, the best and cutest dog in the world, often joins me on my walks and she always makes them even more interesting and enjoyable. But probably the best part of my day is when, after the sun begins to set and the temperature cools down, my wife and I hop in the hot tub and spend quality time soaking, reflecting on our good fortune, and planning for our long future together.