Saturday, November 20, 2010

Club Chemo

“It’s different for everyone,” is the big chemo tagline. That means no matter how many cancer patient stories you hear, you can’t know what your chemo experience will be like – a frustrating concept for someone who likes to prepare.

I try to think of chemo as a positive, life-saving measure. But it’s hard when you read the warning labels: May cause hair loss, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach aches, constipation, heart arrhythmias, fatal heart damage, extreme fatigue, mouth sores, joint pain, easy bruising/bleeding, slower healing of existing wounds, and a temporary white blood cell loss that can make common viruses and bacteria life-threatening.

Those are the warnings for the drugs I’ll be taking for the next three months. The drug I’ll get for three months after the baby is born has these warnings: May cause nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, change in taste, thinned or brittle hair, joint pain, unusual bruising/bleeding, permanent numbness and tingling in your fingertips, fever, chills, cough, sore throat, difficulty swallowing, dizziness, shortness of breath, severe exhaustion, skin rash, change in bowel habits, and infertility.

Fun stuff.

Yesterday was my day to join club chemo for the first time. I know I need to do it. But I don’t want to. Part of me hoped my membership papers might get lost in the mail, despite all the perks, like free snacks and drinks at the chemo lounge. Six months of club chemo feels like an eternity to me right now.

We walk through this door at the back of my oncologist’s office. There is a white sign with the word “Stop” in red letters. In smaller print it says to double check you have your bracelet, among other administrative things. Oh, how I just want to stop. Of course, I don’t.

Behind the door, the mundane doctor office transforms into a hospital setting - Club Chemo. A wide nurse’s desk greets you with a second check-in sheet. Behind the desk are rows of reclining hospital chairs, separated by curtains and adorned with IV poles. Party-time.

When I came in to this place for blood work two days ago and saw people receiving chemo for the first time, my waiting chair faced two bald, elderly women who looked like they would pass away if you blew on them wrong. Their bodies seemed to give them more pain than capabilities. I felt really sorry for them. It didn’t help my imagination problems in positive ways. Chemo is what I dreaded the most about my treatment. The older women were like living, moving posters of my worst flashes of imagination.

Today the patients near me seem to be able to walk. They don’t look overly sick. They have hair. I learned this morning that I’ve got about 14 more days of hair before it starts falling out. How can they all be in here for their first chemo session? Then I get another glance at a woman with long auburn hair in her 50s. She’s laying in bed with her eyes closed. I notice her hairline is slightly crooked, like she turned in bed and the movement pulled her whole head of hair down diagonally just a millimeter.

My nurse comes in to start my IV. Her name is Kelly - she'll be serving me my cocktail of drugs today. I like her immediately. Her scrubs have pink breast cancer ribbon print all over them. I’m back in my upbeat, nervous tone after a few teary moments in the bathroom. I ask her if she’s bringing my poison. She makes a gentle complaining face. She hates when patients call it that. It makes her feel guilty about her job. But she adds that no one should have to go through it. I apologize. I explain that I know I’m supposed to be visualizing more positive things: like the drugs killing the cancer, peaceful beach settings or the image of a tiny Chemo Shark being unleashed to chomp away at cancer (while accidentally eating other cells too). But my imagination isn’t working well today. I tell her I’ve brought distraction instead – in the form of reruns from Season 3 of 30 Rock.

She starts me on the easy stuff: the steroids, the saline, the anti-nausea drugs. Steve starts up the 30 Rock Reruns on his i-Phone (I wish I could get advertising fees for that product placement). We start giggling aloud. The distraction is working. I feel this intense appreciation for the actors on the show – that I could be laughing out loud as my chemo drugs get wheeled down the hall toward their target.

The nurse comes back with the Adriamycin. There are three long, one-inch thick syringes filled with the drug that looks like red Kool-Aid. They are the biggest syringes I’d ever seen. I did some research on the drug on Wikipedia. Scientists first discovered the substance in soil bacteria found at an Italian Castle. It almost sounds romantic. But its nicknames give its true effects away. “Red death.” It also is known as the “red devil.” It can damage your heart though the damage is unlikely at lower doses.

I try not think about it and look back at the screen. 30 Rock takes place at a tv studio for a comedy show. One of the actors has been fined by the FCC for swearing on live television. Instead of feeling shame at the punishment, he gets excited because he realizes he can afford the fine, which means he no longer has to worry about what he says on tv. He can just pay the fine each time. Of course the show’s producer is pulling her hair out.

I start laughing again as the nurse starts to push the first syringe into my IV. Every time she pushes, I feel something heavy flooding into my chest. I start taking deep breaths because this weighty fluid makes it harder to breath. She measures my oxygen levels. They check out. But she starts watching me like a hawk. One of the warning signs of an adverse reaction to the drug is shortness of breath.

I return to laughing. She continues pushing. Each time the weight feels heavier and heavier. I’m starting to feel really uncomfortable. I’m about to ask her to slow down when she pushes the syringe again. My laughter turns to tears, and all these images flood into my head of me gasping for breath while they run for some kind of antidote. I know part of the discomfort is emotional panic. But that knowledge doesn’t stop the tears for a few minutes.

We take a break. When the nurse continues, she does it much slower. The pressing feeling becomes more bearable. Next she brings the Cytoxan. It looks less scary. Just a clear IV bag. But my research reminds me that this drug is related to mustard gas. Awesome. This one just slowly drips into my IV. The nurse slows the dripping more after my reaction to the last drug. I only have to take really deep breaths a few times.

We finally pull out at close to 3pm. We’ve been there for nearly 6 hours. I’m feeling real tired, even though the IV was pumped with steroids. I stay awake only by working on this blog. That is about all the energy I can muster.

Today, Saturday, I’m feeling better. I’m waiting for the fatigue side effects to start kicking in. Will it be today, tomorrow, Monday, Tuesday? Will I be one of the lucky ones who don’t get it so bad? I don’t know. But I can feel our baby boy kicking. The doctors assure us the baby will survive the chemo fine too. But feeling him move is a relief.

Thank you to all who helped us with dinner, meals, cleaning and support after the surgery. Your kind acts have meant a lot to us.


  1. I get shortness of breath just reading this. You are so brave. Hang in there! I'd love to get your mailing address. My email: alyowil at gmail dot com

  2. You are an amazing woman. May our Father in Heaven bless you and your family. I can't believe that you are going through this while that little tiny baby is developing inside you. I bet you can't wait until you can hold him and know he's ok. Hang in there and keep posting. Our prayers are with you.

  3. wow you are amazing!! we love 30 rock too! good distraction! It is amazing the baby is fine I am so happy for you!!! well you know... did they have to wait till the third trimester since the baby is done developing? you will be in our prayers!

  4. No, Alisha said...Oh girl, I'm sorry you have to go through all this. I wish I was there to give you a big hug. Congratulations on another boy! Love it. Like Naomi, I thought it was a girl. I don't know why. Aloysius' keeps praying for you. He says cute stuff like, bless kj and the baby and bless steve will take good care of them. :)

  5. Oh my friend. OH wow. I agree with Aly, I think I actually held my breath through the whole thing. I am thinking of you and what you are doing and how good it is that you are writing all this down. May the side effects be few.

  6. Wow. I can't think of anything else to say. Hang in there Kathy, you're amazing! Congrats on your little boy!

  7. Kathy, you are in my prayers. You and the baby as you battle through chemo, Steve and the kids as they battle along with you. I pray for your healing and your peace.

    Maria Pfau Sheehan

  8. Kathy,
    Haven't talked to you in quite a while but as i read this I am just in awe at what an amazing woman you are. May you find some peace int knowing that many people love you and want to help. Maybe you can think back to Sandbridge memories and get a laugh when you need one. Take care,
    Laura Brown Hill

  9. Kathy, You are truly amazing and I have tears in my eyes reading this. My friends wife is going through the same thing as you are right now and by reading your blog, I can now know what she is probably feeling and what she is enduring as well. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings with us. You and your family are in my prayers.

  10. You and Steve make beautiful kids and your new baby boy will be no different. So sorry that you and the little guy have to endure this though.

  11. KJ, as I read your eloquent telling of your experience my mind is dominated by one thought: You are one strong woman. Know that I'm cheering for you, praying for you, hoping for you to feel well, and sending you my love.

  12. I'm so glad the baby is kicking and that you made it through your first treatment. I love you.

  13. Thx everybody. Your comments make me feel good. Bree - I'm about half-way through my second trimester. We waited to do anything until I was in my second trimester to give the baby a better chance. There are no guarantees or long-term studies, but the other limited case studies of other women who have been pregnant and gotten chemo similar to mine (after reaching the 2nd trimester) have tended to show that the babies seem to have no more problems than regular pregnancies other than lower birthweights. So am I nervous? Yes. But do I feel a lot of hope. Yes.