Sometimes cancer creeps up on you. Sometimes it pounces.
I got the kind that pounces. Late last November, I found a swollen lymph node. In late December, they removed it. By early January I was in the hospital, beginning the seemingly endless rounds of week-long hospitalized chemotherapy, leaving the hospital only long enough for my blood levels to recover before going back in for more chemo, finally ending with an autologous stem-cell transplant on May 2 — a full Microsoft-style reboot of my immune system, using my own stem cells.
It was a rare and aggressive, double-hit, B-cell lymphoma, and already in Stage IV when they found it. I was lucky from the very beginning, though. If I’d had a different, more common, genetic anomaly — they would have foregone the chemo, patted me on the head, and told me to make peace with my maker. But I didn’t get the peace, thank God.
I got the war.
One of the things I realized quickly was that my most valuable weapon was a sense of humor. From the first moment I’d heard the diagnosis, I had wanted to run. Away. Fast. But there was nowhere to run.
I named my chemo pole “George,” because he was a royal pain in the ass and my constant companion–he was officious, yappy, insistent, and he kept me on a short leash, beeping obnoxiously anytime there was air in the line, the pump was finished, or his batteries needed charging. When the pressure from the chemo drugs would start building in my chest, I’d unplug George and walk with him around the atrium, fast, until the pressure eased, but all the while he relentlessly pumped poison into my veins.
Calling the pole “George” meant that he became a person to me, not a machine I could learn to turn off and unhook. I deliberately did not watch as the nurses fiddled with the buttons and the tubing. And I talked back to him, returning his officious noises with attitude of my own. Some of the receptionists on the wards thought I was nuts, walking fast and talking to my pole. I reassured them that it really was all right — I am nuts.
Being nuts helped in dealing with the doctors, too. It soon became clear that oncologists really don’t pay any attention to the things that won’t kill you before the cancer does. “Bumps in the road,” they call them . . . .
Like the blood clot that developed in my shoulder. The sonogram showed that an “acute deep vein thrombosis” is blocking my “brachial, axillary, and subclavian” veins. I asked whether I had three clots, and the doctor smiled gently and said no, just the one.
And it is eight inches long.
Apparently it is not uncommon for the body to perceive the surgically implanted chemo port as an injury or invader . . . and the clot was along the length of the catheter in that vein. The doctor showed me where a network of new blue veins was visible on my arm and shoulder, evidence that my body was already making new pathways around the clogged area. My body should dissolve it in time, and it is highly unlikely that bits will break off and become dangerous embolisms. If they do, my lungs will probably be able to deal with it. “Should“? “Probably“?
Just bumps in the road.
Or like the abnormal blood test results that they said probably did not mean I had developed kidney or liver disease. There was that word again, “probably.”
Bumps. In the road.
Or like the little note written by the doctor doing the PET-scan after the transplant, checking for lymphoma (which, thankfully, he did not find): “Incidentally, the patient has a hiatal hernia.” “Incidentally“?
Just another bump in the road.
Cancer is like a bad bout of diarrhea. When it hits, it hits hard. You can’t think clearly about much else: just your bowels and how many steps it is to the toilet. Even when you manage to think about something else for a minute, you feel the clutch and run. And, worse, when it’s over, it isn’t over. You’re as weak as a kitten, and you’re afraid to trust that it really has ended, afraid to stray too far from bed or toilet. Just in case.
But there are unexpected perks.
Mosquitoes wouldn’t bite me when I was on chemo, or for months afterward. Even now, they take a little taste and fly off to wash their mouths out with soap, spitting all the way.
And after months and months of not being allowed to vacuum, the thrill still hasn’t worn off.
But best of all, I can eat chocolate whenever I want and no one says anything, because after all — I am still alive.
© Sharon D. McCoy, 3 September 2012.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy the follow-up pieces, also by Sharon McCoy:
The ‘New Normal’: The Funny Thing About Cancer Continues. . . .
It Takes All Kinds (about living in a germ-filled world when you’re immuno-compromised, or even if you’re not)
Painfully Funny (about the cancer humor of Sherman Alexie, Tig Notaro, and Anthony Griffith, and how the laughter can get us through)