Chemotherapy: The First Session
The four questions my friends, family and people around my neighborhood ask me these days are,
“How are you?”, “How are the children?”, “How’s Carlos bearing everything?” and “How’s your head?”
Thankfully I can respond positively most of the time and conversations often end by acknowledging the importance of a positive attitude.
I realise a positive attitude for me starts with an action, like deciding to exercise my arm and to be constant about it. When I don’t exercise it, I’m usually feeling down, so the positive action gets pushed aside. My Mum is my constant inspiration and driving force here as I recall how she single-handedly exercised her broken shoulder back to full capacity in record time.
Healthy eating which requires planning, shopping, cooking and eating are a multitude of positive deeds needing lots of positive energy. There are lots of hurdles here to fall down at and Angela, my sister-in-law, is my nutritional adviser and chef this week and keeping me on track.
As for positive thinking, I have never mastered any skill in honing my thoughts in on the plus side only. I’m not sure I believe in that. Sadness or fear or loneliness, even anger are valid emotions and perhaps when felt, named, acknowledged, and explored a little (with some therapeutic blog writing for example) maybe that’s displaying a positive attitude.
So what is chemotherapy?
Before starting I struggled to find anything positive or happy to say or think about chemotherapy.
It starts with a pill in the morning just before breakfast, to protect the stomach lining. A bowl of porridge and some acidophilus also helps with the stomach preparation. It then continues with a blood test and a two hour wait* for a consultation with your oncologist to get the results of the blood test. If you’re healthy enough, you can go ahead to get the neoplastic drugs pumped into your veins. If your immune system has been diminished so much by previous chemotherapeutic visits that you’re deemed too unwell to receive the hit, you go home until the white cells have recuperated.
So on my first visit yesterday, of course I was going to be healthy enough. I’ve been eating salads, vegetable soups and fruit cocktails. White meat, oily fish and legumes. Porridge, quinoa and multigrain bread, rice and pasta. Turmeric, cumin, cardamom, olive oil, lemon juice and seeds for flavoring. (Angela and the anti-cancer diet). My drink of election has been mostly tea, green, black, red, spicy, fruity. If it’s hot and wet, I’ve been drinking it. And lots and lots of water.
I’ve done my best to cut down on anything I think might be harsh on my liver. So no wine and just the odd sip of Carlos’ beer. Decaffeinated coffee for the last week and the vitamin supplements have been stored away for recuperation at a later date. I still enjoy ice-cream and chocolate and my biscuits for dunking since my weight is healthy, I’ve decided that looking after my endorphin levels is important too!
But there was still a part of me that was hoping the doctor would say,
“Ah you’re alright for another week.”
Anything to put the chemo off for another week. I’ve been dreading it for days but it’s not one of those therapies that can be postponed for very long as there is an accepted optimum window of time (4 to 6 weeks) after the surgery, in which to begin.
So what is chemotherapy?
Chemotherapy is waiting for your number to be called to enter into the oncological day hospital. A roomfull of numbered reclining chairs with drips beside each one and two chairs for companions to sit and wait through the procedure.
Chemotherapy is a reception with a nurse who greeted me with my name “Dairy”.
“My name is Deirdre.” I replied, “D.E.I.R.D.R.E.”
“Here it says DEIRERE.”
“That’s a mistake, I told them at reception last week…Oh never mind.”
“Chair 14.” the nurse indicated.
Chemotherapy is a quick glance around the room and spotting the old woman I had seen earlier, wheeled in, in a chair, either too sick or too tired or both to hold up her
head. And there she was sitting in a corner, with her aging husband and someone else, sister, friend or helper, receiving her intravenous therapy.
Chemotherapy is realizing that you’re not the youngest in the room. There beside the reception was a young beautiful tan-bodied twenty-something-year-old girl with her curly-locked wig tapping away on her phone and laughing with her sister or friend. (There are no children here and thank God for that because that would be too heart-breaking. Sick children are cases apart that need an extra special kind of love and attention I can only imagine.)
Chemotherapy is walking past all the other mostly older recipients lying back and I reading the number on their chairs. Five, nine, thirteen. Ah number fourteen, the empty one for me.
Chemotherapy is arriving at your chair, throwing your bag down on one of the accompanying seats, climbing up and stretching out your arm for being pricked (my vein port won’t be healed for use until the next session in three weeks time).
I hadn’t prepared myself for this, no tears in advance were shed because really I didn’t know what to expect and I denied doing any research. All the feelings associated with cancer diagnosis welled up in my eyes, anger, fear, sadness, disbelief and shock and the tears fell. I couldn’t hide them but it didn’t really matter. Somehow I believed that everyone in this room, cancer patients and companions alike had all been through the same. Felt the same feelings and cried the same tears.
Chemotherapy is sitting for your prescribed time to receive your prescribed drugs, reading books, writing blog posts and watching others, some snoring, some eating lunch, some doing crosswords.
Chemotherapy is waiting for the beep of your drug administering machine and for the nurse to come round and say, “one last dose of saline solution and in five minutes you’re done.”
Chemotherapy is arriving home, and following the advice of Belcha who went through this seven years ago, of resting up and moving around very little, drinking lots of liquids because the more you do and the less you drink, the harder the hit of the secondary effects will be. Twenty four hours later I’m still waiting. I’m feeling nauseous but that’s all for now.
There will be more side effects to come, once the drugs have had time to be absorbed not only by any stray cancerous cells around my body but also by all the fast-growing ones like in the skin, hair-follicles, bone marrow, mouth and stomach lining and bind with the cells’ DNA to prevent replication. So I’ll be busy over the next few weeks addressing my susceptibility to infection, the loss of my hair, the possible mouth sores and drying out of my skin and nails.
My first session is over, eleven more to go. Already my attitude is changing:
Chemotherapy is acceptance of and trust in modern medicine with all its wonders and flaws; persistence in the face of despair; hope in being cured for the future; faith in the hands of God or whatever one believes in and a love of life expressed by the will to continue.
Chemotherapy for me is having a positive attitude on a prolonged scale of time and a developing sense of special admiration of the very old and the very young, (and their parents who watch them receive it) for having the courage needed to accept this kind of bitter-sweet therapy.
*Waiting for Chemotherapy
I am empty
Like a water bottle
To the last drop.
No fountain gushing,
Onto this bench,
Where still I sit
With the sun
Reaching its rays
Out to drench me
A gentle warmth.
I lap it up
I thank the Gods.
From Earth I came,
With whose bounty
I will replenish
The coffers of my
I am down but not defeated,
I am scared but not trodden.
Standing up and facing them
Consenting to this bitter care.
In this life, in this day
This way to Resurrection.
Well done Deirdre, on another open, honest and inspiring piece; I feel I have some sense of your first chemo experience. All the anticipation for weeks, one down and more to go, and in no time at all ‘this too will pass’. We are all rooting for you, with lots of people asking about you and sending their positive vibe to match yours. X
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Thanks Dad. You’ve no idea how much I’m enjoying writing this. And I know now ‘this too will pass.’