Three Years After Chemo: A Look Back at the Toughest 6 Months of my Life

It’s almost the third anniversary of the day I started chemotherapy. It has been three years since chemo went from being something that my grandfather did when he was losing his life to lung cancer…to being something that I had to do to save my own.

It lasted for six months.

When I think about the enormity of that experience and its defining effect on my biography, it’s hard to believe that it can be fully encapsulated in a short hyphen between January 2015 and July 2015. That’s only half a year. That’s shorter than a pregnancy.

But when you’re pumping poison into your veins on a bi-weekly basis, you start to measure time differently.

You’re measuring the time between lying on the floor on a mattress in the living room and going back to lie down in your bed. (Healthy folks call that a “day.”) You’re measuring the time between weekly oncologist visits. You’re measuring the time between meals you’re forcing yourself to eat. You’re measuring the time between when you start to feel a little bit better and when you have to go back for more poison.

I was dealt the cruel hand of starting out with a treatment plan calling for three months of chemo that suddenly evolved into six months somewhere around the middle of the first three. Time seems to move a lot slower when you think you’re halfway done with something and it turns out that you’re further back than where you were when you started.

When other people find out you had chemo, you get instant credibility. You must be so strong. So resilient. It’s unimaginable having to go through that. They can’t believe you actually did it.

Chemo 10 of 12. No eyebrows is a great look.

The distance from the chemo experience and the relative lack of reoccurence scares in its wake has led me to sometimes rewrite the narrative in my mind. I think back to how it “wasn’t really that bad” and that maybe I don’t even deserve to claim the vaunted title of cancer survivor, with all its rights and privileges and instant respect. There are so many others who have it so much worse and are fighting so much harder. But that’s no way to honor my own struggle or the struggle of anyone who battles cancer. Chemo is chemo. We were all worthy opponents and we are now blessed and thankful survivors.

But heroism and strength aren’t exhibited simply by doing something that you’re forced to do. It’s the way you endure it that defines you, and there’s something about cancer — for all its wickedness — that seems to bring out the best in its victims.

You are a cancer survivor long before you can actually claim to have survived cancer. Chemo puts you in survival mode.

No matter how much time has passed, there are things about chemo that I will never forget. Dreading the appointment all morning. My wife coming home early from work to join me for the treatment. Putting the chemo parking pass on our dashboard so we could park right by the hospital door. The distinct smell of the waiting room, where insipid daytime television droned on, oblivious to all the sick and worried people watching there. Being the youngest person — by a mile — in that waiting room.

Accessing my port for my first chemo treatment.

Unbuttoning the first few buttons of my shirt so the nurse could access my port for the day. The smell of the disinfectant solution applied to my port before they inserted the needle. The unpleasant pressure and pinch of the needle entering the foreign lump on my chest just above my heart. Watching the vial of blood fill up and knowing I wouldn’t get woozy like I did when they drew from my arm. Getting my port flushed and cramming animal crackers into my mouth to hide the taste of the saline.

Settling into our chemo room and putting the pink pillow behind my head on the less-than-comfortable recliner. Debating whether we would get the nice nurse or the cranky nurse. Getting the cranky nurse. The first round of painkillers and anti-nausea medication that sometimes had weird side effects that almost made me nauseous. The impossible-to-fight feeling of drowsiness that would overtake me. Drifting in and out of a weird sleep to the sounds of the “Arrested Development” episode that we watched on my laptop as a distraction.

Awaking more fully when it was time for the nurse to switch out the IV bag. Getting up to pee and dragging the IV stand behind me. The nauseating metallic taste of the “red devil” component of chemo that the nurse had to manually and all-too-slowly push into my IV line. Desperately munching more animal crackers and wondering how I got to this point and how I could possibly keep doing this.

Enduring the short drive home in a semi-nauseated, completely exhausted state. Collapsing into bed without knowing what time it was or what time it would be when I awoke. Finally waking up and feeling a tad more human. Hearing my wife making dinner in the kitchen, but knowing I wouldn’t really want to eat any of it.

I did that 12 times. I’m not sure if that sounds like a lot or a little, but it certainly felt like enough.

Now that I’m healthy, it’s easy to sometimes feel a disconnect from the person who went through all of that, even though it changed me forever in so many ways. I see the fading scar on my neck from my surgery and on my chest from my port, and I feel like someone who was abducted by aliens. In this case, the bodysnatcher was cancer. The scars help me know it wasn’t just a dream.

There was undeniably so much good that came out of this experience, and I think of that often. But when I reach the anniversary of various stages of my cancer fight, it’s important for me to remind myself of these grittier details and memories.

“Remission” too often means being remiss in my pledge to never take my good health for granted again.

And neither should you.

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The Last Chemotherapy Treatment of My Life

On January 30, 2015, I had my first chemotherapy infusion. On July 20, 2015, I had my last.

I was actually looking forward to going in for chemo on Monday, since it felt like I had been saying “one more to go!” for far longer than two weeks. It was time to be done already.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 5.06.00 PMBefore Theresa even arrived home from work for the appointment, I was already receiving a lot of encouraging messages, including the last of the “Monday Memes” my friend Matt had been posting on Facebook to bolster my spirits on each of my chemo treatment days. As for the answer to Confused Keanu’s question, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I started getting more congratulatory texts, and my brothers got into the act on Facebook with more funny memes and signs posted to my wall.

My brother Chris also produced the best animated GIF that I’ve ever seen.

lumpy

Theresa’s sister Bridgett also chimed in with a hilarious reenactment of my final chemo session courtesy of the kids she babysits. Notice the USB “port.” Priceless.

chemokid

Theresa and I arrived at the oncologist’s office and my brain started getting into the “woe is me” mode that it frequently employs when it knows I’m about to get another round of poison in my veins. She looked me in the eye, told me matter-of-factly that we were going to be positive today because it was the last one, and I tried to obey.

I was tested almost immediately when we were assigned the crabbiest of the nurses on staff (fulfilling the prophecy that Theresa and I had jokingly discussed the night before about how my final treatment might go). She prepared to flush my port with saline and asked if I wanted to put something in my mouth to disguise the taste. I explained that I usually put a few Animal Crackers in my mouth right before the flushing. Hilarity ensued.

Nurse: Have you ever thought of using a mint?
Me: Nah.
Nurse: Why not?
Me: The Animal Crackers seem to do the trick for me. Plus, this is my last chemo treatment ever, so it doesn’t matter!”
Nurse: Oh, you think it’s your last one, huh?
Me: [incredulous] Yeah. I’m sure of it. Six cycles was enough.
Nurse: [almost to herself] So he says it’s his last one…

THUD.

That was the sound of my jaw hitting the floor. The nurses in this office rarely win any awards for their bedside manner, but come on! This exchange made me wonder if they all secretly know that I have a blog and just want to make things more entertaining to read about.

My body apparently had the last laugh, however, as my port decided to stop functioning properly for this last treatment. While the flush went through (meaning that things could go into my vein via the port), the nurse was unable to draw any blood from the port, even after making me lie down, which has solved the problem in the past. Slightly miffed by this entire episode but still trying to remain positive, I returned to the waiting room to find my Mom and brother Joe, who had stopped by for some last-minute cheerleading. I was soon called in to get weighed and blood pressured and then went over to the Office of Blood Procurement (not the actual name, but that’s all they do in this room) where the nurse poked my arm vein to get the seemingly irretrievable blood. I want to state for the record that the nurses in this room are the best blood-takers I’ve ever met. I hardly ever even feel the pinch and I’ve never felt faint from their expert process. Of course today, however, my arm vein wasn’t cooperating either. I could feel the nurse painfully moving the needle around in my arm as she mumbled an apology. At last the blood started coming and I left the room a bit dizzy but relieved.

Thankfully, everything got better from there. We saw my oncologist–who was appropriately jubilant about this being my final chemo treatment–and discovered that the next item on the agenda is a PET scan four weeks from now. That’s right…I don’t have a doctor’s appointment for four weeks! I don’t know what I’m going to do with my free Monday afternoons now! I guess I’ll work.

Unlike the last time I had a PET scan, this next one should be definitive in its findings. I will be given a clean bill of No Evidence of Disease health and my port will be removed shortly thereafter. I asked if I could be fully sedated for the port removal and my doc told me that they generally remove it in the doctor’s office. THUD. (just can’t keep my jaw off the floor today…) I decided to fight this battle later and not dwell on the horrific vision of having a port pulled out of a vein next to my heart while I casually converse with the doctor doing the pulling. Let’s finish chemo first.

By the time we got back to our private chemo room, the original nurse had mellowed a bit and announced that the doctor had in fact confirmed my suspicion that this would be my last chemo treatment. Phew. She also did me the favor of making this final chemo administration go incredibly quickly. The “push” portions of the treatment–in which she manually pushes syringes of various chemo chemicals into my IV line–that usually take 10 minutes each were completed in a matter of minutes. And before I knew it, my head hazy from the Benadryl, it was over. I returned to a balloon bedecked home in a car decorated by my family and drifted off for my customary three-hour nap.

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Six months. Six cycles of ABVD. Three fevers. Two hospital stays. Numerous doctor appointments. Hundreds of pills. Thousands of hairs lost. Countless side effects. Endless prayers and support.

Without a doubt, this was the most difficult six months of my life, but also among the most encouraging and life-affirming. In the midst of this trial, I was never alone. My beautiful wife Theresa was always there to help me in whatever way she could–squeezing my hand as they stuck a needle in my port, making or picking up whatever meal my fickle appetite demanded, joining me on the couch for various Netflix binges, disrupting her sleep and work schedule to take me to every appointment, and comforting me in my darker moments of discomfort or despair. I can’t overstate just how vital she has been to not only encouraging my generally positive attitude throughout this debacle, but also in allowing us to continue to live any semblance of a normal life these past six months. She has picked up the day-to-day slack of what should be the shared responsibilities of husband and wife–from cooking and cleaning to lawn-mowing and grocery shopping. She has worked to make sure that we have the most fun we could possibly have while also beating a scary disease into submission. And she has done all of this with a tireless smile and loving attentiveness that defines “in sickness and in health.” While I might have been the one with the lump who was actually receiving the chemo, Theresa and I were fighting this disease together from the first day of my diagnosis. I am eternally grateful to God for bringing her into my life and making me worthy to have her by my side.

But the two of us were never alone, either. Throughout our entire lives, God had been carefully assembling a team of family, friends and acquaintances who would all step up to the plate for us when cancer came calling.

IMG_1121The endless stream of prayers and positivity that have flooded our inboxes, newsfeeds, cell phones and mailbox over the last six months have been overwhelming and awe-inspiring. I will truly spend the rest of my life attempting to pay forward the many blessings that have been showered upon me throughout this experience. (Case in point: The cool image to the right was part of a hand-drawn card I received from my friend Mike, who has devoted his retirement years to Catholic prison ministry. He told one of the inmates he visits, Vinny, about my cancer fight and Vinny drew this card for me!)

For starters, I thought I would at least try to elicit some smiles, so I posted a video that was six months in the making and filmed at various stages of my fight against Lumpy. If you haven’t already seen it, please enjoy. And thank you so much for all you have done to help me get to this point! NO MORE CHEMO!!!!

One More For the Road

When I look back at old blog posts or think back to just a couple months ago, it seems almost incomprehensible to me that I can finally type these words and have it be my reality: One chemo treatment to go.

And yet here I am! With chemo #11 of 12 in the books, I am one treatment away from resuming the normal life I had to abandon modify with my cancer diagnosis. In the very near future, I will no longer have to go to the hospital for a bi-weekly infusion of cancer-killing, hair-removing, life-saving poison. I’ll no longer stagger home in a Chemo Chrappy haze and flop into my bed for a three-hour nap of deep sleep and weird dreams. I won’t wake up with a lack of appetite and a disgusting metallic taste in my mouth. I won’t spend the next few days with steroid-induced burning rosy cheeks and a propensity to pass out into a long nap at the drop of a hat. I can be in crowds and confined spaces without worrying about my compromised immune system. I can start building up my physical strength and endurance. I can travel!

It’s going to be fantastic. Maybe I shouldn’t be wasting all these “freedom” GIFs on my second-to-last chemo post…I’ll need something epic for next time!

I had a wonderful preview of the sweet post-chemo life last week when Theresa’s sister and cousins stayed with us for the long Fourth of July weekend. I felt as good as I ever have and probably pushed the limits of my endurance with days full of board games, playing with a two-year-old, a downtown adventure through Millennium Park (you have to check out the new Maggie Daley section!), our hometown fireworks show, and an Independence Day picnic at a park near our house featuring great people, delicious food, croquet, bags, volleyball and whiffle ball. After legging out a whiffle home run left me huffing and puffing, I remembered that I am, in fact, still undergoing treatment and should probably try to take it easy in the final inning of my cancer fight. The weekend was a great glimpse into a resumption of normalcy, however, and I can’t wait to get there for real.IMG_0915It’s exciting to be able to make plans for life after chemo, and my calendar is already filling up. A family trip to Disneyland, multiple Ravinia concerts, an overdue trip to Newburgh and Six Flags outings are all on the horizon. Before I know it, I’ll even start taking the train and actually go into the office for work! About four weeks after my last chemo, I will get a final PET scan, which will presumably show that Lumpy and any Lumpy remnants are no more. I assume I’ll take that to the University of Chicago again for a final second opinion. When it’s all good, they will remove my port shortly after that, and I will officially be a cancer survivor!

Now I just need to keep playing it cool for the next couple weeks so I can finish this process without incident. It’s scary but important to remember that I’m always just one virus away from a fever and a trip to the hospital. It’s actually a bit helpful that this week’s chemo has left me reeling a little, as it’s a perfect reminder to slow down and not take my good health for granted. I know I sound like a broken record, but thanks as usual for the prayers, messages and well wishes. I couldn’t do this without all the support.

ONE TO GO!