What Does Chemo Do To You?
Ok, this one might be a little too much information for you. But if there’s somebody out there that will be going through all this, you should read this. Or maybe you shouldn’t. People ask me on the bad days what chemotherapy is like, and although I consider myself articulate, I have a really difficult time explaining it. Its difficult to describe the forest from the trees, right? But I figure I’ll try to describe it a bit here. Careful reading this.
Chemotherapy side effects are worse than cancer, that’s for sure. With cancer, most of the time you’d hardly know it if some doctor didn’t tell you. I mean, I was pretty hard up by the time they found it in me, but sometimes cancer can go all the way to stage IV and you’d never know it.
Chemo, on the other hand, you can never forget that. Not for a second. There’s no ignoring chemotherapy. It invades every cell by the end of it. You spend months marinating in a stew of toxic wastes that are out to kill you. And I don’t think that’s overly-dramatic. You try it sometime and see if I’m not right.
Well, I’ll tell you what I can about chemo. I’ll go day-by-day.
I’ll start on Sunday, the day before chemo. Remember when you were a kid and you dreaded Sunday night because it meant that you had to go to school early the next morning? And maybe you hadn’t done your homework yet, and basically, your fun was just over? Or maybe its still like that for you, where you get to Sunday night and you start to dread the coming work week, and what hassles are going to happen this time, etc., etc. Well, its a little like that, but I think I can, without hesitation, claim that my Mondays are worse than yours.
The dread of chemotherapy now starts much earlier than Sunday. At first it did start on Sunday, but then I realized how bad it was, so I moved the freaking out back a few days to Friday. Then Wednesday. I knew it was bad when the dreading would start on Friday, 9 days before my chemo treatment – before I’d even recovered from the last one. But now I dread it all the time. I get no rest from the dread of chemo now, because I know it gets worse every time and, save a few surprises, I know just what’s going to happen to me.
And I suppose I should feel good that I only have 2 more treatments. That’s what people keep saying, at least, “Hey – only 2 more, right? That’s gotta feel good.” It doesn’t. And people hate that answer. If I’ve learned anything from the progressive side-effects of chemotherapy treatments, its that the last treatments will be the worst. I don’t look forward to them, and knowing that they are coming doesn’t make me feel any better, even if completing them means its all over.
I try to distract myself on Sundays, and thankfully, I think everyone around me tries to do the same. The only thing you can do is try not to think about it. The doctor gave me anti-anxiety pills to calm down, but I don’t like taking them. So I just try not to let my mind rest on it.
I sleep as late as I can on Mondays. I don’t want to get up any earlier than I have to, because I know if I have time to think, I will. I take a shower and put together a bag of stuff. I usually bring my computer, my iPod, my headphones, maybe a book. I usually never use any of the stuff because the Benedryl knocks me out, but I bring it anyway. It makes me feel better holding onto something.
Chemotherapy is about a 4 hour process. They take your blood and start your IV right away. They fill you with steroids, saline and Benedryl to get your body ready, and they wait for the chemo drugs to be brought up from the pharmacy in the bright green zip-lock bag they come in.
I have a mental reaction to the smell of the alcohol swabs and taste of saline now. They use a lot of alcohol swabs during the whole process. They wipe down your port with alcohol, they swab the ends of the IV before they insert the vial for your blood, or the syringes full of chemicals. I can’t smell or taste the chemo itself, so I guess my mind has just decided that the bad stuff must smell like alcohol and taste like saline. The reality, of course, is that the saline and alcohol are the only things that are good for me in the whole process, but that doesn’t stop me from wincing whenever I smell or taste them. I know what’s coming when they are around. Sometimes when I’m not at chemo I’ll remember the smell of the swabs or the taste of the saline and I’ll jerk my head to the side and try not to puke. I really freak out sometimes.
You don’t really start to feel anything until an hour after you’ve been given the drugs. First you go to the bathroom and pee red. Maybe that’s too personal to tell everybody, but I’m telling you anyway. It freaks me out every time. I always forget its going to happen. It’s from the Andreomyacin, which is a red chemical, and the first drug in the chemo. Some people pee red for days.
The heat starts about then. The heat comes from inside me, from my chest I guess, and radiates into my face. By Tuesday I’m flush red all over, and my face is puffy and hot. My skin starts to feel softer than usual, I don’t know why.
A heated, sharp indigestion starts about the same time that the hiccups start. My nurse thinks the two are related. I think its all the same thing. The hiccups last for two days. They are double hiccups, where your diaphragm pulses twice most times and really shakes your body.
The nausea sets in immediately, despite all the drugs they give me. It’s a sharp nausea, like someone is stabbing you in the stomach, and trying to pull your throat out by reaching in through your mouth.
But, despite the nausea, and despite the fact that eating just makes it worse, you are ravishingly hungry. You would eat rice cakes willingly, you are so hungry. You eat until the nausea takes you over in a big wave, and you lay down and cry and wait for it to pass, and then you eat again, until the wave of nausea comes again, etc., etc. Its awful.
But the effects of chemo aren’t just in your stomach, chest, or throat, they are all over. Your eyelids droop and the muscles in your thighs twitch, and your abdomen expands with all the food your body won’t digest (go get some ex-lax and fiber bro, its going to be a long week…).
By Wednesday my legs are usually dog meat, but the hiccups are gone. The heat is still around, but its second to the sheer exhaustion. I mean, absolute EXHAUSTION. Not like “I’ve had a long week and I haven’t slept much,” or “I just lifted weights” kind of exhausted. Its much more powerful than that.
Last time, I woke up with three fingers numb on Thursday. The doc says that’s nerve damage from the Vinblastin. I say that’s some really nasty stuff for pianist. He’ll cut out the Vinblastin if it happens again this time.
I don’t really know when it happens. Not right away. But sometime between Wednesday and Friday my mind starts to fall apart. It lasts for 4 or 5 days. I can’t remember people, or conversations, or I’ll stop sentences halfway because I can’t think of the word. It goes away, though. I think.
By Saturday and Sunday I’m recovering, and I’m usually ok by Monday. Then I have one good week to run around like a mostly normal person, but with more dread, until I get hit again. The exhaustion never totally leaves me, and I can’t stand very long, but its not as bad during what I facetiously refer to as my “good” week.