Friday, August 12, 2011


I wanted to write a bit about what chemotherapy was like, for people who are curious. This post is a whole season in one entry, so it's long!

Chemo is basically a way to bathe most of your insides in chemicals that target fast-growing cells, which includes any cancer cells that might not have been chopped out. Hair, nails, stomach and other parts of the body are also made of fast-growing tissue, so they're killed too. Slower-growing parts of the body also sustain heavy damage - some of it long-term. This stuff is powerful.*

Because I'm young and because my cancer was still potentially beatable, I had the meanest chemo, delivered as often as possible. I had 8 infusions (or injections of drug), one every two weeks. The only way I could get chemo this regularly was by artificially boosting my immune system, so I also got a white blood cell booster drug that tricked my body into thinking I had E. coli.

Gettin' the chemo
I got chemo in 2-to-4-hours-long sessions at the cancer center. I'd sit back and the drugs would be pumped through my portacath (an implanted device that feeds drugs into a major blood vessel in my neck, and helps avoid collapsed and burned veins). I'd also receive drugs that would help my body deal with the chemo. These included steroids, things that block allergic reactions, etc.

Chemo infusions were pretty dull. I often played scrabble, and my ability to come up with words would diminish as time went on.

The first few days would be pretty okay, but then the effects of all that poison would start to pop up.

The good
Some things weren't nearly as bad as I'd expected. Five different anti-nausea drugs took the edge off of any potential nausea. And the hair loss was just sort of funny - I had an incredibly good wig (sometimes people even told me they adored my new hair cut).

The bad
Here's the part I wasn't expecting. My mom described chemo with "What fresh hell is this?" Every day I woke up with some new, awful side-effect. Here are a few: I had a half-dozen cankers simultaneously appear on my tongue, detached fingernails, eyes so runny that I had trouble seeing on windy days, nerve pain, cognitive difficulties, hemorrhoids (I got a fun preview of being old), hot flashes, and extreme food pickiness - cook for someone on chemo over a period of months and you'll slowly go mad.

Each one of these side effects would have been pretty dreadful on its own. Together, they made me feel so awful I often couldn't sleep. I took 2-3 baths a day to reduce pain and relax muscles. It all took a toll on my emotional health, which was already reeling from the initial diagnosis.

I coped by trying to shut down any thoughts of the future, which was pretty hard for me because I've always been keen on causes and projects. I lived from relaxation exercise to nap to healthy smoothie, from pill to pill. I stopped reading my favorite books (science nonfiction) because it was just too hard, somehow, to think about the outside world, and because chemotherapy temporarily damages memory and other mental functions. I read the mushiest, goofiest fiction and watched all of Degrassi High.

This became my chemo theme song. The lyrics were creepily accurate, and it fit the lost, dizzy emotions I felt most of the time:

The ugly
Nope, the grossest side effects are for my enjoyment only. Lucky you!

The good (again)
So, chemo was probably the most difficult four months I've had. But it could have been much worse. My collection of side effects was relatively mild compared to some people's experiences.

Also, there were good moments. My partner proposed. My family visited and we had an incredible Christmas. There was a lot of cuddling and watching movies or being read to. I went bird-watching almost every day, even if all I could do was shuffle a block or so and then go home. On my good days I felt almost 100%, and there were even one or two parties, hangouts and snowy hikes.

Oh, and dancing to this song:

I have so much gratitude for my friends, who stuck by me during this difficult time, weathered my ups and downs and helped me find joy in the good days. I had a huge display in my dining room of cards and gifts, and it helped make an incredibly isolating experience much less isolating (thank you, thank you, thank you).

The end of chemo was bizarre. It should have been a celebratory time, maybe, but it didn't feel like one. My nails were still falling out, as were my eyebrows and lashes. My gallbladder was damaged. My skin didn't feel like mine, and my weight was low. But I began to recover, and every day I felt a little bit more like myself.

I did it. I still can't believe it's over, and it's been five months.

So, that was chemo for me.

*Lest anyone think that plant alternatives would be less toxic, be aware that most of my drugs came from plants. One drug in particular was derived from the lowly yew tree, which I now assume is a tremendous jerk of a conifer.