Goodbye, Chemo. Hello, Radiation. Hello, Bliss

Los Angeles Times, Monday, June 8, 2008


Chemo is over. Chemo is over. Chemo is over.

I think this bears repeating.

Chemo’s over. Chemo’s over. Chemo’s over.

I’ve been busy since we last visited, so let’s catch up.

After five of eight rounds of chemotherapy, my doctor decided my heart and I had had all we could take of Adriamyacin, the really toxic drug, and switched to a different combination for the last three rounds. This new cocktail would have the same side effects, but less intense, and they would dissipate more quickly. I called it Chemo Lite, and it was fab.

I wouldn’t say I breezed through those last rounds, because, although the side effects abated (my hair, brows and lashes even began to grow back), the cumulative effects caught up with me at last and knocked me down some. Plus, the thought of going through any more, no matter how Lite, made me blue and sometimes just a big pile of cranky.

And then there were the hot flashes. Every night, I would break out in sweats and would throw off the covers, unable to bear the touch of even a sheet. No sooner would I get comfortable, than chills would follow and I would pile on everything in reach–comforter, dogs, husband–in a desperate attempt to get warm. And then we would start all over, repeating the cycle all night long.

But all things come to an end, and so did chemo, though not without a certain amount of last-minute anxiety.

Every year, my husband, Steve, and I go to New Orleans for Jazz Fest and our anniversary. There was considerable question about whether we could make it this year. Would my health be up to it? Would I be recovered from a chemo dose in time or, worse, would timing be such that chemo would be required during that same week?

We thought about skipping the trip this year, but realized that, of all years, we particularly needed it now. Fortunately, my doctors understood. We managed to manipulate the chemo schedule so that the last session would occur less than a week before our trip. Thanks to Chemo Lite, my post-dose recovery time was now down to a few days, so we slipped in just under the wire.

Never have I needed or looked forward to a vacation more. Ten days of great food, terrific music and better friends. Days of not being a cancer patient for a little while–and the knowledge that chemo was over–made me feel like, well, me.

Of course, I also had a voodoo priestess make me a gris-gris bag, just in case.

Given the high I was on the whole time we were away, I now think that in addition to the protocol of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, a course of crawfish should be added to regular cancer therapy. It works wonders.

However, I thudded back to earth the very day I returned, with the commencement of radiation. So much for not being a cancer patient.

First, though, there were a few tests, including a mammogram, to see how matters are progressing. My breasts were fondled by many medical personnel. (“Lie down. I need to put my hands on you,” said my oncologist, to which I replied, “You have no idea how often I hear that from men.”)

This led to a nerve-racking moment with the discovery of a couple of lumps. Ultrasound showed them to be cysts, which were needle-drained. That and the exclamations of delight from my oncologist, as he thumped my torso, leads me to believe that all is going very well.

But before anyone can say anything conclusive, we must do radiation, six weeks of daily sessions, to kill off any lingering cells and discourage a recurrence. For this, I have moved temporarily from the Van Nuys-based Breast Center to the radiology department at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, because it is much closer to my house.

I had my choice of radiation doctors, including my surgical oncologist’s best friend–wait for this–Bernard Lewinsky. How’s that for six degrees of separation? Don’t think it wasn’t tempting, but his clinic is less convenient to my home, and besides, he’s got a lot on his mind these days.

Anyhow, before radiation there is simulation. You lie on a table, and the doctor and tech look at your mammogram and murmur between themselves, and then move the machine around your body and take measurements and mark your torso with a marking pen. And when you ask them what they are doing, they mutter a lot of equations and medical jargon and finally you give up and take a nap. I never did understand, but since they weren’t hurting me–a refreshing change of pace–I really didn’t care.

What they were doing is figuring out where to aim the rays. In my case, three areas, two on my chest and one around armpit level to cover breast lump and nodes. The real drama comes when they put little dots of India Ink on your chest and stick pins through them, and, voila! Tattoos! I would have preferred some neat folk art-type pattern for my first tattoo, but little blue dots are what I got. (Basically, it’s a map for the techs to follow as they aim the rays each day.)

After that, radiation could begin for real. And I am happy to announce it is one big bore. Which couldn’t be more delightful. Every day, I go in, my charming tech puts me on the table, aims the machine, which goes “buzz” three times, I get down, get dressed, go home. And I feel nothing. “After what you’ve been through,” said one of the nurses, “this is a breeze.”

Apparently, in a couple of weeks, I may develop something like sunburn (calling for aloe vera twice a day, and no underwire bras or tight clothes), and probably will become fatigued. Which means what?

“You may need a nap in the afternoon.”

I’ve needed a nap in the afternoon my whole life. Finally, a medical excuse.

I tell you, compared to chemo, this is bliss.

So I made it through chemo–did I mention chemo is over?–and while it was unpleasant, and I do not recommend it to anyone, it was not the horror of my nightmares. My worst fears of constant nausea and vomiting were never realized. In fact, I never did throw up until a month after my last chemo round, when a weekend jaunt to Vegas included an encounter with food poisoning. I guess my gris-gris bag didn’t cover that.

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