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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

And or Death

These are my thoughts and memories of when we began chemo treatment in October 2003 in Anchorage Alaska.

After consulting friends and family we decided our treatment plan and we were back at the oncologist’s office for our pre-chemo briefing. As it turns out before the doctor gives you “medicine” that is going to bring you to the doorstep of death by killing nearly every cell in you body we had to watch an instructional video. I guess talking about cancer was just too difficult of a subject for someone to sit down with us. We were handed the VHS tape and shown a private room with a TV and VCR player. In hopes to break us in slowly the viewing room was adjacent to the chemo room, so as we walked in we had our first glance of what lay ahead for us. A large room with 15-20 big lazy boy recliners, all filled. The people had blank stares on their faces, all sitting in silence, some watching TV most just sitting alone, but all with an eerie blank stare on their face. I swore then Andrea would never be alone in that room. We went into our viewing room, as if it was a safe heaven from what lied beyond those doors, as if we would somehow escape what lied ahead. For the moment we were safe.

We put in the movie and hit play and we watched beautiful scenes of the countryside and smiling people with a narrator explaining with a clam soothing voice, the common side effects of chemo all the while beautiful music played in the background. The side effects seemed endless as the soft voice said, “Some people experience fatigue, vomiting, diarrhea and constipation.” While a couple rode horses laughing in the background. After watching this video you would think this can’t be too bad, like watching a video on a concentration camp stating “dieting is encouraged at the camp.” The video was the best spin you could put on chemo, and we were naive to the reality of the journey we about to embark on. We began to notice a disclaimer that was a pretty good indication that we were in for a little more then what this video was conveying. As the video covered the different chemo drugs and expounded on the various side effects the last one always seemed to be, “And or Death.” Wait just a minute did that just say one of the side effects may be death? It was like the last minute of a car commercial after they tell you how cheap you can buy the car but then announcer starts speaking at warp speed as if he suddenly realizes time is running out and rattles off all the restrictions at such a fast pace you can never understand what he is saying.

We knew Andrea would be sick, maybe tired at times but we had no idea the extent of pain she was about to endure I’m not sure how long the video was because we fast forwarded through most of it. I will never forget the one chemo nurse who saw us leaving our private theater and stopped us and said, “Honey did they tell you, you will lose your hair?” We said “Yes it said it was a possibility.” (We still were holding to the hope that “some” people lose their hair. That "some" turned out to be 1 in a million. Funny, in two years we would be clinging to those same odds as our best hope of living.) She said, “No honey you will lose your hair, not just the hair on your head dear you will lose ALL of your hair.” We walked away thinking, ummm I wonder what she meant by that. We would soon learn that this was no vacation club and there wasn’t going to be any pretty music in the background of our life for the next six months. It was going to be bad beyond anything we could imagine, and it all started so innocently.

Our first chemo was a little scary to say the least. We walked into the chemo room feeling totally out of place. I just wanted to shout to everyone, “We don’t belong here.” In the back of our minds we were waiting for the doctor to rush in and announce that there had been some mix up and Andrea’s tumor was not cancerous. You would be amazed how much hope you can build from such a sliver of a chance. It did not matter that the odds were 1 in 4 billion, if that is your only hope it suddenly seems possible. We like to quote the line from the movie Dumb and Dumber, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.” Anyway the doctor did not rush in and announce her mistake, so the process began. Andrea found her chair and the IV stand was brought to her side. We remained upbeat even as we looked at the others in the room. They all seemed so close to death, so weak, with empty stares and hopeless eyes. I could not help but think “is that what we are going to look like?” Were they looking at us remembering their first day, when they had hope, and strength before the reality of chemo was hit them and the softness of that video was erased from their minds. They hooked Andrea up through her newly installed chemo port, a small device surgically implanted under her skin where the IV needle is inserted. The port has a long tube connected that runs directly into Andrea’s heart, so the drugs are quickly pumped throughout her body. As I write this I can't help but think this sounds like someone on death row. The nurse came by and hung Andrea’s first IV drip, an anti-nausea drug called Zofran. With in 2 minutes Andrea looked at me and said, “I don’t feel so good, and I’m starting to see double.” Hey, I don’t remember this on the video, there was no mention of double vision, and this is after two minutes! I called a nurse over and she calmly told us that is a normal reaction if the Zofran is dripped to fast. It turns out it should have taken 15 minutes to administer the Zofran and Andrea’s took two minutes. I remember being amazed at how quickly the drugs got into Andrea’s system and affected her body.

The nurse then brought out with Andrea’s first chemo, AC as it’s called. I like to refer to it as liquid death, deceptively cloaked in a pretty red Kool-Aid color. And when they hooked it up we watched it slowly flow down the IV tube inching ever closer to Andrea’s body. Andrea was scared, rightly so, she wanted to rip the IV out and run, knowing what it would do to her but also knowing this was her “cure.” The first treatment was not that bad and we went back in three weeks thinking this is going to be a piece of cake. Oh how naive we were. The second treatment hit Andrea with a vengeance and we soon learned this was no game. We left her second treatment and decided to go have one of Andrea’s favorite lunches. That was a mistake! Never eat any of your favorite meals while doing chemo. That was the last time Andrea has eaten that meal. With in five hours Andrea was throwing up and she continued to throw up for the next three days. She did not have the strength move, except top get out of bed craw on the sofa and try to make it till 8pm and craw back into bed. This went on for three days. Then like clock work at 10pm on Sunday she would walk into the kitchen and tell me she was hungry. From Thursday at 6pm until Sunday at 10pm Andrea did not talk, barely ate crackers, maybe some soup, only to throw it up in minutes. Anthony our 10 year old son at the time would read her the Bible because Andrea did not have the strength to lift her head. It was the most horrific 3 months we have ever spent, with her last AC treatment on Dec 31 2003. It was a quite New Years night for us.

Andrea went into her next round of Chemo, an easier drug compared to AC. But as the nurse said, “Every treatment will be easy compared to AC.” Not that the next six months would be easy, it was just easier. It was marked with extreme fatigue and body aches. Andrea was so fatigued, one day she was sitting on the floor in the kitchen next to the heater and did not have the strength to get up and walk across the room. She just could not move. The ten feet to the chair might as well been a thousand miles.

Her hair did fall out but it lasted longer then expected, about six weeks vice the three weeks predicted. It was hard to see her hair fallout in clumps. One of the surprises to Andrea was how much her head hurt just before her hair would fall out, as if her head had been burned. To make it easier we had cut her hair short before chemo started and donated it to Locks of Love, a company that makes wigs for children who loose their hair. I have learned that Andrea has a beauty and elegance that seems to shine no matter what stage her hair is in.

Looking back here is how that video should have described the effects of chemo. You will experience vomiting till you literary damage your esophagus; you will be so intimate with your toilet bowl that you may even give it a pet name. You will not be tired, because tired is when you need to take a nap and then your ready to go, no you will be so exhausted you won’t have the energy to move, except to make it to the bathroom to vomit the lining of your stomach. You will be so tired that the thought of moving from one side of a room to the other may as well be a thousand miles, you just can’t do it. You will be so sick that you don’t have the strength to talk and even if you did it hurts too bad to speak.

I began to think the purpose of the drugs was not to heal but to make you beg for death, to make death a more appealing option then life. We were in for a much tougher fight then we could ever have imagined, and we would need to fall back on our faith and our God and the help and prayers of friends to make it through this.

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