The Chemo Diaries: Year Two, Round Two

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Getting ready to fluff my pillow before the chemo drip begins.

The Chemo has been going pretty well since my first real extended break. By extended, I really only mean two weeks off from the usual cycle. The first infusion after the vacation may have left me a bit more tired than expected, but I wasn’t exactly super well-rested after a week of extra stairs and cross-country travel. It will be interesting to see how this round goes.

Chemo and Gratitude

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This isn’t about still having my hair, or not throwing up all the time. Maybe it’s a little about those things. But I have been quite fortunate with regard to all aspects of my treatment and to all the people involved with the process from initial decision making to treatment to support. Nowhere along the way was I met with an adversarial situation. (Huntington Memorial and my Nurse Navigator, the illustrious Christine, get special credit for that, having gone to bat with my HMO so that I would not have to. And the whole staff with my oncologist at Keck works diligently to ensure that I am shielded from most HMO related nonsense, as well.)

Getting these chemo infusions has given me the opportunity to see kindness in action on a regular schedule. As if it wasn’t enough of a reminder of how good, gentle and caring most people will be when the opportunity presents itself: just thinking of the support that the administration of my daughter’s school showed to our family when they first received word of my diagnosis is amazing enough — and to me, personally, doing everything they could to reduce my stress and ensure continuity for my child during the most uncertain of times. Perhaps it is the power of being part of the smaller Waldorf community, though I would hope any school, large or small, would exhibit the same kind of care for a member family. However this experience with our school may have proven that compassion is a natural component of human behavior, I have gone on to see it displayed and re-displayed every three weeks since.

Few places that I frequent can guarantee me the smiles and genuine interest in my well-being than the Infusion Center at the Keck Medicine of USC cancer clinic next to Huntington Memorial Hospital in lovely Pasadena, California. For the past year, my treatments have happened mostly like clockwork in three-week intervals, so I have seen the same faces fairly consistently (and, in spite of the whole chemo brain phenomenon, I have also managed to retain a few names to go with the faces). Spending time there is always time spent with good humor. I like these people and enjoy being in their company, which is a lot to say since the whole reason I am there is to have toxic chemicals put into my veins that will likely make me feel less than well for a few days or a week, during which time I will be mostly too tired to function the way I like. And yet, I appreciate what they do so much, because even during those down days of mine, I have bright spots that I can be thankful for and I have lucid, creative moments that are wonderful, and I know that the parts where I feel ill or fatigued will pass — and increasingly they pass more quickly or simply don’t affect my rhythms as much as they used to. In the end, these trips to the Infusion Center remind me more of feeling well than they do of feeling ill. It helps, of course, that the effects of the chemotherapy take a while to set in, so I always actually feel good at the Infusion Center.

The bottom line is that I find this process has made me somewhat happier as a person. Not happier about having cancer, because that would be just a little crazy. I’ll cop to the fact that I would rather not have the cancer at all and would probably be willing to trade it out for all the insight I’ve received since my diagnosis. But that isn’t possible,  and I’ve always been the sort of person who believed in going with what Fate has dropped at my feet, making the best of it or letting it guide me to my next phase in this journey. So I’ll take this cancer and the lessons it is making me aware of and I’ll embrace these trips to get my drip every three weeks (lest my schedule gets more exciting or a holiday interferes as it sometimes does).

I do find that a good amount of this happiness I feel comes in tandem with the gratitude I feel. My wife, who has tolerated so very much from me and who has been a pillar of support in spite of having probably the most stressful position in this family, manages to offer me a sense that things can still be “normal” and refrains from getting all maudlin over my cancer. That is a huge thing in and of itself, because while I embrace my cancer, I hate the idea of being defined by it. (And yet I continue to blog about it, so go figure.) She allows me the opportunity to remember that sometimes I’m just the guy who has to finish projects around the house or get dinner ready or pay some bills, pretty much like any other husband or father. My friends still treat me with the same level of sarcasm and good will that they did before, prod me with inappropriate jokes and check in on me with sincerity just often enough but not too often. All that fills me with gratitude. My daughter, though she may be going through some typical pre-teen emotional irregularities and an associated push to discover her own independent personality on the verge of turning ten, makes me infinitely grateful just to be around her, maybe in spite of everything she is going through on her own, maybe because of it, because she is blissfully wrapped up in her own world and has accepted mine as just what I’m going through, nothing more. It’s amazing to me, wonderful, and it kicks me into the greater reality of which I am a part and my cancer is almost inconsequential.

The rest of my family, each in their way, also manages to offer me precisely what I need from them. Brother, sister, in-laws, nieces and nephews, cousins, my aunt and, of course, my mother: you spend a lifetime with these people and it can pay off in intimate knowledge or just the comfort of believing they have to love you no matter what, even though they probably don’t, but they most likely will anyway. That is plenty to be grateful for. I don’t see my extended family — the remains of the nuclear family I grew up in — particularly often these days, being the only one left on the West Coast while all the others migrated to the east. But I never feel far from them.

A day does not go by anymore when I don’t spend a few moments thinking about what I am grateful for. This experience has brought me closer to a few people, to be sure. It has given me focus that I used to lack, or at least narrowed that focus in a more manageable way. It has created a situation that has jump started social gatherings that had been long talked about but left to wait. It has given me an urgency to get a few things done that had been needlessly languishing. It has helped me to see the pointlessness of things that had been held onto for far too long, and letting them go has been freeing. There is so much to consider that is either the direct or indirect result of getting diagnosed with lung cancer, labeled with the terms “metastatic” and “inoperable,” and evaluating how much just these words have altered my life.

So, yes, treatment hard or not so hard; nausea or numbness or brain fog; there are a lot of unappealing aspects to living with cancer and trying to ensure that I will outlive it. Yet, it is unavoidable, when I am being truly honest with myself and really looking at the whole of the life I live, to not settle back and admit that, for what it is and what it has offered, in some small way, I have to find gratitude for the cancer itself.


 

I’d love to hear from you —  please feel free to leave comments in the box a little further down this page. Or click on the sharing links, which should only take a few seconds and would make me really grateful. I mean that, too. Knowing that people read these posts and hoping that they find something of value that resonates with their own situation, whatever that may be, is hugely meaningful for me. Thank you!

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