There are reasons that I enjoy going in for my chemo infusions. It’s nice to get pampered a little with the hot towels and the heated massage chair. (I’m still dropping hints about getting a proper foot masseuse on staff, especially after hearing that there is a massage therapist who works at the main hospital associated with my clinic.) Fresh coffee is always welcome. And the friendly staff is ever-ready with a smile, which I am always amazed that each of them can muster, surrounded by all these cancer patients each day. It cannot be easy, emotionally, being so intimately tied to such an array of physical struggles. And yet, that is one of the aspects that I find so warm and welcoming about my infusion center: from the receptionist to the scheduling department to the pharmacists and nursing staff, I feel like I’m dealing with a warm collection of family and friends who are happy to see me and enjoy the time we have together.
And I love my alone time, though it goes more quickly than I’d like. A couple of years ago, I had time for a brief nap or some quality writing, though these days it seems there is barely enough time to peruse Facebook or catch up on email. I suppose that is a good thing, in and of itself, but I like my time there for another reason, too.
It’s the last bit of escape I have before my “difficult week” takes over. Like a last hurrah after feeling my normal self (or as close to it as I ever get these days), I know it will be at least a few hours before the effects of the chemo start kicking in, a day or two more until I begin to feel really crappy, and so I make the most of it with light-hearted banter and making myself, well, as comfy as possible.
Plus, once I am plugged in, I know that my bloodwork came back fine, showing plenty of white blood cells and nothing too off-kilter about any of the other things they measure. I know that my blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygenation levels are all in the proper range (today’s description was “textbook”). I know that I am good to go another round, that my body is still tolerating the chemo well and that I am getting through another three weeks with a solid probability of moving on to the next three after that, and each of these successive rounds means more time without having to worry about that lingering, nagging question always at the back of my consciousness: “what’s next?”
Things are changing so rapidly in the world of cancer research and treatment that it is hard to know where my path will take me next. By the time I get around to doing another genetic panel, one which will seem exponentially more comprehensive than what I did in 2014, there could quite possibly be a targeted genetic therapy that might work wonders for me and dramatically reduce or even eliminate the visible tumors. Maybe there will be several that could be taken individually or even in tandem to increase the possibility of ending up with No Evidence of Disease. Even more likely, I will be looking at the opportunity to try an immunotherapy drug or possibly even several, and staring into the uncertainty of whether that approach will work for me in the way it sometimes does for patients, bringing them back from the brink to being, at least for some small, highly responsive percentage, cancer-free.
These drugs are still in their infancy, but they are proving themselves quickly and are being joined by more, subtly different options, making the treatment options more customizable. It is like being on the cusp of a revolution, but the good kind, where everyone is actually working on the same side to simply make things better. It’s a time to be pushing for more research funding, too, and ensuring that the national health system is shored up and improved rather than gutted. There are plenty of highly functional, effective and cutting-edge examples of how to offer affordable treatment to every patient, provided there is the collective will to demand it.
And I want to wait long enough, of course, to ensure that I get the right treatment that will work best for me when the time comes. The more three-week cycles that I go through with my chemo, the longer period of research I will benefit from, the better my chances down the line. I know that this treatment I am getting now is only going to work for a limited time, and I could already be past the half-way mark. If not, I’m certainly getting close, and with each passing month, it becomes something that I have to consider. Just a few years ago, perhaps, I would have been looking at this experience with the objective of buying maybe a couple of years, five or ten if I was lucky, but probably only one or two considering the stage at which I was diagnosed. Now things are different. Although I would have taken position on the same starting block if my only options were going to be harsher on my body and afford me less time, because that time would still have been worthwhile and certainly better than doing nothing, I am grateful that my diagnosis happened at a time when more and better options are available, and allowing me to live well while waiting for yet more to come.
So the best part of my infusion day, if I am being totally honest, and the part that I am most reminded of as I sit comfortably in my chair, wrapped in cozy, heated blankets while the footrest is up and the massager is on, and I watch the flow of liquid from the hanging bag down the tube and into my arm, is simply that it is another infusion day. I get to be one of the lucky ones for whom my treatment is continuing to do what it is designed to do, which is to hit that balance of keeping the cancer in check while allowing me to enjoy a decent quality of life, to continue to participate as part of my family and to offer something back to society as a productive member. And I am gifted a few more weeks or months or years before I have to shift gears, each measure of time offering more potential options and greater opportunity for those little treasures we all take for granted until we can’t.
Because of the advances in cancer science over the past two decades or so, and especially those anticipated in the next five or ten years, it is not unrealistic for me to think about watching my daughter progress from elementary school through her high school graduation. I look forward to her college years and setting out to begin a career and, hopefully, realize some of her dreams. Maybe she’ll get married. Maybe she’ll have a kid of her own and I’ll get to see what it is like being a grandfather. I’ll be 59 when she turns 21, the price I pay for having waited as long as I did to start a family (it still seemed early at the time), but while the statistics had shown a high probability that I’d be dead within 18 months of my diagnosis, the studies out there now are showing me that 18 years is more than reasonable, and I could get lucky with more. I’m not exactly planning my 70th birthday party just yet, but if I get there you can be damn sure it is going to be a doozy.
I’m trying to change the narrative on cancer.
By supporting me, you can be a part of this. I can’t do it alone, but together we can make a significant difference in the way society approaches the many issues surrounding cancer, from awareness and education to patient-caregiver relationships, from funding research to advocating for better care. I believe it’s a worthwhile mission. I hope that you do, too.
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