Side effects of chemotherapy

I went to the emergency room the night of my first chemo session. My legs felt like they had expanded between the start of dinner and the time we had washed dishes. I went looking for the info package, which contained all the literature in regards to chemotherapy and the drugs I was taking. All of it handy reading I did not bother with until this leg swelling side effect sent me into frantic mode, making it more difficult to find any answers within the 57 pages I had in my hands. I looked up the side effects to do with chemo and all side effects to do with the anti-nausea drugs. All answers, whether the side effect warranted a visit to the emergency room or not, was responded with a ‘call your physician immediately‘. This wasn’t quite the answer I was looking for at 9 pm. Mom was immersed in level 3 part 2 of Angry Birds, on my iPad, when I asked if she thought I needed to go to the emergency room. Without lifting her head or feigning worry, she said, “No, there’s nothing wrong with you.” Not listening to her but also not letting her know how achy my legs had become I picked up the phone to call Toronto General Hospital’s to speak to an after hours nurse.

If I had been in my apartment alone I would have resolved to wait and see whether my legs swelled further and wait until the morning to call Dr.A. I knew, if my legs swelled to elephant leg-sized proportions at 3 am, I could have found a way to hurl myself into a cab to the emergency room. However, I was reluctant to wake my mother up at 3am, in a panic, to get to the emergency room. With a brief conversation on the phone with an attending nurse at Toronto General Hospital I called Beth to see if she could pick us up and drop us off at the hospital. Beth and Todd came by and drove Mom and I to the TGH emergency entrance around 9:30pm.

I was questioned by the triage nurse as to what drugs I had taken in the last 24 hours. I reached into my purse to gather all bottles and packages of pills to show her. She asked when I started chemo, I told her I had my first session that morning and the swelling legs started a couple of hours ago and all I wanted to know was whether the swelling would end. The nurse asked for my full medical history and it took me aback. Really, did we have that much time to discuss it? I started telling her about my thyroid condition from years ago and which drugs I took, my seasonal allergies before she finally asked, “What kind of cancer do you have?” Oh right! I told her I had breast cancer, had a mastectomy, and was inserted with a tissue expander.

We were sent onto the emergency makeshift waiting room (TGH is yet another hospital under renovation) with the suggestion that I wear a mask to keep from being exposed to any germs as I just started chemo. I noticed most incoming patients to the emergency room were dudes with bandaged bloody hands. What was up with that?!! This was definitely going to make for a longer than expected night, so we settled into our seats amongst the handful of klutzes surrounding us. Dancing with the Stars, was on the widescreen television, which kept my mom entertained until some belligerent drunk got up from the gurney he was laying on, in the hallway. He started to berate a nurse at her station and was restrained by a cop standing nearby. While my mother was glued to the scene happening before her eyes I was regretting my seat choice as I couldn’t see out the doorway from my chair angle.

It was about an hour and a half before I saw the doctor. His examination was brief as he said one of the drugs I was taking retains water. I asked if it would expand anymore than what I had felt. Not likely was his diagnosis but he said to come back if I had any chest pains or shortness of breath. Nice! I left the examination, fetched my mother from the waiting area and left TGH by 11:30pm.

The next couple of days went off without a hitch. All I needed to deal with was a nauseous stomach which woke me up in the morning and led me straight to the kitchen where I would make a peanut butter, banana, blueberry, chocolate almond milk smoothies to down my cocktail of anti-nausea pills. Mom would follow into the kitchen shortly and we would sit and have breakfast together. Our discussions revolved around what we would do for the day or what I had in my fridge. She had already went through my fridge and remarked on all the different types of hot sauces I kept. “You shouldn’t eat so much hot sauce. You don’t need to be eating spicy foods while on chemo. You have 14 different international hot sauces, you don’t need that much hot sauce. You have hot sauces you’ve barely opened. All you have in your fridge are hot sauces.” It’s not true. I have other condiments in the fridge also, maple syrup, soy sauce, mustards but I’ll admit, I like spicy foods.

Aside from her judging my fridge contents we actually had a decent time together. She would do all the cooking and boiling of ginger tea to ease my nausea. She would take long walks with me around the city. She saw Trinity Bellwoods Park and a little bit of Queen St. where I routinely walk to meet up for friends or to enjoy a coffee and croissant. In an attempt to keep her preoccupied while I napped in the afternoons I found some Chinese newspaper sites for her to peruse on the iPad. I went so far as to research which mahjong app had the best artificial intelligence to play against. The best app was $5.99 which, I thought would have been deemed wasteful. Mom surprised me though, when I asked whether she really wanted it or not she did not pause nor did she flinch with her quick, “Mmm-hmm, yes.” The next morning after I had bought the app, I caught her playing Angry Birds again and asked why she wasn’t playing mahjong, as she won against the virtual players in the few games I saw her play. “Not the same on the computer. It’s not like playing with real people.”

I had witnessed my parents, uncles and aunts playing mahjong to the wee hours, last summer. I complained to my cousin, Sylvia, about the racket of the tiles I had to endure in my sleep laying in the bedroom next to the kitchen where their mahjong tournaments were played, in my parents’ home.  They were never talking to each other during the games to catch up on each others lives. Sylvia explained it’s a different way of communicating when they played mahjong. Their clicking and clacking grips connecting straight green rows showed their years of expertise in the game when building the tile walls. The thrill of figuring out how your opponents think, in play, or the reaction of opponents when a tile was discarded or claimed could help with your next maneuver in the game. Most of all, watching faces as they hand you your winnings was what my mother preferred rather than playing a computer with no expression for any of these things.

Felicia, who learned of my mahjong dilemma on facebook, called me up to say she had a mahjong set if my mom wanted to play. We had a mahjong night a couple of days later with just the three of us. I spent most of the night deciphering the numbers in Chinese characters and trying to keep up with the tile count but I actually managed to “PUNG” at the right moments to grab the right tile and win a game or two from the two more experienced players at the table.

My days spent with my mother, while I was recovering from chemo, were actually more peaceful than I had imagined they would be. There was some initial long silences and there will probably be more but we eased up on one another. There was no time or energy for our baggage during my bouts of nausea and leg swelling.

Not once did I clench my jaw or bite my tongue at some offhanded remark she would spew at me. Not once did she offer me anything but to make this gross time easier on me.

Chemo, for the most part, has been a nice change for both of us.

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navigating my way through cancer with laughter, fear, and madness.

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