(Happy 2012! I know it has been awhile since I’ve written. Sorry, I needed some time, some fun, some relaxation and now I’m back. I know some of you have been waiting and I’m often surprised of who is reading this blog and I’m pleased you feel comfortable enough to tell me to hurry up and write some more.)
I finished chemotherapy.
Those three words deserve to be a paragraph on their own based on the weight they carry for completing the task at hand. I rang the bell as promised to me by all the nurses who I came across, the couple of days leading up to my last session. As I sit here in the local Starbucks of my hometown, away from home, I’m trying desperately to hold back the tears as I had when I rang that fire bell. A huge chapter is behind me and I try everyday to not reflect back to the painful sections but to focus on the good things which came out of this year. But it’s difficult when huge chunks of crap surrounds it.
My mom and Maggie were with me at the end of my last chemo. I was a little drowsy on Benadryl again to keep away the reaction I was having with the steroids and to prevent other allergic symptoms I was having from the chemo. My fingers were still tingley from the last two Taxotere chemo treatments but some of my fingernails had started turning greyish from my second or third treatments of FEC chemo. Mag and Mom came to my chemo chair where they saw me laying down with my fingertips and toes immersed in packs of ice. Mom asked what they were for, I told her it was to prevent my fingernails from falling off. However, from close inspection it seems like my thumbnails will eventually come off if I’m not careful.
My last chemo session I heard another patient ring the bell. The sound was shy, almost embarrassed, but all of us chemo patients applauded them even though we couldn’t see them from through the partitions. I couldn’t understand such a lack-luster ring. At least, it was better than the first ring I had ever heard during my third treatment. I was in the loo and I thought I had heard a “ding” and then some applause. I came out to see where the “ding” was coming from but everything ceased making me unsure if anything rang at all. One lousy “ding” after chemotherapy. Boy, it pissed me off and made me sad a little bit. I had no business judging that chemo patient’s “ding”. But, FUCK! It was as if the one “ding” was a denial that chemo ever happened, that all of it didn’t matter, the chemo was trivial and no big deal. I could not understand such a modest ring.
When I finished my chemo I could not wait to get to the bell. The nurse (whose name I can’t remember because it was not a common name) had to ask me to hold on, a couple of times, before she could bring me over to the ringing station. Maggie and I fiddled with my camera to make sure it was working properly. I readied my stance, grabbed the rope attached to the bell and rang that sucker like the place was on fire! I choked up a bit but I held my tears back even though no other patients could see me from behind the walls. I heard the applause, the same applause I gave while being pumped with chemo. I got all giggly with happiness. Yeah! That’s how you ring the chemo bell! Ring it like it’s done! Like there’s a light at the end of the effing tunnel! Good riddance! FUCK CANCER!!
Mom stayed an extra few days with me because I thought I would still be taking the Neupogen which coupled with my chemo was creating the excruciating bone pain. However, my prescription ran out on the Neupogen and Dr. Amir decided since I wouldn’t be coming back to another chemo session my white blood cells could take their time to rejuvenate. I would still get a little tired feeling a little creaky but nowhere near the intense pain I had experienced from the last two sessions. It was a relief not to have to feel the war coursing through my bone marrow. As the chemo was killing all the good cells and bad dividing cells, the Neupogen was desperately creating more cells to keep all hell from breaking loose. This last chemo session was really the last I could take. I had, had enough of all the painkillers, the fuzzy brain, the yeast infections, the weight gain, the “roid rage,” all of it. Chemotherapy could be a downer.
After my mother left I slowly started looking forward to spending time with old friends to celebrate this milestone. I was even looking forward to spending Christmas in Montreal with my family, as it might be the first Christmas I wouldn’t feel tense in the company of my parents. Shirley, my brother’s mother-in-law, called to ask when I would be available for a celebratory lunch to commemorate finishing chemo. All I needed to do before leaving for Montreal was to have a follow-up visit with Dr. C, my breast surgeon, before I could go home for Christmas.
Two weeks before Christmas I went back to Women’s College Hospital where everything began. I got a warm reception from the staff and was led to an examination room where, as usual, I changed into a hospital gown. A new intern entered the room, the same room Dawn and I waited for over an hour while Dr. C and Dr. B discussed behind closed doors what to do with my reluctance at having a mastectomy and plastic surgery. It was all so nostalgic being in that exam room, I smiled to myself, thinking about how far I had come since last Spring when I had doubts I would be content with any of the decisions I had to make to get through cancer. The intern asked where I was with chemo? Finished on December 1st, I told her. What was next on the reconstruction agenda? Seeing Dr. B, in January, to discuss the exchange of my expander to implant, I told her. Who was my oncologist? Dr. A, I told her. At the end of the preliminary questions she asked me to lie down and gave me a breast exam. She pressed and prodded every inch of my breasts. Her hands kneaded my good breast a little longer at its 5 o’clock position. Her fingers pinched the area a little and then she was done. She said I could sit up and would go to get Dr. C to come see me.
Dr. C came into the room smiling and congratulated me on finishing chemo. We went over responses to the questions the intern had asked me before she did her own examination of my boobs. Again she went to the 5 o’clock position of my remaining breast and my heart sank.
“It’s another lump,” Dr. C said “but I’m sure it’s benign after all the chemo you have just had. If anything, it’s a cyst. What does it say on her chart about her other breast from her last mammogram?” she asked her intern. I piped up and said the mammogram said nothing about my other breast. The MRI was clear from what I remember seeing, I reminded Dr. C. They checked my chart and sure enough the remaining breast was unremarkable according to the notes. Dr. C requested an urgent mammogram and ultrasound to be done immediately for me. I was only able to get an appointment after the New Year. Two and a half weeks, I would have to wait to find out if I still had cancer.
I decided not to tell my friends and family about the new lump. As they are reading this they will probably be upset or want to wring my neck for not opening up to them. Know that whatever you are feeling, I felt ten-fold, over the holidays, but I really did not want you to worry until I had hard evidence the cancer came back. I still needed to go through this, the way I need to.
It only occurred to me, while in the middle of this blog entry, going over the irresolute feelings I had over the holidays, why the end of chemo ring, for some, would be so understated. For some the end of chemotherapy does not mean the end of cancer.