I know I have neglected my writer’s page for some time. But, I’m back and with an explanation. Last summer my sister was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, which was elevated from Stage II to Stage III following her surgery. While she recovered, a treatment plan was developed. During that time, they recommended I see my doctor, as a precaution. As is generally the case with me, nothing is ever simple. The readings were confusing and they couldn’t determine if they saw one lump or three. After having three different facilities examine me and six tests read and reread, it was decided that it was only one area and a biopsy was performed. Fortunately, mine was negative, so I could concentrate on helping my sister face her two different courses of chemotherapy and 32 radiation treatments. I telecommute for my day job and am able to “plug in” and work from just about anywhere, enabling me to work from her place every other week.
I can’t begin to tell you the awakening I experienced going with her to her treatments. I was astounded at just how many people were being treated for cancer in one facility. It was packed; yet, they moved patients through in more of an organized regimen than I ever dreamed possible.
Every other week, we would travel an hour to the facility and she would go for her bloodwork (they had implanted a port under the skin in the chest wall, upon which she would slathered a numbing cream before going to the lab). Following her lab visit, we headed to the oncology department to have her bloodwork “numbers” read to ensure she could receive the chemo that week. If the numbers were too low, the treatment would have to be postponed and a transfusion administered instead. She always squeaked by and was sent on to the infusion center.
From what I could see, at least on the floor we were on, there were infusion centers on both sides of the floor and two large infusion areas on each side. They were always packed from early morning until late (I know this as we were the last ones on occasion, leaving around 7 p.m.). Although the facility offered free coffee and tea in the waiting area to the patients and those with them, volunteers would regularly “roll” through with carts of snacks and drinks. More blood work was done and, eventually, she was called back. She sat in one of 8 reclining lounge chairs in one of 3 bays. Each patient had a television, curtains that could be closed, and a chair for one visitor. The nurses were wonderful and supportive, offering encouragement while monitoring each person like hawks. They would double-match her information against the bags of fluid and the computer to ensure they administered the right meds. Good thing, too, since they got some things wrong a couple of times. Before treatment, she was given meds to help with possible nausea and reactions, allow time for them to take effect, and then hook her up to an IV, which administered the fluids and chemicals. Since each person’s treatment is specific to them, and how they respond is individual as well, patients react very differently to the treatments. Some took it in stride, some could barely lift their heads, and others shook in fear. As frightened as my sister was, I remember watching her, tubes and lines filling her with poison, spend her time talking to the young woman sitting alone in the chair across from her, crying and shaking in fear of her diagnosis and her initial treatment. It was my sister’s soothing words and the thought of them doing it together, that seemed to comfort the young woman. As each treatment would come to an end, they would tape an infusion device to my sister’s arm, which then automatically jabbed a cannula into her arm for administration of more meds the next day. Make no bones about it, these chemicals are vicious. One they call the “Red Devil,” not only because of its color, but because of the caustic effects it has if it to comes in contact with the skin. They wore what looked like hazmat suites to administer it. We all dreaded seeing it coming.
One thing my sister had going for her was that she was healthy going into treatment. My sister did very well through two courses of different chemotherapy. She experienced minimal nausea, but lost her ability to taste most things. Note of fact, if you can’t taste something, your body doesn’t want to consume it. She worked hard visualizing something’s flavor so she could get it down. Her fingers and toes became numb and she did lose her hair. She chose to wear knit caps when it was cold and the colorful bouffant surgical caps nurses wear when it was warm. She got tired, but nothing like we’d heard could happen. However, she remained housebound due to her vulnerability to everyone and everything in the environment, since her immune system was severely compromised.
Radiation began shortly after chemo ended. It was every day, five days a week for 32 treatments. For every patient, an individual body form is created to ensure positioning and then the patient is x-rayed and marked repeatedly to ensure the radiation hits only the target. I believe for us (me, for sure), the radiation was scarier than chemo. You see, our mother died of cancer in 1960—probably, they determined, of radiation poisoning. She’d had adult acne and had been treated with the latest and greatest—Cobalt radiation. When she developed a tumor in her neck, they treated her with—you guessed it—Cobalt radiation. We told the oncologists the story so they would understand the trepidation we felt. We were reassured that Cobalt is no longer used and that treatments have progressed far beyond anything our mother had received. We were reassured that, even though there are still many dangers with both chemo and radiation, they have made huge strides in patient safety since 1960.
I did not go with her except for the initial meeting with the radiologists and her final treatment, since she did so well. Her energy even improved. Her worst side effect was the burn, for which they ordered medication.
The tradition is, when you finish treatment, chemo and/or radiation, you ring a bell. Trust me, it is a celebration. Everyone hoots and claps for a bell-ringer, no matter where they are or the treatment they are receiving. I can assure you, when they finally reach the time to ring the bell, whether it be for chemo and or for radiation, they are ready to have the treatment end. Being treated for cancer is not for sissies! It is life changing—definitely for the patient—but also for anyone around them. It is an emotional trauma, as well as a physical one. It is confusing and there is never enough of the “right” information or support available. And, no matter who you have around you, you are alone. It is your body that has been targeted, accosted, and abused, all in the process of getting rid of the horrific disease that can, and will, if left alone, kill you.
My sister is recovering and doing very well. There is no immediate way to tell if they got it all. The only way to know is for it not to come back. She will have a mammogram in a few months and, like everyone else, pray they don’t find anything.
I am scheduled for my follow-up MRI in June.
For now, I am back at my day job—while, at night, I am working on my fifth Ruthorford novel. Most of all, I am celebrating having my sister.
Thank you for your patience! Jerry Hampton aka Shanon Grey