Today marks the one-year anniversary of the commencement of my chemo therapy. A great deal has transpired – and continues to – since I started treatment last May. Consequently, I thought I would use this calendar-provided opportunity to take an assessment of where I was and where I am now.
Although completely contrary to my world view and general outlook on life, I will take artistic license and start with the positive. On this side of the ledger, we can start with the most apparent – I’m not dead. This is generally a good thing. Relatedly, and a large part of the reason for my lack of death, is the impact that the chemo therapy had on my colossally faulty white blood cells. For those not keeping score at home, my white blood cell count one year back – i.e., immediately before the first toxic infusions were plugged into my rather dubious veins – was either 348,000 or 287,000, depending on whom one asks. (The variance is due primarily to which lab did the counting. It is a bit disconcerting that this number is not more concrete, but when the WBC gets as astronomically high as mine did I think there is little point in actually counting every single one of these cells. So instead a projection is made based on a sampling and depending on the projection used and the specific sample looked at one can come up with different numbers. Regardless of the 61,000 WBC differential, the number was, to employ an oncological term, a shitload.)
Yet one week after commencing my trifecta of chemo drugs (actually, only two were chemo – the third was a multi-clonal antibody, which I am sure everyone is familiar with so I won’t waste time describing it), my white blood cell count had plummeted to 9,000 or, to be even more precise, 8,700. That is actually in normal human being range, and since I really just wanted to be a normal human at that stage I was satisfied. During the next five rounds of the chemo, that number would further decrease to around 4,000, which is possibly on the low end of normal. I started to wonder if maybe we were overdoing it because I really had no desire to be below average in yet another aspect of my life. (Most recently, I think the number is down around 2,000, so we are in to serious too-much-of-a-not-so-good-thing territory.)
Also on the positive, and directly related to the eradication of these cancer cells, is the reopening of my airways for business. No longer is eating a French fry a 50/50 proposition. I can also much more readily swallow the plethora of horse pills that I have to take since the chemo eradicated what was left of my immune system.
I should also note that, despite the endless list of side-effects and warnings I was given prior to starting chemo, to this point I have been lucky and not encountered many of them. Oh sure, I did have a couple of issues, such as the ill-timed repercussions from imprudently eating Taco Bell for lunch the day before the chemo started and following that up with a shrimp-salad wrap for dinner. Part of being a good cancer patient requires not being an idiot, I have since learned. And I did have my bouts of nausea and similar issues, but nothing that was so severe that I was ever in any danger. (That being said, on the first day of chemo I was pretty sure that I was indeed going to die. I had nodded off due to the intravenous Benadryl they gave me at the outset only to awaken a short time later feeling as though every system in my body had stopped performing – respiratory, circulatory, muscular, cerebral and, most importantly, vomit control. The nurses, noticing I looked “a little peaked,” asked me what I was experiencing. I wanted to say early-onset death, but I opted to try and be more specific. Their response was to give me the modern equivalent of a bed pan, which is actually just a blue slinky-like device to be applied over the pending up-chucker’s mouth and which conveniently is expandable to catch a copious amount of my aforementioned ill-advised pre-chemo meals. Fortunately, I did not actually hurl at the time as the nurses, who were like angels from heaven, pushed the pedal to the metal on the Benadryl and stopped me from losing it. And dying.)
Of course, being who I am, I cannot help but also dwell upon the not-so-great ramifications one year down the road. For one thing, depending on what armchair oncologist one foolishly listens to over the Internet, my choice of a chemo regimen has only given me a temporary reprieve before other serious issues arise, including, bizarrely enough, leukemia. I don’t really get that as I already have leukemia, so I am not sure how I am really any better or worse off. It’s more like treading water. I also allegedly have now done damage to my DNA. But, while I am not an oncologist or one who pretends to be one like these hematologists-by-correspondence individuals, I am pretty sure my DNA was already a bit compromised, which is how I managed to be so lucky to get the cancer in the first place.
More troubling than that is where I am psychologically. When people ask me my status, I say married, with remission. But I am not cured. There is no cure for this – at least not yet. And while I don’t wish to in any way equate what I experienced with the true terror that our brave veterans experience on the battlefield, many of my healthcare professionals have likened enduring chemo to PTSD. This is particularly challenging as I fortunately do not look sick (although I admittedly was never going to get a modeling gig anyway), and thus conveying to others what is wrong is quite difficult. In fact, about the only thing that my friends and family note that is different today than a year ago is that my neck is about ¼ its pre-chemo size. I will take that as a compliment, begrudgingly, as I never heard anyone remark on its size beforehand. But I guess it is good to not sport a goiter if one doesn’t have to.
Yet I am frequently tired, and I have difficulty concentrating at times – particularly times when I am being asked to concentrate on something that I don’t want to be concentrating upon to begin with. Contributing to this is feeling as though I am trapped in some sort of purgatory – I appreciate more than ever the value of life but I cannot help but recognize how tenuous its existence is. It is all exhausting, which is why I still find a good nap (or two) a day to be of great utility. I just have to make sure to schedule work calls around my snoozing schedule.
All told, I am of course in a better place today than I was 365 short days ago. And while I am not 100%, I am thankful to be where I am. I am not sure how one typically celebrates the one-year-post chemo mark. I thought about getting myself a Hallmark card, but I didn’t see anything that quite fit the bill – the closest I saw was a general “Mazel Tov!” So I think I will just acknowledge the occasion by donning an open-collar shirt and sitting down to a large plate of fries.