Saturday, July 22, 2017

Cancer and Chemo

My very old friend Aletha.  Some say the chemo is making her look younger.  I say "bah, humbug".

Most of my travel this year on my free United pass has been for pleasure.  But not all.  My oldest friend (she's very, very old...3 months older than me) was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring.  Aletha and her husband of 46 years (told you she was old!) live in Tucson, Arizona.  Thanks, Kyle Kincaid for the amazing gift of travel on United which allows me to visit so often.  By the way, David has asked if you could rescind the pass.

The skies during monsoon season are as dark
 as my humor.
I went to Tucson in May to be there for her mastectomy.  It was outpatient surgery that was a 2 1/2 hour event.  Aletha is a tough bird and made it through with little pain and less downtime.  I, on the other hand, whined a lot about the 3 hour jet lag.

In July I went back to provide company and moral support as Aletha continued her chemo.  This blog isn't a "here's how to do chemo" guide.  It's just my experience of cancer treatment as an outsider. Aletha may wish to write a rebuttal, which I'll happily publish.  By the way, some say I have a very dark, twisted sense of humor.  If you don't appreciate that kind of thing you might wish to switch over to reading Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.  If you don't get that reference and don't know how to Google it, you're too young to be reading this.

Because I have the mental discipline of a hummingbird on speed, I'll just list my observations in random order:

No cranky-pants in the chemo "room".
  • The "chemo room" is not actually a room.  I was expecting silence, dim lighting, televisions, privacy, Barcaloungers and snacks.  And, like, a room.    Nope, I was totally incorrect.  There are a bunch of chairs (not recliners but comfortable, with ottomans) lining a couple of hallways surrounding a nurses' station.  Florescent lights.  Noise.  Activity.  And the only food was sequestered in the middle of the nurses station and was not available to patients.   Or visitors, as I found out the hard way.

    Actually, the donuts, cookies and trifle that were there that day seemed to have been brought by patients for the nurses.  I love the naive optimism of the nurses.  Think about it.  You poke a hole in someone's chest (they call it a port but it's a chest) once, twice or more a week.  Then you inject the patient with toxic stuff.  Stuff guaranteed to have nasty side effects (nausea or hair loss anyone?)  And then you happily chow down on food brought to you by the person you just tortured?   I'm thinking you have to really have a craving for trifle to risk it.
  • The "chemo room" is not sad.   There was a lot of laughing going on.  Patients were laughing, visitors and even the nurses were laughing.  I was dozing off in a comfy chair while all around me was jocularity.  Frankly, all those happy chemo patients made it hard for me to get my nap on.  Good for them.
  • Best line from a very sensitive receptionist.  As a patient walked up to register at the cancer center, the receptionist looked up and said (with a straight face)  "Oh, so you're not dead yet.".  The patient laughed and responded "Not yet, but I'm working on it."
  • Best t-shirt worn by a chemo patient:  "I'm Available".  Worn by a guy who appeared to be in his late 70's.  He flirted like crazy with every woman in sight.  I like his attitude.
  • The waiting room at the cancer center was quiet and not nearly as fun as the area where patients were getting chemo.  I suggested they could really use a few toddlers to liven the place up.  Really, who doesn't smile when they see laughing, tiny, chubby, uncoordinated kids stumbling around?   Aletha gave me a "look".  The next day during chemo there was a toddler.  Brightened up the whole room.  I think daycare and cancer centers should partner up.
  • Free wigs!  There's a resource room in the cancer center.  There were wigs, hats, scarves and books on display - all available to be checked out for free.  But apparently only to cancer patients.  Discrimination to non-cancer patients perhaps?  Like I couldn't use a new look?  They also had an accupuncturist, massage therapist and reiki master available.  Not free but on a sliding cost scale to be accessible. They also offer yoga and support groups.

    I was especially excited about the therapy dog that was there one day.  How cool!  It was a small standard poodle and I enjoyed petting her and chatting with her owner.  It took me about 10 minutes to realize the therapy dog was there not for all the patients but she was her owner's therapy dog.  Luckily the owner was happy to share the love.
  • Cancer is not a hobby, people!  Aletha's treatment involves a variety of appointments on a regular basis.  I don't want to spill all the beans but let's just say that for your average patient getting chemo there are weekly blood draws, injections and the chemo itself.  Now, wouldn't it be handy to coordinate those appointments in case, you know, you actually have a life to get on with?  I guess they do the best they can.  And, on the bright side - in between appointments there's time for ice cream and other important tasks.
  • It is FREEZING in the "chemo room".  I took a blanket.  Aletha took a blanket.  They had blankets available on site.  But here's the deal.  It's FREEZING in just about every air conditioned building in Tucson in the summer.  I recommend just carrying a blanket with you to the grocery store, restaurants, etc.  Tucsonans seem to think keeping the indoors cooled to 50 degrees will balance out the outside temp of 110 degrees.
  • Chemo may cause hair loss.  Or not, it depends on the drug and the patient.  One thing I can tell you, chemo does NOT improve singing skills.  After chemo one day we were driving home and Aletha decided for some bizarre reason to serenade me with a Tennessee Ernie Ford song (told you she was old).  Her singing was exactly the same as it's always been. Chemo has not helped.

    She's supposed to be eating a bland diet.
    I kept dragging her to Mexican restaurants.
    That's a cheese crisp with green chiles.
    Why can you only get them in Tucson?
  • Now here is the saddest news of all.  Chemo is not a guaranteed weight loss program.  Aletha was at a healthy weight when she started.  Still is, although she may have lost a couple of pounds.  I, however, haven't lost any weight at all.  In fact, what with all the Mexican food, Jack in the Box and ice cream I "may" have gained a few pounds.  I was "chemo adjacent".  Shouldn't that mean the calories I ate while visiting Tucson didn't count?  Unfair!
  • "Chemo brain" is a myth.  Aletha tried to convince me that when she'd forget something or pulled some doofus stunt that it was because of "chemo brain".  Nope.  Just age.   And something else but I can't remember.  And maybe it was me who pulled the doofus stunt.
Jack in the Box tacos.  The breakfast of champions.
And one of the causes of my big butt.

The thing about cancer and the treatment that comes with it is that it isn't your life.  Your life goes on.  Cancer is just another speed bump.  All the other good (and bad) stuff in life still goes on.  Traffic doesn't give way because you're on your way to chemo (which sucks, right?)  Strangers are still kind...or not.   Your friends don't let you win at Phase 10.  When you tackle it like Aletha does, cancer is just another thing to beat.  And unlike Phase 10, she's going to win this one.
Schnapsie still only moves when he thinks there might be food involved.
And life goes on.  

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