Today, September 30th, was my second chemotherapy treatment. Last February, my initial cancer treatment was a combination of radiation every weekday and chemotherapy once a week for a period of five weeks. At that time, I had no idea what to expect and approached both with a “Let’s get ‘er done” mindset but emotionally I was a basket case. I was terrified. I has no idea what lay ahead.
My goal with this post is to describe my experience today so should you ever find yourself heading down the road I’m on, you will know what to expect. Perhaps that knowledge will serve to better prepare you for the battle ahead as you take on the fight for your life.
But before I start rambling, two days ago my son Chris took his four week old baby to the doctor and Jacob’s weight increased by 0.7 kg (1.5 lbs). Although Becca and Chris are not posting pictures or baby details in social media, we have a family chat in Messenger. When Janet (my wife) saw the post she said, “Wow 1.5 pounds for Jacob … same weight gain as you today.” So like my grandson where the focus is on eating, burping, farting, weight gain, and pooping, at 66 years of age all the topics factor high in conversation about my health. I’ve come full circle. Go figure ha ha.
My weight is stable at 73.5 kg (162 lbs). My team at the cancer clinic is not concerned yet. The last time I weighed so little was in junior high school. We’ve been getting a lot of fruits and berries out of the Annapolis Valley lately. Until last week I consumed as many peaches, strawberries, and blueberries as I ate through all of 2019. And they were wonderful. There’s a lot of fiber in that diet so my GI track has been unusually active at both ends. Gladly things are firming up. Hint: Baby wipes aren’t only for babies!
Chemotherapy drugs are a powerful and toxic mixture of chemicals. The goal is that these drugs seek out rapidly-replicating cancer cells and kill them. It is injected into the body by Intravenous Infusion usually shortened to IV Infusion. I decided earlier in the year to call the machine that I’m attached to during a treatment my girlfriend and gave it the name IVI. So I’m back hanging out with IVI … I hope Janet will understand since she’s not allowed to be there due to COVID when we’re on a date.
All cancer cells grow and replicate at a higher rate than most body cells. An example of rapidly-replicating healthy cells are hair follicles. Other normal body cells that replicate quickly are cells in nails, the mouth, digestive tract, and bone marrow.
Chemotherapy unintentionally attacks these other types of rapidly-replicating cells, killing them and usually causing negative side effects. It is common for chemotherapy patients to lose their hair. I didn’t lose my hair with my February treatment but my drugs were mild compared to the poison gushing around my body right now. Losing ones’ hair is inconvenient but pretty cosmetic and with my crappy hair, I look better bald anyway. My current concoction is much more powerful so odds are I’ll be sporting a shinny lid soon.
On the other hand, dysfunctional bone marrow production is much more serious. This is where our blood cells are manufactured. In particular, any decline in my white blood cell (WBC) count compromises my immune system. From my blood work on Monday, my WBC count was 5.87. The normal range is 4.50-11.00 so right now I’m just fine. However, it will drop. At one point during my treatment earlier in the year, my WBC count was 0.58. That means my ability to fight infections and keep viruses at bay was seriously disabled. Back then, I was wearing a mask to Mooseheads games way ahead of everyone else. I wrote “Chemotherapy” on the front of the mask with a marker to let people around me know why I had it on … I am not a germaphobe. With COVID, I fit right in now but frankly the risk of being anywhere with a crowd is putting myself in harm’s way so I’ll be buying an online package to follow the team … #GoMooseGo!
My friend Briar suggested I think about doing Acupuncture before Chemo as it might reduce nausea. I asked my team at the cancer clinic and they endorsed the idea. I called around and found a clinic in town called “Qing Li Chinese Therapy, Ltd.” I arrived there for a 9:10 appointment this morning. As the first session, there were numerous questions to determine the best treatment for me. This wasn’t my first stint with Acupuncture but my prior experience was a decade ago for an injury and it was combined with physiotherapy. It was so long ago I can’t remember the injury … I hope that’s not a side effect, ha ha.
What I can say is the experience is calm, soothing, and relaxing. Here’s my belly with the needles (my bellybutton is at the bottom of the picture).
If you’ve never had Acupuncture, the little needles are so small that the sensation when inserted is more of a tickle than anything else. I had needles in my ankles, wrists, and my forehead. There was no pain. A warming light like the red ones you see in some bathrooms was placed over my belly. The room lights were turned down and soft, soothing music played in the background. I remained in this position for thirty minutes and came close to falling asleep. I have a follow-up next week and plan to have regular sessions the day before chemo going forward. I think it will make a difference as a way to keep my emotions on an even keel.
In the cartoon picture above in this post, you see a nurse and the IV from the Infusion pump is inserted into the patient’s arm. That is how all my treatments were administered last February. This time though, before my first treatment two weeks ago I had a Port-a-Cath installed. The bump on my right chest is about the size of a quarter and was surgically implanted just below the surface of my skin. It is still tender but healing nicely. The vertical line you see going up from the bump is a tube just under the skin. Is goes up, is inserted in a vein that then curves down and the tube ends just above my heart. I thought it was in the jugular vein but I was mistaken when I reported that in an earlier post. It passes inside a small vein in the same area. A device was run down my jugular vein as a way to position to tube to the correct location.
You can’t see them in the picture, but there are three bumps on the surface that can be felt through my skin. Between these bumps is a penetrable film that self-seals as a needle is inserted. When inserted there is a tiny pinch compared to having an IV rammed into my arm. It is a much easier way to be treated with less likelihood of bruising and infection. Once inserted it gets tapped down so it doesn’t move around. The tube you see in the picture is used for the three hours I’m connected to IVI and later when I head home. There are a couple of different bags of medications. The first is a drug to reduce nausea, the second is to help my immune system, and the third is the chemotherapy drugs I get in the clinic. Every patient has a unique concoction and they are made the day before treatment in the hospital pharmacy. There have been years of research on chemotherapy drugs and my team has a protocol they followed to select my mix as it has a history of the greatest likelihood of successfully killing the kind of cancer I carry.
You might be tempted to think this sounds like a cure. That is not the case with my kind of cancer; esophageal which metastasized in my liver by either my blood stream or the lymphatic system. That means that cancer cells from my original tumour have invaded other organs. If successful, this chemo will slow the progress and add years to my life but I will never be able call myself a cancer survivor. My hope is that I tolerate it with minimal side effects so the quality of life remains close to normal. Only time will reveal that mystery.
Once I’m done in the chair I get to wave goodbye to IVI but I leave with a parting gift.
In the picture, you see a bottle about the size of small baby bottle. Inside there is a balloon which holds an additional chemo drug. It is attached to the Port-a-Cath and I wear it for the next 42 hours or so as it continues to drip a toxic mix into my blood stream. It is so toxic that Janet and I will not share our bathroom as all my body fluids are dangerous for her to touch. To be safe, I close the lid on the toilet before flushing to reduce any airborne poisons. We have a PPE bag for her to wear if I vomit and she feels compelled to clean it up. I still haven’t got an informed opinion whether I can vomit given I no longer have a stomach but I’m fine with never putting that to the test.
Already I’ve become super sensitive to cold. Anything I touch 6˚C or below makes my hands go numb. Anything in my mouth makes my tongue go numb. It is annoying but still a pretty minor side-effect.
So I’m wearing a fashionable carry case for a couple of days which holds the chemo bottle. I’ll return to the Chemo clinic on Friday to have the needle removed from my Port-a-Cath. The balloon will be empty by then. If not, they’ll clear the lines in case it stopped flowing and wait until it empties. I hope this doesn’t happen as I plan to sail with Meredith (my oldest daughter) on Friday.
This Port-a-Cath is really brilliant technology. It will make my treatment so much more comfortable and I think it’s a requirement with a take-home version of a chemo plan.
I wish I could report I wore orange today with purpose. In fact I just like brighter colours and picked this one. When I was out and about I saw a lot of young people in particular wearing orange.
Clearly I should pay better attention. Today, Orange Shirt Day (September 30th) is a day when we honour the Indigenous children who were sent away to residential schools in Canada and learn more about the history of those schools.
I will do better next year. I plan to be here to do so.
Earlier this week in a meeting with my Chemotherapy Oncologist, Dr. Wojciech Morzycki, I learned that he plans to schedule a CAT Scan after three cycles. A cycle is comprised of three treatments over six weeks. Doing the math, this adds up to eighteen weeks. I’m at the end of two weeks so I have sixteen to go. My CAT Scan will be around January 6, 2021. This diagnostic provides a good look at the status of my cancer. My preference is that is shows lack of progress. Wouldn’t that be a great Christmas gift?
As always, as a support pillars you provide me deep resolve to put up a good fight. And with God holding my hand, I’ve got this.
Peace, Love and Laughter