Chemo makes your eyeballs swell.
It sounds like a school yard taunt, but the man who told me so—in a much more adult fashion—was a doctor.
When I travel somewhere I’ve not been, I’m the one who gets Fodor’s guides and reads up on the place, suggests interesting side trips. For the cancer journey, a chemo information session, comparable to the education session preceding my surgery, replaced the glossy books with their lovely photographs.
The rule for cancer is never travel alone. Single, childless, orphaned [if I want to be dramatic about it—my parents were both dead by the time I was 47, but that didn’t exactly qualify me as Little Orphan Annie, though a Daddy Warbucks would have come in handy] I nevertheless had the best of friends, one or another of whom was always available when I needed her. Or him—I had guy friends who offered, but I refused their help most of the time. I didn’t want to discuss my diseased but now absent ovaries with them. So Kathy joined me for this session, as she had for the surgery ed. one. I was sitting in my chemo ed. session, my friend
First, though, the surgeon had to check my port. He took my right hand and placed it over the already-healing incision so that I could feel the port, a hard little knot. I didn’t like being able to touch it; the physicality of it made it difficult to split off from my body and intellectualize what was happening. It made everything too real.
Doctors cannot tell their patients the truth about chemotherapy; the patients would run from the office as quickly as possible. They settle instead, as mine did, for “It’s not your whole life, though it will seem that way.” or “Your body won’t look like your body for the next six months.” Oh, no, dear doctor—a body exposed to toxic chemicals will never be the same again, even if the scars heal. Hair will grow back and mouth sores heal, but neuropathy and slight deafness remain, and “chemo brain” is no joke.
Next we were ushered into the chemo room. Stationed around the perimeter were two navy blue and two seafoam green recliners, each with a lap blanket; an attached bathroom was included. Even though no women were being treated, just being in the room made me queasy. Wigs waited on stands on shelving near the room’s ceiling and cloth hats were stuffed in baskets hung on a pole. Linda sat on a stool across from Kathy and me as we perched on the edge of the recliners, a two-pocket folder on the side table she pulled between us. Kathy took notes—when I looked back at them later, I saw that she’d titled them 1st Port-o’-call. Occasionally she reached over to rub my back when she saw the terror on my face escalating.
“We have four chairs here, as you can see. All but one have television sets.”
“That one will be my chair,” I asserted. Since college, when we’d had two television sets for the entire dorm, I’d not been good at watching television, especially during the day. Later I would come to envy the women who could distract themselves with talk shows or soap operas, but I’d made choices that had closed that particular path to me.
Linda shared information and risks about chemo from literature gathered in that two-pocket navy blue portfolio. I found the sheer amount of material overwhelming. According to the copy of the Chemotherapy Patient Education Form I had to sign at the conclusion of her presentation, Linda covered the following Chemotherapy Side Effects and Concerns with me: “chemotherapy action, reduction in blood counts, nausea and vomiting, diet, hair loss, leakage from vein, numbness/tingling in hands and feet, allergic type reactions, sores in mouth, diarrhea/constipation, aching in muscles or joints, hearing loss, damage to kidney, bladder irritation, skin changes, and mental changes.” They forgot the frogs and locusts. By the time she finished, I was nearly ready to give up and die of cancer before these combined horrors could finish me off.
“You have to be careful during chemo not to let your temperature get higher than 103Ëš Fahrenheit,” Linda told me during our session. “The high temperature signals an infection. You must be very careful to avoid sick people and to wash your hands often.”
No fool, she took one look at my face and asked, “Do you have a thermometer at home?”
“No,” I admitted.
She went to a shelf behind us and handed me a thermometer packaged with a brochure asking Are you ready to start chemotherapy? The obvious response was, You’ve got to be kidding! Of course I’m not ready! It was an advertisement for a drug to “support your natural defenses to help protect against infection right from the start.”
“Now you do,” Linda said.
A thermometer was one of the many medical supplies for which I’d never felt a need. Despite Linda’s cautions, I had no intention of monitoring my temperature every day or several times a day. I was going to be fine, and I certainly wasn’t going to turn into a hypochondriac or one of those people who could talk of nothing but illness.
Several points were clarified for me: the effects of chemo were cumulative, and a round was two weeks on, a long day and a short day, with one week off.
“I expect I’ll feel pretty wiped out the first couple of days after chemo,” I said to Linda.
“Actually, you’ll probably feel pretty good, because of the drugs we give you,” she told me.
“Well, then, since church is the only thing scheduled at my house, I’d like Friday.”
When Kathy and I returned to my car, I threw the navy portfolio into the backseat, where it stayed for nearly a month before I could bear to bring it into the house. Even now, just listing the contents makes me nervous. The thermometer remained in its plastic wrap with the brochure I never read for the drug I didn’t take.