Friday, June 21, 2013

From a Q-Ball to a Q-Tip

A figurative before and after shot.
During my first round of chemotherapy, my hem/onc doctor put her hand gently on my arm and said with as much compassion as I’m sure she could muster, “You know, you’re going to lose your hair.” I told her with a bit of an attitude, because that’s how I cope with crisis, “I know, I’ve seen the movie.” Even though I knew it was going to happen, waking up and seeing my hair unceremoniously spread out on my pillow and then later in the morning collected in the shower drain was a bit traumatic.  You can be only so prepared for that kind of thing. Chemo drugs target quickly dividing cells, which is why they work well for cancer treatment.  Cancer cells typically divide quickly and take over the body.  Unfortunately for our vanity’s sake, hair cells also quickly divide and one of the side effects of chemotherapy is that even healthy cells fall victim to the toxic chemical goodness – hair loss is collateral damage.

Yesterday was one of those days when the other cells really took it in the shorts and it I was not so very happy about it.  I have in my left arm, something called a PICC line.  It’s a central catheter that allows the chemo to be infused directly into my blood stream just above my heart - a place where the chemical is taken in at a higher blood flow than in a vein in my lower arm.  It also allows blood to be withdrawn directly as well, which makes it essentially painless for daily lab blood count and chemistry draws. I’m seeing that as my treatment has progressed, my veins have become smaller and more difficult to access with a typical IV needle. I spiked a low-grade fever which meant that I would need blood cultures, which essentially checks for infection.  Under normal circumstances, that would be no big deal, but not all of the blood cannot be taken from my PICC line, meaning I get the needle in the arm.  OK, again, not a big deal, but my veins aren’t cooperating, which meant after two tries, it took someone with an ultrasound machine to find a vein and then anesthetize my arm enough to stick a very long needle and pull out enough blood for a culture.

At least they came back negative.  It was a pretty painful procedure, even with the local numbing agent.

Along with hair and veins, fingernails show signs of chemo as well.  I didn’t know this until someone pointed it out to me and as I looked at my nail beds, I could see a couple of lines that reminded me of tree rings.  I could see a couple of indentations that were likely the periods where I was infused in earlier rounds.  I think it’s time for a mani-pedi! I’ll bet there’s an aesthetician in a strip mall nearby who is up for a challenge.

But our bodies are amazing and despite all the horrific things that happen because of cancer, I’m recovering (even if only temporarily before my transplant). At some point during my last consolidation round, I looked in the mirror and noticed my whiskers had started to come back.  I saw as well that my arms and chest were being reforested as well, so I decided it might be time to let my head hair grow back in.  When it started falling out, it was February and it was cold, so I wore stocking caps a lot to keep my head warm.  It was amazing how cold I would get even with an otherwise warm temperature and how much a difference head hair made! I had initially cut it down pretty short, but our head hair tends to be a bit bristly and when I put my stocking caps on, it felt like I was pushing my hair back into my head and it was pretty uncomfortable, so I did what I swore I would never do: I shaved my head down to the skin. I wasn't exactly rockin' the do, but it was now comfortable.  I did get some complimentary feedback about looking rather academic and it even harkened back to an awkward conversation I had in the Place Clichy in Paris some years back about being an 'egghead' with a curious young French guy who overhead me talking with a shipmate.  Still, I’d have been happy looking normal with hair!  As my hair is growing back in, it’s starting out very much like baby hair – very fine and it feels more like fur than to what I'm accustomed.

I’ve been told that head hair often comes back after chemo in different colors and textures than before.  My hair just prior to all this was dark blond / light brown and pretty straight.  It looks a bit darker than before and honestly, it’s hard to know if it will be any different this early on, but other cancer survivors have told me that their hair came in wavy and grey at first and then often (but not always) went back to what it was like prior to the chemo.  I could do without the grey, but wavy would be fun, I think.  I’ve never been one to do a perm, but to have it this way would be interesting.  So, I went from having a cue ball head to having a Q-tip head. Great cocktail party story, huh?

I’m actually feeling pretty good, all told, even though I’m getting another dose of chemo as I write this.  I honestly can’t imagine what it’s going to feel like when I am no longer anemic since I’ve been operating this way for quite some time now.  What will it be like to have a good amount of energy again? Yeah, yeah, curb my enthusiasm, you say?  Nah, I’m stoked to be moving back into a more typical way of life as soon as possible and going out to climb mountains, cycle hundreds of miles, and just raise a little hell now and then!  Even this here grandfather of two still has a number of good hands left to play. One bum hand called cancer isn’t going to put me out of the game.  In fact, it showed me how to play the game of life even better.

Be well, stay strong, and much love to you all!
Today’s music: Seal’s Prayer for the Dying

Fearless people
Careless needle.
Harsh words spoken,
And lives are broken.
Forceful aging,
Help me I'm fading.
Heaven's waiting,
It's time to move on.

Crossing that bridge,
With lessons I've learned.
Playing with fire,
And not getting burned.
I may not know what you're going through.
But time is the space,
Between me and you.
Life carries on... it goes on.

Just say die,
And that would be pessimistic.
In your mind,
We can walk across water.
Please don't cry,
It's just a prayer for the dying.
I just don't know what's got into me.

Been crossin' that bridge,
With lessons I've learned.
Playing with fire,
And not getting burned.
I may not know what you're going through,
But time is the space,
Between me and you.

There is a light through that window
Hold on say yes, while people say no
Life carries on
Ohh! It goes on

I'm crossing that bridge,
With lessons I've learned.
I'm playing with fire,
And not getting burned.
I may not know what you're going through.
But time is the space,
Between me and you.

There is a light through that window.
Hold on say yes, while people say no
Cause life carries on
It goes on, It goes on.
Life carries on.
When nothing else matters.
When nothing else matters.
I just don't know what's got into me.
It's just a prayer for the dying.
For the dying.