Saturday, August 10, 2013

Point of No Return

Up until my meeting with one of the doctors at the Seattle VA Hospital yesterday, cancer was pretty much an academic exercise for me. Obviously, I took it serious enough to subject myself to some pretty nasty and less-than-pleasant procedures and pharmacological fun, but the severity of something that could actually kill me in the space of a few months? Nah, I never get sick. And I mean never, much to the annoyance of those around me. I didn’t need medication with the exception of an aspirin on rare occasion and until last year, I had never set foot inside a hospital except to visit or take one of my boys to the ER for a trampoline mishap (side note:  if it looks too fun to be safe, it probably is. Both boys got broken legs from a trampoline).
That all changed yesterday.

When the first sentence has the words you, diagnosed, fatal, the rest of it ain't gonna be an easy read. Breathe deep, grasshoppa.
The good doctor reiterated the protocol for the bone marrow transplant and gave me more paperwork to review and sign. This is in addition to the stack of papers I signed on Monday, which apparently only consented for participation in the Graft Versus Host (GVH) drug they’re developing and another academic study that is pretty much statistical. I feel like I’m at the closing on a house with the amount of small print I’m reading. There’s apparently a board that reviews the language to make sure it’s not too terribly academic, but you can’t dumb down words like cyclophosphamide. Much to my amazement, my spell check recognizes that!  Go figure.
He gave me a sheet that has the road map of my transplant for the time I’ll be inpatient.  If everything works according to plan, I’ll be coming in Tuesday for some premed dose of Phentoin, an anti-seizure drug. Seizure is a side effect of the type of chemo I’ll be taking. I’ll also be getting Allopurinol which is usually administered to treat gout, but in this case, it also protects my kidneys from the chemo. Finally, I’ll be getting a sulfamethoxazole-trimethoprim antibiotic cocktail. My rule, as of late, has been that if I can’t pronounce an ingredient on the back of a food label, I shouldn’t be eating it, but I’m getting good at these drug names. I guess I need to refine the rule a bit. On Wednesday, I will be admitted as an inpatient for more toxic chemical goodness that will officially be the point of no return. If I were to stop treatment at this stage, it would be fatal for me. If something were to happen to the donor at this point, I would die without another donor, period.
August 14 is Transplant minus 7 days. T-7 will be the beginning of four days of Busulfan and then on T-3 days, I start another chemo drug called Cyclophosphamide and the GVH test drug for a couple of days and I finish up on antibiotics and anti-seizure meds.
Then I get a day of rest.
All during this time my blood production capabilities are essentially being destroyed by the chemo, so I’ll be getting transfusions of red blood cells and platelets I will have absolutely no immune system and I will be feeling very, very ill. The drugs will attack all the fast growing cells which will include the obvious places like my hair, but it also gets my mucous lining throughout my GI track and that will make it all but impossible to eat, so I can anticipate getting my Nutri-fun through my PICC line. I’ve heard that people often can taste things when getting infused and I find myself often smelling something when my line is flushed with saline. Let me just say I’m putting in my order for crab cakes Benedict for breakfast and perhaps a filet mignon Oskar for dinner.  I figure if I’m going to feel like crap, my food should make up for it, right? A guy can dream a bit, right?  I’ll also get one of those insta-morphine buttons to stave off the really bad stuff.
Following the transplant infusion, I’ll be getting Methotrexate, another kind of chemo as well as an anti-fungal Voriconazole, and an anti-viral Acyclovir. During the next couple of weeks, the transplant cells will start to engraft into my marrow and at some point my new immune system kicks in. The other thing that the new stem cells do, as it was described to me, is go to the injury first. In this case, they go to the damaged mucous membranes in my GI track and I start to actually feel better and can eat again. Following closely behind that, the stem cells wake up in my marrow and the white blood cells that fight infection (neutrophils) start coming on line and doing their job. About 11-14 days after the transplant, I get discharged and begin the recovery process.
I’ll be going in for close monitoring regularly until the GVH is under control, I’ve recovered sufficiently, and am strong enough to have my follow-up care managed by the VA in Salt Lake City. GVH affects nearly every transplant patient and even though I may be getting a drug to stave that off, it will be something I have to manage carefully for a few years out and be cognizant of for the rest of my life.
Having that rather graphic picture painted for me, complete with real graphs on the white board, was informative, but a bit tough to take in, considering the details were painted out rather vividly for me including all the side effects, which included the words fatal, catastrophic, and death more than a few times. 
Reading these things in my consent packet was even more difficult. It’s not like I didn’t know that kind of thing was possible, but seeing it in black and white and me signing this stack of papers was hard. It made that academic exercise something real and in a few days it will be tangible. It will be happening. It will be the point of no return.
And even if there is no turning back and it’s going to be a taste of hell, it isn’t Dante’s Inferno. I don’t see a sign that says, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” If anything, seeing such finality in signing these forms, I found myself mildly annoyed if not a bit in shock.  It’s tough to take in, it’s scary, and dammit, I have too much yet to do to be dealing with the business of dying.
So, screw the statistics and let’s beat this. I’m committed…no turning back. You with me?
I had tossed a few frogskins to a friend of mine from my writers' group in Minnesota who is participating in the Relay for Life for the American Cancer Society. I didn't give much thought to it afterward, but as the event was today, she did this for me. I've always been the guy raising money for others...being on the other side of the coin is humbling, but I so appreciate her thoughtfulness. Thanks, Malyssa!
Be well, please be strong for me, and again, much love to you all.
Today’s music is of course from Kansas, Point of Know Return (not a typo)
I heard the men saying something
The captains tell they pay you well
And they say they need sailing men to
Show the way, and leave today
Was it you that said, "How long, how long?"

They say the sea turns so dark that
You know it's time, you see the sign
They say the point demons guard is
An ocean grave, for all the brave,
Was it you that said, "How long, how long,
How long to the point of know return?"

Your father, he said he needs you
Your mother, she says she loves you
Your brothers, they echo your words:
"How far to the point of know return?"
"Well, how long?"

Today I found a message floating
In the sea from you to me
It said that when you could see it
You cried with fear, the Point was near
Was it you that said, "How long, how long
To the Point of Know Return?"