Monday, November 25, 2013

Side Effects

I’ve come to the unavoidable conclusion that cancer is a collection of side effects, most of which quite frankly suck. How’s that for eloquence in explanation? It’s a no-brainer that certain habits, certain chemicals, certain actions create an environment where there may already be a higher predisposition toward a particular cancer – the most obvious example would be smoking and lung cancer. Even there, I do the proverbial face plant in reflecting to my nonagenarian grandfather who outright abused his body into his 80s until he finally kicked the habit and ended up living to 99. Go figure!

One of the near-lethal side effects I’ve written about has been my lungs. I do not use tobacco in any form. The doctors have all but told me that had it not been for my lungs, I’d be looking at discharge and heading back Salt Lake City as it appears the leukemia has been licked.  So, at this point, the side effect is something rather unavoidable. Gotta keep breathing, right? But, it’s a bit more complicated than that. To keep some of the other post-transplant issues in check, immunosuppressant drugs and high doses of steroids are used so my shiny new transplanted cells don’t attack my own body or vice versa (Graft Versus Host Disease). It should come as no surprise that these particular drugs have – you guessed it – side effects.
I have been taking high doses of Prednisone which serves as an immunosuppressant and has a number of side effects, some of which are vital in treating the post-transplant part of the leukemia…and it does give me a little boost of energy.  The goal is to taper this off to let my new immune system kick in and take over, but in the meantime, it’s a bit of a ball and chain in that it opens me up to infection. Another nasty side effect is that I’ve bloated to where I don’t look like my picture by some people’s estimation. I have some serious swelling in my face and legs.
And that’s just one of the many, many drugs I’ve been prescribed.
My hat is off to the pharmacists who advise the doctors on the interactions these drugs have with each other, not to mention the dosages that have to be managed on a nearly daily basis. It must feel like a horrible combination of Tetris, Operation, and Jenga. One false move and it all falls apart and my nose glows! And every single patient is different with some variation that throws the normal pharmacological protocol off just a bit.
I found out just how big of a deal two tiny 20 mg pills was this past week. It’s also the reason you haven’t heard from me in a couple of weeks.  After my bronchoscopy, the pulmonary doctors decided that I needed a surgical biopsy to confirm something they pretty much knew and in order to do that, the team consulted an expert at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Institute who specializes in lung issues as they relate to cancer. In order to do the surgery, my dose of Prednisone would be halved immediately to allow my body to do what it would normally do in infection fighting. The side effect of the dose reduction threw me for a loop! The very next day, all I did was sleep while my daily IVs were being administered. For the next couple of days, I don’t think I’d felt quite so lousy – not sick, just BLAH! Getting out of bed was a feat that I didn’t think I could pull off, but somehow, I managed to do it. The kicker was that my scheduled reduction would be to halve the dose again in the space of only three days to get me ready for the surgery.
The hem/onc team reconsidered and decided that the information they would get from the biopsy wasn’t worth what they were seeing and the dose was put back up to the pre-consult level and it was nothing short of amazing how I felt. Two stupid little pills.
So, the docs are calling it COP (cryptogenically organizing pneumonia. OK, Latin scholars [and you military folk out there, too]. When the root word crypto is employed, it means what? It means something like “we don’t know what it is…let’s break the code.” Same logic here. It’s their way of saying they don’t know what it is. It used to start with idiopathic, but the patients broke that code and retorted, “You don’t know what it is, do you?” So now the docs just say they don’t and are done with it. I am not making this up. So, I have a new couple of pills to treat it as a bad actor and moving on.  Hopefully, this takes care of it and I can play the Osmond’s “Going Back to Utah” as my music of the day very soon.
Now, there are quite a few medications I’ve been prescribed that have been available as their sole function to combat side effects. And I gotta tell ya, I’m profoundly grateful for them. I’ve had procedures that were intensely painful or anxiety-inducing that a nurse’s little helper made a world of difference for this here patient. My threshold of pain and ability to take one for the Gipper (or whoever happened to be the surrogate voodoo doll that particular day) may be suppressed, but nurse’s little helper was gratefully received in ye olde PICC line. Zofran, Ativan, Demerol, whatever keeps me from hurling my lunch into the cute little green tubs, curling up in the fetal position from pain, or crying uncontrollably for no reason, the chemistry is welcome.
Nope…cancer ain’ no fun for no one. Sorry to burst your bubble if you're thinking otherwise.
I wonder sometimes why it is that I cry at the drop of a hat lately. It could be any trigger really, and I’m not talking about a sentimental song (although that happens often enough, too). Sure, there are enough drugs coursing through my chemo-wasted veins that make me a bit extra sensitive to things and I will very much concede that gratitude is one of those things that I’ve come to understand in a completely different way as a result of being at the mercy of literally everyone around me. After all, without the compassion of my nurses and caregivers over the past several months, I’d not likely be in the land of the living – and that is by no means an exaggeration. Clinging to the shreds of life is not something one can do solo. It takes a group of people to hold my arms up when I can’t and holding my hands when I have no strength to grip and there have been a couple of times where I fell flat on my face (literally) where I needed someone to pick me back up and I’ve needed my mama to tell me (perhaps a bit tongue in-cheek...and by no means any disrespect intended) to put me back on her lap reminiscent of the scene in The Help to tell me, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” We all need the reminded just who we are, especially in the worst of times that at heart, we haven’t changed and that we matter.
Side effect or just tapping into something a bit deeper?
Whatever…cancer still sucks.
Let’s get this lung thing licked and call it a day, shall we?
Be well, stay strong, and much love to you all…and especially you who have held my arms up, my hands in yours, and especially my heart these many months!
Music of the day from Baby James (i.e. James Taylor for you younger people…don’t tell me you don’t know who James Taylor is, please). Shower the People
You can play the game and you can act out the part Though you know it wasn't written for you But tell me, how can you stand there with your broken heart
Ashamed of playing the fool
One thing can lead to another; it doesn't take any sacrifice
Oh, father and mother, sister and brother
If it feels nice, don't think twice
Just shower the people you love with love
Show them the way that you feel
Things are gonna work out fine if you only will
Shower the people you love with love
Show them the way you feel
Things are gonna be much better if you only will
You can run but you cannot hide
This is widely known
And what you plan to do with your foolish pride
When you're all by yourself alone
Once you tell somebody the way that you feel
You can feel it beginning to ease
I think it's true what they say about the squeaky wheel
Always getting the grease.
Better to shower the people you love with love
Show them the way that you feel
Things are gonna be just fine if you only will
Shower the people you love with love
Show them the way that you feel
Things are gonna be much better if you only will
Shower the people you love with love
Show them the way that you feel
You'll feel better right away
Don't take much to do
Sell you pride
They say in every life
They say the rain must fall
Just like pouring rain
Make it rain
Make it rain
Love, love, love is sunshine.
Oh yes
Make it rain
Love, love, love is sunshine
Yeah, all right
Everybody, everybody
Shower the people you love with love