It’s been a full week since my first chemo treatment, so I’m going to dish the details on what it feels like. And it’s not going to be pretty. Rather than engage in image-crafting or build some kind of Trixiebrand, I’m just going to put it all out there. It might make you uncomfortable, and if you want to scroll on by, that’s cool. But maybe you’ve just been diagnosed or maybe your mom or a partner is about to have chemo and you just want someone to give it to you straight. If that’s the case, I’m your huckleberry.
In The Beginning
Propped up by steroids (I was prescribed two tablets per day for three consecutive days starting the day before chemo and also received steroids intravenously) I felt pretty good the first couple of days. On Day Two I got up, went to the hospital for my Neulasta shot and then shopped at Target, wrote a lengthy blog post, and made dinner for my daughters. In retrospect, I was shockingly productive!
I wasn’t hungry and felt mildly nauseated, like morning sickness. My bones were a bit achy, but not unbearably so. I spent Day Three on the sofa getting caught up on Mad Men. I’m a bit concerned about Don Draper…
A Downhill Slide
On Day Four, the diarrhea began. Here’s where you’ll want to stop reading if you’re squeamish. How to describe the chemo-shits? Hmmm. Let’s say my butt is a soda fountain like at a fast food restaurant. The button for Solid Poop is marked “out of service.” The button for Liquid, Yet Still Recognizably Fecal Matter is covered by a Post-It note that just says “Sorry.” There’s no ice, no Fanta; there are only two selections:
- Firehose of Antifreeze
- Tar Drip
If you saw this stuff on the sidewalk you wouldn’t go, “Someone shit on the sidewalk!” you’d look up and wonder what the hell alien sludge had fallen from space. After a couple dozen rounds of this, you may find yourself sitting on an ice-pack in hopes of soothing the ring of fire.
On Day Five my mouth turned on me. Everything tastes like burning. Water tastes bad. Between the nausea, knowing what will happen on the other end, and the fact that nothing tastes edible…there’s not a lot of incentive to consume food. Except that I know I need to. I’ve got to rebuild the good cells that are collateral damage in this cancer-killer cocktail. People tell you lots of things you should be doing. Eating lean protein. Exercising (!), drinking smoothies.
If the only thing I can choke down in a 24-hour period is a piece of toast, a shortbread cookie, and two bites of vanilla pudding? That’s what’s for dinner.
I thought I was doing pretty well, considering, until I actually attempted something more taxing than shuffling to the hammock on the back patio. Because this fatigue…damn. Sitting up for an entire episode of Law & Order SVU was too much for me. I got winded halfway through folding a load of laundry and stopped. I take hot baths to soak my achy bones (it’s worst in my hips/pelvis) and rest my head on Allison’s plastic whale that covers the faucet—a leftover from her baby days. When my hair is wet it feels too heavy for my head.
So, on Mother’s Day, I got my first taste of real life: Brunch at 13 Coins with my whole family and some friends. Table for 10. This was my arrangement, by the way. I set this up knowing it would be post-chemo and all that. So I don’t blame anyone else.
I did make an effort. I put on a dress! I put on mascara! I’d meant to straighten my hair (or at the very least, work through some tangle-curls) but ran out of time. I felt car-sick on the way to the restaurant and we almost had to pull over. Then the walk from the parking garage almost did me in. The service was super duper slow and I snapped at the waitress that I needed water NOW. I was just weak and miserable and my French toast (late, and cold btw) was unappealing. I gave away my bacon. The worst part was I felt like a terrible hostess. I just didn’t have the energy to keep the conversation going. I sat at the end of the table and wished I was home in bed. The looks on my family’s faces as they saw me struggling through the meal was sort of heartbreaking. I feel like I let everyone down.
That’s when I knew: I am a huge wimp. I know some people spring up from chemo and go back to the office. They drive their kids to activities and they put dinner on the table. I am not that woman. I am a pale lump that spends 20 hours a day in bed contemplating my choices:
- Will drinking a couple swallows of water trigger a Bathroom Event?
- Is my headache due to caffeine withdrawal? Caffeine will bring on heartburn and I can’t have that.
- My bones ache, but I took extra-strength Tylenol one day and spent the entire night with a heating pad on my gut for the stomach pain. Do I dare dip into my remaining Percocets?
- I’d really REALLY love a good night’s sleep, but if I call my doctor and ask for something will he think I’m a drug-seeker and put me on the naughty list?
- How did I become such a goddamn wuss?
The good news is that I think the worst has passed! Sunday night I ate soup. I’ve learned what will trigger the killer heartburn (caffeine, orange juice, carbonated drinks) and avoid it. Monday I ate two meals of actual food (both lovingly prepared by my sweet and patient husband who has really gotten more than he bargained for with that “sickness and health” vow) and felt stronger. Last night I broke down and popped a Percocet and got a refreshing sleep. I actually woke up before the alarm, got out of bed and got Allison off to school. Right now, I’m sitting upright at my desk in my office writing this blog post. This is a definite improvement.