That’s right––one year ago today, I started the first of six rounds of chemotherapy. My oncologist had told me the treatment was strictly palliative, because recurrent uterine cancer is inoperable and incurable. I might live about two years but it could be less. I had told her I wanted to treat it aggressively––I wanted all the meds, all the treatments, and if there were any experimental treatments or medications I might qualify for, I wanted those, too. (I have no problem with being a test subject for experimental drugs––my Aunt Loretta consented to take an experimental drug when she was terminal with breast cancer; that drug is Tamoxifen. On her behalf, you’re welcome.)
I wasn’t exactly scared of chemo. I had heart surgery when I was five; I’ve broken a bone now and then; I’ve given birth; I’ve survived septicaemia and anaphylactic shock, and two weeks before I left the US, I had my gall bladder removed via laparascopic surgery. As a kid, I had a phobia about needles but I managed to develop a work-around so that I don’t run away screaming; it worked so well, I used to donate blood regularly, just to prove to myself how tough I was. But needle phobia notwithstanding, I’ve never been afraid of hospitals or doctors. (Disclosure: I’m terrified of the dentist. Fortunately, I have one who understands me.)
In any case, chemotherapy was something entirely new to me. Paul McAuley had told me about his experience; while he had a different cancer and thus a different regime, his tips about the cumulative effects of chemo and the phenomenon of “chemo brain” helped me prepare myself mentally. Lee Wood actually took a couple of hours one night to give me the benefit of her experience and I still cannot thank her enough. Both Paul and Lee had much more intense courses of treatment but there are certain things about chemotherapy that seem to be universal: the cumulative effects, chemo brain, and chemo fatigue. (Other side effects, like neuropathy, nausea, hair loss, and loss of appetite, vary with the drugs and the individual.)
Anyway, thanks to Paul and Lee and other good friends, as well as my Macmillan nurse, I went in for my first round of chemo well-prepared but still a bit apprehensive. It was an entirely new experience and when you’re over sixty, you don’t get many of those.
The Macmilan Cancer Centre in London is a beautiful, comforting place, set up to care for cancer patients as people. Juvenile and teen cancer patients have ther own separate floor, with videogames. (I considered sneaking up there to see if they had Sonic the Hedgehog but when you’re hooked up to an IV, you don’t sneak anywhere. Plus, they’re young people with freakin’ cancer; they shouldn’t have to put up with some old lady hogging one of the game consoles.)
For my first chemo treatment, they gave me a bed instead of one of the comfortable easy chairs, just in case I passed out or something. They put a cannula in my arm, gave me some anti-nausea meds and some steroids. And the moment the paclitaxel hit my vein, I knew it. I felt different. Later I found out paclitaxel contains alcohol; what I felt, among other things, was tipsy.
The whole thing took maybe five hours. Afterwards, I had to have a scan that required me to drink something called ‘contrast’; in the wee hours of the following morning, Chris had to take me to the emergency room for the unrelenting nausea. (It’s now impossible for me to drink ‘contrast’––it just comes back up automatically but that’s okay, they give it to me intravenously).
I had six rounds of chemo, every three weeks, ending in late April, all documented in blog posts here, some with very silly photos. I was lucky––I didn’t have as hard a time with chemo as many other people do. The regime wasn’t as punishing. And I was luckier still––the palliative treatment was unexpectedly effective.
But that came later. A year ago this morning, I was getting my first infusion. All I could do was think positive. If I only had two years left, then I would do everything possible to make them good ones. But two years isn’t a negligible period of time––a lot of things can happen in the field of medicine in even just half that time. I wasn’t going to expect a miracle but there was no reason to rule out the possibility of a breakthrough––one that would let me live long enough to see a cure.
The one thing that never occurred to me was that existing treatments might work better than even my experienced oncologist anticipated.
And here I am a year later. Technically, I am still terminal, in that my cancer is inoperable and incurable. There are four (I think it’s four) forms of recurrent uterine cancer and I have the one with the worst prognosis. But a year on from my first round of chemo, I feel confident in saying that I am terminal in name only. The level of cancer in my body is so low that there is no way of knowing how long I’ll live––just like someone without cancer. Instead of dying of cancer, I’ll be living with it.
Of course, living with cancer is like living with a grenade with a loose pin and an uneven temperament. Cancers have been known to disappear altogether, or suddenly turn aggressive and run wild. Or just sit there and do nothing. When scientist Stephen Jay Gould was first diagnosed with cancer, he was given eight months to live––twenty years later, he died of an entirely different cancer. But for every Stephen Jay Gould, there’s a Graham Joyce.
And that’s just how it is. The truth is, we all live with a grenade with a loose pin and an uneven temperament. There are websites and magazines and videos that would have you believe that eating enough cruciform vegetables and olive oil will absolutely prevent cancer. That’s horseshit. There are things you can do that will reduce your risk of developing this or that variety of cancer. If you don’t smoke and you don’t work with asbestos, your chances of developing a cancer caused by those things are vanishingly small. But cruciform vegetables and olive oil won’t Scotch-Guard™ your organs against all carcinomas. Yes, you should eat healthy and get exercise––because if you do have the bad luck to get a visit from the Cancer Fairy, you’ll be have a better chance of kicking its arse. But there are no guarantees, for any of us.
No guarantees, only chances. Right now, I have a very good chance of living for at least another five years––by which time, I may have an even greater chance of living another ten, by which time––well, you get the idea.
But like everyone else, I don’t actually have to worry about living for another five, or ten, or five hundred and ten years. I just have to get through today; tomorrow happens tomorrow. One day at a time is all any of us gets. Good thing––I sure couldn’t have swallowed the last year whole.