The ball dropped—Mauricio and I watched it in my tiny room. In the background the beat of the IV machine signaled over and over that it was time to do something. Maybe move from the antibiotics drip to a blood transfusion. It wasn’t the way I had imagined welcoming the New Year, in a neutropenic room in the hospital. I thought back to the previous year’s Dec 31st, a date that I remember what I was up to without looking at the calendar. Last year we were in Mexico- my daughters dressed in my favorite matching dresses, an anomaly for them and something that inexplicably made me feel like all was right in the world. Mauricio and I toasted new beginnings with a rum and coke as fireworks lit up the Pacific a safe distance from us. Will I ever feel that light and carefree again? Probably not. Or worse– and I’m afraid this is an unwelcome sack of thoughts that escorts cancer wherever it goes– I wonder how many more New Years I’ll see. Sorry- dark thoughts creep in and punch me. Unproductive, though.
This year, my kids were almost 7,000 miles south of us- in picturesque Patagonia. Missing them was morphing from a cerebral thought to something physical, as if my fever might cool down if I could just touch their smooth skin and gaze at their sparking eyes. But I was thankful—relieved, even, that they were not around to witness their mother spend 5 days in the hospital with neutropenic fever—after my first of four AC’s (Phase B of my overall chemo treatment).
No one sails through chemo without side effects. Be it vomiting, loss of feeling in the limbs or other startling byproducts. Mine is extreme bone marrow sensitivity and all that comes along with that. My blood cell count levels keep plummeting to zero after each session. The AC is hitting me worse than Phase A—maybe it’s “the red devil” (as AC is called) or it’s the cumulative effect of 18 chemos. Not only do I reach rock bottom—now it’s starting to take painfully long to recover.
Each morning the doctor enters my hospital room dressed in astronaut-like attire so no germs reach my airspace. My immunity is so low I’d catch anything. He comes to discuss my white and red blood counts and I love that I’m told what’s going on. They focus a lot on ANC (Absolute Neutrophil Count) which is basically baby white blood cell count. It makes sense since this is the number of new white cells growing up to create the immune system, gallantly fighting off any bacterial or viral intruder. To give you a baseline: normal levels are between 1.8 and 6.8. Mine was at an embarrassing 0.01 when I was admitted, then putzzed to 0.02 the next day. They won’t let me leave until I’m at .1. It’s day three and it’s only at .05. “Really?” I say, wondering what’s their problem. “I’m disappointed in them.” I tell the doctor as if I’m a teacher talking about errant students. As if chemo or any of this followed reasonable negotiable lines that logic could work with.
While essential, staying in the hospital is prison-like and I notice how my brain begins to focus on the minutiae. Mauricio arrives in the morning, usually right after they’ve drawn blood. We chat and in a couple hours, I’ll tape the tubes running into my port under a huge plastic bandage and roll the IV stand with me into the shower. Then I’ll eat something. More IVs. Then we’ll read- I’d like to finish The Circle and I have an enviable stack of books sitting on the desk behind me. In a few hours it’ll be dark and I’ve barely moved. It’s fine, I justify- I get pretty worn out after three minutes on my feet anyway. I might as well settle in and listen to another episode of “Serial”. In between transfusions, I’ll order dinner and we might watch a movie. Before Mauricio leaves, I’ll pierce a Neuprogen shot in my belly and take medicine to ward off the accompanying bone pain. I’ll swoosh some Magic Mouthwash to numb away the pain of mouth sores so I can bear brushing my teeth. Then I’ll wait till my final IV at 11pm before I’ll pop an Ambien so I can sleep. If I don’t, I’ll google triple negative breast cancer and freak myself out until all hours of the night. Yup, sleeping is better. In the morning, Mauricio will be back smiling, his face slightly frozen still from swimming early in the SF bay. He is a godsend—never ONCE in 5 months has he made me feel like I’m a burden. I’ve thought about this to great length and still find it amazing. I’m thrilled he’s swimming on a daily basis because it restores him and to some odd degree, I feel like I’m there with him. Maybe that’s why he’s in first place for the Polar Bear Challenge at the Dolphin Club– poor guy needs to swim for two.
My blood levels mosey upwards and a couple of days later the nurse opens the door and says the counts are good enough to go home. I close my eyes with relief. “Should I expect the same thing for the next three ACs?” I asked. “It’s not going to get any easier,” she replied, “but it’s not that bad here, right?” It’s true, I think. It isn’t that bad. I just wish for some undeniable proof, something etched into cement to quiet my brain and reassure me all these ups and downs are working.
Fast forward a couple of days, past my second AC chemo and sure enough I hit another depth. I’m basically an unmovable fixture in my bed and I can feel feverish chills running up and down my spine. Mauricio insisted we go back to the hospital again, ignoring my feeble protests. I whimpered all the way there saying a couple of times aloud: “I can’t do this anymore.” Not surprisingly, my blood cell counts were at another nadir. I’m quickly masked and ushered to the neutropenic ward where I get a boost of IVs and shots to help bolster the situation. This time, thankfully, I got to spend the next seven days at home in my own glorious bed—the doctor gave me an antibiotic to ward away all germs.
Two more chemos to go. I’ll be so happy when this part is over (not that I’m looking forward to surgery– but you know what I mean). And I get a feeling that while I’ll never feel as carefree as I felt before my life fractured, knowing how precious life is might make all New Year’s Eves and less significant moments more sacred and special than before.
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 1)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 2)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 3)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 4)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 5)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 6)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 7)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 8)
Crossing Cancer (Chapter 9)