The Last Chemo Session

The last chemotherapy treatment is DONE! I have so many thoughts and feelings about it that I don’t really know where to begin. For starters, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on this whole journey. More specifically, on my first day of chemo.

I was terrified. Who wouldn’t be?

Of course, being me, I put on a brave face for my mom, the chemo nurses, for myself. I’m sure it didn’t matter how cool and calm I thought I sounded. They could all see right past it. There is no way to quiet the fear in your eyes when you feel like one of Pavlov’s dogs about to get a painful shock you can’t get away from.

I remember being scared that the needle going into my new port was going to hurt. I remember my oncologist looking surprised at my mermaid colored hair. I remember thinking that receiving chemotherapy was going to physically hurt me. I remember thinking “Get in. Get out. Be done.”

Of course, it’s not that simple. It’s never that simple even for an easy case like mine. I remember a lot of the fear from that day, but I didn’t process any of it at the time.

I didn’t process those awful things because a lot of good came from that day as well.  I remember my sisters coming into my chemo room with a big gift bag filled with stuff from friends and family to make my chemo treatments easier. I remember all the love and support my friends sent me through messages and snap chats. I remember being excited when I found out getting a needle in my port didn’t hurt at all!

I remember a lot of joy from that day and I am so grateful for it. I have met some of the most incredible people on this little side quest of mine. They are truly amazing. There’s this one person, one man, I met only briefly on the last day and he may have been the most significant person I met. I’m not someone who believes in aligned stars or fate, but I met this man and his family and had one of the most important conversations I believe I’ve ever had.

While my mom and I were in the waiting room (the last time we were waiting for chemo!), a man sat in the rocker next to my mom. He was in his late 70s, early 80s. He seemed to be nervous. I got up to go sign my mom and I in for our session and as I did, he began to strike up a conversation with my mom. When I returned, so had his wife and daughter. I sat down and joined in on the conversation. I learned that the man was about to go through his first chemo session. I looked at his daughter and she seemed to be incredibly nervous. She and I swapped some medical stories and hospital horrors before she asked for advice on how to combat chemo side effects on behalf of her dad.

My first thought was, “Hah! You fool! I know nothing. I haven’t done this enough to know anything about combating these side effects. You should ask literally anyone but me.”

And my second thought was, “Dana. You’re an idiot. You’ve been doing this every two weeks for the last six months without a break. You have no hair. You’ve combatted extreme nausea this whole time. Your skin is probably more white than a ghost. You know at least something.”

So I told them what worked for me and explained that all cancers are different, so to are chemo side effects and that they should find something that works best for them and stick to it. Most importantly, they shouldn’t let this disease overpower their minds. Then the nurse called me back for my last session, I wished them well, and went on my way.

As I sat in my chair receiving my concoction of various toxins, a horrifying thought came over me as I was reflecting on the conversation I’d just had:

Cancer will never end.

I’m not saying that I’m going to have cancer forever. I’m done (thank goodness). I couldn’t be happier to have that portion of my life be over.

But cancer didn’t start with me. It didn’t start with my friends and family who survived their cancer and those that didn’t. It didn’t start with the strangers that sit in the waiting room. And it’s not going to end with us either. And that is what is so terrifying to me.

This needs to end.

So my cancer journey isn’t over. I am going to take some time to recover and then do anything I can to help find solutions. Whether it be volunteering or fundraising or something in the middle, I will be there helping others find their cancer freedom as well.

I walked into Marshfield Clinic with fear, but I can assure you I left with determination and it because of that man and his family and I don’t even know their names.

So here’s to cancer freedom! May I have it for life and may many others get to celebrate theirs real soon!

 

Until Next Time,

Dana

But if You’re Going to Get Cancer…

Cancer. It’s a scary word. It’s not something people talk about. In fact, there are tons of ways people talk about cancer without ever using the word:

  • How’s your illness?
  • When do you meet with your doctor to talk about your condition?
  • I heard about your diagnosis
  • How are you with your…. *trails off into awkward silence*

All of these are just as cringe worthy as saying “cancer,” but people say what’s comfortable for them and that’s okay. Cancer is a dark and scary subject that no one likes talk or think about. As a healthy 20 year old female, I never think about it. Why would I? I’m in the middle of getting my BA Drama Major with a Business Administration Minor at UW-Stevens Point. I’m a stage manager and I’m an active member of my sorority. My friends are great, my family is greater and I have an unhealthy obsession with coffee and my english mastiff/golden retriever mixed breed named Chester.

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Well, I was all these things a couple months ago. It started during syllabus week. I was sitting in my business management class listening to the professor carry on about the nitty gritty details of a syllabus that I was sure to lose by the end of the week. I was over this class and it was only the first day. Of course, I couldn’t leave so I did the next best thing when I’m tense: a neck massage! And it was splendid, but there was something strange when I brushed against the left side of my neck. Upon further investigation it was a bump about the width of two nickels sitting just above my collar bone. It was strange but I figured that it was a swollen lymph node and I would feel the symptoms of strep in a couple days.

The rest of the day carried on as it normally would. I went to my classes, attended rehearsals and did my homework. But in the back of my mind, I kept thinking of that stupid bump. It was in such a weird spot and it kept bugging me that it was abnormally large. To ease my mind I gave my dad, the only doctor I know, a call to get his opinion on the matter. He had the same thoughts I did: it’s weird spot to get a swollen lymph node but it’s probably strep or something minor and will go away in a few days.

Still urked about the whole issue, I expressed my concerns to my roommates and they said to go to the Health Services Center and get a strep test. I’d feel better mentally and receive the meds I needed to get healthy. One of my roommates actually called the center and threw me on the phone so I’d have to set up the appointment (thank you Megan).

The next day, I went in to my appointment. After some blood work and a thorough examination of the bump, they determined that I was perfectly healthy. In fact, I was excellent. My cell counts were astoundingly normal and my vitals were excellent. Needless to say, I did not have strep. So what then? Well, the next step was to look at the bump a little closer. I got an ultrasound and x-ray done on the site. While the x-ray didn’t show anything useful, the ultrasound proved to be more interesting. Not only was the one lymph node swollen, but all of the lymph nodes in my neck were swollen.

I know what you’re thinking, “Duh Dana! Of course you know it’s cancer! That’s all it could possibly be.” Actually no. At this point I didn’t even think it was cancer and neither did the doctors. While it could still be a possibility, it was barely a twinkle in anyone’s eye. Again, my blood work, specifically my white cell count, T cells, and my thyroid check were all so good that it didn’t make sense that the diagnosis would be cancer. I also wasn’t suffering from any B symptoms which are secondary symptoms like  night sweats, fevers, weight loss, etc. that are seen in a patient and can be used to identify and stage lymphoma cancers. At the time I honestly thought it was cat scratch fever. I still kind of hope it’s cat scratch fever!

Moving forward. My doctor at the student health center couldn’t do much more for me beyond this point so she sent me to an oncologist at Marshfield Clinic in Marshfield, Wisconsin. It was there in that first meeting that I had more lab work done and was tested for several potential diseases and infections. My oncologist was very pleasant and worked with my family and I to help us understand what he was testing for and why. He wanted to get a better understanding of my circumstances and also to gather as much information as he could before he made any hasty decisions. It was nice to talk to such a steady person after what seemed like weeks of constant questions and being tossed around and just overall stressed out at the lack of answers.

Of course, all the lab results came back negative and we were back at square 1. The only thing left to do was a biopsy. More specifically, an excisional biopsy of the neck lymph node (aka yanking the whole stupid lymph node out). And on October 27, I got the surgery done.

And on October 31, I got a call from my oncologist saying I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

I’m not going to lie to you, I cried. A lot. Ugly tears. The ones you only showed your mom when you were eight because you scraped up your knee on the concrete. THOSE tears. I was scared. Really scared. I didn’t care that there was an 85% or higher survival rate. A trained professional just told me I had cancer. It doesn’t matter if it’s a “good cancer.” It’s cancer. And there’s only one way to treat that: by shoving toxins (that can also kill you) into your body until it goes away. That’s some scary stuff and I didn’t get a choice in the matter. No one ever does.

The next couple weeks after that were a hectic blur. During this time I was still in school, trying desperately to keep up with my classes that I was never in because of doctor appointments. I had to get a port put in, go through a series of tests to determine the stage of the cancer and try to figure out what I was going to do. I was overwhelmed and I wanted to be done but the process hadn’t even started.

After the testing, it was determined I had stage 2A Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The 2 means that the cancer is above my diaphragm and the A means I show no B symptoms. The use of the A and B is a way for doctors to predict, treat and track my cancer. I was to start treatment on November 14th and undergo 4-6 cycles of chemotherapy. For those that are unfamiliar with cancer and cancer terms, a cycle is 30 days and two chemo treatments occur during one cycle: one on day 1 and the second on day 15.

Because the treatment process was so fast, there really wasn’t a way for me to stay in school. That was the hardest news to hear. I had just settled into my major and I was doing well. I had a plan and I couldn’t follow through because my body wouldn’t let me.

So I dropped out of school, moved into an apartment just off campus, and prepared myself to face the next adventure in my life: getting myself healthy again.

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Now, here I am almost two months later. I’ve finished nearly two cycles of treatment and things are going well. I’m not a student right now and I’m inactive in my sorority. I’m not a stage manager. But my friends are still great and my family is still greater. Seriously, without them I’m not sure where I would be. I still have an unhealthy obsession with coffee (decaf now) and my dog Chester. What I’ve discovered is that it’s all okay. I’m not on the path that I had originally set out on. It’s much different than where I imagined myself, but I’m still doing really good things (well, trying): writing a script, taking an online class, creating a blog. And that’s okay. One day soon I’ll finish my degree and get back on the path I had created. I’m eagerly awaiting that day.

Call it whatever you like: an illness, diagnosis or nothing at all. It sucks. Cancer sucks. There’s no other way to put that. It can kill you if you don’t catch it (or in my case, accidentally brush against it during a less than interesting lecture about a syllabus). But you know what? I’m still here. And I’m doing great and I will continue to do so despite it.

 

Until next time,

Dana