I recently finished the first segment of my three-stage treatment to kill this cancer.
That is, the initial 6-week round of chemotherapy. Stage two will be surgery, and stage three will see me back at some point this winter for six more infusions.
The doctor and the nurses tell me the treatment has been successful to date, having reduced the tumor to a size where surgery is possible.
As Bill Murray said in “Caddyshack:” “So, I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.”
What a long space trip it’s been.
At the first occurrence in 2021, post surgery, I sat for a mere two rounds of chemo before the liquid, and the pill with the radioactive symbol, and the bright, yellow caution sticker warning anyone handling same to wear gloves, came within a hair of killing me. At that time — though we did not know it before I collapsed at home one night and opened the pretty gash in my head — the medications had sucked just about everything from me that a body needs to remain alive.
Yet, somehow after three awful weeks in the ICU of a local hospital, aided by angels in nurse form, I pulled through. Every time I visit the doctor, she reminds me just what a close shave that sort of close shave was.
“We did not expect you to make it,” doc says.
While I did not sit for enough rounds of chemo in 2021 to sample all of its nasty effects — they build over time — I believe by now I have enough standing to describe a few of them in two words, as follows: they suck.
Here’s the process.
Over three to four hours, liquid enters through a port implanted just under my skin, an inch or so above my right breast.
Now I had heard lots of talk about something called chemo fatigue, but I never guessed at what that meant. Some things you just have to go through. The weariness is debilitating, robbing life of initiative and joy. And for a working person who wants to keep working, it is crushing. The world does not slow down, though bosses can be kind. Gotta do your job.
Then there is “chemo brain.” Or, maybe you prefer, fuzzy brain. I have never claimed to be the sharpest tool in the shed, being blessed with a deficit of short-term memory that has cost me a few jobs and exasperated many people.
But others have told me that I have a decent long-term memory. Over the years, it has compensated for the short-term deficit, enabling me to sponge up without any intention on my part all those things most employers — except, perhaps those who hire opinion columnists — could not care less about. Like literature and poetry and history and languages.
So, chemo brain has put a hurt on my short-term memory and fogged over many details, including that all important one — the names of human beings. Today, names fade in and fade out in a matter of seconds. This is a serious problem for everyone, and especially for those of us who have to meet and speak with many people every day.
I am not certain whether it’s just old age coming on, but nowadays, I often forget the reason for which I entered a room, or lose my train of thought going from function to function at my computer here at work. I am told there are no guarantees I will ever get my short-term memory, such as it was, back.
There’s also a devil called “chemo tongue,” which among other nasty things, attacks and subdues the taste buds. The truth is, that for me, most foods have lost their flavor and taste like cardboard. There are no guarantees I will get this sense of taste back in full strength, either. I eat today because I have to survive, which my wife is very much in favor of my doing.
In “The Four Quartets,” poet T.S. Eliot described the loss of taste in the context of “the gifts reserved for age” as: “the bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit, as body and soul begin to fall asunder.”
Despite all the problems, Ann and I are thankful that this is working. We know we are also blessed to have the insurance that allows this life-saving treatment. I say “we” because she will go under the knife at the same time I do, though for her, it will be to repair a damaged knee. We will be at home, recuperating at about the same time, and no doubt moaning and groaning in chorus.
We have noticed, however, that in my second go at treatment, our insurer is balking at covering many things it did before: “You don’t need that medication your doctor recommends. Decline… PET scan, Schmet scan, why does your doctor need to look into your gut to see if there’s cancer there? Decline.”
I have been told that the sudden change of temper among the insurance grandees is all about one pesky problem: this is not my first dance with cancer. Seems I should have had the wherewithal to stave off this disease for the rest of my existence. But I didn’t. It returned, and that falls on me.
Anyway, be well.
Robert Whale can be reached at email@example.com.