Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Some Things Cannot Be Unseen

It was just a routine Tuesday at the oncologist.  Larry and I headed back to the chemo lab and sat in two of the empty chairs.  Across from me was a new patient, an older woman.  I checked her out while I was waiting for them to get my mediport ready for chemo.

White haired, I placed her age as late seventies. She was wearing a housecoat, the kind that was popular at one point in the seventies, white with little flowers on it and the snaps running up the front.  It gave me pause to see that housecoat, since I equate such outfits with jammies or other things that you wear around the house but never in public.  Most of the people we'd seen at chemo were dressed in their every day clothes.  I myself usually wear loose fitting pants with a V-necked shirt for easy access to the mediport.   No fuss, but certainly not jammies.

So the housecoat stood out, but the lady was otherwise unremarkable as she sat there sound asleep, a blanket covering her upper body.  She snored a little, but that's pretty common in the chemo lab, too. Because I like to create stories in my head, I hypothesized that this lovely woman likely lived in assisted living, and the facility had brought her over.  Then the nurse got busy inserting the needle into my mediport and I had to focus on that.

Not because it hurts.  They have this wonderful numbing spray that anesthetizes the area around the mediport, so when the needle breaks the skin, all you feel is a little pressure.  And not because of my historically obnoxious needle phobia, either.   No, I had to focus because when they start to pull blood into the tube...sometimes nothing comes out.  That freaks me out a bit, and I have to focus on not completely losing what tiny bit of sanity that I have left.  There's a perfectly logical explanation for the lack of blood, and that is because the needle did not go where it was supposed to.  I know this, but I still freak out when it happens. Larry is no help, because his needle phobia is worse than mine. By the time I was hooked up and had the IV running, the lady across from me was awake.  I smiled at her, and she smiled back. 

And then she decided that she wanted to recline.  She pushed and pushed and pushed, but like most of us, her strength was limited. Larry and I watched; it would be a violation of chemo etiquette to offer unrequested help.  Finally, one of the nurses came over and helped recline the chair, and everything got quiet again.  Larry started answering emails on his phone, and I got a magazine from the table next to my chair.  Before I started to read I looked up at the newcomer.  She was directly across from me, her feet up, her legs slightly spread.  Right at my eye level.

It was a bad day for me to be a short woman. 

The housecoat was apparently all this lady was wearing for her chemo appointment. It took a moment for my brain to fully comprehend the horror that was right in front of me. This elderly lady, who looked like a stereotypical grandma, wasn't wearing underpants!  My eyes protested vociferously this visual invasion.  It was all I could do not to throw my hands up over my face and scream. I got flashed by Grandma. 

My first instinct was to grab my husband's arm and share my torment, but I managed to smother that thought with a coughing fit.

"You okay?"  Larry asked.  I merely nodded, my eyes watering.  He didn't need to share in my pain.

I decided the better course of action would be to pretend that I saw not a thing. Deep breaths, I told myself.  Take deep breaths, and try to forget.  That's it... Just shove that retina-burning image right down there in the dark with that one night in Nuevo Laredo when I did drink the water.   I  buried my face in an old magazine, until I calmed down.

I do not think that this woman was showing off her hooha on purpose; I just happened to be looking in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It was an unhappy accident, at least for me.  She did speak to me later.  I was polite, and we traded medical information regarding our cancers, just like I have done with all the other patients.  When I see her next time, I'll pretend that it never happened. 

But some things just cannot be unseen. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

It's The Little Things

It was a Wednesday, and I was feeling pretty good the day after chemo.  Zane and his dad had gone to soccer practice, and I looked around for something to do instead of my usual nap.  There were dishes in the sink that needed to be put into the dishwasher, but I looked around the house in vain a few more times.

I hate doing dishes.  That's probably weird to most people, but I have my reasons, mostly tactile. It was my usual job growing up to wash the dishes before the invention of dishwashers, and I can still remember my hands in the soapy water, scrubbing the night's dinner from plates and pans.  Familiar things feel weird when they've been in the water; that lasagna that was so tasty on your palate feels just plain icky when your fingers hit it and you're trying to clean it off.  I still have nightmares about a particularly stubborn pan of leftover shortcake and the way the breaded mess felt like skin under the water. 

Finally, I just bit the bullet, washed off the dishes in the sink and got the dishwasher started.  I did not think about my hands, or my fingernails, which were detaching from my fingers due to my chemo.  I did not think about any of that, because I've done dishes my entire life without wearing gloves and never had a single problem. Why would I think anything had changed?  I wasn't thinking like a cancer patient, which is where I went wrong.  When your immune system is compromised, every day normal things, like doing the dishes, can invite all sorts of microscopic critters into your body, which is no longer prepared to fight back.

I woke up the next day, and the index finger and thumb of my left hand were swollen and painful. I knew that was a possible side effect of the chemo drug, taxitere, but I called the oncologist anyway.  Since I was already having the usual skin reactions to the chemo from Tuesday, I chalked the new symptoms to that and went about my business.

But they got worse.  I did not sleep at all that night, because those two fingers were throbbing and painful and continued to swell.  I did not go to work on Friday, but stayed home and slept.  I put ice on my hand, trying to get the swelling to go down. I took my pain medications, hoping that would allow some relief.  I couldn't even bend those two fingers. I was getting frantic, and then I hit my thumb on the wall and it exploded.  The nail lifted just enough for the icky stuff that was underneath to escape.  It was extremely gross, but I finally felt some relief, both physically and mentally.  Now I knew what was going on, and I could deal with it. 

I called the oncologist, and they prescribed antibiotics.  The first round prescribed was vetoed by my husband, because according to the pharmacist there was a derivative of my old nemesis penicillin in it.  The second round was finally brought home from the pharmacy that night.  The swelling started to go down, and I got a good night's sleep.

All of my fingernails are loose, as the chemo does its work.  They ooze sometimes, and I just have to let them.  I have two finger nails that I have to prevent from popping up and scaring random children; those will likely fall off at some point.  My hands, which are also shedding skin like a scaly reptile of some sort, look like they belong to someone else.  My toenails are not nearly so bad, but they're now opaque and a pedicure is not going to help. 

The good news is that I've been forbidden from doing any more dishes for the duration of my treatment.  My reality has changed, at least for now, and I just have to go with the flow until I get the all clear.  A new normal.  I'm okay with that.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

That Time I Was Almost Hit By A Metaphor

My drive to work in the morning usually takes me onto Loop 1604.  The Loop used to go completely around San Antonio, but the seventh largest city in the United States outgrew that boundary long ago.  There's the usual rush hour traffic at the early hour, but the Loop is also the fastest way for me to get from dropping my son off at school to my job site, no matter which campus it might be that day.  There's a barrier of grass in between the lanes heading north and south, and if you exit the Loop, you travel for a bit along what is called an access road until you reach the road you need.  This keeps the traffic flowing smoothly, as the cars on the Loop can continue to travel as fast as they can while the cars on the access road can travel slower.

It was the end August of 2014, and I was heading to the elementary school closest to Rolling Oaks Mall, off of Nacogdoches Road(the "g" is silent, because we Texans in Bexar County like to throw random vowels and consonants into words) road.  I exited onto the access road, the Loop downhill from me now,  my mind on a million different things that I had to do that day.  I can't be the only person who does that while driving; that autopilot that the brain seems to turn on when you travel the same route just about every day.  I know that you're not supposed to do that, but it just happens.

Except on this day,  something made me look out my driver's side window.  There was a tire coming my way. No car attached.  Just a single tire, bouncing up the hill from the Loop, heading right for me in my little car. 

They don't really teach such things in driver's education.  The average driver's ed instructor might discuss what to do if an actual entire car is bouncing along toward you, and your decision making might involve several options or choices, such as swerving to avoid said automobile or screaming and wetting your pants.  But I do not remember my driver's ed instructor discussing what to do when just a tire is bouncing your way. 

I actually used some math that day(normally against my religion), and quickly estimated the trajectory of the tire, if it continued to bounce along toward me.  If my calculations were correct, and I'm sure they were not, the tire appeared to be heading for my door. Fast moving projectile striking the fiberglass door of an average sedan?  I immediately decided that this would be bad, and worse, would make me late for work. 

What to do? 

Slow down, of course!  I was so very happy that the light bulb in my brain was still working.  I slowed down, the car behind me slowed down, and the random tire bounced...right...over...the...hood.  I watched it bounce some more, until it finally bounced into the tall grass of a retired cow pasture and disappeared.  I breathed a sigh of relief and continued to my elementary school, thankful to have dodged that particular projectile. 

That tire, I thought later, was a metaphor, as I lay in a hospital bed following my mastectomy.  The Wheel of Life rolls along, taking us where we need to be.  Sometimes the Wheel rolls along a good stretch of highway, sometimes a bad road full of ruts and potholes.  And sometimes that Wheel just skips that whole "rolling" thing and randomly bounces up a hill and tries to kill you.  Was there a message in that for me to pay attention to?   I don't know for sure, but I wonder.

The week after I was visited by that tire?  I found the lump in my breast. 

Five more chemo treatments to go, folks!  I'm seeing the Big Finish Line up in front of me!  Six months of chemotherapy are almost over!  Yay me! I could not have gotten through this without your support, and I thank each and everyone who has cheered me on even when I was at my lowest.  Thank you.