First chemotherapy

January 26, 2009 

Friday, Dec. 12, is a day I won't soon forget. It was my first chemotherapy treatment at the Tri-Cities Cancer Center.

Most of what I'd heard about chemotherapy was third- or fourth-hand, and none of it was good. I heard about nausea, fatigue and generally feeling lousy. It didn't sound like anything I was going to look forward to.

That said, chemotherapy was the only way I would get rid of the cancer in my body, so I had to accept chemo and what it would bring.

I've often been asked why surgery is not an option for removing my cancer - and it's one of the first questions we asked my doctors. In the case of lymphoma (the cancer I have), surgery isn't a good option. Lymphoma is a blood cancer, a mutation of the cells. As I understand it, removing the cancerous growths is nothing more than a stop-gap because the cancer can simply reappear. In fact, my surgeon said I was fortunate to have a cancer that could be cured with chemotherapy rather than being reliant on surgery. Because the largest growth was in my neck, surgery could be very tricky.

So chemotherapy it was.

As I spoke with other cancer patients and survivors, I quickly learned that not every chemotherapy treatment is the same. Some people come in for short treatments, while others' are lengthy. In my case, I would receive a lengthy, aggressive treatment of several drugs once every 21 days. Additionally, I would take other medications every day.

I showed up around 8 a.m. Dec. 12, and was escorted to the "chemo room," which is a fairly large area equipped with about a dozen easy chairs where patients sit while drugs are administered. Because it was my first treatment, I was put into a separate room for what was expected to be eight hours of having caustic drugs pumped into my body.

Michelle, my chemo nurse, plugged an IV into the PowerPort, which had been surgically implanted in my chest the day prior, and away we went. I felt no pain, no illness. In fact, I was feeling pretty good because the first battle against the cancer cells in my body had begun.

I'd brought my laptop with me, primarily so I could watch movie or two on DVD if I felt like it. Once I opened it, I quickly discovered the Tri-Cities Cancer Center has a robust wi-fi signal. So I was able to check my e-mail and work on updating parts of the Herald Web site. Yeah, I realize I'm a bit of a geek.

Then I updated my Facebook status to: "Andy is starting chemotherapy." Considering I had told only a few people about my cancer, this was my signal to my circle of friends that something was terribly amiss. Needless to say, I quickly received a lot of messages of shock, sympathy and hope. I watched a movie (Sideways) and read awhile as Michelle and others came in to check on me and change which medicines were going in.

Around noon, we started on a drug called Rituxan. Michelle warned me that a small percentage of patients had allergic reactions to it, so we needed to keep a close eye on everything. Additionally, I had agreed to participate in a clinical study on how quickly Rituxan can be administered. It didn't take long to figure out I was going to have a problem.

A little while after the Rituxan hit my IV (it felt like 15 minutes, but it might have been longer), I began to feel cold, as if the temperature of the room had dropped by 10 degrees. I rang a little bell to let Michelle know I might be having an issue, and she immediately recognized I was having a reaction. She unplugged the Rituxan and put me on Benadryl and demerol to counteract the reaction. I began to shiver, then my body shook uncontrollably. Warm blankets were quickly placed on me. My pulse plunged, my blood pressure crashed, my blood oxygen level dropped and everything became rather exciting as I received the full attention of four nurses. I was hooked up to oxygen, and my job was to stay awake and breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth. I mostly did a good job, though I tended to drop in and out of consciousness. It was all a haze.

About 45 minutes later, my wife showed up with my lunch and was surprised to see all the ruckus still going on around me. "Oh, he looks way better than he did a half-hour ago," one of the nurses said.

After about two hours, I was back to square one, and the Rituxan was started again, though much more slowly this time. By the time I was done at 8 p.m., it was Nurse Michelle, my wife, Melissa, and me left in the entire building. That might have been the longest 12 hours of my first 44 years.

And this was just the first of eight chemo treatments. It could only get better, right?

Next: the day after

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