On May 28, during surgery for an ovarian torsion, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Fortunately, the disease was still in Stage 1 - which means it was self-contained and confined to the inner lining of the ovary. This is incredibly lucky. Most times, ovarian cancer produces no symptoms until it has spread, which is what makes it so deadly; the fact my ovary twisted when it did, while it may just have been a coincidence, was an extremely fortuitous freak of nature. As soon as the surgeons identified the cancer, what started out as a straightforward one-hour surgery became a three-hour very big deal that left me with a 9-inch long scar and a difficult eight-week recovery period. But the important thing is that, after I finish a course of chemotherapy, I have an excellent prognosis for a full recovery. I’m halfway through treatment right now.
This has been a bizarre experience, to say the least. One minute I was fine, the next I was on a high-speed train that I didn’t know I’d bought a ticket for. I was no longer a Healthy Person; I was a Cancer Patient, and my life became one continuous preoccupation with all things medical. I was scheduled to begin chemo on June 29. In the ten days prior, I had to have all my dental work brought up to date, including having a tooth pulled because there wasn’t time enough to do a root canal. I needed endless blood tests and a chest x-ray. Then I had to have another surgery to implant a portocath in my chest; this is a little bottle cap-sized thingy that feeds a catheter into the large blood vessels of my neck, and it is where chemo is administered. (I now also get all bloodwork done through the port, because it hurts a lot less than having them poke around in my arm looking for a vein. It sounds a lot worse than it is - it’s just under the skin, but you can hardly see it - it just looks like a small bump. Most of the time, I’m not even aware it’s there.) Then I had to get my waist-length curly hair, about which I admit to being quite vain, cut very short, in anticipation of the mess it would make when it would fall out. That sucked - it was like adding insult to injury, one more psychic jab from the Big C.
My first chemo session was disastrous. I had a bad allergic reaction to the dilutant of one chemo agent, and I was sick as the proverbial dog for two weeks. They have switched this drug to another version that I tolerate much better. Treatment involves getting hooked up via the port to an IV and sitting in a comfy chair for 4 ½ hours while two incredible nurses, Pam and Carol, hover over me and tell me jokes and bring me things to eat. It also involves getting high as a kite on Benadryl and Ativan before the actual chemo drugs start; I keep telling them to put up some black light posters and pipe in some Led Zeppelin so I can really enjoy the whole altered-consciousness experience. I watch TV or listen to my MP3 player or snooze - reading is pretty much impossible with that buzz. I have a treatment every 21 days; usually I feel post-chemo crappy for about week. (By the way, the dramatic Hollywood version of the chemo patient vomiting for days after a treatment is largely obsolete; they have many ways to prevent nausea and vomiting now, and I almost never feel sick to my stomach. If by chance I do, I have very effective medication that zaps the feeling almost instantly.) My biggest problems are pretty significant fatigue - imagine a bad flu that keeps you exhausted, achy, and in bed - and a terrible metallic taste in my mouth that ruins the fun of eating. After about day 8, I start to bounce back. By the time I’m feeling close to normal, it’s time for another treatment. Not fun, but if this is what it takes to save my life, hey, I’m cool. It also helps to know that my last treatment is October 12.
I have been wrestling with how to write about all this. I’m still not sure. But one thing I wanted to acknowledge is the incredible safety net of love and support that caught me when I fell. My hospital room was literally filled with flowers; it looked like a Mafioso’s funeral. My Goucher colleagues crammed my refrigerator with food; my BAP buddies sent me cards, boxes of silly, wonderful things to make me laugh, and endless messages of encouragement and love. My other friends did the same. My family, both immediate and extended, rallied in ways I could not anticipate. Rick has not only had to take care of me, which he does terrifically, he has had to deal with his own fears and emotions while shouldering almost the entire work of the farm and working his regular job. My son Micah has been steadfast, including shaving my head for me when my hair started coming out in sheets and patches and providing moral support all the while, and hanging out with me watching the Travel Channel and “Antiques Roadshow” when he could be doing something a lot more entertaining. My brother, sister-in-law, and a passel of cousins showed up in July bringing food and silliness and fun. It has been amazing and humbling and deeply moving.
I also want to acknowledge the incredible medical team that is taking care of me. Besides Pam and Carol, there are Dr. Annie, my beautiful, warm, and deeply gifted oncologist, and Michelle, my nurse practitioner, who is a rock of good sense and compassion. They care about healing the patient, not just curing the disease; they dispense hugs when needed, not just medications. The day I walked in with my newly-bald head, everyone of them made sure I was okay and assured me that I looked absolutely fabulous in my flowy scarves and dangly earrings. They are endlessly available, endlessly patient, and endlessly kind. They are also committed to kicking cancer’s sorry ass and making sure all their patients get the best chance at beating the disease.
So that’s the scoop. I don’t want to become Laura, the Cancer Writer - it’s weaseled its way into the rest of my life; I don’t want to give it any more purchase. On the other had, not writing about it would be kind of ridiculous. I mean, I can’t pretend it hasn’t happened. But being in the middle of the experience makes it tricky, too. What I do not want to write is a “cancer journal.” I’d like to think there is still some craft involved. But I’ll post things now and again as I am able, and we’ll see how it goes.