While friends and acquaintances on every coast buzzed around in text messages and on Facebook about their exciting New Year’s Eve plans involving glamorous black-tie affairs and negligent bar-hopping antics, I spent December 31st getting poisoned and strategizing about which of my new pajamas to wear to usher in 2009. Wednesday’s treatment was shockingly, uncharacteristically fast for two reasons: First, no reactions which, by now, you should find impressive. Second, of the three chemo drugs I take (I should take four but one is completely intolerable and is instead supplemented by high-dose steroids), one was yet again unavailable and I would therefore have to return the following week for my dose of Vinblastine (the “V” of ABVD). My nurse, Shannon, suggested to my doctor that I miss the dose just the one time and pick up again in two weeks, but General Wilksie would hear none of that. She remains steadfast--the stickler, she is--when it comes to adhering exactly to the Hodgkin’s standard protocol and insisted that the usual dose be administered--albeit a week late and to hell with any latent side effects it may cause in my off-week. I was in at 10:00 and out at just after 1:00 (mind you, I didn’t see my doctor for this visit so I have no news to report) and home to rest for the remainder of the day. I am also baffled and incensed to report that, despite my insistence, the nurses refused to piggyback a bag of bubbly to my IV drip. The 14 year old juvenile delinquent in me says “What-EVER.”
I get asked all the time what it’s like in there. I’ll give my best shot at an accurate description of Chemotherapy: The True Hollywood Story. The beige but brightly lit, window-lined infusion room accommodates about two dozen recliners with IV poles arranged in four rows. The nurses, charged with adrenaline, caffeine, and the many homemade goodies supplied by patients and families, hasten around the room from one patient to the next, grabbing the nearest caster-clad stool along the way as they pull up to their next victim. They may check the IV bag, inject a new drug into the central IV line, administer a shot, or disconnect a patient before discharge. Without fail, however, they are cheerful, talkative (unless the patient is sleeping), and able to withstand as much good-natured jabbing as they are able to suffer with dignity the ruthless abuse imposed upon them by those inevitable few bitter patients. It is not uncommon to observe them ribbing an elderly gentleman about the numerous ladies in his life at the senior center, then pause, take a deep breath, and exhale slowly as they turn their attention to the indignant businessman complaining that he is “WAITING…” These nurses possess the patience of a saint.
A back corner of the room houses a kitchenette where patients and their guests can fetch water, juices, sodas and snacks, and a nearby dining table seats patients and their guests collectively constructing a puzzle and/or reading magazines. A portable DVD player and limited selection of videos is also sometimes in use at the back common room or at one of the chemo chairs. A special trademark of the infusion room, however, is the ever-expanding collection of stuffed animals that sing, speak, play instruments or are otherwise interactive with or without warning. You may recall that one patient brought in a stuffed cow with severely swollen red lips that sways and sings “Besame Mucho,” and to which the nurses exclaimed with glee that it was “Sarah Brannon having an allergic reaction!” (PS: The nursing staff has now taken to calling me “Lips”). The stuffed animal collection grows exponentially by the week as each window sill, counter top, and table top is furnished with plush toys. Newbies in the chemo room, allowing their curiosity to overtake sensibility, inevitably press the button on the nearest stuffed animal. In that person’s defense, the hand, paw, or cloven hoof always clearly instructs to “Press Here.” They soon realize that the entire room is forced to listen to the croonings of a cow, crab, chicken, dog, or Miss Piggy. Within seconds, the motion or sound-activation usually provokes at least four other toys to bellow their annoying jingle which, in turn, paints quite the guilty, if amusing, expression of humiliation upon the perpetrator. Without fail, patients and families alike laugh as the neophyte blushes crimson with horror and apologizes to the room for disturbing the peace. We take it in stride and suffer through it together; After all, we were all guilty of committing the same chemo room sin at one point or another—usually during our initial visit. In general, the vibe in the infusion suite is positive and the people are friendly, save a few curmudgeons.
So, there you have it: a glimpse into the ACTUAL act of receiving a healing dose of chemotherapy; also known, on less positive days, as the torture of being plagued by poison. Either way you slice it, it’s really not so bad.
In addition to hanging out in a cheerful atmosphere, I have another positive note to report. After my Neulasta nightmare, I was curious to find out how my blood counts were responding a full two weeks later….particularly when I was feeling a nasty cold coming on. My fear was that my puny physical state of affairs was indicative of my biological state of shit. With a cursory glance of my lab workup sheet behind the nursing station, Nurse Shannon shouted across the room, “It looks great!,” then qualified: “Well, you’re anemic and your platelets are low by regular standards but, I mean, that’s really good for you. Your white count is…..WOW!.....9.0!” This type of language was significant—enough to elicit smattered applause from various other patients who were awake and, well, cared
(can you blame them if they didn’t?). This was so significant, in fact, because it was a nearly immeasurable 1.4 only two weeks prior and was now on the high end of normal. All the pain I had endured over Christmas was not in vain (vein? Sorry for the pun—you know by now that I cannot resist) and my white count was rockin’ even more than that of most healthy individuals. My cold had NOTHING on my white count, my immune system was a fortress, and I was Superwoman. Hell yes. By the way, the braggart in me would like to inform you that a normal WBC range is 4.5-10.0.
Later that night, to satisfy my seemingly insatiable Chinese cravings, I cooked up some chicken fried rice for our New Year’s Eve dinner, drank a few glasses of wine, and curled up on the couch. Mom eventually popped open a bottle of champagne and we toasted to 2009 at the octogenarian’s midnight of 9:30. While she went to bed shortly thereafter, I stayed up until 1:00 or so, happy to curl up in my warm bed, safe from the lunatics on the road. I have always been very superstitious about New Year’s—and really nothing else—tending to overanalyze my decisions on New Year’s Day as a precursor to the coming year. It all started during my childhood with the southern tradition of eating black-eyed-peas on New Year’s Day for good luck. As an adult, every year that I haven’t abided this tradition has beckoned a looming cloud over the entire day. Would this set the tone? Am I inviting trouble? Furthermore, people have often gasped in horror when I’ve dared to admit ignoring this very serious decree, thus propelling me into an even greater state of anxiety. Yet on New Year’s Day 2009, I woke up with a crappy Day Two cold accompanied by red and watery eyes, sneezing, coughing, and that froggy voice that implores people to steer the hell clear as if I were donning an orange caution sign. Still, I was excited to attend a party at the house of a local family friend. You will recall that, with less than 24 hour’s notice, Sheri acted as stand-in mama for me when I had my biopsy and scans on September 9th. I will forever be indebted to her as she held my hand, spoke with the doctors, and kept my mother informed throughout the stressful (and distressful) day. Dear Sheri had no idea what she was getting into upon first meeting the Brannon Duo: Cross our paths and you will indisputably partake in needles, monitors, and hospital beds. We aim to keep things exciting.
Sheri’s New Years party accompanied by
my Mom and a bad cold
Sheri’s party was so special for me for a distinct reason. On September 9th, the harrowing biopsy day months before, I had explained to her that my primary care doctor suspected on the previous day that I have Lymphoma. Sheri excitedly responded that she participates in Team in Training for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and is therefore familiar with that particular type of cancer, reassuring me that it is very treatable with a favorable prognosis. Throughout the fall and during my initial diagnostic and treatment stages, she told her TNT friends about me, even plastering a picture of me on a poster board they were presenting as encouragement for one of their runs. On New Year’s Day I was finally able to meet these people who so unselfishly give of their time and energy for a great cause that is obviously close to my heart. We arrived, turkey-cheese balls in tow and dripping noses to boot (but I wanted to shout: “It’s totally cool! I have a 9.0 WBC count!!!”) to a festive house full of runners and non-runners alike noshing on food and sipping wine, mimosas, Bloody Marys, and beer. I met a woman who sells a specific cancer drug for a pharmaceutical company, as well as a 4-year breast cancer survivor, feeling connected to these new people who have inadvertently walked (or run) into my life. We chatted, laughed and, after a pathetic 90 minutes, I gave Mom that knowing look—perceptible only to her--that conveys my utter exhaustion. And so we returned home, bellies full and head colds raging. We moaned that we’d Never. Eat. Again --or at least the remainder of the day--but I was absolutely astounded AND amused when my stomach began rumbling and growling. “Oh dear God. It’s the steroids! I’m actually hungry again,” I groaned. “How can this BEEEEE????” And yet, it be. I was undeniably, irrefutably starving by 7:00 and found myself shamelessly hitting the leftover fried rice while mom watched (undoubtedly dumbfounded).
That night, as we were checking e-mail and unwinding after a long, hard day of eating, the phone rang. It was the woman who had originally put me in touch with my former future boss (FFB) at the spa. They had talked during the previous days and she had insight for me after their informative conversation. Kindly, she thought I should be “in the know.” Oh thanks for enlightening me since it’s….well….about me and my livelihood. In sum: my FFB wants me to get better. She sees me running her spa some day, but at this point needs someone in the office at all times, not at home. “Why,” I asked rhetorically, “has she not told me this herself? I have left her voicemails and e-mails and I would expect the courtesy of a response.” The woman agreed and insisted that I would hear from my FFB “any day now.” With any luck I will get better and the woman will employ my services on the spot. Until then, she said, she hopes this brought me closure but that she’s sorry that it had to end this way, at least for now. “You don’t want to work for someone like that anyway,” my mom soothed. Right, I thought, throwing a mental hissy fit, but shouldn’t I be the one to make that determination? Avoiding my communication just felt….wrong. Yep, I was a woman scorned. So much for the notion of completing projects and doing consulting work for her at home for rent money and something exciting to do.
In short, I made my foray into the new year with few surprises but have decided to err on the side of positive thoughts. For example: I’m not starting ’09 as a cancer patient, I’m starting—and finishing--as a cancer survivor. As well, I didn’t spend January 1st fighting off a miserable cold, I spent it in the company of new friends and my mother, the person who means the most to me in this world. I ate my black-eyed peas for good luck (although, as I’ve said, I tend to shun the idea of luck or fate), and joked with others that this year can quite literally only get better from 2008. Within a few months I’ll be cancer-free, once again gainfully employed (God willing), and restored with a fresh spiritual and physical awakening. Great things are in store for me. If I keep repeating that, it has to be true…..
On a totally unrelated note: After two full days of resting and reading (read: simmering in chemo and rhinovirus stew), I was not surprised to get a random text in the wee hours of Friday night/Saturday morning. I typically get drunken anecdotes from the likes of my 25-35 year old single friends over the weekends and have grown accustomed to silencing my phone for that reason. This time, I forgot. It was an unknown number and all it said was, “Hey Sarah.” On Saturday morning I noncommittally responded, “Hey back.” The stranger texted me that I had met him at Highlander the night Adam was in town and we had celebrated his arrival with a jaunt. He asked how my cancer treatment was going and if my hair was coming back yet. I found this unbelievably funny as I realized that, once again, I had made too many friends during one of my infrequent social opportunities and turned into an information slut. Somebody stop me.
Mom left on Saturday and I spent Sunday doing nothing or, at least, very little. Months ago, a friend of mine had subscribed me with the group ChemoAngels (www.chemoangels.net) when I was first diagnosed. Chemo Angels assigns two volunteers per patient and those individuals are charged with sending cards, packages, and e-mails intent on motivating us to continue fighting our respective Big C battles. One of my angels quickly learned that I have much affection for the following: chocolate, books, dachshunds, and girly stuff. In short, I have come to appreciate packages including the likes of paperbacks, cookies, dachshund paraphernalia (note cards, Christmas ornaments, dog treats, etc), pajamas, and candles. These people really are amazing having answered the call to bestow unrequited support upon complete strangers. They are blessed with loving unconditionally, even without reciprocated acknowledgment seeing as the patient is under no obligation to respond. Thus, I spent Sunday and Monday reading a book that Angel Kelly had sent my way: Marley & Me. I felt grateful to escape with something lighthearted and relatable as I fought a cold and blasphemed my decision to coddle my sniffling nephew over Christmas.
For my 30th birthday on Monday night, Nancy picked me up with tuaca-laced hot apple pie in hand and whisked me to the San Antonio shopping mecca known as La Cantera and, more specifically, to its deep inner sanctum of Sephora. We spent over an hour amongst colorfully saturated pots, powders, pigments, polishes, potions, and lotions. Nancy gave me a budget from “the girls” of $100; I think I may have spent $98.76…..always one to go above and beyond. Note: For all the girls out there, my new loot consisted of black shimmery nail polish, purple-black shimmery nail polish (a subtle but distinct difference), highly coveted replacement Shu Uemura eyelash curler—a necessity since I only have about 40 lashes left, and a shimmery, silvery eyeshadow. Most importantly, however, I was able to score some really good sugar scrub for my scarred body….especially since Joanna took one look at my chest and thighs over Christmas—as I exited the bathroom wearing only a towel--and gasped in horror at the discolored, dark brown gashes marring my body from scratching my itchy skin in the middle of the nights during the first few months of chemo. With time and baby oil, I am starting to look less like an unfortunate barbed-wire, fenced-in prison camp escapee and more like a mere heroin addict (or so I’m told; For those of you unfamiliar with heroin addict behavior, please visit your nearest crack house). Perhaps Nancy said it best, though: if you don’t leave Sephora looking like a streetwalker you’re not doing it right. And that we did. In our valiant attempts at creating the illusions of smoky eyes and subtle shimmer, we both independently managed to replicate a facial cirque du soleil…..applied standing up….with shaky hands…..leaning over a countertop that reflects questionable lighting. On our way out, I actually heard a male employee call out, “Do you need some tissue?” I looked up with humiliation, only to realize that he was targeting the mother of a four-year-old boy who had spotted the Dior Addict Scandalous Fuchsia. My (understandable) mistake…
After Sephora, we met four other girls for dinner at PF Chang’s and I’m pretty sure I ate more than I’ve ever eaten in my life. We ordered drinks, two appetizers, five dishes, one huge dessert and individual tasting desserts. Plus, now that the secret is out that I’m a bona fide wino, I took home three bottles of red along with a yummy vanilla candle, makeup brushes, perfume, and…..perhaps best of all…..fake tattoos. We decided that I needed to apply the Biohazard symbol tat across my medi-port for the nurses’ entertainment at my next chemo, or an electrical outlet on the back of my head to demonstrate where I plug in at night in order to achieve nuclear regeneration for my frequent chemical doses. Thoughts??? I returned home that night to peer in the mirror and find that my silk scarf had slipped, adjusted, readjusted, and bunched all over my dome to the point of resembling some kind of Hari Krishna formal-wear head ensemble. Note to all: WHEN THAT HAPPENS, LET A BALD SISTER KNOW!!!! Visible widow’s peak, more than 50% of either ear, or scarf flips are simply unacceptable.
Back in the clinic on Tuesday for Vinblastine, I met a sweet retired Jewish Texas implant from New York. She asked about my scarf. We joked about the troubles of headwear given last night’s wardrobe malfunction, and then she asked how I stay so positive. Me? Positive? I gently let her down gently that I have a raging cold, no job, no money, and no energy, and thus feel anything but optimistic. “You seem so content though,” she insisted. I thought about it and said that I didn’t have much of a choice. It is too taxing to be angry all the time, and whining about how lousy I feel only makes me feel worse. Out of sheer selfishness I am forced into a state of complacency. She nodded slowly and said, “Well, if it makes you feel any better, you look great.” Then she leaned forward and said in a hushed voice, “Look, before I went on steroids I lost so much weight that I was skin and bones so what did I do? I went to Frederick’s of Hollywood and bought me a tush. Now I tell my husband that I’m a different person in the mornings than I am during the day: My face is in a drawer, my boobs are on a shelf, my tush is in a drawer, and my hair is in the closet. I need my entire dressing room just to put my parts together.” And this is exactly the kind of commiserating and unconditional support cancer patients provide each other; this woman is representative of precisely why I was able to drag my sorry ass home and laugh about the baby chick fuzz growing on my scalp (actually, picture an infant bald eagle with singular follicles sprouting from its otherwise naked head….and there you have me).
I was exhausted on Tuesday afternoon and returned home to eat a sandwich, walk Lola, and sleep all day, all night, and for the next two days. It hit me on Wednesday that, once again, I was sick. Just as I thought I was getting over a bad cold, something else had overcome me and I was relegated to a state of alternately puking and sleeping, barely able to hold a conversation and barely able to read a paragraph in my latest book. So much for my 9.0 WBC count fending off any weak, puny, insignificant little germs (although, by then the Neulasta shot had worn off). This continued until Friday, at which point I woke up fatigued but otherwise rejuvenated, ready to face the world and a kick-ass weekend. Mom arrived around 2:00 and we jointly prepared for much-needed girl time with my cousin Taryn and my aunt Leigh Anne. We had a fabulous weekend planned: they would arrive on Friday evening for a leisurely Italian dinner and DVD, we would spend all day Saturday at a local day spa getting pampered and feeling like the royalty we perceive ourselves to be, consume mass quantities of Mexican food and margaritas on Saturday night, and top off the weekend with a fabulous brunch on Sunday. What could go wrong???? Except, of course, that I was getting over a flu-like illness whereupon my entire body ached—and was sensitive to touch—and I could barely take a shower, let alone engage in a day of beauty that necessitated movement on my part and expert manipulation on the part of a masseuse. I reluctantly cancelled my portion—a Dead Sea salt rub, one-hour Swedish massage, and European facial--which was to be a birthday gift from Mom, and got ready for our guests. I say “our” because Mom has now moved in and claimed my apartment (and as well she should as she is now paying my rent).
On another note entirely: I’ve decided to let my hair grow. Over the last few months I’ve had it shaved every few weeks because it regenerates as quickly as it falls out, resulting in an impossibly uncomfortable itching sensation. The combined forces of Olay in-shower body lotion (don’t get me started on how much I love this stuff) and baby oil has lessened much of the discomfort of chemo-induced dry skin and hair loss. Thus, I’ve determined that I’m close enough to the end of treatment to endure the irritation and allow it to grow. I mean, really….the sooner it cultivates, the sooner I can endure the crazy hair stages. I know a cancer survivor who was innocently buying milk and butter at the grocery store two months after the end of her treatment. At the checkout line, two high school girls behind her tittered endlessly; after a few seconds of their rude behavior, she tuned in to hear that they were laughing at—and making jokes about--her hair. “Nice haircut,” one said. “She looks like a dike,” the other added. Finally, she turned to them and said, “Thanks….I have cancer.” Reportedly, they looked stunned and turned away, embarrassed that they had unknowingly disparaged a cancer patient. She warned me to expect that and to prepare myself for similar encounters. BRING IT ON. Wish me luck on my hair growth endeavors.