Category Archives: Chemotherapy

Chemo 101: Intro to Infusions

Welcome to this week’s freshman level class in handling three popular chemotherapy drugs: Taxotere, Carboplatin and Herceptin. Today, we’ll be discussing infusion times, side effects, Michelle’s emotional state and the massive number of snacks she brought to the appointment. Pay attention, because there will be a quiz. On the snacks. I take cheese and crackers seriously.

I barely slept last night thanks to a combination of steroids, eating everything in the house (thanks to said steroids), and anxiety, and I woke up this morning feeling sick to my stomach at my impending day. I am happy, however, to report that the loss of my chemotherapy virginity was totally and completely uneventful. My medical team is amazing, because I don’t feel even the least bit under the weather…for now. The side effects usually strike on days 2, 3 and 4, and generally include nausea, fatigue, stomach upset and taste changes. It’s anybody’s guess how many of those I’ll get, how severe they’ll be, or if I’ll get some super weird side effect no one’s ever heard of, but if how I feel now is any indication, I think I’m going to be okay.

So let me back up and start at the beginning. I started off the day with some eggs, a muffin, a banana, two dexamethasone pills, an Ativan and an hour in Los Angeles traffic trying to get to USC. I wasn’t stressed, because Ativan truly does what it says on the box. I was still relaxed even as the nurse let me pick out my recliner, applied a tourniquet to my elbow and punctured one of the veins on the side of my forearm. She really kind of dissed my veins, which no one’s ever done before, and scolded me a bit for opting not to get the PortaCath (which I forwent after the double mastectomy and egg retrieval surgery proved to be enough anesthesia for me). Considering that I only have the one arm now that Lefty’s off-limits with a compromised lymph system, she’s probably right that I should spare my veins – even if I refuse to believe they’re as horrible as she says, because seriously, I’m offended on my veins’ behalves – so I guess we’re revisiting the option of the PortaCath.

Despite the nurse’s irrational hatred for my veins, she was able to place the IV with just one poke, and the set-up was actually quite comfortable for me. The morning started off with my pre-med combination – Benadryl, IV Pepcid and an anti-nausea medication called Kytril – which took about half an hour to infuse.

Then, two other nurses came over to begin administering the actual chemotherapy. First off, did you know that chemotherapy was actually discovered accidentally during World War I, when soldiers exposed to mustard gas suffered serious damage to their bone marrow? Modern chemotherapy was literally inspired by poisonous military weaponry, when some doctors realized that specific doses of the gas targeted fast-growing cells while leaving normal cells untouched. When they didn’t, you know, kill people. So, yeah, I was super excited about getting this stuff injected directly into my bloodstream, especially when the nurses donned full-body suits and latex gloves before so much as handling the baggies.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover, however, that the infusions were completely painless. There was no tingling or burning, no nausea and no discomfort throughout the entire six-hour ordeal, including the IV set-up – not with the Taxotere (which took an hour and a half to infuse), not with the Carboplatin (an hour) and not with the Herceptin (two hours). I didn’t really mind the whole afternoon at all, actually. I spent some of it listening to Pandora on my phone, reading a new book and chatting with my parents, before I turned on the TV and realized that there was actually a Law & Order: SVU marathon on. Seriously? SERIOUSLY? I must have a guardian angel over at the USA Network.

It’s been about three hours since I left the infusion suite, and I’m still feeling more or less normal. So far, the worst side effect I’m experiencing is a little bit of facial flushing. I know the other shoe will drop, but for now, I’m going to stuff my face with the cupcakes my mom and dad picked up for me to celebrate my first day of chemo. CUPCAKEEESSSSSS.

Okay, POP QUIZ TIME. What, you thought I was kidding?

1. What’s the scariest part of chemotherapy?

A) Its historical relationship with deadly military gasses

B) Having to wait to find out which side effects you’re going to get

C) Needing to take steroids, and then needing to eat EVERYTHING IN SIGHT (MORE CUPCAKEEESSSSS)

D) All of the above

2. What’s the best part of chemotherapy?

A) Snacks!

B) Law & Order: SVU marathons

C) Not changing out of my jammies all day long

D) All of the above

Hint: The answer is DD, because this blog is about boobies.

Merry chemo eve!

Want to see a picture of my future family?

Future Mes

The fertility doc handed me this little keepsake at my follow-up visit today, and I’m tempted to ask if he has any wallet-sized prints. I mean, these are my kids, after all.

There they are, all 15 of my little frozen eggs. It’s so strange to see how perfectly round and plump they are (except for that adorably dented one in the corner), so weird to think that each and every one of us started out with one of those single cells. Looking at them, I’m reminded yet again of what a strange miracle the body is – and I can’t help but be so grateful for mine, even though it went a little haywire for a second there.

I had the best weekend. A couple of my amazingly wonderful high school friends were back in town for the weekend, so we ate tacos (not burritos – are you surprised?), gossiped, walked around Old Town and enjoyed some espresso while petting my friend Harry’s tiny golden dachshund, Mr. Bates. I wish that I could shave Mr. Bates and make a wig out of his perfect fur to replace my soon-to-be-erstwhile hair, but alas. Synthetic wigs it is. Shaving dachshunds is probably some kind of animal cruelty, and Mr. Bates has been through enough, as I think I put him down for about 25 seconds all day on Saturday.

Yesterday my bestest best friend in the whole entire world, Katie Bo, came down to LA to visit me. We had a stunningly normal Sunday strolling along Third Street Promenade and relaxing in the sand by the Santa Monica Pier, drinking a couple of beers and eating popcorn shrimp and loaded fries and, obviously, Mexican food. (I have to get it all in now because tomorrow, my taste buds will be obliterated by chemotherapy.) We looked like lesbian lovers taking a romantic walk on the beach thanks to our matching pixie cuts, but it’s honestly difficult to overstate how little vanity I have left after all that I’ve been through, so I don’t care.

I’ve got about 14 hours left before the doctors start pumping my body full of toxic chemicals, but I’m oddly relaxed. Maybe it’s because I have 40+ Ativan pills in a nice little orange cylinder ready for consumption whenever the anxiety gets to be too much, or maybe it’s because I’m going to have a burrito for dinner (again), or maybe it’s because I just believe that everything is going to be alright and that my doctors are going to take care of me and make me healthy and whole again when all of this is over. I don’t know. And really, isn’t that the genesis of fear? I just don’t know.

Will I coast by with just minor aches and pains? Or will I fall victim to the bone marrow flares many patients have described as worse than childbirth – a metric I can’t even understand since the only thing I’ve given birth to is 15 eggs plucked from my overstimulated ovaries, but a metric that terrifies me nonetheless? Will I be fine, with barely any nausea to speak of, as many people on my regimen seem to be? Or will I be sick to my stomach for days, clutching a metal bowl to vomit into in between episodes of Law & Order: SVU? Also, how is even possible that there are SVU episodes I haven’t seen yet? They’re like starfish limbs; every time I watch one, a new one regenerates in its place. And most importantly, of course, is the real question on everyone’s mind: Will this cure me?

Here’s another question that’s bugging me – why is no one at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center bald? I swear, I go to that hospital at least 4 times a week, and I never see anyone who has lost their hair. It’s a cancer center. Everyone there has cancer, but they all look ready to shoot a Pantene commercial! I’ve decided that this is an encouraging sign that my wigs will look extremely realistic and other new cancer patients will be jealous of my photoshoot-ready locks.

Anyway, I’ve found one way of looking at the situation that never fails to cheer me up, and that’s this. By this time tomorrow, I’ll have one chemo session under my belt, and only five more to go ’til healthy, happy freedom.

Wigs ‘n’ things

Cancer has taught me a lot about myself, including this: Veganism isn’t for me.

I wasn’t allowed to eat dairy while I was on a special antibiotic following my egg retrieval procedure, and it was surprisingly difficult. Did you know that basically everything awesome has dairy in it? I even like to put dairy where it doesn’t belong in order to make mediocre things into fantastic things (Philadelphia rolls, anyone?). Fortunately, I took my last dose of doxycycline yesterday, and so far today I’ve had a smoothie, some Greek yogurt, some kale dip and some gorgonzola cheese crumbles that I literally ate out of the tub with a spoon. Sorry I’m not sorry.

In spite of my dairy binge, I was finally able to button my pants today! I’ve been loafing around in sweats and yoga pants since Monday to accomodate my post-egg retrieval bloat, which had me feeling like I would need to make a trip to A Pea in the Pod any day now even though I didn’t go through with the whole impregnation part of the IVF cycle. It’s been four days now and I’d say I’m about 85% of the way back to feeling normal, which puts me right on track with all the fertility preservation/egg donor blogs I obsessively perused when I was preparing for this.

In fact, I was feeling good enough on Wednesday to go wig shopping – a red letter day in Cancerland!

I’ve been both awaiting and dreading this day since my diagnosis. I was feeling apprehensive, but my friend Jasmine quickly quelled my fears. “Wearing other people’s hair is awesome,” she told me. “I’m wearing someone else’s hair on top of my hair right now!”

I’ve always felt that wig shopping could go one of two ways. Option A: fun day of dress-up, or Option B: traumatizing dress rehearsal for impending hideousness. In the end, it fell somewhere on the continuum – not quite a carefree day of trying on cool costumes, but also not a miserable, pitiful excuse for trying to hide an obvious deformity like being a bald girl in her mid-20s.

The woman running the shop was fantastic. She confided that she wears a wig every single day, just for convenience, which gave me some confidence that maybe it won’t be super duper obvious that I’m actually bald underneath my hairpiece. She also didn’t react at all when I told her about my diagnosis, which was refreshing, except to offer to shave my head for me. This being Hollywood, this woman’s business is probably 50% cancer patients and 50% drag queens, so I guess she’s used to everything.

I had a good time trying on a variety of wigs in all kinds of lengths and colors, but I ended up selecting a medium-length, brunette number that looks almost identical to my real hair. I opted for it in two styles, too – a straight one that looks like my hair after I torture it with a flatiron, and a wavy one that looks just like my natural style. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I was most comfortable looking in the mirror and seeing my face surrounded by the same long brown hair I’ve always had instead of a giant blonde bouffant or some red hair poking out from underneath a baseball cap or something.

At the wig shop I was also introduced to, and subsequently decided to purchase after about .5 seconds, a magnificent invention called “bangs on a headband.” Basically, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a soft, comfy headband with faux bangs attached. You can wear it underneath a beanie or a hat in order to make yourself look slightly less like a hairless alien, without the heat and discomfort wigs can sometimes cause when worn frequently. Perfect for wanting something to throw on that will keep people from staring at you at the grocery store (or in my case, Mexican restaurant), but won’t require any styling or upkeep. Bonus, it’ll also help camouflage how weird I’ll look if my eyebrows fall out.

I’m surprised by how pretty and normal I feel in my wigs. I can pull them back into buns and ponytails, dress them up with clips and headbands and basically treat them like my own hair. Plus, I can do a better job styling them because I can do braids and updos on a styrofoam head instead of having to crane my neck awkwardly to look in the mirror like I do when I inevitably mess up a French braid attempt on my own locks. You’ll see them on this blog eventually, when I’m ready to let them make their debut. For now, I’m still enjoying my pixie cut.

Too bad said pixie cut has an expiration date, because my oncologist and I finally set a schedule for my chemotherapy. It will begin on Tuesday, February 26, so mark your calendars! I may be nauseated on the day of or day after the infusion, but the meds should help prevent that. Then, in terms of aches and fatigue, I should feel worst on days 3-6, then steadily improve until day 21, when we’ll repeat the whole awesome cycle. Gordie’s returning to LA on day 4, so he may be here for a few days while I’m feeling crappy, but hopefully he won’t just be my caretaker – I have plenty of fun things planned for us.

Today I met some of the nurses at the infusion center and picked up my pre-med prescriptions, so I guess this is actually happening. The whole thing kind of reminds me of the time my friend Hayley forced me to ride the Tower of Terror at Disneyland. Time to just close my eyes, put on my safety gear/harnesses (which, in this case, are more mental than physical – although I guess the 5,000 drugs they’re prepping for me right now at CVS are kind of physical), try not to let a bunch of brave little kids show me up, and see if I can’t enjoy myself a little bit, one way or another.

Real talk

Dear ABC Programming Executives,

I would like to propose a unique addition to your spring lineup of primetime television shows. It will be called The Oncologist, and, like The Bachelorette, it will follow a young woman – who also happens to be a cancer patient – as she interviews 5,000 different oncologists to choose the one who is right for her. They’ll go on hot dates in the chemo ward, and all those dreamy helicopter scenes will take place in MedEvac choppers. Not only will there be boob shots, there will also be an enormous amount of boob fondling, boob pressing, boob gazing and even boob needle sticking. At the end of each episode she’ll hand the best oncologists a single plastic tube from a bouquet of surgical drains. “Dr. Jones, will you accept this Jackson-Pruitt bulb?” 

If you like that, just wait for my other proposals: Dancing with the Surgeons and Keeping Up with the Kancer Ward.

Warm regards,

Michelle

Today I had yet another meeting with yet another oncologist, but this time it had a different tone. Now that my pathology report is in from the surgery, we can stop talking in hypotheticals and start talking about what’s actually going to happen to me. We’re shooting for a chemo start date of Monday, February 25. I chose Monday because Mondays suck anyway, so what’s little poisonous vein detergent here and there? The oncologists are recommending six cycles of TCH, a standard chemotherapy regimen for my type of cancer, follow by an additional 12-14 cycles of Herceptin (the H in TCH) on its own. The infusions take around three to four hours each, during which they give you a happy cocktail of anti-anxiety, anti-nausea, anti-allergy meds that make you sleepy and silly, so most people just nap in the chair. Additionally, every single one of those treatments will be preceded by a blood draw and followed by a shot of Neulasta, a drug designed to boost white blood cell counts. Neulasta can cause debilitating pain, so I’ll be getting yet another painkiller to deal with that pleasant little side effect. Otherwise, the main things I can expect to experience are fatigue and baldness. Fortunately, they’ve developed great drugs for combating nausea and vomiting, which I can expect to more or less skip over. Too bad no one’s come up with a hair conservation technique yet. I’d take a night bowing to the porcelain gods to keep my flowing locks, but oh well. Chrome dome is the price you pay for admission to the Chemo Club.

Since I just outlined a treatment plan that involves being poked by needles about a million and one times, I’ve decided to get a PortaCath. The “port,” as the cool kids call it, like basically an implanted IV that’s threaded through the jugular vein and into the main valve above the heart, then connected to the outside of your body with a round resealing rubber access point that protrudes about 1/4-inch from the chest, below the clavicle. It’ll make me a lean, mean chemo machine. I also like to imagine it’ll make me part robot. And I won’t have to go through any airport TSA scanners for a year, since between it and the tissue expanders I’ll be like 50% metal.

The PortaCath means one more surgery, but at this point, who’s counting? (I am. That’ll make four. Four surgeries scheduled since diagnosis: mastectomy, port placement, egg harvesting and, eventually, the glorious implant exchange.)

One more quick thing – another beautiful bouquet came today, this time from the pledge class below mine back in my sorority days. Going Greek was one of the best things I ever did, and to this day my pledge sisters are among my best and closest friends. I was so moved to receive such a gorgeous gift from my sisters. Normally I like to thank my thoughtful friends with personal texts and emails (I’m still not into the phone since my phone cancer diagnosis gave me phone PTSD), but I don’t know which one of these beautiful and wonderful ladies to reach out to, so I’d like to thank them all here! You are such wonderful people and I’m so proud you’re my sisters! LITB and AXOXO. Thank you PC ’08! Don’t think I didn’t notice the carnations. 🙂