Wednesday, August 18, 2010

An Interesting Comparison

I just finished my summer school class, and I really can't seem to see how this was a "summer" class. It was 12 weeks, same as all my other 3 credit classes. While I am very happy to be done with this class, it reminds me of my trek through the world of cancer treatments. Well, sort of. Getting my Master's degree is a bit different from going through chemotherapy, but there are a lot more similarities that I would have ever thought.

First off, grad school gives me headaches. Staring at the computer, reading documents written by smarty pants that use words I have never heard, having to write documents with words I hadn't heard of, and working with people who don't necessarily see eye to eye. That has been my grad school experience so far, full of headaches.

Chemo made more than my head hurt. It made my body sore, and nauseated. Sometimes I had to listen to doctors use words I had never heard, but at least they were nice enough to explain in lay-man's terms. Chemo rendered me useless for days afterwards, but that very first day after, I had A LOT of energy. Chemo could make me very cranky (but I still reserve that right, I was dealing with cancer!).

Grad school makes me cranky. Problem with this one is, there are a whole lot of people who are going through the same thing I am, and maybe not complaining as much. :) Or there are even more people who have already been through what I have, but had it a lot worse. So, while reading, writing, listening, and working with people makes me cranky, I have to remind myself to suck it up, there is an end in sight.

We used to joke that we could see that light at the end of my chemo tunnel, and we just hoped that it wasn't the train! I honestly couldn't tell you the exact number of treatments I had, the number of shots (that one I could guess), the amount of CT scans (or AWFUL Barium I had to drink), or blood transfusions I endured as a cancer patient. But there is a key word there, ENDURED. That means I survived. If I could survive a year and a half of chemo, losing my hair, being away from the man I love, why I am complaining about grad school? Oh yeah, it's what I do!

A friend gave me a book for my 20th birthday, "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, and Its All Small Stuff." That is me, I worry  (and complain) about the small stuff, while the big stuff, like cancer, doesn't phase me. I did what I had to do to survive. That's who I am. It's kind of funny, as I started this post, this wasn't where I was going at all. I love that I am learning more and more about myself, by putting myself out there and sharing.

Okay, 21 credits (I hope) down, 19 more to go! May 15, 2011 will be here before I know it, and then I will just have to find some other project to annoy myself with, that reminds me what truly is important life. I am doing this to better myself.

So, while grad school gives me headaches, it has also exposed me to people and knowledge that I did not know or have. It has opened up my mind to world I thought I knew, given me opportunities to expand my horizons, figure out what I want to do with this one life I have. And I have to say, last August when I began this journey, I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I'm not saying I have figured out what I want to be when I "grow up," but there is a clearer path ahead of me, with different forks and options. I look forward to this journey, and wonder just where it will take me.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

You Find Out Who Your Friends Are

I have to say, loved ones came out of the wood work when I was daignosed with cancer. I always had a lot of friends, from all different walks of life. I was not necessarily popular, but I wasn't unpopular either. I belonged to the Math and Science club, the Industrial Arts club, National Honor Society and student government. I was well-rounded for sure. While I knew most everyone I went to school with, and was friends with most of them. I also only had a few very close friends. I had several different best friends in high school, and then there were the "closest" friends from each of my different categories.

After high school, I lost touch with most of them, for one silly reason or another. I really learned what true friendship was when I joined a sorority as a Freshman at UNLV. Of course, the sorority offered the "fake" and "superficial" friendships as well, but there are a handful of my sisters that, to this day, are my closest friends. I unfortunately do not see or speak with them all that often, but I know they are there. I am here for them when they need me, and they were there for me when I needed them.

I have to say that when I met my best friend, I knew we would be friends forever, but I never could have imagined just how close we would become. Monique is my sorority little sister (or lil sis), but is a few years older. We met when she went through recruitment, when we were both sophomores at UNLV. She is smart, funny, knows how to get me into and out of trouble. I actually followed her to England our Junior year, which (in a story of its own) was one of the best and not necessarily worst, experiences of my life. I learned so much about myself during that six months abroad.

Anyway, I digress. After I was diagnosed Monique, Susan (another sorority sister), and Tony (another study abroad student we met from Idaho) drove to see me in New Mexico. Any true friend would come to see me, you might be saying, but let me tell you about their trip. Vegas is about a nine hour trip from where I was living. Also, like I said, Tony was from Idaho. He drove the (I'm guessing) 15 hour drive from Idaho, to Las Vegas to pick up Monique and Susan, so they could all drive together. Also, Susan doesn't drive. At all. So he picks them up and they had south (to then go west). There is a strip of road from Las Vegas to Kingman, AZ, of about 100 miles or more, nothing once you've crossed the Hoover Dam. Along this stretch, they came across a body in the road. I will have to ask them to remind me if the guy was dead or not. To make a long story short, they stopped and waited for police (and an ambulance?) to come remove the body. This was during the day, in June, in the desert. They really are great people.

Once they made it to Los Lunas, we met at Chili's for dinner, and they regaled me with this story while waiting for Marshall to get in from Atlanta. He finally showed up, I made the introductions, and we had a great time. That night, back at Mom and Dad's we hung out, and I got a very special surprise from my two sorority sisters. I received my Alumnae badge (which I later found out was actually Susan's) and a candle pass for my engagement. Since all sororities have some sort of ceremony for engagements and the such, I think it is okay to mention that I had one, but that is as far as I will go into details. Sorry. :)

Monique, Susan, and Tony met up with Mom, Marshall and I at chemo the next day, and they stopped and bought pizza for lunch! We all hung out in my private room, and then when I started to get sleepy, I suggested that they go check out Old Town. I think they enjoyed themselves. The next morning, we all met up at the Village Inn to have breakfast before they had to be back on the road. I was so sorry to see them go, but very excited that they had come to see me.

A couple weeks later I was blessed with yet a second troupe from Las Vegas. Crystal and Danielle, two of the sorority sisters I mentioned as closest friends, flew in to spend the weekend with me. Unfortunately, this time I was not feeling as good, and we spent most of the weekend at my parents watching movies. One night we did venture out to Blockbluster, to pick up DVDs and something to eat. While Crystal and Danielle's trip was no where near as eventful as Monuique, Susan, and Tony's trip, it meant the world to me that they were willing to just hang out with me.

Two friends from high school, that I was sure I had burned bridges with also came to see me at my parents. Anita and Irene were friends from my "smarty" side. We were in honors classes together, and Anita and I were in student government together as well. We were the type of friends in high school that were always feuding. If one of us did something, they other two wouldn't speak to them. Typical high school girl drama. Unfortunately, up to that point, had never made it past the drama. It also meant the world to me that they came to see me. While we just hung out and talked, I knew that we had put the past behind us. I would also like to add these two amazing women to the list of people I still call friends. We were able to keep in touch through Facebook and Myspace, and even reconnected back in New Mexico while I was home.

I do have to say that MANY more people were in and out of my hospital rooms, and came to my parents house, but it really was these people that I mentioned, that reminded me what I was fighting for. Thank you all so much!

Friday, August 13, 2010

2nd Hospital Trip, Part 2

Okay, so I was in the hospital for the 2nd time, yet again having doctors and nurses on the floor murmuring about "the patient who was up and talking with a BP of 40/12." Well, I don't know that for sure, but I am thinking that is what was going on outside my door.

***WARNING*** This post is not pretty. I try not to be graphic, but your mind will go there, so I appologize in advance.

While my blood pressure to finally got back to normal, I still had a fever, and had diarrhea. Now for any normal person, this could be uncomfortable and embarrassing. Add in a 22 year old female who didn't have the strength or agility to get out of bed quickly. This part of my hospital stay is the worst, and one of the main reasons I have not wanted to write or talk about my experiences. While nothing is embarrassing to doctors and nurses who have seen it all, there are some things that normal people just don't think about. It's not so much what happened to me (as you can all guess) because I am sure that everyone has had their own issues at one point in their life. My humiliation comes from the nurses idea to combat my problem. Adult diapers. There is nothing dignified about having to wear a diaper when you are 22 years old. Not that there is anything dignified about cancer, but up to that point, I thought I still had a shred of my dignity.

To add insult to injury, I still could not lift myself off the toilet. Every time I got up to go to the bathroom, a nurse had to be called in to, literally, pick me up. I really wish I had kept a better journal back then, or had a better memory, because the only nurse who's name I remember is Robby. (If you've ever watched Scrubs, Robby looked a lot like a younger version of the guy who played the janitor, he also plays the dad on The Middle now, too.) There were also two female night nurses, one big and strong, another little and strong, that were very helpful during that time.

A secondary horror to the diarrhea, was the shot injection they gave me to help combat it. Within minutes of getting the shot, I would puke bile. No matter if I had just eaten or not, it was BILE. Burned my throat, so very gross, bile. (Sorry to be explicit here.) After a few days of this I asked Dr. Guidice if I could PLEASE just take the Immodium pills. Luckily he said yes. (I should probably find out what that shot was, as I am apparently allergic to it.)

Along with the shot for diarrhea, I was also given Lovenox shots, to keep me from getting blood clots. My mom is very familiar with this shot as several times she had to have it 40 days in a row. She says that the injection has a square tip, and I would have to agree, as the stick is quite painful. Worse than the stick is the black bruises it leaves behind. Oh well, I never had a blood clot, so I should be thankful that the shot did its job.

Speaking of all the medications I was given, at this point, I was on A LOT of pills. In fact, if I did not become a drug addict while I was a chemo patient, I don't think I ever could (or would) become one. For pain, I had been taking Percocet, 2 pills, 4 times a day. Considering I already had a tumor on my liver, the doctors did not want me continuing to kill it, by taking that much Percocet, so they put me on Duragesic patches. This is medicine (Fentanyl to be exact) applied and absorbed directly through the skin. The patch was to be worn for 72 hours and then changed out. They started me on a dose of 400mg, or (2) 200mg patches, and slowly weaned me off the Percocet. The Duragesic patches worked pretty good for pain management; however, I have a Latex allergy, and the patches are plastic, so I started breaking out around the edges of the patch. You could actually see an outline of the patch because it had cut into my skin. This meant that I had to rotate the areas where we applied it. My back, my chest, my arms, the patch got old quickly, but it worked.

For entertainment while hospitalized, the nursing staff brought me in a TV with VCR, and my mom so lovingly found all my favorite VHS tapes. (Wow, that sounds so archaric now.) She also bought me Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone, I was so excited! I love Harry Potter! Anyway, I spent my time watching movies, and hanging out with as many people as would come see me. As bad off as I was at this time, I thought my spirits were pretty high. This was also the hospitalization where  I got my Look Good...Feel Better make-over.

I found out a long time later from Marshall that this particular hospitalization scared everyone, and Dr. Guidice even told Marshall that my prognosis had gotten worse, and he then thought I had 2 months at the MOST. Boy am I glad I didn't know that at the time! There was a time when I considered giving up, but that was not at this point.

I do have to say that putting this certain aspect of my treatment down on "paper" was difficult, but not nearly as hard as I thought it would be. Now I can move on, and finish telling my story. And while there are other aspects of my treatment that were hard for me to deal with (like losing my hair), none were as humbling and humiliating as this.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

2nd Hospital Trip, Part 1

Okay, today I start the hardest blog for me to write, just because a lot of the most horrible things happened to me during this second hospitalization. I am going to break the story up into at least 2, maybe even 3, posts.

After my first chemo, I did okay. The doctors told us what to look for, but we really had no idea what to expect. Marshall had to fly back to Atlanta on Sunday, and I was starting to fade. By Wednesday I had a fever that would just not break. I remember getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and sometimes it would take me a while. Sometimes, I just did not even have the energy. One morning, not even sure of the time, it could have been the middle of the night, actually, I needed to get up, but just couldn't muster myself to get up. For some reason, and not really sure where the strength came from, but I stuck my leg in the air, hoping that someone would see me.

Not sure how long I laid there like that, but Mom came in and said Montana came to get her. (Montana is my brother's dog, he looks like a blue heeler, but is about 3-4 times bigger than a normal one, and became my saving grace many times.) I told mom I needed to go to the bathroom, so she helped me put my leg down, and stand up. Once in the bathroom, I could not get myself up, again. As I was sitting there, waiting for my mom to get my dad to help her, my legs (both of them) started falling asleep, then the worst thing possible happened. I got calf cramps in both of my legs. Normally when this happens, I put all my weight on my foot, in order to stretch the muscle. My position on the toilet did not allow for this. Not exactly sure when mom called the paramedics, but I think between her and dad being unable to help me up, and the fever that still hadn't broke, she was told to call them, probably by the on-call oncologist.

So, I am sitting on the toilet, calves still cramped up, when 2 paramedics come in and pull me off the toilet. They help me into the dining room, where I sit down, and dad gives me my daily meds. They check my vitals, bring in a gurney, and then I am loaded up and heading to Presbyterian hospital, yet again.  One of the medics tried like 3 or 4 times to start an IV on me in the ambulance, but no dice. (I can still show you the scar on the back of my right hand from one of the places he tried to stick.)

Get to the hospital, wheeled into the ER, and they start to transfer me to a bed. Someone (mom?) says, NO, she is supposed to go straight up to the 5th floor (Oncology), and so they stop trying to move me, and I am taken straight upstairs. Once I am situated in a room (which basically means, in bed, with an automatic blood pressure cuff attached) is when the fun begins. The auto-cuff is reading that my BP is 40/12. WHAT? Well, that can't be right, so they bring in another machine, still 40/12. They call in another nurse, and both begin to check my BP manually. 40/12. Mind you, I am wide awake at this time, and bitching and moaning that I HATE having my blood pressure taken, couldn't they just draw blood instead, mom, this hurts, make them stop! So the nurses are completely perplexed, because, yes, my BP is 40/12, and I am wide awake and talking. Apparently, most people with a blood pressure that low would be in a coma. Well, from that point on, I had 2 automatic cuffs hooked up to me, set to check my BP every 15 minutes, as well as 2 nurses coming in to check my BP in between the times that the auto cuff is set to go off. Did I mention I HATE having my blood pressure taken?

This is another time that my mom says of course I was talking, I had to tell them what was wrong with me, and I couldn't do that if I was in a coma.

Blood pressure finally stabilized, my theory is that I had already taken the little blue blood pressure pill, and my dad accidentally gave me a second one with my morning pills.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Funny Story 2

Since I have written about my first chemo treatment this week, I guess it is the appropriate time to tell my second funny story, about what happened after my first chemo.

As I have said before, I went through chemo at New Mexico Oncology and Hematology Consultants (now the New Mexico Cancer Center), which is located about 30 miles north of Los Chavez, NM, where my parents live. As I said before, Marshall came in that weekend for my first chemo, and rented an SUV to get around. We learned quickly that I could not get in and out of lower vehicles, due to my increasing weakness in arms and legs.

After 6 hours of being infused, and multiple trips to the bathroom, I was pretty zonked out. Marshall drove mom and I in that morning, and was driving us home that late afternoon. I was sitting in the front seat, mom in the back, probably listening to the radio, and letting all that we had been through soak in. We had gotten south of Albuquerque on Interstate-25, north of Los Lunas. All of a sudden, from out of nowhere, this tire comes flying off the road, rolls up the hood of the car, rolls over the side, and takes out the passenger side view mirror! All the while Marshall is driving probably 80 miles an hour (the speed limit there is 75). Talk about waking you up!

We all composed ourselves (still while Marshall was driving) and headed down the road. I'm surprised I seriously didn't have a heart attack! We made it home safely, but unfortunately, the rental cars side view mirror was toast. Cracked glass, kind of tilted to the side in an unnatural manor. If my first chemo wasn't memorable enough, we will never forget that day.

Damage to side view mirror from "flying" tire

We now have a running joke when driving south on I-25: "Watch out for flying tires!"

The BEST Medicine I've Found!

I remember back in July of 2003, I was taken off of certain medications, and told that I could drink alcohol again. Marshall and I had found a winery in Gatlinburg, TN called Smoky Mountain Winery, and fell in LOVE. They have about 20 types of wine, most made with muscadine grapes. Turns out these muscadine grapes are CHOCK FULL of antioxidants! I don't really believe in coincidences (I'm an "everything happens for a reason" kind of girl), so I attribute a lot of my survival on this wine. Around the time I began drinking it, my tumors started to get a lot smaller. First the lung tumors went away, and the tumor in the liver began to shrink.
I, along with my family, believe that chemo, prayer, and muscadine wine saved my life. I have found that MANY vineyards in the southeast grow muscadine grapes, however, a lot of this wine is very syrupy. I prefer a slightly sweet wine over dry, however, I prefer my wine very crisp. If you find yourself in Gatlinburg, the Smoky Mountain Winery is in Winerry Square, west of the Parkway, after 441/321 split. (We have also tried Apple Barn Winery and Mountain Valley Winery in nearby Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, TN and Chateau Elan, outside Atlanta, but they all fell into the syrupy category.) Duplin Winery in North Carolina was the first winery I found that would ship to New Mexico, and had decent wine, but now we stock up in Gatlinburg. My mom is even drinking it now to help with her blood disorder.
I personally love the Mountain Red and Mountain White, but also buy the Brookside White for cooking, as it is drier than the Mountain versions. And if you really prefer the sweet, but not necessarily dessert wines, the Muscadine White and Muscadine Red are really good too. :)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Stand Up 2 Cancer!

Stand Up 2 Cancer was hugely successful in 2008, and they are doing it again, September 10, 2010!

How many other times in life can you remember the three major networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, simulcasting, with their top anchors on the same stage?

I know how difficult it was for me to watch the last broadcast, but I also know how very important it is for cancer research to get this kind of publicity. The Susan G Koman Foundation has brought breast cancer awareness to the forefront of Americans' minds, but breast cancer is not the only cancer out there. (I am sure at some point I will TRY and share my opinion on the pink phenomenon.)

Please tune in to this ground breaking broadcast. In 2008 SU2C raised over $100 million, and I really hope they can do even better this time around. Research needs money to end this horrible disease that tried to take my life, and succeeded at taking so many others.


I was diagnosed with Metastatic Carcinoma of Unknown Primary. Big words that basically meant I had cancer, it had spread, and they didn't know where it started. How do doctors treat something that they don't know much about? Shotgun therapy. That is what we were told they were going to do. At the time, I had heard this phrase before, but I really had no clue what it meant. Apparently, it means shoot it with all they've got, and hope and pray it works. This is EXACTLY what we did.

I began my chemo treatments on a Friday in May. (Quite possibly the first Friday, but I don't remember the exact date.) When I met with Dr. Guidice to go over my prognosis and treatment plan, he told me that we would try this shotgun therapy, every three weeks. And if I didn't take well to it, to let him know and we would stop. Otherwise, every three weeks, with CT scans like every 12 weeks. The chemo, Taxol and Carboplatin, would be administed over 6 hours.

My first chemo session at New Mexico Oncology

Marshall came in for my first chemo treatment. I was scared, but opptomistic that this would save my life. I don't remember a lot from that first day. I got there and was taken to a private room with a bed. An IV was started, and blood was drawn. Like most therapies, my blood counts were important in the dosage. I was given saline to keep the vein open while they ran my labs. I wish I could remember what was said to comfort me, and my family, on this first foray into being a cancer patient, but I really don't. Another standard of my chemo, was a dose of Benadryl, given through the IV, in case I had any sort of allergic reaction. Benadryl, of course, puts me to sleep. So I was excited that I would get to sleep through most of the chemo, since 6 hours is a LONG time. Well, I had hoped I would sleep. Funny thing about receiving IV fluids over 6 hours, it makes you have to pee. Like every half hour it seemed. Luckily, the restroom was right outside the private room I was in, unluckily, I was extremely weak. Marshall had to help me up each time, and the toilet in the bathroom was so low, I could not physically pull myself up, after going to the bathroom. I wish I could say that this was the worst humiliation I suffered while going through treatments, but it was just the tip of the iceberg.

The nursing staff at New Mexico Oncology really were my angels, and for my second chemo, had gotten a toilet riser, which if you have never heard of this, it is an elevated seat, with handles. I was so very excited that I would not need help getting off the toilet. Only problem, I was getting weaker and weaker as the weeks went on. Getting up was no longer the main issue, but just getting to the bathroom in the first place. Again, the wonderful nurses had another idea to make my chemo sessions as hassle-free for me and my mom (and Marshall when he could make it) as possible. They suggested a catheter. Wait, what?!?!? Yeah, that doesn't sound hassle free, AND it sounds painful. It took a little convincing, but the catheter won out in the end. I don't remember exactly how many weeks and chemo treatments I had a catheter inserted, but it was a few or more. There were definite ups to the catheter. I could sleep through the treatment once the Benadryl kicked in, which was generally around 3-4 hours.

I wrote earlier of secondary effects of chemotherapy, but there was some immediate effects I had to deal with. First, chemo plays havoc on your blood cells, so even though I was only scheduled for chemo every three weeks, I had to go into the oncologists office every Friday, to have my blood drawn. Depending on my levels, red blood counts and white blood counts, I had a have a shot, sometimes two. Pretty much every Friday I had to have a Procrit shot. This shot is to help increase the amount of red blood cells, and hurts like hell. The best way to receive this shot is very slowly, as it burns less. The shot for white blood cells, Neupogen was given less often, but was much worse. You see, in order to produce more white cells, you have to get the bone marrow involved, and for those of you who don't remember, bone marrow is INSIDE the bones. Stimulating the inside of the bones is not fun, and very painful. This shot was also given in threes. After three injections, they would check my blood again, and if they white blood cells hadn't increased, I had to keep getting the shot. I learned after the first shot to take ibuprofen BEFORE the shot. On those Fridays, when I wasn't sure if I neeed the Neupo (as it was referred to) or not, I would take 400mg of ibuprofen right after.

Chemo, and weekly blood tests became a steady part of my life, and I guess the biggest thing I can say, at least I was never afraid of needles.