So I’m home! I checked in to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center on April 13, and I checked out on May 12 around 2 pm. After a month of radiation, chemo and the auto stem cell transplant, I hope to be cancer-free when my next PET scan rolls around in August.

I can’t express enough gratitude to my family and friends for all the support the past month. Thank you for the gifts, cards and the words of support. They truly sustained me during my time in the hospital, whether it was a gossip magazine to read while I was climbing the walls or Easter candy when I could still eat or an email telling me to hang in there.

I’d also like to thank the staff of MSKCC for taking good care of me and being unfailingly nice and understanding during an extremely difficult time. This includes the doctors, nurses, food staff and cleaning crew, who all made me feel as if I was in good hands and listened to. I do miss my afternoon tea service and bedside yoga. I never want to go back, for obvious reasons, but it’s as good a hospital experience as you can hope for. Also thank you to the nurses who had to re-introduce themselves to me after taking care of me during my post-transplant morphine haze. Even if I can’t remember much, the care given to me during that time doesn’t go unappreciated.

Here’s a long update, broken down into subcategories. Now that I’m recovering, I don’t expect to abandon my blog, especially since I still haven’t returned to work.

Panic disorder scare and Ambien. By Monday, I’d regained my sanity, but had been having trouble sleeping my last few nights in the hospital.

In fact, I took Ambien for the first time three nights ago, as well as some Ativan to quell some panic feelings. As someone who used to have panic disorder, I felt the sleepytime panic jitters. I’ve been through a lot this past month. I keep forgetting that all the drugs, from the Ativan to the morphine, might have me feeling a little off. I was especially worried that my panic disorder would return, but thankfully, I was just afflicted that night.

A word to those who want to tell me to just calm down or not worry: Thanks for your well-meaning advice but that’s not what panic disorder is. Asking me to will my panic symptoms away is kind of like asking me to will my cancer away. If I would, I could, but panic disorder and panic attacks are physical conditions.

Sometimes, people say they’re having a panic attack, but they are just freaking out. A real panic attack feels like you’re dying and losing your mind at the same time. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Not even my celebrity nemesis, Prince. (It’s a long story, but in my version, I emerge victorious over him, of course.)

Panic attacks are basically your body’s fight or flight response. The problem is that it happens with no obvious trigger. One moment, you’re waiting to get your tire changed, the next moment, your heart is racing, your extremities are numb, you’re sweating, and you feel like your brain is trying to leave your body in a weird, dissociative feeling. It’s a natural thing that happens at the wrong time.

The worst part of panic attacks, though, is that no one understands them and thinks you can somehow calm yourself out of them. People understand cancer, but when you have panic disorder, you often get a lot of side-eye. Or well-meaning, but misguided advice to just get over it.

Anyway, I always go out of my way to try to explain panic disorder—when you keep getting panic attacks over and over again—to people. Granted, some of it is mental. With panic disorder, you worry so much about having another attack, you create triggers for yourself and end up having attacks. People with panic disorder often become agoraphobic, because they’re afraid to go out and have panic attacks, or alcoholics, if they try to self-medicate.

I was dangerously close to the latter, before some cognitive behavioral therapy and medication. I finally got through my panic disorder, but it’s not something I want to revisit.

I’ve been avoiding taking Ativan, because of my old panic issues, although it helped during the stem cell transplant. It’s also offered to quell nausea, but I’d usually opt for the alternative. Also, knock on wood, I rarely have nausea. The weight loss I’ve experienced is from indigestion and general esophagus trauma from the radiation.

Yet three nights ago, I found myself taking Ativan and Ambien. The latter also makes me nervous. “What if I drive?” I asked the nurse who came in to administer the Ambien.

“Well, you’re in here, so you can’t do much,” she pointed out. I would have to disconnect myself from my medication pole somehow and then steal a car to drive out of the hospital. Still, I worried I’d go crazy and rip out my IV or just generally be a weirdo. Since the staff had seen me having morphine conversations with myself, though, there’s not much more I could to in the weird department.

People do some strange stuff on Ambien, though, from cooking meals to shopping. One of my favorite writers, Laurie Notaro, dreamed up a fart chart that she included in her latest book. I don’t have that kind of comedic genius in my subconscious. Ambien made me think about sleep, really think about it. Like I wondered where my servants would also sleep. (I suspect my subconscious Ambien self is a Gwyneth Paltrow type.)

What if I tried to start an uprising and liberate my fellow patients? That seems like something I’d try to do. The nurse added that it’s the lowest dose of Ambien they give out.

I finally, blissfully, fell asleep and to my knowledge, didn’t exhibit any weird behavior. I took it for the few following nights, but I think I was stir-crazy. By the last night, I reversed my bed so my head was at the bottom and my feet were at the top, and I slept about three hours. I was also Christmas-morning eager to go home, so that factored in.

I slept Ambien-free last night, in my own bed, with my squishy pillow. I hope to get back to normal sleeping once my throat heals.

I had my line pulled. What does this mean? No more leukapheresis catheter! I’m line-free. Not attached to anything. I don’t have tubes poking out of my chest.

What I did have, however, was a major case of the heebie-jeebies. If you’re squeamish, skip ahead. To take out your line, they just snip the stitches and yank it out. That doesn’t seem right, but there you go. Yesterday, I had breakfast and then a shower and went straight to IR to have my line removed. I was going to break my Ativan rule and ask for it, as long as it was being offered, and my squeamish self was going to have a tube yanked from my chest. But I didn’t have time. They assured me it would be quick.

Luckily, I didn’t have to stew in my own squeamishness long before the doctor arrived. He matter-of-factly informed me about the snipping and pulling. I refrained from asking him an inane question, like, Are you sure this is the best way? I did ask, however, “Will this be gross?” He said no and was mostly right.

Since my line had been in for almost two months, he was concerned it wouldn’t want to come out. This concerned me too. He snipped and tugged. It didn’t want to come out.

He then gave me some lidocaine shots (ouch, a little), and then did some snipping with scissors. Finally, it came out, and I am free. I am still squeamish about the whole thing, though. I won’t be entering the medical profession anytime soon.

Release. Hi again, fellow squeamish people. After my line was pulled, I had some instructions to listen to and some medications to go over. At 2 pm, I was released. Finally.

I can eat only ice cream. Well, mostly ice cream. There are worse fates, I suppose. To get released, I had to show I can eat 1,000 calories and drink at least 1.5 liters of water. It’s frustrating, because I usually can eat like a champ, and I drink water all day long.

The issue is my throat pain, still from the radiation. It’s difficult to swallow, and therefore, eat. I also still have somewhat painful burps, so eating hurts twice.

I’ve been having a lot of smoothies—specifically a hospital pediatric concoction called the Cranky Monkey (banana, coconut milk, yogurt and chocolate ice cream). It still takes me forever—well, hours, to drink one. Plain ice cream is the easiest thing to eat—nice and cold and melty. Mostly, I’m eating soft foods—mashed potatoes, milkshakes, yogurt, etc. Tonight, my boyfriend’s made me polenta. I am spoiled.

Yesterday, before I left the hospital, I couldn’t resist the lunch special, sesame chicken. I ordered a half-order and barely made a dent in it, but it was delicious. And it was nice to chew again. Once I can eat, I’ll be sure to pack on this lost weight. I’m hungry.

Also, as someone who didn’t and couldn’t eat, for several weeks, if you tell me you’re on a diet cleanse, I’m going to punch you square in the mouth and then you’ll see what not eating feels like. I’ve tried to be understanding about cleanses, even when I was a nutrition editor, but here are the facts: Your body doesn’t need a “break” from digesting. Right now, I’m recovering from my “break.” If you believe you are full of toxins, you are full of something, but not eating isn’t going to solve your problem. I’m not staying quiet about my cleanse feelings anymore. If you can eat something, then do.

“Probation.” Now that I want time to pass quickly, I have all the time in the world. I miss feeling like I don’t have enough hours in the day. I am eager to get back to work.

A fellow transplant patient whom I virtually “met” through the blog, said that while hospital was like jail, the next three to six months are like probation. I have to agree. The list of restrictions are long. Here are a few restrictions, as several of you have asked.

1. No crowds. I have to avoid crowds in a city of 8 million people. It can be done, but it’s tricky. This means no concerts, no movies at peak times, etc.

2. No germs. No sick people. I also can’t get vaccinated for MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) for a year.

3. No gardening. I just found this out yesterday. I am going to have my boyfriend do the garden dirty work this year, while I supervise. Looks like I’m planting mainly perennials this year. Actually, this might be the year I do the Orange Flower Experiment. Orange plants thrive in my garden, from nasturtiums to mums. I might just plant orange and green things this year and call it a season.

4. No fresh vegetables. I miss salads. But I have to be wary of germs, so I’m not allowed fresh vegetables or fruits, aside from thick-skinned oranges and bananas. And, of course, no sushi, oysters or anything that’s not thoroughly cooked. And no restaurants or take-out, at least for awhile. I’m lucky my boyfriend is a good cook.

5. No drinking. I can’t imagine ever wanting to drink again with the way my stomach is. But the time will come, just not at least for three months. That’s OK with me for now. Talk to me in two months. Some of my friends got me a cool bar map of NYC, so once I am back to my old form, I intend to use it wisely.

Still, probation is better than jail. So now, I wait. My counts are coming back up, but it’s going to take some time…and more patience.

Here is a photo of my cat genuinely confused by a card that looks like a hot dog.  He even gave the card a few preliminary licks before giving up.

Here is a photo of my cat genuinely confused by a card that looks like a hot dog. He even gave the card a few preliminary licks before giving up.

I was supposed to be in the hospital right now, receiving my second round of augmented ICE. Instead, I am lounging in bed and catching up on work—and, of course, this blog. I have mixed feelings about this—obviously, I’d rather not be in the hospital, but it’s just a three-day respite from the inevitable. Instead, I’m going in tomorrow, just in time for the snowstorm. (One of the many snowstorms of this winter.)

I have mixed feelings about the weather too—on one hand, it makes going to the hospital and doctors’ appointments, of which there will be many, less pleasant, but on the other hand, I have to be a hermit through May, and hermitlike through mid July, when the weather is beautiful. (I expect the winter to be done by then, at least.) This is when I wished I’d skipped the Brentuximab and gotten all this unpleasantness over with in the winter. Ah, well.

Friday, I packed up my hospital suitcase full of loungewear and my blanket and headed to my doctor’s appointment before the scheduled leukapheresis catheter placement. When the doctors saw the arm with the two clots, however, they decided to delay catheter placement and my hospital stay. My arm at that point looked better than it did on Thursday, when it swelled to giant proportions. I was worried it would burst open like a piñata filled with blood, but I realized this is probably not possible.

After a night of a heating pad and menthol pain patches, my arm was still red and hot to the touch. And it hurts. Sometimes, it feels like a tiny flame is in my arm. I rated the pain a five or six, but my boyfriend told the doctor it’s an eight. He corrects me a lot at the doctor, and I always wonder if they write down what I’ve said or his opinions. I think I have to agree with him in order for them to take his into account. An eight is pretty serious though. I maintain this is a six.

In case my arm is infected, I’m on antibiotics, and I went for another ultrasound. Apparently, the clots are the same size. They’re just inexplicably more painful and annoying. So I got some more Lovenox to inject daily to try to clear them up.

I start chemo on Monday and then I have my catheter placement on Tuesday. In the meantime, they might use a PICC line for the chemo, since my veins have been less than cooperative.

On Friday,  I did meet with the transplant doctor, who gave me an idea of what’s in store in the coming months. Spoiler alert: Not much in the way of fun.

The saddest news came when she asked me if I have pets. When she found out, I have two cats, she had a list of don’ts. I can’t change the litter, but that’s my boyfriend’s job anyway. Also, she said I have to keep them away from my face until mid-July. What? How am I supposed to resist burying my face in their fuzzy bellies?

Also, one of the cats is extremely proactive about touching our faces. Just the other night, she was curled up by my boyfriend’s face, rubbing her wet nose against his cheek while he tried to sleep. I wake up with her paw on my shoulder or her face buried in my neck, or sometimes I wake up because she’s pressing her nose against mine.

The doctor is very knowledgeable about stem cell transplants and medicine, for which I am grateful, but I suspect she knows very little about cats when she suggested we break the cat of her habits. There’s no teaching a cat anything. It’s going to be a long, sad three months.

I didn’t cry when I pulled my hair out or applied duct tape to my head. I didn’t cry when I heard about my upcoming “hell week.” But I did cry about this. Sometimes, I’ll just look at the cats and tear up. It’s not even like I won’t be able to pet them. I guess it’s just a symbol of how things are going to change in the coming months. Also, I love kitty-cats.

I have to make sure all their shots are up-to-date, so luckily we just took them to the vet. They are senior cats, but in far better shape than I am right now. In fact, the female cat is in the shape of a cat one-third her age. I wish she could understand the vet, because she is vain and would enjoy this news.

Aside from the cats, I’ll have to avoid alcohol, something I had assumed was a given. Once your fast-growing cells are poisoned and you have to take anti-nausea drugs, drinking isn’t something you feel like doing. Also, after the last ICE, the nurse advised drinking at least two liters of water a day so the drugs don’t irritate the bladder and cause bleeding. So I stayed extremely hydrated, although I’d have a little coffee with milk during the second week. Of course, I’d love to hit happy hour instead of giving myself blood thinner injections. I think I could do an excellent job of thinning my blood on my own. Alas.

I’m also supposed to walk to help with recovery. Vigorous exercise is out—I haven’t done my workout DVDs since the first round of ICE and I managed to do yoga only four times since, after being thwarted by my fever, hospital stay and the arm I can’t move because of the clots. The thing is, I don’t want to walk outside when it’s cold, and there’s no sign of spring in sight. I’ve thought of getting an elliptical, but I have a small Brooklyn apartment. I do have a Leslie Sansone walking DVD that I got when I worked at a women’s magazine and edited the fitness section of the blog. The magazine shut down before I had a chance to watch it, and I’m intrigued. It could be a nice indoor walking solution that doesn’t take up much space.

I can do gentle yoga, but I’ll have that chest catheter so I’m wary of stretching. The doctor advises stretching a little bit once it’s in, but in addition to the heebie-jeebies, I can’t move my right arm much because the clots hurt.

At some point, I’m also going to get a blood transfusion.

I got a thick binder full of information from the doctor all about the transplant with fun topics like hair loss, catheter care and giving Neupogen injections twice a day. I haven’t even scratched the surface. For those asking what’s in store and my schedule, here’s an idea:

March 3–5: Second round of augmented ICE, catheter placement. I am not looking forward to having tubes sticking out of my chest. This gives me the heebie-jeebies. There will be two for the stem cell collection—one to take my blood out and the other to put it back in once the stem cells are removed and my blood spins around in a machine.

March 7–16: Neopogen injections, a catheter dressing change. We’ll do the former, but I’m glad we don’t have to do the latter. The shots to increase stem cells might cause bone pain, I’m told. They’re going to give me pain medication, but I hate taking pain medication. I don’t even like to take aspirin. I do hate pain, though, so we’ll see.

March 17–19: Stem cell collection. This involves sitting around for four hours, while your blood is taken out and put back in. It doesn’t sound so bad. During these days, I also have a flurry of tests and appointments, including an echocardiogram and a pulmonary function test, as well as an appointment with a social worker to mentally prepare me for the transplant. The best part of this process is that I have to eat a high-dairy diet these days. Bring on the milkshakes and cheese. (Greens also have a lot of calcium, so I’ll be sure to eat those as well.)

Stem cell collection might take longer than three days. They need 5 million. The record to beat is 32 million, but the doctor said that person had a lot of bone pain, so I’m OK if it takes longer. I’d like it to take only two to three days, if possible. I hope my bone marrow cooperates.

March 24: PET scan. I need a clear one to go on to the transplant, so I hope I pass! It would be nice to finally get a clear PET scan, something I’ve been hoping for since October. And I think I start outpatient radiation this week.

April: If everything goes well, five days of inpatient radiation and three weeks in the hospital for the transplant. The radiation is supposed to have unpleasant side effects, so I’m just in the hospital so they can keep an eye on me. Then the first week, when they do the chemo, is supposed to be OK. They keep referring to the second week as the bad one. Someone called it “hell week.” I’m scheduled to speak with a volunteer who has been through this to answer any questions. Also, someone left a comment on my last blog about a friend of hers who did a stem cell transplant for refractory Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is doing well. It’s always nice to hear tales from the other side.

In the third week, I start a long recovery—about three months of rest and isolation from crowds and six months until I’m 100 percent. I’m a little disappointed to hear that the first month of recovery is so intense and that I’ll need 24-hour supervision. Of course, I didn’t expect to emerge from the hospital feeling great. But I’ll have the immune system of a newborn.

So that’s what’s in store! The next steps start tomorrow, and as much as I’m wary of what’s in store for the next few months, I’m also eager to move towards the end.

I’ve been doing really well with the chemotherapy, as far as side effects go—knock on wood—only to be felled by the common cold. And the virus also brought on an eye infection, so I’ve had to wear my glasses. Not only are they a few prescriptions behind, but wearing my glasses in public is like putting on a mantle of all my middle school insecurities. In my glasses, I’m Superman reduced to Clark Kent.

When I woke up with a sore throat last Sunday, however, freaking out was my first order of business. The one thing I’m supposed to do is stay well, because of my suppressed immune system. I’ve temporarily given up Bikram yoga to avoid being in a hot room of other people’s bodily fluids. (I’ve never gotten a cold from being in a Bikram room, but I don’t want to risk it now that I’m more vulnerable to viruses.) I skip workouts with shared equipment and have been trying to do yoga at home. (By trying, I mean thinking about it, but not actually unrolling my mat very often.)

Avoiding germs is easier said than done in a city of 8 million people. If you have a suppressed immune system, every cough on a crowded train or bus is magnified. I’ve never been much of a germophobe, so until now, I’ve never been aware of how often people cough and sneeze directly on and at you. In one case, I even switched train cars, but that was only after the coughing man produced a razor from his pocket and started shaving and his coughing turned to maniacal laughter.

After doing some internet searches, however, I found message boards where other people who had gotten sick between treatments five and six discussed their experiences. They got antibiotics and were fine, to my relief. I went in to see my oncologist, and she prescribed a Z-pack and eye drops for my infection. Since I was the germy person in the waiting room, and the other cancer patients also have compromised immune systems, I had to wear a mask. Downside: I couldn’t breathe without fogging up my glasses. Upside: I can start a Clinic cover band.

It wasn’t my week. The magazine I worked for had folded a few days before I got sick, leaving me unemployed. I spent my last chemotherapy session emailing my freelance writers and frantically sending in invoices and typing with one hand, because the other had an IV in it.

Wearing my glasses was the final indignity that took me to a dark place. Not having to work was both good and bad. I had time to rest, but I also had time to wallow in self-pity. So I spent a few days feeling sorry for myself, an unemployed writer with cancer who had to wear her glasses.

It might seem strange that that is what I focused on—well, as much focusing as my astigmatism will allow—with everything going on. When I got contacts at age 14, things started turning around for me. I started dating. I went from being a nerdy outcast to a rebellious, somewhat cooler outcast.

“You’re being quiet,” a friend observed on Saturday night.

“It’s because of my glasses,” I replied. “I just don’t feel like myself.”

Another friend turned to me on Thursday and said, “Wearing your glasses really bothers you.”

I suppose I’ll have to deal with all my adolescent insecurities. I was overweight until about 7th grade, and I had a dream this week in which my boyfriend told me I was getting chubby. Even I was surprised by that side effect of being bespectacled.

I took a cardio kickboxing class and my glasses kept slipping down my nose, bringing back traumatizing gym class memories. But only to a point. I’m in much better shape at 35 than I was at 10, even with the cancer and working out less. And no one tried to throw a dodge ball in my face. The fitness center I attend now is much more supportive than grade school gym.

In college, when I got an eye infection, I’d walk around campus without my glasses, unable to see. I would get calls from people I accidentally ignored, asking why I didn’t wave back.

I was like Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in Square Pegs, certain that my glasses are ruining my life.

I think I’ve been complaining so much about my glasses because it’s a “normal” pre-cancer concern for me. It was oddly comforting to have a mundane concern among my newer, scarier health issues.

I really need to get a new prescription. But after my week of wearing glasses, I realized that my insecurities are silly, and I need to outgrow them. I feel I see a little more clearly already.