The good news is, despite so much evidence to the contrary over the years, my brain appears normal, according to Thursday’s MRI. Relieved, we headed home from urgent care, and the next morning I went for a spine MRI. I am awaiting results with that familiar feeling of anticipation and dread, worried what it might show yet also worried it might not give any answers.

I feel myself becoming desperate—for answers and for hope. For four years, I have been trying to hold it together, through the lymphoma, the stem cell transplant, the first neuroendocrine tumor and the Whipple procedure, but now I feel as if I just can’t do this anymore. For the first time, I feel as if I’ve lost hope. I have been trying to continue on as normally as possible while trying not to do any physical activity that aggravates the nerve and muscle pain. When I do get a muscle spasm or, like today, pains deep within my calves, it’s not so much the physical discomfort as the sheer panic of not knowing what’s wrong (or what I can do) that bothers me.

On Friday, I called my oncologist to see if the numbness could be related to something my general practitioner brought up: paraneoplastic syndrome. It’s rare, but then again, so are neuroendocrine tumors, as is having two unrelated cancers at the same time. (I bought a lotto ticket in case my penchant for crazy odds could be in my favor, but yet again, no such luck.) The symptoms can include peripheral neuropathy and shingles after what appears to be a cold, and that all fits, though that is from my Googling and I really have no medical knowledge. I’m trying not to fall into an Internet hole reading about how the neuropathy is often irreversible, though it seems as if treatment for the underlying cancer can help. Unfortunately, treatment is on hold for at least another week until the shingles clear up.

The neurologist I saw this week seems to think the neuropathy and nerve pain is from the chemotherapy I had, but that what over a year and a half ago. I also mentioned to the urgent care doctor that my chemotherapy was a long time ago, and he said that it takes “a long time for these things to go away.” I never had such severe symptoms to begin with, though, so I am a little puzzled. He also said there’s “no magic cure for this.” Even without a magic cure, I’d like some answers and at least the possibility of relief, especially since this has been progressing for a month and a half.

I felt guilty for going to urgent care, and I felt even worse when I called the oncologist’s office and the person I spoke with on the phone questioned why I would go to the emergency room when I had spoken with the nurse the day before. (I could tell she sounded annoyed too.) “I just felt really bad,” I stammered. “I was dizzy and my head felt weird.” I knew it didn’t sound good. I don’t believe in wasting people’s time. What I wanted to say but didn’t, because I didn’t want to sound dramatic, was that I felt like I was dying. I have been sent to urgent care several times over the years and I know it’s a busy place with long waits, particularly if you’re lucky enough to not be in a dire situation. I wouldn’t have gone there if I didn’t feel as if I was about to pass out at my desk. “I really thought that I might die,” sounded ridiculous too, and I swallowed my words.

The terrible thing is that I think about death every day and the thought of no more pain or questions is appealing. Then I am appalled with myself. I have this thought every day. I know it’s terrible. It’s ungrateful. It’s an affront to everyone else fighting to live. Yet it occurs and I just let the sadness and disgust settle. Earlier this week, as I slept, I felt as if I could have died, as if death were an open door and I just had to slip through, but at the last second, I resisted. I woke up with my nose clogged and struggling to breathe a bit, so it wasn’t as dramatic as my dream state suggested.

I feel as if I’m becoming a pest, but the worse my symptoms become, the more desperate I feel. I have gone from feeling worried to scared to terrified over the past few months, and I am worried I have no answers in the future, only more pain and more questions.

My boyfriend, who listens to a lot of my calls to the doctors, says I’m not accurately describing the severity of the pain and numbness and he has always said I downplay my symptoms. It’s true. I feel as if I don’t want to bother the doctors with my troubles or I worry they think I am overdramatic. However, I think I’m past that point. My missives in my patient portal are sounding unhinged. Instead of “My head hurts and my body is numb. Should I be worried?” my recent messages are more like desperate pleas for help. When I feel bad or worry that I might be seen an impatient patient, I remember: They are not the ones who are in constant pain and discomfort. They are not the ones who can’t sleep because their muscles hurt and legs are twitching uncontrollably. They are not the ones who can’t do the same physical activity that was possible just a week ago. They don’t sit at their desks feeling as if they are going to pass out. Their chores aren’t hampered by deep calf pain. And they might not know how I really feel. I need to more accurately describe the severity of my symptoms and my concerns without sounding like a crazy person. (The latter, I’m afraid, is too late, but I suppose all cancer patients lose their minds from time to time.)

Before my Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis, I was put off by some doctors for a few months and you would think I would learn. The difference is, I have confidence in all the doctors I am seeing now, but I’m starting to lose hope that I will ever get “better” and that I will always be like this. I need some answers and some hope, and both seem elusive.

 

I haven’t posted too much on my recovery, because it’s pretty boring and gross. It’s mostly sleeping too much or being in some sort of gastrointestinal distress. Honestly, it’s a lot of hoping to poop, or at least hoping to poop in some sort of normal fashion without a lot of drama. Recovery from a lot of major illnesses or surgeries reduces you to an infant, with an existence that revolves around sleeping, eating and pooping. This post won’t be graphic, but if you’re uncomfortable reading about digestive issues—and pooping—then you should probably stop reading.

Still here? Good. I myself have been pretty comfortable talking about my gastrointestinal tract and distresses ever since I spent a few months volunteering in Mexico in the summer of 1995 with a program called Amigos de las Americas. The nonprofit has chapters all over the U.S., where high school and college-age kids train for months and then go to various places in Latin America to volunteer in different projects. When I was a volunteer, for example, a few of the things you could do included going to Ecuador to vaccinate dogs, or go do educational things in Paraguay and Costa Rica, or go dig latrines in the Dominican Republic. I went to towns near Guanajuato, Mexico, to make estufas lorenas, stoves that were better for your lungs, and also to talk about dental health and distribute things to make cement floors that would be more sanitary. Most of us got a little bit sick while we were there, no matter how many precautions we took. After experiencing long bouts of gastrointestinal distress, you get pretty comfortable discussing it. Sometimes, now, I forget and say too much or maybe describe something too vividly and I have to remind myself that not everyone is as comfortable with discussions of bowel happenings. I mean, it’s not like I talk about it at dinner in polite company, but I definitely could talk about it at dinner in company not so polite.

I’ve had to allow my digestive system to learn how to work again twice, but this time, with all the re-routing and removal of organs/organ parts, it’s been much more intense. I have so much more respect for babies. No wonder they cry. Gas pain and the general woes of digestion and elimination are no joke. I have nearly been brought to tears. One of the doctors said that some people find the gas and gastrointestinal discomfort to be worse than the incision pain, and I agree. As an adult, it’s kind of humiliating to having your life go back to that of a baby. It’s not as pleasant and relaxing as it sounds. You really have to sleep a lot and devote so much energy to eating and then not throwing up or pooping too much and dealing with gas pain and momentous burps. Poor babies.

It’s been three weeks since my surgery and I’ve been getting impatient, but the doctor reminds me that it’s been only three weeks since my surgery. From the outset, they said full recovery takes six to eight weeks. I had hoped that by now, I would be able to eat with less drama, but I still have gas pain and extremely unreliable bowels. Today, I decided to take the train to the doctor’s office, since it was in the middle of the day and people would be less likely to jostle me or ram into my incision. (Also, I am cheap, and cabs are pricey.) I had my usual quarter of a bagel before I left, but then regretted it. I thought about getting off the bus and catching a cab but I’d already invested $2.75 on my bus ride.

Once I got to the doctor, though, I felt a little better. (One nice thing at the MSKCC offices of doctors dealing with these issues: the exam rooms have bathrooms attached, something that is welcome in many patients’ situations, I’m sure.) He says my incision is healing nicely and I need to be patient. I’m going to feel tired, he reminded me, because my body is healing and devoting all its energy to that, and not much is left over for me. The Whipple is a big deal, and I was sliced open and things were removed and my digestive system was rerouted, so I suppose it’s pretty amazing that recovery takes only a few months.

I’ve been trying to go off the Oxycodone and the laxatives, but it’s a tricky balance. So far, giving up laxatives haven’t been a problem, and I haven’t needed them at all. My doctor suggested I try to eat some Activia for my digestive tract. I still have periods of time when I’m pretty miserable without the Oxycodone, which seemed to have helped with some of the gastrointestinal issues.  I’ve been a little nervous about the Oxycodone. I don’t like the idea of taking it, though I never have any of the “fun” that people associate with “good drugs.” I had to take a big dose when I was fending off a pancreatitis attack about a month ago, and I felt better for about a half an hour and then I threw up.

Against my better judgment, I took the train home from the doctor’s office, and of course, the coffee I’d unwisely had while I was there hit my bowels while I was in the bowels of the city. I started to sweat so much, I felt like I was sweating through my jeans. Desperate, I finally had a pain pill hoping it would quell the rumblings in my abdomen. The good thing about the train is that being a sweaty lady popping pills doesn’t even put me into the top 10 percent of weird things happening.

crocusBy the time I emerged from the train to catch the bus, I was feeling OK, but still relieved when I saw the bus was coming right away. I made it to my stop and even popped into the community garden when I saw the gate was open to take a photo of my first spring crocus emerging from my plot.

Still, it’s best that I’m near a bathroom at all times. I just had about six of those pretzels with peanut butter inside and my bowels are now a roiling mess and my insides hurt. I feel like someone is pumping air into my belly and I might explode like a cartoon character. It’s seriously loud, whatever is happening. I’m worried I’ve ruined my dinner. It’s been hard to eat when you know it’s going to be followed by so much drama. People always ask what I can eat, and I answer I can eat whatever I want. I’ve been eating pretty normally lately, but just in very tiny portions. I found out the hard way yesterday that if I eat too fast, I’m rewarded with belly pain.

Today’s food, however, could be a quarter of a bagel and six peanut butter pretzel bites, and I can’t let that happen if I want to get my digestive tract on track. Earlier, one of my kittens ate an ant that made its way into the apartment, so surely I can at least find it in me to eat some yogurt.

I’m OK for long stretches of time, with pockets of sleepiness and times when I’m doubled over in gastrointestinal pain or discomfort. That’s how recovery is going—more slowly than I’d like. As the doctor reminded me, I need to be patient. Three weeks down, three to five weeks to go.

After falling asleep while reading in bed and waking up with my head tipped back and my mouth hanging open, I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth. When I got back to bed to settle in for the night, I noticed that a big spot on my T-shirt was kind of wet and sticky. I realized that the top part of my surgical incision has been leaking. It seems like the fitting end to the day—at least I hope it’s the last sad event of a bittersweet day and not the beginning of another sad day.

I changed T-shirts and called MSKCC’s hospital number for a professional opinion. The doctor on call said that unless I had a fever or didn’t stop leaking for a few days (!) I should be OK. My body might just have excess fluid that it is trying to get rid of. Currently, I’m sitting on my couch leaking my excess fluid out of my belly. While I’m sitting here, alone and scared, I figured I could cry some of my excess liquid out too. It hurts my abdomen to cry too hard or to laugh too heartily, though, so I’ve been trying to keep my emotions in check since surgery.

Today, as a day, hasn’t been particularly rough. I spent a lot of my time on the Internet and watching TV and I think maybe staring off into space, as I’m still taking painkillers for the belly pain.

At some point, however, I realized that it was three years ago on February 26 that I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. If someone told me in 2013 that three years later I would be recovering from surgery for another type of cancer, I would have said, “No, thank you.”

This particular day, over the past several years, has had its ups and downs. Three years ago, obviously, was tough, when my doctor called me in to tell me that my needle biopsy showed I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The treatment was supposed to be wrapped up by September of 2013, but since I had two spots that wouldn’t go way (one lymphoma spot and the other, as it turns out, this pancreatic tumor), February 2014 saw me trying to remove stubble from my head after one round of augmented ICE chemo, preparing for my stem cell transplant. In my Facebook feed, a photo from that day showed up. It was a bittersweet picture: My recently departed cat, Akasha, putting a comforting paw on my hand, since my arm was inflamed with phlebitis at the time and I was in a lot of pain.

Aww...

Akasha comforting me two years ago, when I had a case of phlebitis.

Last year was good—so good, I didn’t even commemorate it with a blog post. I think I was too busy having fun and getting my life back. I’d passed my January scan and had just started a new full-time job. I was done with cancer. The little blob on my scans was just something to keep an eye on, but nothing to really worry about.

Today, of course, I spent as part of my long recovery from my Whipple procedure to remove the neuroendocrine tumor from my pancreas. (I still have about six and a half weeks to go.)

I tried not to think about this anniversary too much, until I woke up realizing I’d sprung a leak and found myself too afraid to go back to sleep. Even now, all I can think is that I’m simply tired of having cancer. I feel like I just can’t anymore.

I had been talking to some cancer patients before my surgery for a story I had been working on, and one woman going through treatment told me how she and her husband ” just go through it.” There’s no other way to put it. You just go through it. No one gives you a choice to opt out of cancer. If someone did, I would have said after the first year that I would not like to deal with cancer anymore, and I would have said it after the second year, and I would say it this year too. But no one is asking, and even if someone did ask, it doesn’t matter, because I still don’t have a choice.

I try to stay upbeat and put on a brave face, but I have these moments. I am scared and I’m so tired of cancer already. I don’t want do to this anymore, but I just have to keep going.

In the meantime, while I’ve been writing this, I think I’ve stopped leaking, both from my belly and from my eyes, so my mind is at ease. Now I’m going to wrap myself up in blankets and get some rest, to prepare for the better days ahead.

Exactly one month ago, I posted the news I received about a malignant tumor on my pancreas. Today I am one week out from my Whipple procedure. Post-pancreaticoduodenectomy, I have no gall bladder, 16 fewer lymph nodes, a little bit less stomach and duodenem—and, of course, no more tumor.

I have been meaning to post an update, but everything has happened pretty quickly. As the February 17 surgery date approached, I was also doing the much-too-familiar rushing to a stop before a hospital stay, and trying to finish everything I could before having to rest—cleaning, social outings, work, freelance projects, working out. So many times I wanted to sit down and write to help me process what was happening, but I felt like every waking moment was booked. On my first full day back from the hospital and reunited with my laptop, I finally have time for an update. I’m sure I’ll have more ramblings as I impatiently await full recovery, but here’s the rundown on what’s happened in the past month.

After the findings of the endoscopy, I met with a surgeon at NYU Langone and one at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Dr. Elliott Newman at NYU went over the endoscopy results, which showed the tumor blocking my pancreatic duct, thus causing the backup of digestive enzymes and recurrent pancreatitis attacks and inflammation. Though the biopsy didn’t determine if it were a neuroendocrine tumor or an acinar cell carcinoma, the treatment would be the same: Removal of tumor (along with the gall bladder, part of the stomach and a bit of intestines) with a surgery called a Whipple procedure. Since the tumor was in the head of the pancreas, where are lot of ducts intersect, it’s not as simple as removing the tumor, and there’s rerouting and reattaching. Dr. Peter Allen at MSKCC also said that I would need a Whipple and the type of tumor it was would be determined after taking it out. The only reason to do another endoscopy and biopsy would be if I wanted to put off the surgery for a few months. The doctors put my mind at ease about one thing—removal of the tumor didn’t seem really urgent. In fact, they said that a small tumor, less than 2 centimeters in diameter, would often just be watched, but this was clearly causing me problems and pancreatitis attacks.

NYU Langone had my pancreatitis and endoscopy records and MSKCC had my oncology records so I had to choose between the two. I feel as if I would have been in equally capable hands either way, and having the choice between two such reputable institutions isn’t a bad dilemma to have. Ultimately I decided on MSKCC because Dr. Allen could do the Whipple soon (even a week earlier, had I chosen that date, but that seemed too soon), and I was already very familiar, of course, with Sloan-Kettering. I had also used my current insurance with MSKCC and NYU’s billing system seemed a just little less clear and quick to go to collections. At least in my case, I have had more billing headaches with NYU.

Transferring medical records from one hospital to another is also an enormous pain—one that involved multiple phone calls, faxing, a $45 slide fee to get my biopsy results from NYU, a trip to the doctor’s office to get records that weren’t even what the other office needed. In the end, I was so equally annoyed with both, it didn’t factor into my decision.

I tentatively scheduled my surgery for the 17th, and I had pre-surgical testing the Friday before. I needed to reschedule my lymphoma follow-up CT scan from Feb. 22, so I moved it up earlier. If they found the Hodgkin’s lymphoma was back, they would have to treat that first, and everything would have to be rescheduled, so I didn’t really have an all-clear for the surgery until I got the results on Feb. 8. The good news is that my Hodgkin’s lymphoma is still at bay. If I didn’t have the pancreatic tumor, I would be given the green light to move ahead with my life without scans. From the lymphoma perspective, I am done, but this pancreatic tumor means I won’t be done with abdominal scans any time soon.

I had been having lower abdominal pain, and became convinced that if I could harbor two types of cancer at once, why not three? I scheduled my annual women’s wellness checkup that I had been putting off because of my insurance’s refusal to pay for some test they deemed superfluous (because if there’s one thing women love to do, it’s taking unnecessary pelvic exam tests so we can charge insurance companies, right ladies?) and then had to take a follow-up ultrasound. By that Wednesday, as I awaited my ultrasound and my follow-up lymphoma CT, somewhat convinced that I was probably teeming with cancer, I was in a pretty dark place. Oddly, once I was cleared after the ultrasound and CT, I felt celebratory that I had just one type of cancer.

In those weeks, I also wanted to take care of some other things I’d been putting off, like going to the dentist and getting new glasses and contacts. (On another happy note: I have spiffy new contacts that are a meld of hard and soft lenses so I can see details for the first time in years.)

Whereas the stem cell transplant was months of preparation, with the Brentuximab trial, the ICE treatments and the stem cell collection, the lead-up to surgery was really fast. In a way, this was good—I didn’t want to have too much time to think about it. I did my share of freaking out and worrying just within a month, but I was also so busy, I didn’t have much time to dwell on anything.

I had actually considered putting off the surgery for a month or two until a big work project was finished and until I could go home for my mom’s other hip replacement surgery. I had been urging her to have the other hip replaced as soon as possible when she went to her scheduled February follow-up doctor’s appointment, because I know it has been really bothering her. It felt selfish to have my surgery first, with its 6–8 weeks of recovery time. But I didn’t want to have to do another endoscopy to check the tumor and my pancreas has been bothering me—a lot. I haven’t been 100 percent comfortable since the beginning of October, when this all started. Some days I worried I should go home first and take care of my mom, and other days, when my pancreas sent out twinges of pain all day, I would have gladly opted for surgery immediately if possible. The Thursday before surgery, my pancreas hurt all day and I stood in the kitchen after breakfast holding my yogurt spoon, thinking that if I could scoop out my pancreas tumor right then and there, I would. I ended up getting some pain medication and going home early. An acute pancreatitis attack may have delayed surgery and so I thankfully made it through the weekend.

Wednesday finally arrived, and we got to the hospital at 5:45 am. The doctor asked if I was nervous, but I wasn’t. I was excited to get this out. It is weird, though, to know that you’re going to go under and then wake up sore with pieces of you missing. I’m pretty squeamish, so I don’t like to think about it. I got put under and in a few hours, my Whipple was done! The doctor told my boyfriend—and me, when I woke up—that the surgery went well, there was minimal bleeding and that even though the tumor was small (just about 2 centimeters at its widest point) the pancreas had been pretty inflamed. This was the first indication that it was a good decision to have my surgery sooner rather than later. (And that feeling vaguely sick for the past months hadn’t been all in my head.)

The second indication that a speedy surgery was the right decision came when the doctor talked to me about my pathology report before my release from the hospital yesterday. The tumor was a neuroendocrine tumor, as they initially thought. This is good news. However, it’s a well-differentiated tumor. I’m not sure what this means other than that it’s more likely to come back. The tumor had been increasing in size recently and becoming more aggressive; it had spread to one lymph node, out of the 16 removed. I’ll need to be monitored, with scans at least every four months for awhile. If it comes back, it will probably show up in the liver. I asked what I could do to prevent recurrence, and he said just to avoid smoking, which isn’t difficult.

The best part of my pathology report was the description of my gall bladder, which sounded magnificent: “green and purple” with a “smooth” surface that opened to “reveal an abundant amount of bile and a smooth velvety mucosa.” I’m a little sad about the loss of such a lovely organ.

Next week, I have a follow-up appointment, and I can ask some questions. Mainly, I am confused because if I have had it for so long, why did it suddenly become aggressive recently?

After I got home yesterday, I didn’t feel very celebratory, because I had hoped for the very best news—that recurrence was unlikely. I wanted to walk out of that hospital again and hope that I never had to spend a lot of time there. Also, now is the hard part on my end: Recovery. I spend a lot of time feeling blech, bloated and like the staples on my stomach are going to burst open like a piñata, releasing my remaining organs. I spend a lot of my time trying to pass gas and longing for smoothly working bowels, as my digestive system wakes up and learns how to work. I always feel like I’m in the middle of an ab crunch, and I constantly feel like I’m sitting wrong—either too far forward, or too far back. My back hurts. The skin around my staples is lumpy.

A friend texted yesterday to remind me that this is good news and very importantly, this is temporary. She’s right, of course. I’m happy that this pancreatic tumor is behind me and I’m looking forward to not always feel vaguely sick as I have for the past several months. Feeling better is just around the corner, and it is good to be home.

Months ago, I told myself I would post every day while I was in the hospital, but I quickly realized that wouldn’t happen. I’ve been busy getting radiation, starting chemo and trying to wrap up some work items. At least this first week in the hospital has gone by quickly. As I mentioned, it’s strange to have a cut-off date when you know you’ll start to feel side effects, so I feel as if the window is closing to update the blog, have visitors and get other things done. My deadline approaches, so here’s a post on my hospital life this past week.

Radiation. On Friday, I wrapped up my week of TLI (total lymphoid irradiation), completing 20 total sessions of radiation. Last week, the lymph nodes in my neck were swollen and sore, but that’s expected. I’m told the glands don’t like the radiation. Later on, I will probably experience a sunburn type of skin reaction, as well as mouth sores and a sore throat that makes it difficult to swallow.

The worst part of the radiation, for me, were the measurements they took the Fridays before they started the radiation. It required staying still, in the body cast they’d created for you, for a long time. In both cases the time ran over the usual 45 minutes to about an hour the first time and an hour and 15 minutes the second time. I’m pretty good at being still for long periods of time, but I had to not move for about 15 minutes to half an hour longer than my comfort zone. And once you’re past minute one of that zone and have the fidgets, it seems like an eternity. Still, it wasn’t too bad. (And when they’re radiating your insides, I understand their need for precision.)

During outpatient radiation, I would trade my shirt for a gown, then lay down in my mold, while they adjusted my position on the table, darken my tattoos with a marker and make some additional marks. Then they would radiate the two portions where there had been residual cancer in my chest and belly. The machine would flip around and radiate the front, then the back. (It reminded me of the scene in Logan’s Run, where Farrah Fawcett is offering to give Michael York a facelift but someone messes with the lasers. As I’ve noted before, this film that I saw multiple times during my childhood really influenced my ideas of the future.)

My outpatient treatments were six hours apart, so I was never sure if I should go back home to Brooklyn or wander around looking for WiFi with my elderly (in tech years) computer that needs to be plugged in to get much a charge these days. I also ended up being on the train during rush hour. Usually, this wouldn’t be a problem for me, but I’ve been a hermit for a few months. And in stark contrast of how unfailingly nice everyone is at the hospital, I was ill-prepared for the cruelties of New York City at rush hour. I expect I’ll have to re-enter society slowly once I’m recovering from my stem cell transplant.

Inpatient radiation was much the same, though the set up for the TLI would take a bit longer, and I was wheeled down from my hospital room. I also sometimes had student trainees the last few days of treatment, not that this added much to the time. I was told they don’t get to see many TLI treatments so I’m glad my radiation was a treat for somebody.

On the first day, I was told I could pick a music preference or channel, but I blanked. I couldn’t think of anything appropriate, so I didn’t give them any suggestions and spent some time listening to classic rock, the Billy Joel channel and adult contemporary pop music, but it provided food for thought as I was radiated.

I gained a new appreciation for Adele. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” really doesn’t stand up to the test of time. Coldplay is still boring. I also heard a lot of John Mayer songs, and I don’t get why people like his music. I tried to spend one session trying to name all the starlets he’s dated, but the radiation treatments don’t last that long. I also tried to think of radiation songs, but I could think only of Blondie’s “Fade Away and Radiate.”

Food. My throat hasn’t started to hurt yet, I’m still free of mouth sores and my appetite is still OK. I’m on a Zofran drip, though I can tell there’s a slight rebellion going on in my digestive tract. As I’ve noted before, it’s a strange feeling of knowing the mechanics are a little off but not being able to feel the effects. It’s like seeing your tire blow out and feeling only a slight wobble but still being able to continue driving your car with no problems.

I’ve been trying to enjoy chewing at eating as long as possible, before I can’t eat. I managed to eat all my desired specials this week: Nutella crepes, Mexican bean soup, a Sloppy Joe, Asian vegetable soup, shrimp in garlic sauce and breakfast pizza. I also look forward to the afternoon tea service more than I should, because the tea arrives with a little pastry—a walnut muffin, a mini red velvet cookie with white chocolate chips, some of the best scones I’ve had in awhile.

The indigestion from the radiation and chemo has thankfully been my worst side effect so far, and I’ve been getting extra medication for that. I had the hiccups in the middle of the night, but they didn’t last long. I’ve been trying to stick to a soft diet of soups and cereals, but have been waylaid my some of the daily specials. Today I had a hot dog, but I have a plan of eating small breakfasts and dinners and a substantial lunch so I can digest during the day.

I hate seeing food go to waste to the point where I’m weird about it. With so many of the trays arriving with condiment packets—salt, pepper, sugar, honey—it was only natural that I would start condiment hoarding, in case I needed to dip into my stores at a later date. I had them visible on a shelf, but I realized my boyfriend would frown at them and throw them away while I am plugged into the wall and unable to stop him. I’m considering putting them in my room safe.

Oh, I’ve also been eating candy, though that’s probably going to come to an end soon. I am now in possession of two Easter basket of goodies, and another friend brought me a giant Reese’s egg. And someone else thought to combine the cat theme and the candy theme with Katzenzungen, German chocolates with pictures of cats on the box.

I also got a picnic-type basket filled with packaged cookies and cakes. There was a tense moment when the nurse wasn’t sure if the desserts were approved for me to eat or not, so I briefly considered eating as many as I could while she was gone checking. But they were not confiscated.

Exercise. If there’s one thing that’s been drilled into my head over and over again during my preparation for this stem cell transplant, it’s the importance of staying active. Or, at the very least, not staying completely prone in bed.

My doctor and nurses told me that when I’m not sleeping, I should sit it in a chair. Being flat for too long increases your chance for contracting pneumonia, so they want you elevated.

The doctor told me that I should also always sleep at a 30-degree angle, at least. With the adjustable bed, this is possible to measure, but my attempts have been only partially successful. If I sleep on my side and wedge myself in with pillows, I can maintain this angle, but I’ve woken up a few times flat and scrunched up at the bottom of the bed.

Right now, it’s the easy part. It’s going to be after the transplant when it’s going to be hard to get moving and find motivation to sit in a chair.

Though I’ve said this before, I’m naturally a sedentary person and, as much as I love working out, it really takes me a lot of motivation to do so. Once I stop moving for a period of time, it’s extremely easy for me to slip back into my natural sloth-like state.

Since I’ve been here, my counts have been up and down, so I’ve been allowed to do laps in the hall for only three days since I’ve been here. I’ve heard 14 laps is a mile, so I’ve been trying to do that, but I lose count.

Yesterday on my walk, I found the designated room where visitors can eat. I peered through the window from the hall, and a man was about to take a pizza out of box. I thought it would be funny to stand at the window, with my gloved hands against the glass, wearing my medical mask, but it’s one of those things you only think about doing, because it would also be weird.

It’s not the pole filled with bags of chemo that makes it strange to walk in the hall. It’s the mask. No one can tell when you’re smiling.

I did have one session of hospital yoga, and it was nice to stretch and get moving. Obviously, we didn’t do anything to strenuous, but the instructor had me do some seated positions. For as long as I’m able, I’d like to continue with the bedside yoga program, as they call it.

Chemo. I started chemo on Saturday. I get a big bag of etoposide that the nurses change every 24 hours. It’s bubbly—I was calling it the “Champagne of chemo”—so it was causing air in the line and beeping pretty often. Every nurse has a trick to make it stop beeping, and the third nurse’s fix made it stop for good, so that’s good, considering I have another day and a half to go. Also, I found myself addressing my beeping pump and telling it to be quiet, so I named my pump Wilson after Tom Hanks’ volleyball companion in Castaway.

I’m also on cytoxan, which can damage your bladder if it sits around in there too long, so I’m on a lot of fluids as well. So far, they haven’t had to give me a diuretic and they keep saying, I’m “peeing like a champ.” It feels good to excel at something, even if it’s just because I’ve been drinking a lot of water.

So far, aside from my nagging indigestion, the chemo has been OK. The worst part is set for post-transplant, when all the side effects are supposed to hit me at once.

Chest catheter. It’s my last three weeks or so with my trusty chest catheter. It’s been so nice to give my poor, abused veins a rest.

I’ve been worried that my cats or a stranger would pull out my chest catheter somehow, but it turns out that I’m my own worst enemy. Now that I’m hooked up to my chemo, I’ve stepped on the lines a few times.

Also, though I love the convenience of electronics, the notion of charging them irrationally feels like a terrible inconvenience. And now that my computer needs to be plugged in almost all the time, it irks me. So you can imagine how I feel at having to essentially plug in myself—or at least this medication pump that I’m attached to. I’m getting used to it, but I long to be free.

Accommodations and décor. This is my first time on the bone marrow transplant floor. I have my own room, while I’m isolated from germs. There’s a chance I might get moved to another floor and a shared room when I’m starting to feel better.

My room is nice, with drawers for my stuff and a sleeper chair, in case my boyfriend wants to stay over. There’s a computer, a TV, a bed and a few chairs, as well as my own private bathroom. It’s not a bad place to call home for a month, considering the circumstances.

My view is of an adjacent wall. It’s the first thing I noticed when I walked in. It’s not as nice as my previous views of the Triborough Bridge, but I’m not sure if I want to put in for a room transfer just for the view on the other side of the building. I have a patch of sky, if I look up. I keep waffling back and forth, but I think I’m just going to stay put.

I arrived only with my clothes, computer and Kindle, as well as my cat blanket, a cat toiletry bag and a cat totem—all gifts. Since then, the cats have increased, and I now have a book of cat stickers, a drawing of one of my cats that someone sent and cat get-well and Easter cards.

Yesterday, my boyfriend brought me a digital picture frame loaded with photos. Sometimes, I can’t imagine a return to “normal” life, and sometimes I don’t dare, in case I’m disappointed. Yet looking at photos of family and friends and so many happy memories has been more therapeutic than I would have thought, and it reminds me of the good things to come.

Even more cats.

Cats.

cats

Even more cats!

 

 

More cats.

More cats.

Candy.

Candy.

I got my blood drawn this afternoon and 15 minutes later, my room phone rang. It was the doctor. My blood count reached the magic number of 500 and I would be released! After the general consensus had been a Sunday discharge, this was an unexpected bit of good news.

As nice as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center is, I was packed and ready to go in 20 minutes. After this morning’s breakfast Nutella and banana crepes and my jambalaya lunch, I was looking forward to tonight’s stir-fry shrimp, but I’ll be back at the hospital in a week. I also didn’t have time to check out the recreation center again and I was going to avail myself of the free board games tomorrow.

Also, I discovered there’s a pool table. How do you navigate a pool table with an IV in your arm?  I also discovered that there’s an afternoon tea service. If the hospital had a happy hour and I could get a beer to go with my pool game, I might have found it harder to leave.

But I was tired of wheeling around an IV stand and I’d gotten away without peeing in a hat until today. I did figure out how to take a hot shower. I don’t know what it is about dials, but I constantly misinterpret them. I’m terrible at math, don’t know my left from my right and I can’t figure out dials. I think there’s some kind of diagnosis for that, other than being dimwitted. (I repeatedly burned things in the oven our landlord brought up to replace our broken one until I realized I had been misreading the dial. I had been turning things up to 400 or 500 degrees.) So in this unfamiliar shower, I had the dial pointed toward lukewarm instead of hot.

Today I found myself packed and waiting for my IV removal, two days before expected.  I didn’t even have to change my pants, as I was wearing my brand-new dignity pants, suitable for public viewing. I threw on my boots and sweatshirt and was ready to go.

The only hitch was the car service I called to come pick me up. Since my boyfriend was working, I wasn’t being released to anyone and the nurse had to witness me getting into a cab or car. When I called right before 5 pm, the operator said 15 minutes, so the nurse escorted me to downstairs. At 5:18, I called to check. At 5:25 I had to call back after being on hold and forgotten about. “Two minutes,” snapped the person who answered the phone. Seven minutes later, I called to check again and was told the car was outside. After walking through the rain and asking several cars if they were for me, I had to call back because he’s hung up on me. By this time, I couldn’t get through. At 5:38, I called and was told to wait five more minutes.  At 5:41, I called to cancel. At least I gave them the courtesy of an update. The front desk called me a car service that arrived in three minutes.

By this time, I was in tears, upset and having to have someone else waste her time, even though she so kindly waited with me and eventually ended up comforting me.

It’s always the little things that push you over the edge. Or push me over the edge, at least. Being back in the hospital was disappointing, but I had been OK up until the point where I couldn’t leave because of a car service. That was my breaking point. The car service just acted like they were doing me a favor. They had obviously lied about when they would arrive and even being there and then didn’t seem to understand why I was upset that they were almost an hour late. Once I even got into a car, finally, from another service, I couldn’t stop the tears. It wasn’t about the car anymore. The dam had broken and I just let things flow out. Quietly. Maybe a dam isn’t the right analogy. It was more like a slow leak.

I had been so angry, I worried my blood boiled and threw off my counts again.

But all is well, once again. As I type this, a cat is weighing down my right arm with her paw over my hand. I have a week at home, and all is right with the world.

Well, that cat nap inspiration must have worked, because I slept all day yesterday. After a somewhat miserable hour or so the night before, with violent hiccups and nausea, I fell into a deep sleep that would have lasted until about now unless I hadn’t been woken up to eat, for tests and to go home this morning.

It’s an appropriate day return home from my first round of augmented ICE, on a day when the typical misery of a horrible snowy winter day is augmented with icy rain. Since my treatment had started late on Monday, they wanted to keep me through the morning. I got the impression the C part of the regimen — the last medication — is the harshest, so they want to keep an eye on your fluids and nausea. I slept right through everything, so the doctors seemed pleased.

My view yesterday, as a comparison.

My view yesterday, as a comparison.

Yesterday evening, the nurse woke me up around 6 to make sure I slept through the night. I managed to eat my dinner, type a few things and then talk to my boyfriend before drifting off to sleep again. (I am bummed that I slept through eating my breakfast burrito yesterday, but did get to enjoy a dinner of stir-fried vegetables last night. And if you ever find yourself at MSKCC on a day when the wonton soup is a special, order it for the tender shrimp-filled wontons and fresh cabbage and ginger.)

This morning, I woke up before 8 and tried to get as ready as I could. I must have looked impatient as I felt, as I slurped down my breakfast and asked, “Can I go?” Or had my IV tubes unhooked and asked, “Can I go?” I looked like a desperate movie character about to rip out her own IVs and scale down the wall by the time they removed those and said that yes, I could go.

Bedheaded and ready to head home.

Bedheaded and ready to head home.

Now I’m at home with my little NYC family, our two-cat, two-person republic. TMI alert, but I am extremely happy about being able to shower and not having to pee in a hat. I haven’t been this excited to get back to my own bathroom since spending a few months in Mexico using a latrine and taking lukewarm showers. There’s nothing like a hitch in your toiletry schedule to really mess you up.

Years ago, a friend had free tickets to see Urinetown, a musical based on the premise that the residents of the entire town had to pay to pee. Afterwards, my friend, who is prone to body-shaking moments of pure merriment when he thinks something is particularly funny, turned to us. Laughing, red-faced and gasping for air, he asked, “Did we just spend the last few hours watching people singing about not being able to pee?”

Yet, as I regarded my urine hat this week, I found myself thinking about that musical and how I longed for less complicated days.

And on a completely different note of gratitude: Thank you all again for your kind words and notes. If I haven’t answered in the past few days, it’s because I’ve been asleep but I have been cognizant of your thoughts. Being in the hospital can be lonely, but I never felt alone. I would only have to look at my fleece cat blanket — which was a big hit and very warm compared to the thinner hospital blankets — and my cat totem to know that I wasn’t alone. Or I would think of my friend across the Atlantic who shaved her head in solidarity — and looks amazing! Or read some poetry from a friend-of-a-friend in remission from cancer. Or I could read a nice Facebook note or text, even though I couldn’t write much back.

Thank you for helping me remember that even though I have a long road to recovery ahead — one that won’t be pleasant — I’m still one of the luckiest people in the world.