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.