When I was diagnosed in February with rectal cancer, I had no idea what was ahead for me. In some ways, I guess that was a good thing. There is a reason why we only have one day at a time to live! Can you imagine if we knew what was ahead for us?

Seriously, let me bring you up to date on my health since the op ed piece that came out in several newspapers in June just before my surgery. At that time, I knew I would have surgery for an illeostomy on June 13, followed by about 12 weeks of recovery before the reversal surgery. Well, during the surgery, a lymph node was discovered that had some cancer cells within it. The node was removed along with the original tumor in order to make me “cancer free.” I was very glad to hear those words from my surgeon after he looked at the pathology report. That was the good news. The not-so-good news was delivered by my oncologist who said because the node was found he wanted me to have 10 rounds of chemotherapy as insurance. I’ve always felt that having insurance was a good policy! However, this would be quite a policy. The insurance would be 10 rounds of therapy and would begin 6 weeks after my surgery.
Each round would take up most of a week. Then I would skip a week. So the 10 rounds would take 20 weeks to complete.

This is the chemo drill:

Monday: Blood work at the oncologist’s office to be sure my blood will pass. One day, my white count was only 100 so I was not able to have the treatment on schedule.

Tuesday: Beginning about 9:00am, I have a 4 ½ hour infusion. I go to the cancer center and am hooked up to an IV for the infusion. The infusion includes anti nausea medicine, some steroids, and the chemo medication. All of this is put through my port that is in my chest. When the infusion is finished, they hook me up to a portable chemo pump, which I wear home and keep until Thursday. This is 46 hours of more chemo.

Wednesday: Take anti-nausea medicine in the morning and at night. The medicine really works, at least for me for which I am very grateful. However, about 3:00am, I am wired and can’t sleep. I am completely energized! I feel like cleaning the whole house. I want to iron, polish silver or cook in the middle of the night! In fact, I made a blueberry cobbler for a neighbor one morning and called it Cooking on Chemo. My sister-in-law suggested that as the title for my next cookbook. Who knows?

Thursday: I return to the cancer center and turn in the chemo pump sometime in the middle of the day. I also take the anti-nausea medicine in the morning and at night. Awake at 3:00am but now I just look at the ceiling instead of cooking!

After this, I am “free” from treatments for 10 days when the whole thing starts over.

Of course, there are side effects that go along with the chemo. The last chemo I had in the spring along with the radiation was not too bad. I was very tired and had many days of diarrhea, but that was about it. This time:

  • My hair has thinned considerably to the point that a wig is necessary. My husband did some research to see why the hair is the first to go. This is, according to him, because the chemo attacks the fastest growing cells and hair fits into that category.
  • I occasionally have a rash on my chest and in my mouth. I just live with the rash on my chest and I use “magic mouth” for the rash in my mouth
  • I do have the diarrhea from time to time, usually at least 2 days a week. Imodium AD is helpful and though I try to regulate my diet, as they say, “It’s not what you eat. It’s what is eating you.”
  • The ends of my fingers are very sensitive to cold. In fact, taking something out of the freezer or refrigerator is very tricky because my fingers feel as if they have frost bite. This goes away to some degree after about 4 days after the chemo treatment.
  • Ice cold drinks have the same affect. I have to drink room temperature drinks for several days after the treatment or it feels as if I have been stabbed with a knife in the throat. The only way to make this sensation go away is to drink or eat something warm and it goes away. I might add, it only takes one time feeling this to remember not to drink anything ice cold!
  • The anti-nausea medicine wires me and at 3:00am I am ready to take on most anything! I try to not give in to this, however. As long as the medicine works, I don’t mind this side effect of being awake.
  • Fatigue is a common side effect for almost anyone on chemo. I have just given in to it as I have found a nap can’t hurt anyone! I must admit, there are days when it is difficult to get anything done. I have made it a practice that no matter how bad I feel in the morning, getting a shower, getting dressed and putting on makeup is the best way to begin the day. After that, I don’t get back in the bed all day. I rest on the sofa or recliner but not on the bed. I like to reserve the bed for night since it is easier to fall asleep in a location where you have not spent the day. I know for some, this is not possible, but thankfully, it has worked for me so far. Sleep and chemo don’t naturally go together and the more you can do to create a sleep environment the better.

The biggest disappointment during all of this has been that I will not be able to have the reverse surgery for several months. This was my decision after consulting with my surgeon. Neither of us felt that I should stop down the chemo so that I could have the surgery in September and it would not be possible to have surgery without stopping the chemo for a few weeks. So, I will complete the chemo, which will be sometime during December if I don’t lose any more weeks. Then we will schedule the reverse surgery probably after Christmas. This surgery will not be as serious as the original but it is surgery! The difference between major and minor surgery is whether it is on you or someone else! This will require a couple of days in the hospital and several weeks of recovery. Surely by Valentine’s Day, everything, including my heart, will be back in good order!

During the last six months, I have learned many lessons. Here are a few:

  • I will pray for others more in the future. I am grateful for all those prayers of support for me.
  • I will send more get well cards. These have brightened each day. The messages have stuck with me and carried me through bad days. One of my favorites is, “He who made us knows how to heal us.”
  • I will continue to have my morning devotional. I did not do this every day until now. No matter how busy the day is, this morning time with God will never be replaced. If for no other reason, my cancer has made me realize my priorities. This devotional time is number one. I would not want to go through this again, but I would go through it again to learn this lesson of discipline.
  • I will continue to take food to people that are ill. It is the nicest thing at the end of a long, bad day to know that Bob and I have something wonderful to eat. I will do this for others now knowing how special it really is. Who knew?
  • I will offer to take people to doctor’s appointments. During my radiation and chemo treatments, different friends took me to each appointment. I had 28 original treatments and 28 different friends took me. This was the most wonderful gift I could have received. It gave me about 3 hours to visit with a neighbor, bridge club friend, church friend or old friend that I seldom have time to visit and catch up with. This was priceless and I will offer to do this for others.
  • Plan fun things each month to look forward to and enjoy.
  • Retail therapy is always good therapy!

So that is the health update. Chemo rounds continue and will be finished, I hope, by the end of the year. 2011 has been one that will not soon be forgotten. I am looking forward to 2012 and I know it will be great. Cheers!

Nancy Welch