You know / I took the poison from the poison stream / Then I floated out of here
The U2 song, Running to Stand Still, played in my mind on my first day of chemo. I was eager to get started, which is to say I was eager to throw myself off a cliff. There was no way to know what to expect. There is so much information out there: web sites, blogs, discussion boards, personal stories. But the overriding theme is that chemo is different for everyone, and that it is hard.
Two weeks ago today, I sat in a big recliner for hours, Dan by my side, as poison dripped into a vein next to my heart. First, the needle was pushed into the port in my chest with a sharp puncture—the only painful part of the day. Then, one by one, I received bag after bag of fluid: saline, steroids, anti-nausea meds, Benadryl; then, finally, Taxotere, Carboplatin, Herceptin: the reasons for the party. It was seven hours, all told, from first check-in at the desk in the cancer center lounge to the last hug from my oncology nurse, back in the lounge.
My new nurse is a pro. She’s the unit manager, a veteran of more than 20 years. She’s feisty and sarcastic and focused. She was sensitive to what I needed and what I was feeling. We laughed a lot; I cried a little. It’s a good fit, I think, and one more reason to feel confident that I will get through this.
But first I have to get through this. On the ride home, on the edge of fear and in a thick, soft Benadryl fog, I wondered: What will happen to me in the next few days? How sick will I be? Will these changes be permanent?
And how does it feel, once the poison begins to do its work? Pretty lousy. I felt like I aged 30 years overnight. I was tired, weak, bloated, achy and in a dense mental and physical fog. My senses of taste, touch and hearing were diminished. But I did not feel sick to my stomach and kept up with eating and drinking. I have my hair, for now.
Now I wonder: How much worse will it get, the next time and on through to the end of chemo, three months from now? It was hard not to know what to expect, but it may be harder now that I do know.
Chemotherapy is a brutal means to an uncertain end. It’s tempting to think that the end I’m aiming for is to get back to the place where I didn’t have cancer and didn’t even consider it a possibility. But there is no such place anymore. I’ve had cancer growing in me, silently and painlessly, for years, even as I thought it would never happen to me.
She will suffer the needle chill / She is running to stand still
It’s a song with simple chords and instruments—piano, guitar, drums and Bono’s lovely tenor—that builds slowly to a crescendo, then fades. How odd that a song about addiction should be the accompaniment to my first trip through chemotherapy. But I think we have lots in common, the addict and I. We are utterly without choices. She says she only sees one way out, and that’s all I see, too. We are doing unpredictable and perhaps incalculable damage to ourselves.
But she’s running, so desperately, to find a place of quietude where she can be still and let everything swirl around her. She seeks escape; I want to win. I want to put all this behind me, for good. But I won’t be running back to before; before wasn’t what I thought it was. I’m moving ahead, to whatever the future holds, with a little more knowledge and a little less security. Whatever happens, I can’t stand still. I only see one way out.
You know, I took the poison.