BEATS: Notes from chemo base camp, part 6

Saturday, October 20th, 2018

Well.

It’s been a rough two weeks. I should have had round 5 of chemotherapy last Wednesday, October 17th, but on the Monday, the usual day for my pre-chemo blood tests and checkup with the oncologist, I was red flagged (emphasis on the red): my hands, my poor, scorched 5 FU tortured hands, didn’t pass muster. Dr. Lougnarath looked at them for a matter of seconds and said (in French): Oh, well then, we’ll skip this week and give Mme Payette’s hands a break.

Empathy. What a beautiful thing. I really didn’t know how I was going to get through the torturous Friday that awaited me, when my hands swelled up like knackwurst on the bar-b-q again.

But the truth is that I really didn’t feel well and hadn’t for days. On Tuesday, I spent hours commuting, then a few more in the waiting room of a hospital associated with the CHUM, with Christian by my side, in order to be seen quickly by endocrinologists (something about an elevated TSH level, which turned out to be no big deal), then back on the metro and the bus and finally my car…and then home.

Through all of this, and for several days previous, I had felt shivery, unsteady on my legs, and 95 years old (or at least, how I imagine that might feel). And so, it came as blessed relief to find out that no matter what my hands looked like, I wasn’t going to have chemo anyway, because my neutrophils count was very low.

Fall, at our new home

You may have noticed all the underlined words. It’s meant to show even those of you who’ve never been near a chemotherapy ward, that cancer comes with its own reality that includes a language that patients and their loved ones become very proficient at in a hurry. Neutrophils—a friendly enough word—basically are those white cells that fight off most of the regular bugs you’re exposed to (in other words: you need those levels up in a hurry).

Monday, October 22nd

This is something that no one tells you about and that you cannot prepare yourself for in chemo. It’s that moment when you hit the wall: the nadir.

Chantal, my pivot nurse, told me today that with a 2-week chemo cycle, a person’s body barely has time to eliminate most of the poisons injected into it before it’s being assaulted again. When it’s your body that’s the experiment (literally: this IS part of a research study), it’s a reality that’s psychologically inescapable.

Fighting cancer Rocky Balboa style

October 23, 2018

I almost typed a different date. I had to stop and really consider where we are on the calendar. For a minute, I was lost.

It’s just one of the ways in which my life has swerved since July. Without the grounding work of teaching, which is so schedule-driven, my sense of time has started to wobble and fade. Even my hair-colouring appointments with Gabrielle, my friend and hairdresser, were as regular as a metronome. Alas, I am now hairless.

The only thing that stops me from floating off and away from “regular” life is the boxy tightness of my two-week chemo cycle. Tests and consultations are almost always on the Monday or Tuesday before chemo, which is every second Wednesday. Then there’s a lost period, that seems to vaporize my life into passivity, naps, lots of television and a feeling of biding my time until…well, at the most basic level, till I can walk and eat and do things like everyone else and then, looking a bit further ahead (dare I?), till I can rejoin life the way it was (I think there’s no going back to that). The way it could be? (Better).

Murray, Derek; Heart; Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre NHS Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/heart-42850

I had a wonderful evening yesterday. My friend Cindy and I went over to the Hudson Theatre to listen to novelist Ian Hamilton talk about his astonishingly successful Ava Lee series of mystery thrillers. He was very sweet and unassuming and wry and sharp as a tack, and we had both read his books, so we were fully invested. We left with signed copies and the feeling that this man cared about the quality of his interactions with his readers. He mentioned the pure joy he felt each time he sat down in his basement office to write the books whose pages his imagination was filling up faster than he could type them. And that, of course, is where I found one connection with this man whose previous career took him all over the world to do business:  in the IMMENSE JOY that flows to him from his writing. This is what I asked him about.

In bed, all wrapped up under the covers at the end of the evening (it was rainy and cold last night), I thought about that kinship. Mr. Hamilton, you are a comrade, in a tiny but important way, because we share a common passion. Then, my phone buzzed, and it was Cindy, writing “Thanks for a perfect evening.”.

Lying quietly after reading Cindy’s phone message (actually, I had to turn the light back on and lean on an elbow to read it), I fell back under the covers feeling ….

Happy.

My goodness. After a pretty shaky couple of weeks, this is how I felt. Happy. I like typing it because it has been so absent. Happy, in the sense of content to be exactly where I was, in that moment. This feeling kept me awake. The unexpected, improbable, delightful lightness of it.

Because I wear ear plugs to bed (though I no longer sleep beside someone who snores), I can hear my heart beat as I lay my head down on the pillow every night. When Cindy’s message buzzed in, I was doing exactly that: listening to the pa-puh, pa-puh, pa-puh, pa-puh, pa-puh, …of my beating heart, thinking: you are a wonder, little heart (it sounds little, inside its cage of ribs). How do you continue to beat in spite of everything I’m doing to you? pa-puh, pa-puh, pa-puh, pa-puh, pa-puh, …Does the chemo reach your cells? Is it wrong to ask you to spread its toxins around? pa-puh, pa-puh, pa-puh,  pa-puh, pa-puh, …Do you know there is cancer traveling in the blood you pump? Would you still beat if you KNEW?

 My heart has no choice but to be an accomplice in spreading metastatic cells. It can only beat and pump my blood and keep me alive. It’s the ultimate neutrality.

I hold nothing against it. This heart of mine. It’s rhythms, pa-puh,  pa-puh, pa-puh,  pa-puh, pa-puh, are mostly steady and the pressure it puts on my blood vessels, safe and healthy. It beats though I am in chemo. It beats though my cancer is stage 4. It beats, even when each contraction sends painful 5 FU to my hands and feet. It beats faster, and, I think, contracts harder when I cry. It beats slowly when I sleep.

Last night, I know it beat happily.

Pacquette, Elise J. M.; Protecting the Heart; Bethlem Museum of the Mind; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/protecting-the-heart-192960

 

 

5 thoughts on “BEATS: Notes from chemo base camp, part 6

  1. Life can be so unfair – you are such a beautiful person and shouldn’t have to hurt so much. My thoughts and prayers are with you for health and happiness in your future- know that you are loved 💕

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  2. I am an old friend of Ann’s and discovered your blog through her. My son, Henry, also went to FACE during the same years as your boy, Christian. You are such a great writer, Michelle. You make me feel you in a way a lot of writers are unable to do. Bon courage xx Linda

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    1. Thank you so much Linda. I remember Henry (Bud) Rice, who always seemed like a lovely boy-man and is undoubtedly doing good things with his life. He and Christian made a lot of music side by side. 🙂 Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment. Your second to last line is one that touches me and has given me a sense of purpose. For whatever reason, this blogs series, THIS IS THE MOMENT, seems to have found a broad and kind readership who have found something here they didn’t expect, and I have found the strength not to hide during this period of my life. Humans gain so much when they come together, even virtually (as readers, virtual or face to face, I love you all). There is a lot of untapped love in the world. Please consider following the blog. xo

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