I guess I wasn’t paying attention. Or I guess I had buried it, because I couldn’t bare the thought of bad news. But all of a sudden, it was the week I’d be having my first scan after starting targeted therapy.
I’ve been on oral chemotherapy now for six weeks. I started off taking four pills in the morning and four in the evening. Almost immediately, just days into treatment, I started feeling relief. I could breathe easier. I wasn’t grabbing at my side. My fatigue was still present, but the miasma of pain was clearing off, like morning fog burning away on a warm summer day.
Then the muscle pain started. I thought perhaps I was pushing myself too hard, since I was feeling so much better. “Oh, they’re probably sore from atrophy!” I joked, though there’s some truth there. I haven’t left this house much in the last three months.
But the muscle pain persisted, tight through the shoulders, arms, backside, and thighs. My knees began to swell and it was hard to make a fist. Then one morning, I went to the bathroom and couldn’t get up off the toilet. Alex was there to the rescue. But that was my cue something was up.
While targeted therapy is better tolerated by leaps and bounds over intravenous chemotherapy, it remains a form of chemo, which means it’s not exactly like popping a couple ibuprofen. It’s still poisonous—directions for handling the pills include wearing gloves before touching them, washing hands vigorously before and after taking them, and flushing the toilet twice after going, since whatever it exiting your body is also, you know, poisonous.
Guys…I have toxic shit.
Other possible side effects of targeted therapy include anemia, liver and kidney impairment, constipation (Oh, the agony! Oh, the indecency!), and photo sensitivity. I’m the lucky girl who gets to experience most of these, though the muscle pain was above and beyond the most pressing/off-putting.
Every two weeks now, I slog into the Gilroy Kaiser facility and they look for a free vein to poke me (I’m rather bruised up on my arms, looking a little too heroin-chic for my liking). I sing along to the oldies station playing in the lab while the tech fill vials and vials of poisonous blood.
“See ya in two weeks!” I chirp, and then typically make my way over to the pharmacy, where there is one refill and a million headaches waiting for me. (ALWAYS an issue at the pharmacy. ALWAYS.)
Blood results over the past six weeks have looked good, except for some elevations in my muscle enzymes and liver. Meaning, my muscles are, in fact, breaking down, and my liver is starting to become a bit impacted from the medication.
So it was back to the drawing board for my oncologist, who decided to lower my targeted therapy dosage to three pills twice a day.
“I’m encouraged by the fact that your cancer symptoms are waning, but we don’t want that progress to come at the expense of your husband having to lift you off the toilet every day,” she said.
So down we went, and away went the muscle pain, but back came the cancer symptoms. At first, they was slight—I wondered if I was imagining them because I knew we had changed the dosage. How could I feel a difference so quickly? Then I started getting hoarse, having trouble talking on the phone, stopping in the middle of sentences to catch my breath. I found myself clutching at my side instinctively.
This did not look good.
I emailed the doctor and waited and waited. Nothing. Nothing at all for three days until the day of my scan, June 21.
The night before my scan I realized how scared I was of the results. Before, I assumed they’d show improvement because I was feeling so improved. But now? I had a thousand questions running relay races in my mind.
What if the cancer has spread? —> What if it’s in my brain? My liver? —> What if the doctor tells me I have only a couple months to live, and I really should have listened to that garbage palliative care specialist? —> What do I tell my husband and son? —> What if I wasted my last couple months left on Earth trying to live a “normal” life instead of the life of someone about to say goodbye? —> Why didn’t I insist I stay on four pills instead of three? —> What if I have to go on regular chemo instead? —> What if I can’t visit my family next month? —> What if I’m really going to die?
Over and over, the questions leading to more questions, the pain in my side increasing, the stress and anxiety building.
Breathe, Wendy. Breathe.
Once again, I had to step outside of myself and calm my own psyche down. The night before the scan, I held my prayer shawl tight and repeated over and over, “It’s going to be okay. It IS going to be okay.” I reassured worried family members that I truly believed the scan would show positive results. I was doing my best to reassure myself in the process.
The scan happened. An uneventful, torturous day of waiting to exhale followed. Then at 4:30, the doctor called.
“Wendy, I have the results of your scan. Looks like we’re seeing some good improvement. The tumors are smaller than they were before, especially in the center of your chest. They’ve also cleared off your airway, which is great because you were in danger of losing your right lung.”
I was? Wait…who cares! What is she saying? Am I getting better?
“Doctor, can you give me some data? A bird’s eye view of approximately how much the tumors have retreated?”
The doctor explained that the tumors have shrunk by about 30 to 50 percent across the board, and she expected to see even more improvement in the next scan, which we won’t need to have for another three months. She told me I have years to live. She said, sure, let’s try four pills again and we’ll find another way to manage muscle pain.
Her voice echoed in my head, bouncing around, reverberating throughout. I’ve got…years…you say? Tears sprung to my eyes as I looked at Alex, who had got off work early just to sit with me for the call, and simultaneously handed him the notebook where I’d been furiously scribbling notes from our conversation. He smiled widely and his eyes glistened.
Years….it was still echoing in my head as I Facetimed my mother-in-law, with whom Lucas is staying for the week.
I told her the news and she wept. Lucas, ever the curious and observant, asked, “Ama Lety, why are you crying?”
Alex and I got on the phone, beaming, and told Lucas, “Mommy is getting better! We just got news from the doctor that the cancer is shrinking. Yay!”
Lucas’ face lit up, his mouth opened in happy surprise. He squealed in delight and skipped around the backyard.
“Mommy! I prayed last night that God would take your cancer into space far away and make it disappear forever!”
In your name, Lucas. For you. Because of you.
And for you, Alex. And you, Mom and Dad. And Lety and Alejandro. And my brother- and sister-in-laws. My best friends. My cousins. My aunts and uncles. My nieces and nephews. My long-lost acquaintances. My coworkers. My cat. For every message, card, phone call, gift, prayer, hug, visit, and kiss.
You’re saving my life, all of you. You’re saving my life.