For the remainder of session two of my intensive chemo, I basically took it easy. It didn’t feel good. Of course it didn’t feel good. But I didn’t feel like rot, either, as I was led to expect. I’d also been reassured by numerous doctors and nurses that I was handling the treatment extremely well. I also knew the effects were cumulative, and that I would not feel as strong after this session as I had after the first.
On the day I got out, I was not prepared for the news I was given, either. My oncologist presented me with the checkout papers, and informed me of the bloodwork I’d had done the previous Thursday. This was Monday. Honestly, I was a bit surprised the news hadn’t been given earlier.
“Your bloodwork is clear,” she stated with a smile.
—Clear? What do you mean? I hesitantly asked.
“Your tumor markers are all normal.”
—What does this mean?
“It means the treatment is working,” she reassured me.
—But these results are only from the first treatment?” I pressed.
“Yes. We’ll still do the remainder of the treatments, just to be safe.”
—Wait, so this means…this means I’m cancer-free?
“Yes,” she confirmed. “Cancer-free.”
—And no surgery?
“I don’t see any reason why.”
—It’s that simple?
She grinned again, nodding. I thanked her, took the papers and my bag, and left the chemo ward of Tartu’s hospital, H corpse. I didn’t know what to feel. It was over. Was it over? Can’t be that simple! No way…
I called Mrs. Mingus, who was already waiting in the parking lot. It simply was not possible for me to wait another half minute to tell her. “Yeah, the doc said I’m cancer-free. Can you believe it?” A few seconds later, we were hugging. All the emotion of that moment brushed aside any chemo nausea. Her embrace was confirmation that all the doctor had told me was true. I was going to be fine. I already was fine.
When I got home, I posted the news on Facebook. Over a hundred “likes”. I called my parents. Tears, joy. Then I crashed and took a nap. The nausea, as expected, couldn’t be kept at bay forever. I was going to be fine, but first I had to deal with what had already been done to me. Done to me to save my life.
The next night I tried to eat dinner out with friends. Marginal success. And again the next night, where I was a guest at a dinner that frankly had made me nervous, due to how I’d been warned it would be spicy. They tamed it down for me, it was delicious, and the chemo flavor had already been greatly reduced in my palate.
The chemo flavor. Most describe it as metallic. That wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate according to my experience. But I would instead tend to describe it as sort of a concrete powder smell and taste. Like when you buy a bag of concrete, to mix with sand and water. Cement. It’s kind of like that. Not that bad really, but when that’s all you can sense for days at a time, any additional smell, like paint, becomes instantly associated with nausea. Mrs. Mingus had painted the kitchen while I was away for this session—Surprise! she showed me when I arrived home. I smiled and tried not to vomit from the smell. I told her about it only a week later.
There’s also a sensation of “mint” in my stomach during the nausea. Not the flavor, but the feeling. It’s very strong, cannot be ignored. And it is simply not possible for me to describe it in any more detail. Except that I don’t like it.
Then that Thursday, as scheduled, I continued with an outpatient session of Bleomycin. I felt strong entering, they hooked me up, and within half a minute I was experiencing my first psychologically “abnormal” moment in my life. It began with sweating. Heat. I quickly (and probably correctly) surmised it was a panic attack. It took all my patience and self-control to not rip the cord out of my arm and run. In my panic, I also realized I would not be able to communicate my problem to the staff. I instead opened my laptop and focused on watching a video. This was very difficult for me, very strange.
Within twenty-four minutes, the session was done. Mrs. Mingus was not expecting to get my call for another hour at least. I called her while exiting the building. “Please come fast,” I urged. At that moment, I assumed she’d not believe me that I felt I was in serious trouble, so I didn’t say anything. I nervously paced up and down the sidewalk for just under half an hour, and finally she arrived, completely unawares. I tried in the car to describe the panic attack. She believed me of course, and took me straight home. I ate ice cream and took a nap.
Of course, I’d forgotten to take anti-nausea medication. Maybe I needed it still, maybe not. But that night, I had a mild fever—nothing in the official “chemo danger zone”—and more or less felt the full effects of how I understood chemo nausea to be. It was horrible. Flu, hangover, no concentration, no rationalism, gagging over the toilet bowl. I knew that if I tried to swallow a pill, I’d merely lose it immediately, so it would be safer to wait till I’d recovered a bit. Make sure the pill was used. But in the end, I never actually vomited.
Around midnight, the nausea started to break. Well, now I know how it feels. I’d done research on different people’s reactions to chemo. Of course there are horror stories of people who would choose to suffer from cancer rather than suffer from chemo. These stories didn’t seem so far-fetched any longer.
In terms of other side effects, I had a few. My hair spontaneously started growing back. Blond. Am I going to be blond? Well, maybe for a while. But it wasn’t very full, and my beard was also growing. Long white hairs would appear on my jaws and chin and neck every day. Like they’d been waiting to come out, half a centimeter long. I continued to shave my head.
Then my hands and toes got sore. I noticed a few bumps here and there. Web forums revealed it was not that common, but very temporary, and definitely not unheard-of. The bumps were of a darker skin pigment, mostly just very sore blisters that fortunately didn’t pop. This lasted about a week. Handling, holding anything was somewhat of an effort.
A week later for my last dose of Bleomycin for session two of my treatment, I was better prepared for a panic attack. It did happen, but I was calmer. The computer helped distract me. The effects left almost immediately, and having Mrs. Mingus come much sooner this time also aided. I mentioned it to my family doctor during a routine check-up the next day. He wasn’t surprised, and offered me a sedative for the next time. I said I would just play it by ear, and probably just ask the staff themselves if the need arose.
Then finally the day came for me to check in once more for a five-day intensive session of chemotherapy. My last one. This last time was just a formality. I could handle it. Over the previous two days I hadn’t felt better since before this whole cancer ordeal began. No soreness after my surgery. Full energy after recovering from the previous chemo sessions. Great mood. I was happy.
I bravely marched into the ward, met with my oncologist, and asked her to repeat the wonderful news once more that I was cancer-free. The news she had been so specific in confirming to me just two weeks earlier.
“Well, we can’t know until you have further analyses,” she cautioned, in a complete reversal of our last conversation.
—What do you mean? You said I was “cancer-free”. I could feel a lump forming in my throat. A lump is never what a cancer patient wants to feel.
“Yes, you definitely have nothing growing. But there could still be some non-malignant tumors in the connective tissues of your lymph nodes. If that’s true, you will still need the surgery.” I was stunned. Again.