Medicine Man

February 4, 2019

Wednesday night, the night before chemo, we went to the annual reception to support the Arlington Catholic Diocese Bishop’s Lenten Appeal, Bishop Michael Burbridge’s annual pitch for his charitable programs. We’ve been going for years, always on a cold January night, but never this cold, something brutal like 8F. Most of the other folks are older than us, which is rare anymore.

Bishop Burbridge, a Philly native and one of the great men I’ve met, made his serious but light-hearted pitch for help with the BLA, which funds education and helps troubled kids and families, and the urban and rural poor, mostly invisible in this generally affluent diocese. The crowd, the affluent ones, listened quietly, then stood and thanked him.

Afterward Sandy and I went up and said hello, briefly. He had just had surgery for prostate cancer, we wished him well. Sandy then mentioned my chemo/radiation date. He touched my chest and whispered a short prayer.

But we went for the treatment anyway. Sandy rubbed some lubricating cream on my port, installed in my chest two weeks ago. The nurse sat me down in the classroom-like space furnished with lounge chairs for a half-dozen customers. The first step is the usual: they need blood. With the port, no needle-sticking. “Port works great,” she gushed—the right word. “Nice flow.” She took three quick vials.

img_20190202_1509579926426575373780275276.jpgMore preliminaries. I get a ten-minute dose of several medicines intended to help counter side effects, which are described in a five-page handout. The least unpleasant is fatigue, the worst, well, never mind. Then 50 mg of Benadryl. I felt the drug rush immediately and started nodding off.  Then 500 cc of saline solution for hydration. Meanwhile, I’m guzzling Gatorade.

The nurse takes a break at her workstation, checking email, I guess. Then she’s back with the chemo. Two drugs, back to back, Taxol and Carboplatin, both scary. For the Taxol, she explains: if in the first ten minutes I feel dizzy or flushed, tell her and she’ll stop the flow, pause, then restart it. It needs to go in eventually. She opens the flow, I’m okay with it, still sleepy from the Benadryl.

Like a zombie, I stare at the ceiling, then doze off. An hour passes. I’m done with Taxol. Before I feel anything, I’m getting Carboplatin, another hour’s worth. I can look up and watch it drip, clearly, evenly, through the tube that feeds the port. Time passes slowly when you’re watching chemo drip.

Eventually, my head on my chest, I’m done. “Great job,” the nurse says. She unhooks the tube and applies pressure to close the port. Ouch. Then we’re out of there.

Radiation is downstairs in the radiation oncologist facility—the “Rad-Onc,” our son Michael says. A medical physicist, he does this work. Still groggy from the drugs, I struggle into a hospital gown. They lay me on the slab underneath the device—the linear accelerator, for techies. My arms and legs are stretched into position on blocks. The lens looms in my face and,  using lasers on the walls and ceiling, triangulates on my chest precisely where the Rad-Onc wants to target the beam. For twenty minutes the accelerator spins, I feel nothing, then I’m sound asleep again. Then we’re done. A young woman, the staff dietitian, cheerfully hands us literature on meal planning. The point: don’t lose any more weight.

We’re back Friday for another session on the slab.

I’m down for eight chemo sessions, one per week, and 30 radiation treatments, Monday-Friday, through late March.  On Friday we met with the doc. She says she’s aiming at the tumor left after my December surgery. Then she may add a few extra sessions, “narrowing the beam,” she says, to get the c-cells that have strayed—wherever. Then she’ll reevaluate.

Michael had given me some technical questions for her; she gladly answered them. I relay her responses back to him, he’s pleased they’re using the newest technology, whatever that is.

I recall the chemo supports the radiation, but chemo is supposed to find the bad stuff, too. Either can come first. Insurance pays for something like 80 percent of all this, we’re on the hook for the rest. I’m really hoping the bishop took care of it. No charge.

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