Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Done with chemo.

It's over.

I'm actually hesitant to type that, so I'm going to clarify: I just finished my last chemotherapy session this morning. I now wait a month, take my CAT scan on Dec. 23 (it's actually a family holiday tradition to drink dye, hold our breath while passing through a large machine, and then have diarrhea, so that's actually pretty normal), and then if everything comes up clear, I have my port removed (deported) shortly after Christmas.

In the meantime, my white blood cell count, including my neutrophils, are way low again, so I'm trying to take it easy and not get sick when I'm this close to the finish line. Fortunately, I've got more antibiotics and I don't plan on hanging around any flu-ridden people anytime soon. Actually, that's not entirely true, as I have an ambulance shift for my EMT class this Saturday, but I plan on wearing a mask on the calls until I find out the person isn't some sort of disease carrier. Nothing inspires confidence when you call for an ambulance like a pale bald guy in a surgical mask, huh?

Now, we start the monitoring. Apparently this is far from over, what with tests every 4-6 months for the next five years or so. I've read a lot of personal experiences of other guys having a problem with this, but I'm actually a big fan of it. It's essentially buying insurance that says I will not have to worry about finding out I've had cancer blitz my body for the next five years. Sure, I could get the news that it's returned, but then i just start working on the cure for it again...a hell of a much better option than being told it's Stage IV and having the doctor have to psych himself up to give me updates.

With the chemo treatments behind me, it's nice, but it doesn't feel like the monumental moment I was thinking it might be. I'm still slightly tired, I still don't have the teenager-like-appetite I had before this all started, and I still go to work looking like the principal from Back to the Future that calls everyone "slackers." It feels like, with ongoing treatments and my hair slowly growing back...apparently not likely to return until next April or May...I'm going to be eased back into normal life. Hell, I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to return to life like it was before I started this entire process, and I'm not even entirely sure that I want to. It's not like I'm living carpe diem, running around barefoot and smelling roses and freaking everybody out (which would inevitably come from my barefoot-ness...I have strange feet), but I'm not like I was before, either. I think more about my future and my health, I think more about my life's "to-do list" and what I want to accomplish, and I'm a lot more reflective on what I've done so far in my 29 years of life. I'm not going to lie, initially hearing the words "cancer," even with a high rate of a cure, does make you think of death, and it made me realize how short life is and all that stuff. More than inspiring me to go do heroic deeds, however, this process has made me realize that I'm proud of the life I've lived so far and will hopefully keep me focused on not screwing up what I want to do with my future (items on my life to-do-list still include "Have an organized crime outfit owe me a favor (and use that favor on something meaningless...like the boxed DVD set of Dawson's Creek)," "Reach a point as a father where I realize I've created a sarcastic little monster," and "Write a book that includes a worthless, cleverly hidden message in the final paragraph."

This entire process has been beneficial for me...I just have to make sure that I keep in mind that I conquered testicular cancer when there are many people diagnosed too late to do that, and be grateful for that. Then I can use that thought to motivate me to save a mobster's life or teach my future son or daughter to say, "Well, that's....unique." Or, you know, good stuff.

Fortunately, that reminder won't be hard to keep in mind. I just turned 29 earlier this month, and in the true spirit of awesomeness in my family, my brother and sister-in-law found the perfect, sentimental gift that says more than words ever could. It's subtle, touching and will provide me with a constant reminder of getting past one of the most difficult parts of my life...and it's sure to make my wife feel awkward when she takes the car keys that this is on. That's the gift that keeps on giving.

For those of you keeping count at home...I'm up to three.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Long overdue update

I apologize for not updating my blog last week like I meant to...the truth is, I tried to write an update several times, but every time I'd try to describe the experience, I'd start feeling sick. Fortunately, I'm feeling much better now and can talk about my last marathon week of chemo without feeling like my stomach is going to revolt on me.

So, the nausea finally hit me last Thursday. I woke up, ate breakfast, threw on my "Chemoutfit" (I kind of hate myself for typing that a little bit), went to the hospital, was led to my little chemo suite, and as soon as the nurse left the room I made a beeline for the bathroom and got violently ill. As I wasn't expecting this to happen, I suspect I ruined Captain Crunch with Crunchberries for me for life. It was like what I imagined chemo might be...horrible and Exorcist-like.

That day, I went through treatment, dozing through quite a bit of it. I was able to keep my stomach under control once I put on my headphones and listened to my iPod, which did a decent job of drowning out the sound of my IV pump. I used to not mind the somewhat rhythmic noises it made, but now it just makes me feel sick (kind of like the band Offspring. How do you go from "Ixnay on the Hombre" to that Weird Al style on "Americana" in one year?). The tough part is, looking back on my early morning ruining of Captain Crunch with Crunchberries, I didn't know what music I could safely listen to without ruining for life by associating it with chemo sickness. I also didn't want music that was super slow or super hard, so I had to find kind of a middle ground...settling with a mix of The Shins, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and Jack's Mannequin. When I'm going through treatment, I guess I need the type of music that makes for awkward concerts...the music is too slow to rock out, but too fast to just sway, leaving the audience in a weird, bouncing motion.

After treatment Thursday, I was done. I went home, forced myself to eat some mac and cheese, sent off an e-mail to my EMT professor letting him know I'd be missing class that night, and went to sleep. I seemed to drift in and out of sleep all afternoon, evening and through the night. Although spending 18 hours in bed sounds appealing at some points during your day, it's really pretty horrible...especially when your mind is on a constant loop of "OK, think of something besides chemo and foods that make you feel sick. Nope, don't think of that. Nope, don't think of that. OK, think of anything...waves, the ocean...and you're just relaxing on a....where the hell did that Burker King sandwich come from? Stop thinking about that, you're going to make yourself sick!"

The next morning, it was more of the same, but in a different order. Wake up, get violently ill, go to treatment, listen to bop rock for five hours, go home, play "Chicken" with thoughts of foods that make me sick and doze. By Saturday, I was able to move around a bit more, but not much. I watched TV nearly all day and felt pretty successful when I was able to eat some chicken nuggets and tater tots. Sunday was a little better, but definitely not 100%.

Oddly enough, today is probably the first day I feel like I'm back close to normal (or the "new normal" I've been able to redefine through this experience). I had my onc appointment yesterday, and it was nothing but good news: my neutrophil count is back above 2,000, so I don't need to worry as much about getting sick, my white blood cell counts are good, and I'm on the downhill slide for my treatment. My onc even managed to schedule my CT scan and port removal before December ends so that it can all be counted under my "out-of-pocket expenses" on my 2011 insurance, which is huge for me since that'll probably hit my cap and save me some cash.

So, that's where I'm at. I'm nearly back to normal, and I've only got one chemo treatment left now...next Tuesday, and it's only Bleo, which takes me about an hour and the only side effect is jittery legs from putting Benadryl in my IV.

While the past five days have been horrible with nausea, it really hasn't been anything unbearable at all. I noticed that, whenever I worry about throwing up, that all disappears after it happens. I freak out, feeling like crap, not wanting to throw up, and then when it happens, I realize it wasn't that bad and I feel a whole lot better. The only downside is, after I'm done I look in the mirror and see this pale, bony, sweaty bald guy looking back at me and I think I've encountered one of the vampires from "I Am Legend," which is a bit unsettling. Fortunately, now I know that Captain Crunch and Burger King is like garlic for these beasts, so that should be able to keep them at bay.

I'll wait to get really introspective on this entire process until it's officially over, but looking at the point I'm at now and where I've come from, I've been pretty happy with all of it. Cancer is a bit of a roadbump, but it really hasn't been the "show-stopping event" that I thought it might be. Total tally, over the course of my diagnosis, surgery and treatments, I think I've missed four days of work. During that time, I also managed to get through my 135-hour EMT course (although it's not finished...my final test will be a couple weeks after treatment ends), launch a couple of new projects at work and continue the minimum amount of updates on my Civil War-era house that allow me to feel not completely worthless. Of course, nearly all of my productivity happened on weeks where I wasn't going through "marathon chemo," but I'm still happy with how it's been going.

So that's where I'm at right now. Nearly back to normal, excited to eat large amounts of food this Thursday, and counting down the days until my final treatment is over and I can get that last CT scan to see if my cancer is totally gone. If it's not, no biggie...I know now that I can handle chemo (even with some nausea) and if it requires surgery, so be it. It's not like there's anything more I can be doing, and if this experience has taught me anything, it's that you can only do so much with what life deals you. An obstacle isn't made any easier to overcome by worrying, crying, griping or getting angry. The only thing I've found that makes a tough situation easier is laughing about it and doing what you've got to do to put it behind you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Three down, two to go...

I got through Wednesday of my marathon chemo week just a few hours ago, and man...it's a journey.

Sitting in that chair for five hours each day is kind of rough. Yesterday, I brought along my iPod, hoping that three seasons of "Breaking Bad" would help me just space out and pretend like I wasn't having poison pumped through my veins. I totally forgot that the main character in the show is also being given chemotherapy, however, and seems to get sick every five minutes. That's like one of the Kardashians watching ESPN to try and forget about a failed relationship.

I've definitely been taking advantage of sleep this week, too. I got home from work yesterday at 5:30, napped on the couch until dinner was ready at 6:30, ate dinner and hung out with my wife until 8, and then slept until this morning. I woke up, went to chemo, did a bit of work on my laptop, and then napped for about 2 hours. That's a crazy amoung of sleep for me, considering I usually operate pretty well with only 6 hours of sleep per night.

Not only that, but apparently this low white blood cell count isn't a great deal for me either. I'm low on neutrophil, which although reminding me of Nutri-Grain bars, is apparently a type of white blood cell. According to some hard-core research I did on Wikipedia, normal people have about 2500-7000 units of these. People going through chemo tend to have levels around 1000. I apparently am sitting pretty with 360.

As a result, I've been forbidden to do much of anything where I have a chance of being exposed to illnesses. So, my normal weekday activities (giving zerberts to babies with runny noses, licking door handles of 24-hour convenient stores and hanging around local pharmacies just breathing in the air) are out. About all I'm risking is going to my EMT class tomorrow, and that's only because I have a test and there are hand sanitizer pumps every 15 feet.

Aside from living the rest of this week in seclusion, I'm constantly battling with my stomach, which is trying to decide whether it hates me and everything I put inside of it, or whether it just wants to chill and go to bed. I haven't thrown up since starting chemo (you can't see me right now, but I'm knocking on wood like crazy since typing that), but my body is definitely giving me some signs that it would very much enjoy doing so. That nasty chemo taste in my mouth, weakness and the fact that any food I think about makes me feel slightly nauseous isn't working in my favor, so I've just kind of got to force whatever food down my gullet that I can and then try to sleep for 12 hours straight.

So, that's where I'm at. I've only got two more freaking days left of this week. If experience is any indicator, once I hit this weekend, I'll still be weak, but I should be steadily improving. Then, it's just a 1-hour treatment on Nov. 22, Thanksgiving on Nov. 24 (which should be perfect timing for my appetite, granted my white blood cell counts rebound or I don't have sick family members at home), and my final chemo treatment on Nov. 29. Then, a mere 3 months after this whole "cancer thing" began, I should be somewhat done with it and can start concentrating on the fun stuff in life - waterfowl hunting in panhandle Nebraska this January, the Iowa Newspaper Association convention in February, and a trip to San Antonio, TX, in March.

Even more than that, however, I'm looking forward to ditching this "new normal" I've created and returning to my "old normal," although slightly tweaked. I can't wait to cook and eat food and actually appreciate the taste of it, I can't wait to hang out with friends without worrying about someone being sick or whether having one or two beers will make me nauseous, and I can't wait to get back to a life where, although appreciative to have beaten the "lowercase C" (I still consider early-stage testicular cancer to be 'bargain bin cancer' compared to others), I can actually base time in terms of doing stuff with my wife and friends, rather than what week in what round I have coming up for chemo.

The nice part is, all that separates me from that "old normal" is just two five-hour sessions this week, and two cakewalk treatments spread out over two weeks with some great family, food and fall weather in-between. If I can just keep myself from puking at the sight of an IV bag, I should be able to coast past this finish line after all.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Let's start the countdown....5 days

Got some pretty bad news from my doc today. My white blood cell count is way low, so they're putting me on antibiotics. No, that's not the bad news...the bad news is I have to eat two spoonfulls of yogurt with my antibiotics. I freaking hate yogurt. The doc said it, and I glanced at my wife who was shaking with laughter. I could have sworn she paid the doc to say it...but then again, I would respect any doctor who was taking low payouts to hilariously tell people they need to eat food they hate. Force a guy to eat some yogurt and make $20 on the side...respect.

I start my last marathon week today, and I couldn't be happier to get it over with. These marathon weeks are the worst, and by the end of this I should be absolutely dragging, so I'll try and blog each day this week to let people know how it's going.

Today, I went through my usual routine: go in, get my port accessed (read: stick a needle with a tube coming out of it in my chest and let me walk around with that thing dangling out for a while...like a car with its gas tank open), go to a small room and get my weight taken. They have this trick where, before they call the patient back, they set the scale to what your weight was the previous time. This allows you to know within a matter of seconds whether you've gotten fatter, which is nice. Today was weird...I actually lost weight from my last appointment. My wife confirmed how weird this was. "You've eaten nothing but cake this past week," she said. That was entirely accurate...in fact this morning, remembering my doc told me to eat something before chemo, saw the sheet cake (90% eaten by myself this past week) on the table. I quickly cut a piece and, knowing that the daycare kids would be arriving shortly and my wife would give me crap if she saw I was eating cake for breakfast, decided to eat it as quickly as possible. I cut off a huge bite, shoved it in my mouth and chewed it twice before I heard my mother-in-law say from behind me, "Cake for breakfast?" As I was explaining my orders to eat something, my father-in-law came up behind her. "Cake for breakfast?" Next, my wife came out of nowhere, before I even had a chance to swallow my bite. "Cake for breakfast?" Yes. And if we're being honest here, it's the third time in the past week I've done it (once with ice cream) and I still lost three pounds. Maybe I should start marketing a very specific diet...cake and cancer. Sure, it's a give-and-take type of diet, but it gets results. And it makes you feel like you're a 10-year-old living alone like the kid in "Blank Check."

I'm actually feeling pretty good starting my chemo today. I'm trying to start the week with a good attitude so by the time I get to Friday, and the then-25 hours I've spent having chemicals pumped into me, I'll hopefully still be clinging to a fraction of that enthusiasm and not want to just lie in bed and spend all my energy convincing my body not to get sick.

So, I'm preparing for war. I've got my laptop, some coffee, three seasons of "Breaking Bad" on my iPod, work I should get done for my full-time job, and homework I can always do for my EMT class.

For my EMT class, I showed up for my first ambulance shift yesterday wearing a plain, navy blue stocking cap approved by my instructor. On my first call, I impressed the paramedic I was riding with by, after providing care and during our transport back to the ER, engaged our patient, who was 90+, in a lengthy discussion about Canada, the midwest, agronomy and other random subjects. Once we got the lady in a room and situated, he complimented my bedside manner and what I did, but asked "what's up with the stocking cap?" I told him about my chemo and how I figured it didn't inspire confidence in patients to have a bald EMT student responding to help them. He laughed and said that as I long as I kept up a pleasant demeanor, they didn't care what we looked like. "Besides," he said, "look around." Every guy in the room was bald. I may have found the perfect part-time job for a bald dude, however I'll have to see how much cake the cafeteria has.

So, that's where I'm at right now. Five days of five-hour-per-day chemo sessions, then two weeks of the easy stuff - one chemo appointment per week (on Tuesdays) for about an hour, and then I'm done. I'll finish my chemo at the same time I finish my EMT class, and life will go from crazy to an absolute standstill - no appointments, no lab work, no class time, no clinicals. I'm not exactly one to just sit still, so I guess I'll have to find something else to take up my time. Maybe I'll get lucky and catch some other crazy disease. Or maybe I'll just learn Spanish. One of those sounds much more appealing than the other, but we'll see what happens.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Like a cancer patient loves cake...

I apologize for the lack of blog posts the past week here...this would normally be a situation where I would just blame it on cancer (pulling the C-card), but that's really not the case. To be honest, it's because, cancer-wise, I've felt fine and have been trying to do as much as I can before I start my marathon chemo week next week. I figured that, while I didn't feel like just sleeping all day and fighting with my brain over the urge to get sick, I might as well take advantage of my health and get some freaking work done. Mission partially accomplished...I think I've managed to get half of what I wanted done at work completed, and raked my front yard. By the way, for my friends I make fun of for living in nice, new neighborhoods with no trees, I take it all back....raking my front yard, which is about 1/5 of my lawn = 22 bags of leaves. As my wife would say, "that's a sarcastic amount of yard refuse."

The past two weeks I haven't taken any anti-nausea medication at all, and I've been eating like a horse. They always say that chemo affects your appetite, and on the weeks that I have treatments every day, it does (taking my appetite almost down to nothing), but in these off-weeks I've definitely been making up for it. In fact, during these off-weeks I've actually gained weight (mainly just gaining back weight I lose during the marathon weeks). I chalk this up to me using the C-card to eat whatever I feel like at the time. ("Do I want ice cream? Hell yes I want ice cream...I've got cancer.") If people get ice cream when they have their tonsils removed, I feel like I've earned an entire sheet cake for having a testicle lopped off. (I love describing it like that for people...taking a complicated medical procedure and making it seem like my oncologist just used a butcher knife and removed it like he would a coconut from a tree).

Next week starts my third round, and the end of this whole thing is finally in sight. Well, somewhat. Even if I'm given the "all-clear" after finishing chemo, waiting a month, and getting another CT scan, it sounds like I'm still going to have to go in once a year for pretty much the rest of my life to check my body and make sure it isn't harboring any more cancer. There are really two ways to look at it...the first is that I'm going to be a patient the rest of my life. That's kind of depressing, so I completely disregard that perception and look at it in another way: I've pretty much been given a card that says that odds are very good that I will never be that person that goes into the doctor's office and is told that cancer has taken over my body. With yearly CT scans, it's very unlikely that shortly after a scan, some cancer is just going to "do work" and take over a chunk of my body, catching me completely by surprise the following year. Worst-case scenario, they'll catch cancer that's had 11 months to take hold, and my chances of fighting it off will be much higher. That's like having the Cadillac of cancer prevention plans...and it's a big "take that" to my insurance company, which I'm pretty sure would try to deny me everything but "a gallon of leeches for a transfusion" if they thought they could get away with it.

I haven't really started thinking about what life's going to be like when this is all over...mainly because I'm focused on just getting through next week, and the constant distractions in my life are doing a good job of keeping me focused on the short-term right now. I talked with a guy who has survived a few cancer scares last week, and he told me that with each battle, it's been the same thing. Get cancer, get a new perspective on life, beat it, slip back into just taking life for granted, repeat process. He had cancer at a young age like me, and said it was actually really beneficial, which is kidn of how I've been looking at it, too. It's kind of like taking a life experience that most people don't get until they're 75 and giving it to someone in their 20s...now, in addition to my other old man habits (playing Scrabble, eating Werthers Originals, waking up early, reading the newspaper, making inappropriate jokes about death, griping about how horrible modern music is, etc.) I can add "taking a nonchalant attitude towards having cancer" to the list. Maybe now they'll let me buy a Caprice and join that assisted living center in town. I mean, I'm already bald.

That brings me on to another weird thing...being bald. As part of my EMT classes I'm currently taking, I was required to complete 16 hours of clinical time working in a local emergency room. This is strange...a young bald guy that looks like he has cancer working in an ER. Because of my low white blood cell count, I pretty much wore a mask into each room I went into until I ruled out the possibility that they had something I could catch. With each patient that reported a medical history that included cancer (man, there's a lot of them!), I wanted to mutter a "Yeah, I hear that," without looking up from my clipboard while scrawling notes, but I didnt' feel that was appropriate. I also found out that being bald, pale and wearing a surgical mask scares the hell out of kids. I'm going to keep that in mind for Halloween next year.

So, that's a quick recap. Three weeks left of treatment, I wait one month to make sure everything is out of my system, and then I take a CT scan to make sure the cancer's gone. If it's not, I go in for Retroperitoneal Lymph Node Dissection (RPLND), where they essentially carve off my abdominal lymph nodes....pretty much what my wife does when she cuts the fat off chicken before cooking it. Yep...that's another example of taking a complicated medical procedure and reducing it to a cooking metaphor. Either way, whether the chemo takes care of it or surgery does, it'll be done before next summer. I'm thinking once this is all finished, I'm going to have to throw a "welcome home" party for my hair. You're all invited, and there will be alcohol and wigs involved.