About a year and a half ago, I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and --statistically speaking-- given three years to live. Rather than being worried about death though, I was more concerned by the treatment that I was about to receive to attempt to fight off this illness. Chemotherapy has a horrific reputation, enhanced no doubt by some people's experience with this particular treatment. Purely based on these popular perceptions, I imagined myself vomiting constantly, losing all of my hair, and looking like a prisoner at a concentration camp.
In preparation for my first chemotherapy session, my oncology nurse gave me a bunch of pamphlets; I found them pretty useless as they were written in that bland medical language, typically written by committee. Online cancer fora are no more helpful, they are filled with horrific experiences and by conspiracy theorists. The sad reality is that chemotherapy is pretty boring. As part of their treatment, most cancer patients are placed on a number of cycles chemotherapy. In cancer lingo, a cycle represents a day's worth of treatment, which is spaced for a number of weeks (typically two or three), depending on the severity of the cancer. Patients are given a mix of chemicals tailored to their specific cancer type. These chemicals can have powerful (negative) side effects, but the range of their severity varies considerably from patient to patient. Having talked to fellow cancer patients about their treatment, it appears to me that breast cancer patients have the worst experience with chemotherapy. Tiredness, vomiting, and hair loss are common side effects. Finally, cancer patients are given an option --one of the few, really-- on how they prefer to have these chemicals administered. The choice is whether to attach a temporary pic line on the arm or to implant one in the chest. The arm pic line seemed too much trouble, so I opted to have a port implanted on my chest. I thought that it looked cool, I looked like an android. I imagined myself developing supernatural sexual powers, but sadly that did not happen.
So what does a chemo cycle feel like? Obviously it varies from patient to patient, but my experience has been rather positive. In my case I am given an assortment of pills. They kind of knock me out, making me light-headed and drowsy, what cancer patients call "chemo brain". I imagine that for some people this sense of lack of control can be disconcerting. I think of it as having a light hangover, pretty much a normal state of equilibrium for me. The rest of the treatment consists of hooking you up to the bags of chemicals. These are mixed with saline fluids to cleanse your veins. In general, the treatment is more tedious than onerous. For me, chemo treatment feels pretty much like being in a business class seat on a stuffy flight somewhere not very glamorous, minus the alcoholic drinks and bad airline food. In general, I tend to watch TV shows on my iPad (God bless Steve Jobs for this wonderful invention), drink some juices, doze off. The tedium is broken by visits from friends and family. I am not too sure that it is an enjoyable experience for them, but their presence is always a refreshing change of pace. The nurses, as usual, are great. I love them all.
Unlike other cancer patients, I have been very fortunate that the side effects from chemo have been quite tolerable. I suffer from mild neuropathy, namely there is some numbness and sensitivity to cold on my fingertips and the plants of my feet. I have had some thinning of the hair and I get tired more easily when I climb stairs. My main concern, though, has been on the effectiveness of the treatment. In my case, chemotherapy stopped my colorectal symptoms (e.g., severe constipation, lack of control over my bowel movements, bloody stools) dead on its tracks on the first day of treatment. After months of struggling with these symptoms, I felt rejuvenated. Subsequent scans also showed that my cancer tumours (or "lesions", as they are referred to euphemistically) had shrunk between a third to a half.
I am pretty sure that in a hundred years we may look at chemotherapy as some horrific technique to treat cancer, much like we now view leeching or prefrontal lobotomy. But, in my case, it has worked wonders. Perhaps sensing my eagerness to receive the treatment, my oncologist placed me on twelve cycles of chemotherapy, to be delivered every two weeks. He told me that most patients could not tolerate more than eight cycles. Today I completed my twelfth cycle and I could not be any happier.