Chemo round two. I’m a little more prepared, able to anticipate better, overall sitting better mentally because I know what to expect. I headed to the lab draw chair straight away, gave ’em some blood. I sat down in one of the pleather recliners and pretended to get comfortable. I took my deep breath as the port needle went in. They gave me the “pre-chemo” drugs, an hour long IV infusion of antinausea meds. Once the chemo drip started my oncologist came in beaming. “So good news, your tumor markers are down!” Initially, she thought they had decreased 50% but she got a couple of her numbers mixed up.
Let’s talk about tumor markers for a second. I, for one, didn’t really know what it was. For example, it’s not something that marks the size of your tumor and when it’s down your tumors have shrunk. It doesn’t say anything about the size of your tumor at all. Basically it’s a way of monitoring the effectiveness of treatment. Cancer cells can produce a certain protein into your blood stream. So if you measure this protein through blood tests the extent of its presence can speak to the extent of the cancer cells that produce it. The particular protein they are measuring in regards to colon cancer is called CEA (carcinoembryonic antigen). A normal value is less than 5 nanograms per microliter (a very tangible and useful measurement, I know). Before I started chemo my blood was saying that protein was 442. Oh hello, yes that’s high. (Thanks so much liver for taking this whole metastatic thing and really running away with it. But to be fair also thanks for doing such a great job and functioning at 100% even though only 30% of you doesn’t have tumors. Please keep up the good work!). The good news is after only one round of chemo, it dropped to like 293. Yes, that’s a huge drop for only one round of chemo! What does this mean? Practically, this means that cancer cells aren’t able to produce as much of that protein. What I can confidently say is my blood test results indicate chemo is working very effectively on my cancer.
So that’s pretty good news to get as the chemo symptoms start drifting into play. Like I said, I was paying attention and ready for them. The lightheadedness, the grogginess, the hot flashes, the cramping, the headaches all showed up again during the six hour chemo infusion. I expected the fatigue and nausea to follow me like a cloud as I left the oncologist office. I know I was told, “nothing cold”, that if I ate or drank cold I would get a spasm of my throat that would make me choke. But milk shakes are just one of my favorite things and I wanted one. So we went straight to Chick-fil-A from the oncologist office. I tested out my tolerance to cold with some ice water. It. Was. Crazy weird. It felt like I had something stuck in my throat all of a sudden. Then I drank room temperature water and it was normal! There was nothing in my throat! It was my throat muscles spasming with cold and my tongue feeling extra cold and also food tasting weird. I thought the symptoms were made up, so weird, sensitivity to cold. But it’s real. Later I developed horrible heart burn that stuck around for four days. But I was feeling pretty skeptical of the fact that my intestines were mostly mute all week. No cramping, no diarrhea. During round one of chemo this was the symptom that made me the most miserable from post chemo day three through five. During round two, day three to five and I was needing long naps in the afternoon but my intestines were just doing normal cramping things not post chemo cramping. I was beginning to think this whole chemo thing was really going to be ok. I did the noon wod on Friday because I could battle fatigue ok, it was the cramping that knocks me down and makes exercise impossible.
This is a Crossfit paragraph, consider yourself warned. The workout that day was perfect, nothing for time, emphasis on quality and unilateral stability (A: 2 rounds of 10 DB step ups, 30 sec hand stand hold; B: 3 rounds of 6 RDLs, 12 KB front rack lunges, 10 barbell rollouts). I super scaled the weight but did all the movements, parts of it as prescribed… during chemo week!! It was a big deal. The fatigue thing was tough to deal with though. It’s not like normal fatigue. My strength is still there so during the movements I’m fine, they feel good, but after the movement or between sets is where I feel so unlike myself. I get super lightheaded and nauseous and feel my heart racing. It’s ridiculous, I only did six slow paced RDLS at 65# a super scale, why should I feel lightheaded? This is super challenging for me because I’ve been conditioning myself for three years to push past fatigue and pain, to enjoy it even. All of a sudden it’s disproportionate to my efforts and recovery is impossible. That’s what it is, it’s not a matter of fatigue it’s that I can’t recover. Let’s call chemo a recovery depressant.
Then on day six, Saturday, the cramping started, bad cramping. I had a dream once where I explained to someone my one to ten pain scale. Zero is no pain, ten is I should be in the hospital, five is the threshold for writhing, if I can have pain but lay still it’s a five, six I need to writhe, seven includes occasional moans, eight, its past writhing to paralyzingly, nine, I start crying uncontrollably. Saturday morning started out at five. But I used round one day six data to determine how my day would go, things start looking up! But I should have looked at day six round two as new data. I went to work out anyway. The owner of my Crossfit gym and coach watched how slowly I was moving between movements and cut me off three quarters of the way through the WOD. That was tough, mentally, my heart loves to finish hard workouts. But I knew he was right. I had a lot I wanted to do that day so it would be worth it to not use all my days energy on a workout. But I get so sad!!
I was expecting to feel better as the day went on and I rested. Lucky me, instead things got worse. The cramping was an eight, that took my breath away and kept me from moving… for hours! Praise God for college football and brothers who come up from San Diego just to lay with you on the couch. Later in the day I went home to shower but was trapped on my couch with body wracking spasms, these were new. I finally just manned up and got in the shower, the hot water helped and I even pulled myself together enough to make it to my Crossfit Halloween party (after resting up and watching the World Series of course!).
I think sometimes the narrative for my life sounds more dismal than it really is. But here’s my takeaway, overall, round two was better than round one!! Tumor markers are down, my immune system is doing great, my kidneys are doing fine, and my doctor is pleased. I had less diarrhea and cramping which meant I was taking less medications and could do more. I do have new medications to add to the pharmacy I carry around in my purse but I’m managing them all better. I’m learning what my symptoms are, how to manage them, and what I can and can’t do. My heart is still peaceful and I’m still unafraid of things to come, I’m upheld and shielded by an army of prayers.