Climbing with Cancer: Chemotherapy

Chemo Brain. It’s a real thing.  Chemo brain is when you lose your memory, permanently or temporarily. For me, I can barely remember the 6 months before starting chemo, most of the chemo months are gone, and several months after chemo are also gone. I find writing this blog post difficult because I truly only have bits of memories.

First day of chemotherapy.

First day of chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy.  I was dreading it, but not nearly as much as I should have been.  We’ve all seen people on TV on chemo. They look a little pale, throw up here and there, but they still live life.  Look at Walter White from Breaking Bad, he started a successful business while on chemo!  Let me tell you, TV lies!

The first round of chemo I received while I was still living in the hospital.  My friends and family gathered around me as the first batch of poison flowed into my veins. I was smiling and laughing at first, but then the nausea kicked in and it was no longer a party.  But I survived treatment #1 and had two weeks until my next treatment.  I was discharged from the hospital and ready to start living my life again.

I moved in with Brian and was quite excited to be living with my first boyfriend, even if the circumstances weren’t great. We celebrated our six month anniversary, but at this time, I still had stitches in my pecs so every move hurt. I walked around with my hand over my chest, as if I were having a heart attack, to decrease the pain. We went to a steakhouse, which was a real treat after eating hospital food for so long.  My steak arrived and I tried to cut it, but I couldn’t because evidently you need your pecs to use knife. Brian cut it up for me and I took my first bite. It tasted so good in my mouth, but I couldn’t swallow it. My throat was tightening up and the steak was moving very slowly down my esophagus.  Next I tried to eat my chocolate lava cake. Unfortunately I couldn’t swallow that very well either. I could no longer eat my favorite foods.

Our six month anniversary dinner. The stitches are still in from my surgical sites.

Our six month anniversary dinner. The stitches are still in from my surgical sites.

Even though that adventure didn’t go well, I still wanted to celebrate my birthday a few days later by taking a trip to Pittsburgh. The doctor didn’t recommend it, but I was determined to not let chemo ruin everything.  The day of the trip, I felt particularly horrible.  Bad chest pain at the surgical site, every bump in the car made me want to vomit, and on top of that, I felt like I had a horrible flu. When we arrived in Pittsburgh, I was so sick I could barely walk from the lobby to the hotel room. I spent the rest of the weekend shaking in bed and staring at the ceiling…too sick to sleep and too sick to live.

After this trip, I gave up on trying to lead a normal life, and I definitely wasn’t climbing anytime soon.

It was time for my second round of chemo. My body didn’t tolerate it as well as the first batch. After I left the outpatient treatment center, I couldn’t stop vomiting and had to go back to the hospital for fluids and anti-emetics. This time the doctor said  I either need to learn to tough it out at home or I would have to stay in the hospital for the next 9 rounds of chemo. I decided to “tough it out”.

After my next round of chemo round, I went home and vomited my head off. Then I would sleep for the next 3 days. I assume I got up to go to the bathroom occasionally but I have no memory of that. Words can’t describe how bad I felt waking from my chemo coma. My chest still hurt from the surgeries, and the nausea…..the vibration from a pin dropping would make me vomit. I would fill buckets at a time with various colors of sludge. Through sobs and tears, I would ask Brian to kill me because I just couldn’t endure this life (torture) anymore. He obviously declined.

This was my life now. Chemo. Coma. Wish for death. Back to Chemo.

All this time, I had been receiving my chemo in my arm veins, but the medicines scar and kill your veins. Unfortunately I had run out of veins, so it was time for me to get a port. A port is a tube that connects a disc directly underneath your skin to a large vein. Due to my complicated medical history, I had to get the port in my leg/groin, which about 0.1% of people get a port there. I agreed to the surgery, which went horribly. The doctors gave me several medications that I was allergic to even though I told them several times about my allergy medication list.  Afterwards, the surgeon told me he wouldn’t work on me again, as if I were my fault the surgery went poorly.

I was in tremendous pain in the post-op waiting room. I asked a doctor if they could do anything for my pain. They told me no. I just went home in a very pathetic state. I could put no weight on my leg whatsoever and I was down to one working limb, my left leg. For the first couple of days, I was on a bathroom schedule. Brian would pick me up and carry me to the toilet before work and after work when he returned. During the midday, my good friend Matt picked me up and carried me to the toilet. When you’re healthy, a friend placing you on a toilet seems pretty mortifying, but at this point, I was just a shell of myself and I really had to pee. As the weeks went by, I could limp around, but with the port in, I was never able to sleep on that side, walk normally, or wear pants.  Wearing dresses or skirts in the snow in Cleveland, strangers would heckle me, “You must wanna look cute and freeze!”. You should have seen the look on their faces when I explain I had cancer and couldn’t wear pants.

Finally, I was at my last chemo appointment. I couldn’t have been more excited. My oncologist walks in and says,” I think you need more treatment….radiation. Without radiation, there is a 25% chance the cancer will return. With treatment, the chance is around 5%.” This definitely put a damper on my day. I ended up declining radiation due to the severe side effects (heart failure by my 30s, breast cancer, etc) and took my risk with the lymphoma returning.

As an active person, this entire experience was very difficult for me. I knew that if I was going to survive, I would need a goal to look forward to when I finished treatment. A reason to live you might say. I decided that reason would be climbing. I was determined to regain my strength and come back stronger than ever.  As soon, as I could walk again, I would set out to become the best climber I could possibly be.

Check out the final article in this series, "Climbing with Cancer: The Recovery." You can also read more articles by Favia Dubyk here.