June 16, 2011
We got to the doctor’s office at 9:00 to start my first treatment. Julie, Eliot, the boys, my dad, Erica and I took up the entire waiting room. Eliot worked on his laptop. Nate “whispered” to Julie, asking if he could have just one candy from the jar. Joshy had no time for candy. Dad’s iPad demanded all his attention. Erica held my hand. I had that nervous waiting for the principal to call me into his office feeling. I’m sure the nurse would calm my nerves.
The oncology nurse came and got me. No fight broke out. She said I had to go by myself so she could get me started. I turned back to my family in the waiting room and gave them the puppy dog at the vet eyes as the door closed behind me. She took me to the back, pulled on the big chrome hatch and opened the walk-in freezer, also known as the chemo suite. It was a two room conversion, where the dividing wall had been knocked down. About 8 reclining chairs filled the room. Each chair was adorned with a mobile IV rack. There were a few patients already started on their drips. PBS played on a fancy, grey combo DVD/TV set. You know the kind: 20” tube TV that’s strapped to the ceiling using a giant steel arm. C’mon people, it’s 2011! They’re practically giving away 40” Vizios now. Business looks like it’s doing alright. Whaddya say we spend a couple bucks and get the patients some HD while they get poisoned for a few hours? I chose the chair in the corner.
The nurse is a sweet, little Filipino lady. She barely cracks the 5’ mark. She even has an awesome Filipino name, Jojo. You can’t help but love her, but her cuteness soon wore off as she took out the needle. So much for orientation. I imagined I was going to watch some grainy, black & white, educational video, made in the 60s, hosted by some cartoon syringe, “Chemo and Your Body.” She explained she would go over all my treatment details later in the afternoon.
She started me off with a fluid drip. This was just to get the veins lubricated before getting me on the real stuff. She explained today’s treatment is not chemo, but a monoclonal antibody, Rituxan. Rituxan is a drug used to break down the tumor cells. It can cause severe reactions when being administered, so they have to use it in combination with a Benadryl drip. Genentech should be paying me for this. Always talk to your doctor about your medical history before taking Rituxan®. She put me on a real slow drip because there were some good cooking shows from ’99 she didn’t want me to miss. Or maybe the slow drip was to see how my body reacts to the Rituxan.
More patients started arriving. Pretty soon, every chair in the room was full. This isn’t a problem for Jojo. This is her domain. She’s checking vitals, hooking up IVs, getting pillows and getting everyone comfortable. She’s some sort of magician. She somehow makes you forget how dreadful it is to be there. The whole office was busy. My seat has a clear shot of the hallway. I could see patients walking to and from the bathroom with their rolling IV rack in hand. Doctors and assistants walking in and out of the other rooms. Then there’s me, the noob, asking all these questions. The patient next to me, turned to me and asked, “first time?” Was it that obvious? I’m sure I looked like any chemo virgin – terrified. Maybe I looked more shocked than anything else. I just found out the night before I was going to be here. It was hello, sit down, give me your vein, we’ll explain later. It was pretty crazy. Since it was uncertain how long my IV would take and it being so busy, she didn’t have time to do orientation until later in the afternoon.
My family would come back one by one to visit me, because the Don cannot refuse a request on his chemo day. It was standing room only, so they only hung out for a couple minutes at a time. It’s not an environment conducive to long conversations, but it was nice having the company for the little time that I did. Regan came by on his lunch break and watched some Ming Tsai with me. My dad, a 6’4”, behemoth of a man, came in talking about two levels above normal. Not only is my dad an imposing figure, he left his hearing in Vietnam. He speaks up to a level he can hear. He asked how I was doing and woke up the other 7 patients. Everyone was in a Benadryl coma, just as I was about to be.
The Benadryl drip is no joke. It knocked me out minutes after it hit my stream. I passed out for about two hours. I woke up thinking, “That wasn’t so bad. I must be at my destination.” Only to realize, we haven’t even departed. I still had about 5 hours to go on my drip. To make matters worse, neither California’s Gold nor Antique Roadshow were on during my time slot! F*ck cancer!
Later in the afternoon, when I was almost finished with my IV, Jojo had us all pile into one of the open rooms, so she could go over all my treatment details. Julie, Eliot, my dad, Erica, Jojo and I all crammed in the room.
I will have to come for my treatments every three weeks. I will be given the standard treatment for my Diffuse Large Cell non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, the R-CHOP. The R-CHOP is a chemo treatment used in combination with Rituxan and the steroid, Prednisone. Tomorrow I get the CHOP. Kiai!
R = Rituximab
C = Cyclophosphamide
H = Doxorubicin Hydrochloride (Hydroxydaunomycin)
O = Vincristine Sulfate (Oncovin)
P = Prednisone
I sat in the room with the IV still streaming into my arm. I was already stuffed from the seven hour main course and I didn’t even know about the mandatory dessert. Jojo ran off a list of prescriptions I had to pick up. There were some to take as part of my treatment and others to that are used to battle the side effects of chemo. I have to take drugs to counter drugs. I just sat there and stared off into nothing as she went over the details. My eyes gradually turned from plain to Krispy Kreme as the list grew longer. Each drug she would call out would echo around in my head. I could see the names (misspelled I’m sure) circling above me as she called them out: Prednisone, Ondansetron, Prochlorperazine, Ambien. As if that wasn’t enough, the oncologist poked her head in the office and added Allopurinol to my list. There’s an important reason for each drug, but I had already reached the saturation point. She then looks at me and asks my family, “does he always look like this?” I turned to her and gave her a crazy Samuel L. Jackson look and retorted, “I don’t remember asking you a goddamn thing!” Erica was quick to point out that I was the same color as the wall. Apparently my hue needed some adjusting.
I felt like shit. I hadn’t eaten anything because I had no idea I was going to be there all day. Whatever pigment I might’ve had soon left when I learned about all the drugs I had to take for extra credit. I was a lighter shade of pale by the end of the day. Compound everything with me eating nothing but salads for the past three weeks and you get this:
Only my first treatment and I’m already bald, pale and emaciated. I don’t know how much weight I lost, but I’m sure it was significant, considering what I’ve been eating (or, not eating). I haven’t had a drink in 25 days. Surprisingly, it’s been an easy transition. I just don’t think about cracking open an ice cold, bubbly, golden, refreshing, delicious beer while sharing some laughs with friends on a hot sunny day. I better call my sponsor.
It’s gonna be a long summer.