My Cancer Journey – Part 6

Dependency and Withdrawal

The morning of February 18, 2020 I woke up early and went to sit on the couch. Something was very wrong. Something was happening to me. Something I had no words to describe. I still don’t. My brain raced, but on nothing.

I tried to think it through, to name the sensation. What was this? It felt like my brain had a life of its own, like little rodents were running in frenzied circles inside my head. Looking back, the words that come to mind are distress, anguish, despair. But none of these is quite right. I wouldn’t realize until later that I was going through withdrawal.

I was going through withdrawal.

The Descent

Hydrocodone was my first opioid, prescribed for post-surgery pain following the removal of my diseased tonsil. Though I didn’t want opioids, the surgeon was convinced I’d need them. (see Part 1). I took Hydrocode for three days, then switched to over-the-counter acetaminophen. I couldn’t tell the difference; the Tylenol was just as effective.

When radiation and chemotherapy began, the wound in my throat was still healing. Now, radiation would burn my throat raw, swelling and narrowing the passage to my stomach. Chemotherapy caused sores in my mouth and lesions on my tongue. To say that eating was a challenge is a gross understatement. But with my immune system under attack, I had to focus on my intake of the right nutrients and sufficient calories to keep me alive. I was trying to avoid the need for a feeding tube (see Part 5).

During the eight weeks of my treatment, I experienced a lot of pain. Early on acetaminophen dulled, though did not eliminate, the pain. By December 19, just two weeks into my treatment, I was on Hydrocodone again. And on January 8 the doctor switched me to Oxycodone.

Continue reading “My Cancer Journey – Part 6”

My Cancer Journey – Part 5

Coping with Radiation Therapy

In order to administer radiation to the precise sight of the cancer, the area must be immobilized. Because my cancer was located in my neck, a mask was made to clamp down my head, neck and shoulders to the table on which I lay to receive the treatment. I could breathe (of course) and I could open and close my eyes. That was it.

Clamped down and ready for radiation.

A tattoo was placed on the left side of my neck to help the technicians target the area. Probably the only tattoo I’ll have in this lifetime!

The logic of the procedure makes sense. But the emotional impact of restraint is a separate issue. (See part 4 for details) I had to find a way of coping, so I could avoid sedation.

The restraint would last for about 15 minutes, during which time I would enter and be withdrawn from the machine twice. To stay calm I used two mental devices.

1. Logic Meets Synchronicity

It’s funny how life has a way of serving us up the very things we didn’t know we needed. As luck would have it, several months prior to my diagnosis, I had started a daily “I am” mediation. I decided to use this during the first of the two times I was sent into the machine.

I kept my eyes closed throughout the entire procedure. Seeing the mask that restricted my mobility only reminded me that I was restrained. Closing my eyes helped.

I regulated my breathing, focused on my body’s ability to heal itself, and repeated the words “I am perfect health. I am that, I am.”

Understanding the full capacity of the brain’s power is still evolving. However, research has shown the impacts of positive (and negative) thinking on our overall health. I decided to use the power of positivity.

2. Talking To My Cancer

I acknowledged that the cancer was a part of me. An uninvited, unwelcome part, but none the less attached to and feeding on my body. So, I decided to treat my cancer with kindness. During my second insertion into the machine – the lengthiest part – I talked to my cancer.

Continue reading “My Cancer Journey – Part 5”

My Cancer Journey – Part 4

I am a writer. I have long had a habit of daily writing. Carrying a notebook around comes naturally to me. Prior to my cancer diagnosis, my writing had mostly been poetry, fiction, and essays. I had also done some work as a technical writer.

For the next year, I would fill multiple notebooks with details that I’d never thought to track: calories and proteins consumed, water intake, appointments, medications and side effects, more medications and more side effects, recommendations and remedies for side effects, notes of what the doctors and nurses said. These details became the focus of my daily life. Soon they became the only thing I wrote; they became my lifeline.

As I attempt to share my story, I am glad to have these notes for reference. In the beginning, they are neat and organized. Later, they become hard to read, both physically and emotionally. Often, I am struck by the recognition that, as my treatment progressed, as I became sicker and sicker, weaker and weaker, the notes too began to suffer. I find pages without dates, progressively sloppy writing, some unintelligible scribbles, and crossed out mistakes.

Radiation Therapy

My first radiation treatment was on Wednesday, December 4. My weight was 145.5 pounds. I’d already lost over 5 pounds since my surgery. That day, I consumed 2027 calories, 68 grams of which were protein, and drank 56 oz of water. During the day, I took Tylenol twice, for the residual pain from my surgery.

The radiation would burn my mouth and throat. The pain would get progressively worse. I knew this. My intention was to avoid prescription pain medication as long as possible, fully aware of their addictive nature. But by December 19, I would be taking Hydrocodone.

The radiation treatment was to be five days a week for seven weeks. This was more than the Cancer Board had initially recommended, which had been five to six weeks.

One to two weeks might not sound like much. But this meant five to ten more radiation treatments. Think about it. Radiation is used to shrink and eradicate cancer. But radiation also causes cancer. I was asked to sign multiple documents acknowledging that I knew and accepted the risks.

So here I was between a rock and a hard place. And it was about to get a lot harder.

Coping with The Procedure

There would be two technicians administering each radiation treatment. They verified each other’s work to avoid mistakes. If the radiation is administered incorrectly, it can miss the intended target while damaging otherwise healthy areas.

The room was dark and cold. The table where I lay was hard and narrow. The technicians helped me position myself on my back, my head in the precise spot pointing toward the machine that would deliver the radiation, a triangular cushion under my knees for comfort. They covered me with blankets for warmth.

In position and ready to enter the machine.

Then came the mask. This was the hard plastic mold that had been made to fit my face, neck and shoulders exactly, a devise to keep me from moving during treatment and to help them target the radiation. It fit like a glove. I was about to find out that this was no glove. Gloves are comfortable. Gloves give.

Continue reading “My Cancer Journey – Part 4”

My Cancer Journey – Part 3

“The patient is the boss, not the doctor,” he said.

Those were the words of the surgeon who removed my diseased tonsil. Those words will stick with me for the rest of my life.

Getting a cancer diagnosis is a scary thing. Treatment can be brutal and life altering. The doctors are eager to get to work on your case. Maybe a little too eager?

For two years I’d had a bothersome, periodic soreness on the left side of my throat/neck. The annoying condition came and went. My doctor did the usual; he looked into the throat, did a strep test, couldn’t see anything. Nor could he feel any swollenness in my neck. In time, the annoyance would recede and I’d go on about my life.

The first record I have of this condition was in autumn of 2017. Thanks to the systems that store our medical records online, I was able to find the exact date of the first consultation. My symptoms were minor, but with the holidays approaching I wanted to make sure I didn’t have something I could pass on to others. The doctor did a strep test. Negative.

For two years my symptoms came and went. Two years before the issue manifested itself fully. In late summer 2019 (see part 1), my doctor referred me to a specialist. After diagnosis and surgery, I was ready to move onto the next step in my cancer journey.

Getting Ready for Radiation

While I was still undecided about chemotherapy, I was sure that radiation therapy would be in my treatment plan. The CT scan showed a few bright white spots beyond the area where my left tonsil had been, an indication that the cancer had invaded some adjacent lymph nodes. Still, the area was contained, which was good news.

I was to received five treatments a week, Monday through Friday, for seven weeks. But there was prep work to be done before the radiation could be administered.

Continue reading “My Cancer Journey – Part 3”