Treatment Day One
The television above the foot of the bed distracts me from the nurse with her intravenous needle. Xena: Warrior Princess is on, as it is every morning on the Oxygen network. The show has become my morning coffee ritual. Roll carefully out of bed, hand against my abdominal bandage. Make coffee. Watch Xena kick butt. Make more coffee. Watch more butt kicking. Xena always triumphs. I try not to miss an episode. At night, Ramona and I have begun watching the DVD’s – all six seasons – dropped off after my diagnosis by a friend and her partner. “We brought you food and Xena!” she announced, confident in Xena’s restorative powers.
Xena’s presence this morning, the morning of my first chemotherapy treatment, makes the whole thing seem more civilized.
We had arrived late this morning because I couldn’t get myself here, my feet not moving with any speed and often in the wrong direction. Ramona had packed us up, according to the instructions we received by mail. Warm, comfortable clothing so you can sit long hours in a drafty medical facility. Slippers so you can shuffle with cozy feet to and from the restroom. Pants with elastic waist bands so you can pull your pants down with one hand while connected to an IV line. Snacks, because believe it or not you will get hungry. A book or magazine, although you will have your own television to watch if you choose. And of course, a hat to keep your head warm.
“This must be your first time. You still have your hair,” the intake nurse stated in greeting, after noting that I was late. “That will go in 10 days.”
I squeezed Ramona’s hand but didn’t say what I was thinking, which was I hate her already and get me the hell out of here. Instead, I allowed the nurse to hand me forms to fill out before the pharmacist arrived to describe the mix of drugs I would be receiving. Ativan and Benadryl to ease anxiety and help me sleep, then steroids to help the body efficiently process the chemotherapy drug, Taxol. Taxol, the drug that we hope will destroy every last microscopic cancer cell.
Lots of side effects will be coming my way. Nausea. Hunger. Drowsiness. Wakefulness. Constipation. Diarrhea. Each drug has a side effect and each side effect has its own drug to counteract its side effect. A half dozen prescriptions will accompany me when we leave today. Because of the steroids, the pharmacist said I would be surprised by how good I would feel tonight and tomorrow. I wondered to myself if “good” is a relative term or if good means GOOD.
The bad side effects will arrive the next day and will continue for at least two more days. The pharmacist urged the liberal use of Ativan.
I got lost in the explanations about what to do when we get home and gave up trying to understand, glad Ramona was paying attention, nodding her head. Glad the pharmacist directed most of the conversation to her. She will administer the medications, so I know I will be taking the right ones for the right things at the right times.
The pharmacist went on to explain that there are so many variables, today they will start me on a medical bed against one of the treatment room walls. If I respond well to the treatment (I don’t vomit, break out in hives, or die unexpectedly), I will graduate to an easy chair. I raised my eyes to scan the room, something I had been avoiding up until that moment.
It looked like The Matrix. Framed pastel art prints and leftover Christmas decorations cannot disguise the uniform rows of bald headed humans, hooked up to IV bags and machines, absent expressions on their faces. Propped up in easy chairs, they lined the walls against the windows and filled the center of the room. I decided I wanted a window view. The treatment must go well.
Ramona is not distracted by Xena as the intravenous needle finally enters my vein. Her I-was-once-a-cop stance radiates displeasure with the nurse’s needle technique and bed side manner. “You have leather skin,” the nurse had complained. My fault that there is dripping blood. Ramona’s not buying.
“Are you Xena?” the nurse asks me, joking, ignorant of Ramona’s stony glare or my wince. “No.” I point a thumb to Ramona. “She is. I’m the chipper side kick, Gabrielle.” Which is why I am being saint like with you and Ramona is refraining from applying the warrior princess head lock and flying air kick. I smile at the nurse, as Gabrielle would in her “love is the answer” phase, and make wide eye contact with Ramona. Play nice, sweetie. My focus returns to the television, where Xena is teaching Gabrielle how to fight.
The nurse finally leaves me and my hand alone. Ramona holds my other hand as the drugs take effect. By the end of the show, when the Benadryl infusion is complete and the Taxol burns through the thin vein on the back of my hand and reaches up, grabbing my throat from the inside, I am asleep. I do not wake until I have to pee (grateful that the elastic band in my flannel pajama bottoms slides easily over my abdominal bandage as well as my hips). I wake again when the treatment is almost over and Ramona returns from the gym, relaxed from the time both of us have prioritized for her sanity, and she feeds me the snack I was sure I wouldn’t want but am craving at 3:00 pm.
Ramona is relieved to find me calm, rested. Pillows and blankets cocoon me. The first round almost over, anti-anxiety drugs melting my fears, I experience a surprise attack of inner well being and kiss her. Tell her I love her. The IV is removed, the infusions finished for today. As we pack up my teddy bear, the books I didn’t read, the remaining snacks, and my slippers, I look around the room. The other patients seem more animated now, smiling and chatting with each other and the nurses. The nurses were attentive and kind once our initial getting to know you stuff was out of the way. The one who deplored my skin brought a warm pack to relieve the ache on the the back of my hand.
When I return in three weeks, the walls will be covered in red hearts and I will be hairless. I will sit by the window and watch Xena kill obsolete gods as the Taxol burns, the Benadryl and Ativan slide me into sleep, and Ramona goes to the gym. Green clovers and leprechauns will follow in March. Bunnies in April. I will chat with nurses and meet a few patients, but I avoid attachment.
© 2010 Cathy Kidman