Cancer is one of the most common diseases of our age, and yet those who face it rarely know what’s about to happen to them beyond the broadest terms. “Cancer up Close” is an open recount of Michele Goncalves’s cancer journey from pre-diagnosis to life after treatment.
To say that I was frightened going into my intense chemotherapy regimen (IV and pill) after my tumor removal surgery is a huge understatement, since I knew that my ultra-sensitive body wouldn’t handle it well. Even though my experience was brief (I only ended up having two of the standard six cycles), the lessons I learned about chemo and myself on this difficult journey will stay with me forever.
I remember crying in my therapist’s office explaining how my anxiety was growing as the date of my first treatment approached. I was reminded again and again that I have a voice in this matter, and that if I didn’t want to continue with my treatments, I could just say stop. This was my right. It was incredibly empowering to hear, and it helped me get the courage to face my fears and go through with it.
Finally, the day came. I arrived at the cancer center and it all began with an IV being put into my arm—like so many times before. I had a bunch of appointments prior to going to the infusion center, but I will never forget the look of concern on the nurse’s face when I showed up to begin my treatments.
“Um, do you have a port in your chest?” she asked as she looked at my IV.
“No, I don’t want any ports and I was told I didn’t need one,” I replied.
“Well, you see, the type of chemo drug you are going to be getting (Oxaliplatin) is extremely acidic and it is going to burn badly going through a normal IV. You need to have a central line, but we have workarounds we can use this time since the rest of the center has closed for the day.”
Things got a bit foggy after she said that. I was in full-on panic mode. The next two hours were intense as the chemo stung its way through my veins. The worst of the pain came afterward as I faced swelling and tenderness in my veins for several weeks and needed to have a PICC line for each treatment going forward. The second treatment went better.
As for the side effects, I recall how my eyes kept twitching like crazy on my car ride home just 30 minutes after my first infusion. By the next day, I was dealing with common issues like intense, sharp pains from touching or drinking cold things, and less common severe neurological issues such as the random paralysis of my left hand, the left side of my face, and my lips. Fortunately, these oddities only lasted a few minutes or so. My eyes also felt like they were being stabbed with a thousand knives when I teared up, which was unfortunately often.
On top of all this came expected nausea. My first cycle wasn’t actually too bad, but by the second cycle, I vomited so much the days following my treatment that I couldn’t eat or drink for several days and had to temporarily stop the oral Xeloda chemo pills I had to take for 14 days following each infusion.
I was having so many neurological issues that I went in for an emergency appointment to see the general practitioner at my cancer center and finally informed my oncologist a few days later by phone that I wanted to stop the treatments. I made an appointment to see him a week later, and he agreed to stop. He noted that the benefits clearly didn’t outweigh the serious risks in my case since the biopsies taken during my surgery all showed no cancer was present in my tumor or surrounding lymph nodes. I was thankful that he supported my decision, and relieved that this very difficult phase was over.
Join me next week when I will share my challenging ileostomy reversal surgery experience.
Until then, breathe deep, be kind, and take it one day at a time.
Michele Goncalves is a financial compliance and fraud auditor for a Fortune 500 company by day and a passionate pursuer of holistic and functional medicine knowledge by night. She is also the author of the column The Consummate Traveler.