Me & The Red Devil: Chemotherapy the Second Round

Any way you frame it, chemotherapy is no walk to the park. There are good days and there are bad days, and all of it is out of your control. Many of the side-effects you might suffer depend on which chemotherapy drug you’re given. People react differently to different cocktails, and no matter how much research you do, you won’t know how you react to your chemo until it’s pumping through your system. At least I didn’t. For us, nothing about my breast cancer and it’s treatment has been predictable.

IV Fluids, Chemotherapy, Caitlin Marcoux, Breast Cancer Survivor

checking into the hospital for i.v. fluids post-chemotherapy. September 6th, 2013

People in the know will tell you A/C is the worst. They call it the Red Devil. There are multiple urban legends circulating in the breast cancer circles about how this life-saving yet toxic drug earned its nickname. It has a broad range of side-effects including HEART FAILURE and get this, Leukemia. It’s the heavy hitter they say; much harder on the system then Taxol.

It comes in a syringe instead of an I.V. bag and needs to be slowly injected into your port or peripheral veins carefully, so as to not damage near by tissue. The infusion nurse who administers it will approach you with a battery of personal protective gear: gloves, a paper dressing gown, face mask and even goggles.

They’ll tell you you’ll pee it out (it turns your urine red), and to be sure to flush the toilet twice if not three times. They’ll makes you wonder  what A/C is doing to our planet, not to mention the insides of your own body. You’ll wonder what damage it’s causing as it makes it’s way from your circulatory system to your kidneys and bladder and eventually the sewage system.

I’m grateful for A/C, but it’s a powerful drug.

Following the tough time I had with Taxol in the spring, I was nervous to start A/C this August, and nervous more for the many ways in which it might effect my life. Having survived three months of chemo and a double mastectomy, I have to admit I’ve been ready to get back to my regular life. The break I was given following my surgery gave me a taste of living a normal(ish) life again, and I was thrilled to have enough energy to teach some yoga and play with my son.

The days leading up to my first infusion on August 21st, I began to worry. What was A/C going to do to me? Would I loose my slowly growing hair again? Would my eyelashes fall out again? How much sleep would it interrupt? Could I finally return to the gym? Do a handstand? Or would I be back on the couch every afternoon?

I wondered, how much of the Red Devil’s legend was true?

The Red Devil, Chemotherapy, AC, Breast Cancer Treatment

The Red Devil

So far, I’ve been pleasantly surprised.  I’ve had two of the four dose dense infusions I’m scheduled for through October and I’m really only sick for the first 3-4 days following the actual treatment. As my white blood cell count drops again around day 7, I get pretty fatigued and my immune system wears thin. But seriously, I’ve been tired for 6 months, so a little more exhaustion is no big deal. It’s certainly a lot less than other people have to deal with.

I have to admit that the second treatment was harder than the first, but that still, looking back on how I felt in the middle of my 3 months of Taxol, the last 3 weeks haven’t been so bad. Some days I’m nauseous and tired and other days I feel like a perfectly healthy human being.

When I went up to Boston for my second infusion of A/C on September 4th, I wanted desperately to go out to dinner that night. I put much thought into finding a special place to meet my pseudo in-laws, who drove 90 minutes each way from NH to meet up with us.

My partner and I spent the day at MGH and I finished my infusion in time to change into a pretty dress and jump in a cab. Sadly, and very much against my own will, 45 minutes into dinner, I was making frequent trips to the bathroom. Socializing in a predictable and schedulable way just isn’t part of my repertoire yet.

Our evening interrupted, we rushed back to our friend’s Clarendon street home, where I spent the next 2 hours on her bathroom floor.

A/C, Chemotherapy, Caitlin Marcoux, Breast Cancer Treatment, The Cancer Diaries

A/C number 2: September 4th, 2013

Feeling broken and in pieces, Burr and I left Boston the next morning.  We arranged for a wheelchair to meet us curbside at Logan (a brilliant perk everyone dealing with acute illness should take advantage of if they have to deal with air travel) and hopped on a donated Cape Air flight made possible by my friends over at P.A.L.S.

Patient Airlift Services is a wonderful charitable organization which: “arranges free air transportation based on need to individuals requiring medical care and for other humanitarian purposes. Our network of volunteer pilots provide this service without compensation using their own or rented aircraft. In no case are fees of any kind charged for these services. PALS flies as far South as Virginia and as far West as Ohio.”

We arrived home mid-morning and I more or less crawled into bed.

The two days following my second infusion were brutal. On the third day I was dizzy, nauseous, and struggling with a gnarly headache. After speaking to my oncologist in Boston, I checked into the hospital here in Nantucket for three hours of I.V. fluids and anti-nausea meds.I left the hospital feeling like a much more complete person, and feeling fully recovered 24 hours later, stuck my first handstand in 2 months the  following day.

Sure, there are other minor annoyances. My hair follicles are irritated and angry again. I’ve got lots of little hot bumps on my scalp and on the back of my neck. I don’t often feel pretty, and it looks like I’m about to loose the baby hair that’s been growing back since my surgery. I scratch my head compulsively. Some times my belly gets oddly distended as soon as I eat the smallest of meals, and my cycle is all over the place. I cry for no apparent reason at all, often. Let me stress the word often.

But everything is temporary.

The storm surge that is A/C is over as quickly as it comes on. 4 days after my second infusion I felt fine. Really, like 75% normal. That Saturday night Burr and I rode our bicycles into town and he took me out to dinner. After sitting at the Proprietor’s bar for a couple of hours, I still had enough energy to ride all the way home to Cisco. I taught yoga the next day, and  4 more consecutive classes in the following two days: the most active work I’ve done in 6 months.

That all being said, I do have anxiety about Adriamycin and Cytoxan’s cumulative side effects. As I’ve been told to expect things might get worse before they get better. For me it’s pretty simple: I either feel bad, or I don’t. Thankfully right now, the good days outweigh the bad.

I am very, very grateful to be as healthy as I am, and thrilled to reassure my sisters in treatment that life can still go on.

A/C, Chemotherapy, Caitlin Marcoux, Breast Cancer Survivor, Mastectomy, new boobs

A/C infusion number one: August 21st, 2013

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As an aside…

I consider myself damn lucky to have a cool and innovative general contractor for a boyfriend. He’s really come in handy during this whole cancer thing. I could wax on and on about all the big expressions of support he’s made over the last 6 months, and all the little ways in which he’s made my life better, but for those of you who’ve been following my journey and are in active treatment yourselves, let me just mention the most recent idea he’s come up with which has given me some of the biggest sighs of relief since re-starting chemotherapy on August 21st: The Frozen Hat.

If you are in the process of loosing your hair (as I am for the second time this year) and suffering from an itchy, hot, irritated scalp, you need to try this at home. Take your two most favorite, preferably soft cotton hats and stick them in the freezer. You can put a plastic bag full of ice cubes or a plastic or jell cooler pack inside the hats, or  use whatever’s handy in the freezer: a bag of frozen peas for instance is perfect.

Once the hats are sufficiently cold and crispy: VOLA! Your own homemade Cold Cap. Place one hat on your head, and breath a sigh of relief. As soon as your hot head has cooled off one hat, you have another one waiting in the freezer to replace it with. Switch out as necessary. Enjoy.

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 {My Cancer Story: The Beginning}

(Making the Breast Decision)

(Life After the Knife)

{How to Talk to Someone with Cancer)

(Let’s be Friends)