End of a long, busy week

April 24, 2010

This was a week where I felt like I was juggling oranges, only I had so many oranges that they kept smashing on the floor.

It was a very busy week, especially on the work front. School elections are May 4 and I’m the school reporter, so even though there aren’t any big items on the battle this year, there’s still a ton of routine coverage that needs to be done. On top of that, Kathryn’s school is one of six national finalist to have President Obama speak at their commencement. As a parent, I’m thrilled. As a reporter, that’s more stories that had to be cranked this week. Plus I had a daylong conference in Lansing on Monday, a out-of-town dinner on Tuesday, a Sunday story that needed to be written on Wednesday, etc. Thursday was suppose to be my easy work day, only I was the evening person on cop calls and a fatal fire blew my dinner plans to smithereens. Friday was my day off, but I still spent several hours on hour to tie up loose ends — to keep even more oranges from getting smashed.

Today, I’m happy to report, I did very little. Harold and I went out for drinks with friends, something we rarely do, and made me feel very grownup.

As for the health thing. I feel bone-weary tired, to tell the truth, but that’s probably more work-related than about chemo. I still have lots of tingling in my hands and legs — not uncomfortable or disabling, but I definitely feel it and so it probably was good that I ended the Ex0platin when I did so it didn’t get worse. Next treatment is Tuesday — I only have three left.

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Happy feet

April 19, 2010

It’s been a tiring couple of days. On Thursday,  the day after chemo, I followed gubernatorial candidate Tom George on a day of campaigning, that included four Tea Party events, including three in the Detroit area. I left the house at 9 a.m. and didn’t return home until 2 in the morning.

Worked part of the day Friday, although I was exhausted, and then basically spent Saturday in bed or laying around. Back to work on Sunday, still tired out, and then I had to get up early today to be in East Lansing by 8 a.m. for an education conference. Came home at 6 and went straight to bed for a nap. Another long day on the schedule for tomorrow. Eek!

The good news: My feet have completely healed up and are in the best shape since January. I’m not sure whether to credit the change in chemo treatment earlier this month or staying off the treadmill. At any rate, it’s a delight to walk barefoot again — for months, my feet were so raw that I had to constantly keep them covered.  Also, my overly sensitive tongue seems to be much better. I still can’t tolerate curry — but I’m hoping it’s only a matter of sooner versus later.

Treatment 9 went just fine

April 14, 2010

In fact, I got done about noon — my earliest time ever, thanks to an early start  time,  no doc appointment and no waiting for drugs or changing bags or whatever in the chemo lounge. I also got BOTH a hand and food massage, which was very nice, and then I slept for the rest of the time.

Because I finished early, I ended up heading a few blocks over to work. Didn’t write a story, but my e-mail box badly, badly needed cleaning out; I had to schedule some things for later in the week; I went through a bunch of notebooks in search of some missing notes, which I did find. Basically, it was a bunch of paperwork/office stuff that I  had been putting off and got done.

Feel fine tonight. Split a pepperoni pizza with Kat and Sarah, who is feeling much, much better. Had a long phone chat with a friend.

My own downfall today: Kevin was giving a presentation today on his Senior Individual Project and I forgot all about it. On the other hand, it was a complicated math thing and I wouldn’t have understood a word. (He wrote a computer program for finding prime numbers with at least 17 digits.) Blame chemo brain, which has completely fried my short-term memory.

Tomorrow will be a very long day. I’m shadowing state senator/gubernatorial candidate Tom George through four (count ’em, FOUR) Tea Party tax day events across the state. We’re in Lansing at 1, Plymouth at 3:30, then Royal Oak and an evening event in St. Claire Shores. I’m meeting up the George gang at 11 a.m. in Marshall and I’m told that we’ll return to Marshall around 11:30 p.m.

Treatment No. 9

April 13, 2010

Tomorrow, I’m back at the West Michigan Cancer Center for treatment No. 9. “It seems like it’s going on and on and on,” a friend e-mailed. Yes, it does.

But the good news is that my feet have healed and my tongue feels fairly normal, so I’m going into this round with a minimal of residual side effects.

Actually, my attention today was not on my illness, but on Sarah’s mysterious ailment. Since Sunday, she’s been battling headaches, body aches, dizziness and dry heaves. Today, she was also running a fever. Late afternoon, she headed to the local immediate care facility and I camped out there with her for three hours, most of it spent waiting. (At one point, she climbed on the examining table and fell asleep.)

The doctor’s initial exam found that the lymph nodes on her neck were swollen like oversized grapes. “Whoa,” the doctor said at he felt the right side of her neck. “This side is really impressive.” That made him worry about strep or mono, and we had to wait around for her to get tested and they didn’t want us to leave until they saw the results.

Turns out, all the tests were negative and the diagnosis was viral infection. She should feel better in a couple days, the docs said, but if the neck is still swollen next week, she needs to head back to the doctor’s office.

Truth-telling or hate speech?

April 11, 2010

Went to work today and the in box on my e-mail was swamped from responses from columns that ran in Friday and Saturday’s newspapers. The Friday one was on health care and the Saturday one was on sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

The gist of the Friday column: That the Republicans’ two biggest beefs about health-care reform — the cost and the mandate to buy health insurance — are hypocritical because the GOP’s Medicare drug bill has a far bigger impact on the deficit because there’s no taxes or fees to offcost the cost, unlike Obamacare, and the idea of mandate to buy health insurance was originally proposed by the conservative Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s.

The Saturday column, no surprise, basically blasted the Vatican for its handling of the crisis. (An excerpt: “In its handling of sex-abuse cases over the decades, the Catholic hierarchy has violated its core values. Secrecy and rationalization have trumped doing the right thing. Image has proved more important than protecting children. Self-preservation rules.”)

At any rate, I got a ton of e-mails and voice mails on both, with more positive than negative comments in each case. But the negative e-mail on the health-care thing was particularly nasty. Here’s part of one e-mail:

“It is clear you are a  hater of a large portion of americans. Also, julie can you do simple math or do you just spew whatever the DNC or CNN says? Do you even know what is going on in this country? No not a chance, just more hate speech. Me vs them, you make me ill julie (so much hate).”
One of the other hand, I was rather surprised by some the positive e-mails on the Catholic piece. A bunch came from elderly women who are truly steamed at the Vatican and said that I was echoing their thoughtse exactly. Another e-mail came from an ex-Marine who sent a copy to his pastor and said that the column should be posted in every Catholic church. And one letter, interestingly enough, chastized me for criticizing the Pope because the Pope is infallible. But as for the bishops, she said, the whole lot should be fired.
At any rate, I rather like stirring people up. Even if it does clog my in box.

On my feet again

April 10, 2010

My feet are healing up, much to my surprise, since I was thinking I might have to live this way for the next few months. But wearing padded footwear and laying off the treadmill seem to have done the trick. Today, I even took the dog for a walk in the park, much to her delight.

So now the household worries move on to other matters. For Harold, it’s who’s going to be the next Supreme Court justice. Kevin, who developed an affinity for Eastern European during last year’s study-abroad stint in Europe and who loved his visit to Krakow, is mulling the death of Poland’s president and top bureaucracy in a plane crash. Sarah is worried about  three big papers that she needs to write for her college classes. And Kat is torn between sandals or pumps for the prom.

Hey, we all have our priorities.

Stepping carefully

April 7, 2010

So my skin is falling off various toes — not an uncommon side effect of chemo, I’m told — but it’s left me limping and resentful.

My power-walk schedule has been abandoned. Going barefoot, even in the house, isn’t an option anymore.  I’m procrastinating on buying old-lady shoes, but my options are narrowing.  I’ve seriously contemplated wearing slippers at the office.

As I was whining to a friend, she winced and suggested one way to get through the next few months — figure out a big treat/reward that will directly follow each of the four chemo treatments I have left. It’s a hugely appealing notion and I’ve already figured out the first one — today I set up a dinner date with Harold and friends at a pricy and enticing new restaurant downtown, to be had two days after my next chemo treatment.

Meanwhile,  the other day I showed my toes to Kathryn, who was immediately grossed out. “You can hide them now,” she said. But Harold is being hugely sympathetic, checking in severely times daily on the foot situation and brain-storming various remedies.

On the upside, there’s been good news this week — a month ago, I was editing a brief about a local  group offering college scholarships to bright young women and urged both Kat and Sarah to apply. Yesterday, they both got letters saying they got $1,000 apiece — it won’t come close to covering all their expenses last year, but it’s $2,000 that I don’t have to come up with by August. And Sarah got a letter the previous week saying she was getting a $3,000 scholarship from WMU for transfer students with high GPAs. Hurray for them!

Mulling life and death

April 5, 2010

Yesterday, I wrote an obituary about a 66-year-old woman whose name I recognized. It took me a few minutes before I realized that I met her a month ago at the West Michigan Cancer Center and we were getting chemo side by side. 

She died Friday, of cancer that started in the vulva and spread to her liver, lungs and bones, according to her family. (“They were chasing her cancer all over the place,” the daughter told me.)  What finally did her in was uncontrolled internal bleeding — the only possible fix, the doctor told them was operation that she wouldn’t be unlikely to survive.

I find myself drawn to cancer stories these days, wanting to know all the lurid details. Where did it start? How was it treated? What finally killed the person? On Sundays, part of my job is to type up a list of local deaths and I now always peruse those obituary notices to find the cause of death and take special note if it was cancer. One of my weekend books was a cancer-themed memoir.

But here’s the thing: While I’m drawn to these stories, I wouldn’t say that I’m scared by them. Obviously, I’m interested because I recognize that, well, that could be me in  few years. But I don’t find myself unhinged or alarmed by that prospect — rather, it’s more intense curiosity. Of course, I may feel that way now because the numbers are on my side — I don’t feel like I’m in a life-or-death battle at all, at this point — but the idea of dying from cancer doesn’t keep me awake at nights.

Meanwhile, life goes on. On Saturday, I slept late, went to bed early and took a three-hour nap in the afternoon, but I still found the energy to go to the mall with Kathryn to shop for prom shoes and to watch the MSU-Butler game to its heartbreaking end. (“It’s sort of nice that Butler won,” Harold said, reflecting on the Cinderella story. “No, it’s not,” I snapped, reflecting on my Spartan loyalties.)

Goodbye to Oxaliplatin

March 31, 2010

Treatment No. 8 went fine today. I mostly slept through the 3-hour treatment, then took my chauffeur/sister Colleen out to lunch and then went home and slept another three hours.

But the headline news is that my doctor and I decided to discontinue the use of Oxaliplatin (the generic name for Eloxatin), one of the three main drugs in my chemo cocktail. The Oxaliplatin is the drug that causes cold sensitivity and neuropathy in the hands and feet. I haven’t had much problems with cold sensitivity —  outside of  no drinks w/ ice or ice cream for the days following chemo — but for the past two weeks, I have had intermitment tingling and numbness in my hands and feet. Several examples: Two days after my last chemo, it hurt too much to clap my hands at a K-Central basketball ball. The palms were just too sensitive. It’s also been painful to open medicine bottles because the ribbing on the screwtops hurts my fingertips. Finally, on the day that Kevin and I were returning from Mexico, I found myself limping through the Detroit and Cancun airports because my feet were numb.

None of this is particularly awful, but the neuropathy caused by Oxaliplatin is  cumulative and can be permanent. (In fact, I had dinner Saturday night with someone who has  still has hand/feet neuropathy from chemo two decades ago for lymphoma.)  Since I make my living by typing,I told the doctor that keeping my hands in good working order is a top priority and I’d be more than willing to shave a few percentages points off my chances of a cancer reoccurrence to protect my hands and feet.

No argument from him. He said he absolutely agreed, and added even  if I wasn’t pushing for it, he would be pulling the Oxaliplatin for the mix for these very reasons. He said that that limping 9 days after chemo was a real warning sign.

He said there were three options now: Just stick with the other two drugs that I’ve been using and leave it at that, or there were two other drugs that could be subbed for the Oxaliplatin. But one of those drugs,which has been proven to help stage 4 colon cancer patients,  has minimal impact on Stage 3 patients,so he said he didn’t recommend that. The other drug, a pill called Xeloda, could help, but the problem there is that Xeloda would likely excerabate my hand and foot issues, so forget that, too. 

Bottom line: We’re going with option No. 1. The doctor said that it’s not unuual to have the cut off the Oxaliplatin at some point because of neuropathy, and muttered that he’s had many conversations/disagreements with drug reps about the drug’s toxicity and  about how the drug’s side effects can outweigh its benefits.

So what does kicking Oxaliplatin mean in terms of the numbers? In general, chemo reduces the chances of a colon cancer recurrence from  37% to 16%. About 80 percent of the chemo benefit cames from the two drugs that I’m still using and Oxaliplatin accounts for the rest, and I’ve got about half of the benefit from the Oxaliplatin that I’ve taken so far. So when everything is said and done, from what I can calculate, eliminating Oxaliplatin at this stage in the game ups the odds of a cancer reocurrence from something like 16% to 18%.  That seems like a decent trade off  for keeping my hands and feet healthy. My dinner partner companion on Saturday says chemo saved his life, but the lingering neuropathy is a bitch.

Incidentally, eliminating Oxaplatin should cut the cost of my chemo treatments by more than half. It’s not only a nasty drug, but it’s very expensive — the Cancer Center bill for that drug is $8,400 and Aetna’s negotatied price is $3,239 — per treatment.

In other news, about half the skin on my right  little toe completely shed off yesterday, exposing raw skin. I’ve got it all bandaged up. In fact, I’ve got all those band-aids on my various part of my feet now, covering blisters and places that have been rubbed raw.  “Stay off the treadmill for now,” a nurse said today, and she’s probably right. The last thing I need is an infected foot at a time when my immune system is working half-time and my platelets are low.

Treatment No. 8 coming up

March 30, 2010

Back to the chemo farm Wednesday, along with a doctor’s visit. I’ve been having intermittent tingling and numbness in my hands and feet, so that’s something to bounce off the doctor.

But mostly, I haven’t been that focused on the cancer thing in the past few days. Saturday, it was all about K-Central basketball, which won the Class A state championship for the first time since 1951. I wanted to go so badly to the game, but had a dinner-party engagment in South Bend that was unbreakable. So I watched the first quarter of the game on TV and then had my sister Colleen, who was at the game, and my mother, who was watching the game at home, phoned me with periodic updates as I drove to South Bend. For the first seconds of the game, Colleen called and simply held up her cell phone so I could hear the cheers of the Central fans.

I wasn’t the only one monitoring the game long distance — Marcia was calling Colleen from Mexico, where she and her family were spending spring break, and Kat was getting updates in Florida, where she was on a school band trip. (Yes, it was terrible timing to have the band gone while the b-ball team was playing for the state title.)

On Sunday, it was all about Michigan State basketball — except Central scheduled their victory celebration during that game. I had to go to the Central event to write a story for the paper, but Colleen was there and getting MSU game updates from home and sidled up and whispered that State had won by a point. Probably just as well that I didn’t watch — I get far too wound up during these close games.

My highlight today was lunch with a friend who just finished her treatment for colon cancer. We actually spent much of the lunch talking about her father, who died two weeks ago. She was very close to her dad and the death was unexpected, so there was a lot to process.