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The Cancer Chronicles
Part 2: The editor undergoes a whirlwind week that includes surgery to implant a port, and administration of his first chemotherapy "cocktail." The entire experience is proving to be an education, one he hopes to pass along as the fight continues.
By Charlie Haeffner
Odessa, New York, June 12, 2021 -- The process seems to start slowly, but then comes at you like a freight train hell-bent on flattening you.
Weeks -- the better part of two months -- after the first alarm bells went off about a growth on my upper gum, a whirlwind of activity has surrounded me as the Oncology system has engulfed me to treat my Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma -- my cancer.
After two biopsies -- one of the bone marrow variety -- and a PET Scan and various consultations and poking and probing on my body parts, I had a port installed in my upper right chest this past Thursday, June 10.
This was at Cayuga Medical Center -- a procedure that I’m told took about an hour, though I don’t remember it. I wasn’t completely put under, but enough so that I was oblivious. I remember being wheeled into the operating room, trying briefly to expel some reflux fluids, and then ... nothing until I woke up in a recovery room.
Not long afterward, I was driven home by my son Jon, who had transported me to the hospital. I dozed most of the way home, and didn’t feel like doing much of anything in the hours that followed -- although stories beckoned for publication on The Odessa File and drew me, as usual, to the keyboard to process them.
The day before the port implant was a busy one, too. It included a consult with a radiation oncologist who explained that my plan (which can be altered depending on all sorts of conditions and data) likely calls for radiation after I go through three series of chemotherapy. They think at the outset that three is enough, although the treatment sometimes expands to six series.
I also, on the day preceding port surgery, underwent an echocardiogram in a building miles removed from the hospital, but part of the Cayuga Health System. That apparently went well, since no alerts were issued about my soundness to undergo chemo.
The chemo treatment was to start Friday -- and indeed did, going several hours in a room on the first floor of the building housing my oncologist, Dr. Timothy Bael, at the northern edge of the Cayuga Medical Center complex. After that will come side effects -- like fatigue, nausea, and loss of hair. You know, lots of good things.
How did I get here? It’s all explained, more or less, in a column I wrote titled Where Fear Meets Hope (Click here). With exams and consultations and meds and the inherent fear of whether insurance will cover enough, I confess confusion. What I do know: This health challenge is largely about trying to maintain emotional control, and an optimistic outlook.
It didn’t hurt that my youngest son Dave, who lives in Asheville, North Carolina -- and who was visiting in-laws in Rockville, Maryland the past week -- drove the six hours up here to surprise me Tuesday with his eldest daughter, my eldest granddaughter: four-and-a-half-year-old Marley (pictured at right). I hadn’t seen either except on video calls since before the pandemic.
Dave let himself into the house while I was out on errands with his brother, Jon (with whom I share the house). I walked into the kitchen through our back door and noticed a motion through a doorway to the living room. And there was Marley, smiling, holding a helium balloon with Congrats Grad on it. (She had recently graduated from pre-kindergarten).
I stopped, said “What?!” and then was stunned again as Dave stepped into view.
“What?!” I said again, for this visit was a total surprise. I had just talked to Dave on the phone maybe 20 minutes earlier, and had no clue that he was nearby.
I thought, with all the cancer calls and meetings and tests, that maybe I was hallucinating, experiencing some weird enhanced video call.
But when Dave hugged me, pure joy overtook me -- a neat trick in a time of such doubt and stress.
Dave and Marley stayed from Tuesday to Thursday morning, when they had to return to Rockville. Dave's wife Ali and other daughter, Noa, awaited them for the return next day to Asheville. No sense staying around here, anyway; they had done their job, and nicely. Love is a great palliative.
Besides, I wouldn't be in any kind of social mood. Come noon, I was due at the hospital -- and in fact entered its main doors on time. About two hours later, I was undergoing surgery. Two hours after that -- or thereabouts -- I was heading home.
Only to return to Ithaca the next morning for the chemotherapy. The effects of the surgery mitigated any chemo dread. The bandage on my chest reached up to my neck, where the muscles on the right were tight; sore. I’m not sure what they did in that area, but the tightness was attention grabbing, and took my mind off what was to come next.
The tightness eventually receded with the help of some Tylenol, and I made it over to Cayuga Medical Center at 7:45 a.m. Friday. They took me immediately to a cublcle complete with TV and a comfortable recliner chair, and checked out my new port. It looked fine, and then my nurse -- a friendly guy named Jason -- drew some blood through it. I didn’t feel a thing.
Then, after the blood work showed I was ready for the onslaught of chemicals called for in my particular chemo cocktail (administered one drug at a time, and on this first day slowly), that process began. First there were some pre-drugs designed to help mitigate the strong ones. Among them was benadryl, which helps the subject relax. I did more than relax, to the point of going a little loopy and, before long, sleeping on and off.
The sleep was interrupted a couple of times by the need to check my vitals -- my blood pressure and heart rate. The folks overseeing me made sure that nothing untoward was happening to me along the way; all told through my seven-hour stay, there were more than a half-dozen such interruptions.
Most of those hours were taken up by the drip-drip of the strong drugs into my port -- into my chest. There was no pain involved there. It just required patience, which is why I took a couple of books with me. My cell phone provided some attention relief, as well, as I kept watch on emails and ongoing national and world stories.
I was ushered in at 7:45 a.m., and allowed to leave at about 3:10 p.m. The last thing they did was affix a small square device to my left arm, up high, that had a little needle that entered my flesh with a “pop” sound and felt roughly like getting stung by a rubber band an adversary might snap at me. The needle was automatically replaced by a tube that would, after 27 hours, deliver a fluid that countered the loss of white blood cells brought on by all the heavy drugs. If the device doesn’t work right -- if its green light changes to red, or if it doesn’t deliver the payload -- then I have to drive over to the Medical Center and get a shot instead.
This is all new to me: the diagnosis itself of Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma; biopsies; meeting with health-care workers in many departments; the PET Scan; installation of the port in my chest; the receipt of a cocktail designed to do battle with the cancer.
After three chemo series of three weeks each, I will hopefully have made the headway the doctors seem to think I might. There likely will be radiation after that, aimed specifically at the area of my gum where the invading lymphoma appeared and continues to reside as I write this.
This is all so different from the cancer my wife Susan suffered; the one that led, ultimately, to her passing fourteen years ago. That was a sarcoma -- one she shed through herbal treatments only to have it return with a vengeance, wrapping itself around her spine.
She didn’t linger for long after that, a pulmonary embolism taking her only a week or so after she entered the hospital.
I’ve told health-care workers at Cayuga Medical about that -- and in particular about the faith-affirming light show that appeared in the sky over our region just two nights after her passing.
I tell them now, as I am tested by this illness, how I embrace that night -- a night with a sight I had waited 50 years to see. I had seen the Northern Lights when I was a child, visiting Bois Blanc Island in Northern Michigan. I had hoped to see them again up there, but never did.
But now ...
I tell them how my son awakened me that night, saying “You’ve got to see this.” And how we went outside and were mesmerized by the dancing lights that covered the sky: the Aurora Borealis in full swing. The show was obscured a bit by street lights, so we walked up to the Odessa-Montour high school football field and lay down there in the dark, eyes on the prize above, watching in wonder.
And I tell them how my son asked at one point: “How’s she doing that?”
And how, as I later wrote:
I waited a few seconds, and answered.
"I don't know, but I think she's having fun."
And we stayed there, quietly, letting the night and its wonders embrace us and apply a salve of reassurance, a blessing of peace.
I broke the stillness with a request to the heavens ... to my wife.
"Nice show," I said. "What else can you do?"
And within a second, maybe two, a shooting star -- a majestic arcing band of light -- appeared from the southeast and carried across the fullness of the night, clear to the northwest horizon.
"Wow," said Jon.
"Thank you," I said to Susan.