Today is the first day of the rest of my life. "Why," you might be wondering, "would you drag out that tired old cliché?"
I took my first chemotherapy pill this morning.
Last week's visit to the oncologist, our first, was in turns reassuring, enlightening, unsettling, and even a little terrifying.
Reassuring because we really like the doctor, my hair won't fall out on this medication, my white count probably won't be impacted either which means no worries about being exposed to other people and their germs (which means I will be able to travel, even on an airplane), and most of the common side effects I may experience can be managed pretty easily and are typically not as bad as with IV chemo.
Enlightening, because we got all our questions answered by a doctor who has more patience than I ever would have expected (even during a first appointment where you would naturally expect the patient to have an endless list of questions), we learned more about what happened during the surgery, got a copy of the biopsy report, and learned why this particular therapy has been chosen vs. other possible therapies (answer: because it's now considered the best option for people in my specific situation).
We also now understand that the reason I need to do chemo pill therapy, despite the successful radical surgery, is because, even though the surgery took the kidney and tumor, it also affected a lymph node, and they can't guarantee some bad cells haven't floated through my bloodstream to settle somewhere else. And kidney cancer can't be detected through a blood test, it's only detectable when there are enough cells to form a mass that can be seen on a scan. So this is a "Let's be sure we get it ALL" approach, and we can't argue with that.
We learned how the therapy will work: I'll be taking a pill a day for 4 weeks, then have 2 weeks "off", then repeat the 6 week cycle, with periodic blood tests and CT scans to monitor progress and to watch for more serious side effects. The first 3 months (2 x 6-week cycles) will tell us a lot and will set the tone for whatever comes next, and will help us get into a new rhythm to try and plan around the weeks when I will be more fatigued (the 3rd and 4th weeks in particular may be high-fatigue weeks, the other weeks little or no fatigue).
Unsettling, because we learned that pill therapy is a long-term commitment, and what I had imagined being, in a best-case scenario, a 3-6 month stint of chemo followed by regular check-ups to make sure everything is still OK, now looks like a year or longer of being on the medication. Also, the medication (as you see) contains ingredients that are amber-yellow, and my skin might turn yellowish. I'm really pale so that would be a bit creepy. Hopefully, it won't happen or will be so mild that people won't stare or assume I have hepatitis. Or that I used some of that crap tanning cream that makes your skin orange rather than a sun-kissed bronze. No one wants to be THAT idiot, right?
And terrifying because it finally sunk in that, like it or not, I am a cancer patient. Cancer is one tricky, sneaky bitch of a disease. As much as I don't want to be a "cancer patient" or a statistic, this is now part of my life and our family life, a very big part, at least for the next year or so. This wasn't supposed to be a part of my Paris story - but it is. The writer in me wants to write a book about it, the rest of me wishes it just wasn't happening and wants to find something else to write about.
I had a rough week last week, up through and including the doctor's appointment. When we left his office, we stopped at a florist because I told Georges we deserved some spring flowers, and we bought some lavender and purple tulips. Then we got on the bus, and talked quietly. I said, "You know what? I am fucking pissed off at this whole thing. This wasn't fucking supposed to happen to me. This isn't supposed to be in my life, in OUR life. How the FUCK did this happen to ME? Fuck, fuck, FUCK." There is something about that word that just relieves stress sometimes, and I make no apologies for using it liberally, because if any situation ever called for the F-bomb, cancer is it. I'll probably be saying it a lot from now on.
Georges said, "I know. I'm pissed off too. Really pissed off."
"Well you SHOULD be, sweetie. This wasn't supposed to happen to you either, or to the kids, or to our life! You should be fucking pissed as hell!"
And then we laughed and hugged each other. I think we both felt a little better. We can't be zen bold souls all the time. Sometimes we just have to say "Fuck it all, this SUCKS!" and let it be what it is.
The next day, Friday, I was a little calmer. Still weepy at times, but calmer. Acceptance started to sink in. Also, I had to go and do the NBC Nightly News interview for their Valentine's Day program on Saturday night, so I had plenty to keep me occupied which meant less time to stew in my own thoughts. We went out for dinner with the Garçon that evening for raclette, to celebrate the start of his winter school holidays.
Valentine's Day itself was lovely and relaxed. The Garçon left with his mom for a week of skiing in the mountains and I'm sure he's having a wonderful time with all that snow and clean, fresh air. I'm no longer a skier but come to think of it, I wouldn't mind sitting in the sun at a ski lodge sipping a vin chaud myself. Georges and I had a lazy afternoon at home, then went up to La Mascotte in Montmartre for a special dinner; that's where we had dinner together on the evening of our first date. It was a day full of love, capped off by a wonderful love letter Georges wrote to me.
It was also on Saturday when we picked up the box of the first month's supply of pills. We learned that these pills, if we were actually paying full price for them would be over 5,400€ or roughly $6,000 USD. We paid ZERO. So, we were once again grateful for this French health care system, because we don't have to watch our bank accounts be sucked dry by this disease. (Hello, United States lawmakers? THIS IS WHY YOU NEED FREE HEALTH CARE FOR ALL. STOP GIVING YOURSELF BIG FAT RAISES AND JUST FREAKING DO IT.)
Last night, Sunday evening, was when I could feel my perspective on the whole chemo thing begin to shift for the better. Up until then, I felt that chemo was in some way the enemy, the thing I was dreading so much, when in fact the cancer is the enemy.
Then, I realized I have a choice: I can continue to be negative about having to be on treatment for cancer, about having to deal with distasteful or even painful side effects, about having to be "stuck" with this for a year or more of my life, about it sucking my energy and my attention away from living my life the way I want to.
I can choose to embrace these little yellow capsules as my "new best friend", as the magic that will ensure that my cancer is completely eliminated from my body, and that it will give me back the life that Georges and I want and are fully entitled to have. Every day when I take that pill, I can be grateful to have it, and I can visualize it doing its best to work in the most optimal, efficient way possible to eradicate any and all potential left-over cancer cells from my body -- and that my body will tolerate it really well so that the medication can keep doing its job, so that we can get it right the first time around.
Guess which choice I made?
I believe this is possible: that I can and will be cured. That this cancer treatment may be a part of my life for many months to come, but that in the end it will be the gift that keeps on giving long after I have stopped needing those little yellow pills. So I welcome chemo into my life with open arms and gratitude, though I ask that it please be gentle with me. (I am a chemo virgin, after all.)
It may be February 16, 2015 to the rest of the world, but it's Day 1 to me.