Thursday, March 2, 2017

TBT14: The Oncologist

While it was exhausting and painful at times, I loved every moment of returning to my students. When I came into the classroom the day after telling them, I saw that the students had hung up support posters for me all around the room. Questions popped up here and there about my diagnosis throughout the day, and I answered them to the best of my abilities. My students surprised me with a gift basket of treats to enjoy while I was undergoing my treatment. They made sure everything was all natural, so it wouldn’t react with my chemo. The compassion and attention to detail was amazing.

Towards the end of the day, I had to leave early for my oncologist appointment. For some reason, the GPS took me down Route 1 instead of I-95, so I was a few minutes late to the appointment. Not exactly a stress-free way to start an appointment that was almost guaranteed to be stressful enough. Luckily, it was delayed by 45 minutes so it didn’t matter.

After taking more blood and getting more medical history, we met with Dr. Maurer, who would become my oncologist for the next few years. Whereas Dr. Dumont was straightforward and had an air of confidence, Dr. Maurer gave off a vibe of comfort. Between the two doctors, I knew I was well taken care of.

Dr. Maurer reviewed some of the details we had discussed with Dr. Dumont. One lymph node appeared to be bigger than originally measured. In total, about 5 nodes were affected, with the possibility of more that were too small to see. He agreed with Dr. Dumont’s assessment that the lymph node removal surgery was not a wise idea and agreed that chemo was my best bet.

In my mind, before talking to Dr. Maurer, I had this appointment on Thursday and would start chemo on Monday. Apparently, it’s not that easy. Before that, I would need another CT scan and a lung screening for baseline screening. A port would be surgically implanted to make administering the chemo easier. Essentially, I would become a Chromebook and chemo would be a USB. It was a dream come true for this tech geek and Tony Stark wannabe. All of these procedures would be done the following week, which would be more time off from school before chemo even began.

We then discussed the type of chemo I would receive. Because I am a non-smoker, I could get BEP chemotherapy, which would lessen the amount of cycles I would need overall. If I had smoked at any point in my life, I would need a different type of chemo, which would need more cycles and other side effects. Maybe they should use that in anti-smoking PSAs! This type of chemo had the normal side effects - hair loss was likely, temporary infertility, and fatigue. Luckily, nausea medicine has advanced exponentially, and it might not be a factor. I may have a diminished appetite and funny tastes in my mouth, but I had no real dietary restrictions.

My chemo would be in three week cycles. In week one, I would receive chemo every day for a few hours. In weeks two and three, I would receive chemo treatments for one day per week and spend the remainder of the time recovering for my next round of treatment. I would go through three cycles, with an additional three weeks after for recovery at the end of my treatment. In total, I would be missing a minimum of twelve weeks of school. Even though I had researched chemo ahead of time, I was confused about how long a course of chemo lasted. I definitely wasn’t expecting twelve weeks (or more.) I knew I would need a long-term sub, which meant I was entrusting someone else to do my job. For someone who is as independent as me, this was hard to accept.

We chose to set my start date on November 28th - eighteen days from now. Finally, some time to breathe. That date was chosen to accommodate for Thanksgiving, and I was assured that this gap wouldn’t adversely affect my health. Initially, I was confused why we would be waiting at all. I wanted to get this party started immediately. After reflecting on this, I realized the chemo would wipe everything out anyways, so a few extra days wouldn’t matter. On Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, they don’t have their own staff on hand so I would need to receive my chemo treatments at the hospital. Dr. Maurer said that the key to beating this was to maintain a rigorous and precise schedule (something I was sure I would come to appreciate) so he didn’t want to take the risk of holiday staff at a different location giving me the wrong meds. He also did not want me to travel for Thanksgiving because of the port and the increased risk of infection. If something went wrong, I would be stranded in a hospital hundreds of miles away from Dr. Maurer. I was sad because I was supposed to be going to my grandparents’ house in Pittsburgh and my grandmother makes the absolute best mashed potatoes. However, looking to make the best of it, Mal and I asked my parents come to us for the holidays.

After all of my questions about chemo were answered, there was still one area that still had a lot of question marks: what my role in the classroom would be throughout the duration of my treatment. The plan Dr. Maurer had outlined for me obviously represented a lot of time away from school, but Brian reassured me again that my health was number one. Later that evening, after I updated my friends and family, I sent a Remind message to my class sharing my chemotherapy start date and that I would be in school the next week for a few days. Parents and students alike were happy to hear that I finally had a start date and that I would be there for a few more days before I left. I hadn’t yet told them that I would be gone until February, but that was a conversation best saved for later, once my schedule was 100% finalized. I would be allowed to visit them in the third week of each cycle if I was up to it, and Brian and I discussed me teaching via Google Hangout. I would make further decisions once I determined how “sick” I would look during the chemo. While I would want to see my students and they would want to see me, I didn’t want them to worry if I looked scary or incredibly ill.

The weight of this imminent chemotherapy and exactly how life-altering these next twelve weeks would be dawned on me the next morning. Dr. Maurer said that I really had to avoid getting sick between now and chemo so my immune system wasn’t compromised before we even started. Since I had Veteran’s Day off from school, I wanted to visit my old school to see former coworkers and students. However, I decided to check with the secretary before showing up. During our conversation, it dawned on me to check with her whether any illnesses had struck the school recently. Lo and behold, many students were showing flu-like symptoms. Remembering Dr. Maurer’s strict instructions to not get sick, I decided not to go. I also realized I would need to sit out the EdCamp I was signed up for on Saturday for similar reasons.

While chemo would cure me, between limiting my travel and activities, the various side effects, and taking me out of school, it would definitely cramp my style for a while. Even for this low-drama guy, it didn’t feel too dramatic to say that chemotherapy would be life-changing.

On Thursdays, I am chronicling my journey from discovery to the beginning of chemotherapy. To read through my story up until this point, please click here

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