Sunday, June 25, 2017

PCL7: Avenging My Port

Shaving my chest in prep
Iron Man, The Hulk, Spider-Man, and Thor: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Brought together by one common thread - to defeat the ever-looming threat of the galactic plan of conquest by the evil villain Thanos.

However, on Wednesday, June 21st, these heroes came together to remove an even bigger nuisance - my chemo port.

***

A week and a half earlier, I met with Director Fury (Dr. Maurer) at SHIELD Headquarters to review my latest mission report. After another successful scan, he said I could get my port out if I wanted. I did. The port was annoying, itchy, uncomfortable, and painful when Tobi or Conner (our puppy and cat, respectively) jumped on it or when a student hugged me.

The surgery was scheduled for the second day of my summer vacation. In the days leading up to the appointment, the hospital called me to verify that I was coming and to give me instructions. I was not to eat or drink anything for the two hours prior to the scheduled start time. To some, this doesn’t sound like a hard bargain, but for me, it was: I drink water constantly (especially since my chemo-altered taste buds got me addicted to lemon water).

Nonetheless, I survived the drought and took the Quinjet to the hospital. After greeting me, a kind attendant walked me to a waiting room and I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited. Apparently there was an emergency (maybe another attack by Loki?) in that wing of the hospital that morning, and everything was running behind. No worries, though. I forgave the late start time when a nurse brought me another pair of slipper socks: just what I needed to add to my robust collection from my orchiectomy and port placement.

Finally, it was time to begin the procedure. Two nurses wheeled me into another room and hooked up an IV, took my vitals, and ran through my medical history. The supervising nurse is also a cancer survivor, and we traded stories of chemo and life as a survivor. The dynamic between cancer survivors is a cool kind of camaraderie that I can’t really put into words.

As with the staff who greeted me, all of the other nursing staff on duty for my surgery were incredibly nice, too. We talked about the upcoming wedding, my job as a teacher (“Oh, those fourth graders just must love having a male teacher!”), and, naturally, my general love of superheroes (one nurse identified as a Thor fan, while the anesthesiologist identified as actually being the Hulk. Yes, you read that correctly).

The doctor (who called dibs on Spider-Man, which I felt was foolish - he had a perfect opportunity to choose Dr. Strange) came in to talk to me about the procedure. After that, Lady Thor injected me with some medicine that put me into a calm state, one that I find akin to drinking a six-pack of hard cider in one sitting. It made me sleepy, but I did not fall into Odinsleep.

The surgery team tented me up and injected me with a local anesthetic. To be honest, this was the only pain I felt during the procedure. It felt like a short bee sting, followed by a fiery feeling coursing through my chest. Spider-Doc told me I would feel some pressure. Fewer than two minutes later, he said, “Okay, the port is out.”

They then patched me up with some glue, which the Hulk said was just Gorilla Glue from Home Depot (and I’m not sure if he was kidding). I was wheeled back into my original room, where Mallory was waiting.

After being observed for thirty minutes, the nurse gave me my discharge instructions, which were pretty easy to follow - No strenuous exercise for 24 hours (read: Avengers mini-marathon for the next 24 hours), no driving for 24 hours (read: put on a gender-swapped production of Driving Miss Daisy with Mal), and no showers for 48 hours (read: Mal would be sleeping in the guest room to avoid my imminent powerful stench).

I began feeling a dull pain about four hours after my procedure, which I combated with Advil. I took more the following morning and once during the day. Compared to the pain of the neupogen shots or other maladies during cancer treatment, this slight ache was nothing. It was like Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy - annoying, but ultimately forgettable.

Two days later, I removed the bandage. Though I had shaved my chest in preparation for surgery, the bandage still pulled on the hair, which was more painful than any pain I experienced with the surgery. I looked down and confirmed it - I was no longer Iron Man, with a chest piece keeping me alive. (The nerd in me wants to point out that Tony Stark had his arc reactor removed in Iron Man 3, so technically I still can be Iron Man.)

While getting my port out was a very quick and mostly painless procedure, it represented another hurdle I had overcome. My hair had grown back (just like Groot had regrown into Baby Groot by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2) and I wasn’t getting drugs pumped regularly into my body, but I still had an obnoxious reminder of cancer in my chest. Besides being physically annoying, it was a constant sign of my journey, and it was one that I couldn’t escape - it was literally a part of me. With it gone, I had tangible proof that I would no longer need chemo and that this phase was 100% behind me. Furthermore, losing the port also represented the last major medical procedure I would have for the foreseeable future. After months of surgeries, chemo, and other visits, I’m just about done with doctor’s visits. While I don’t ever want to necessarily forget this period of my life, I can do without something always literally jabbing me in the chest.

Even though it was out of my body, I still wanted to keep the port. However, since it’s apparently medical waste, I wasn’t allowed to take it home with me, but they did show it to me before they threw it away. Talk about poor service - I paid hundreds of dollars for this thing and I don’t even get to keep it! (Just kidding, I have nothing but good things to say about the hospital.) Lady Thor asked me why I wanted to keep it, especially since it’s a reminder of the bad times.

Finally deported
I don’t see it that way. I see it as the vessel that helped to save my life. Yes, it was uncomfortable and I’m thankful to have it out, but it saved me by delivering the medicine that killed my cancer. I wanted to keep it as a reminder of what I had overcome. Lady Thor, understanding my love for superheroes, paraphrased Batman from Batman Begins:

“It’s not what’s underneath, but what you do that defines you as a survivor.”

Despite being a die-hard Marvel fan, sometimes, DC actually has good advice.*

*Unless that advice is to try to cram 50 sub-plots into Batman v Superman or reshoot all of Suicide Squad.


Monday, June 12, 2017

PCL6: Scanxiety and the Results

“Your scans are perfectly clean. There is still no cancer in your body on this scan.”

One of the things I hate most about scans is the waiting. If you’re reading this, I didn’t want to put you in suspense (although that is a stellar literary technique). So there you have it - I am still in remission. Feel free to click out of this post. Just kidding!

"No pathologically enlarged lymph nodes...
No metastatic disease"
I had my second follow up scan on Saturday, June 10th. In the morning, I ingested the barium solution (which wasn’t half bad, to be honest, since I went with the mocha flavor this time, though it still had the same post-scan fecal impact) and headed to my scan. While there, the nurse asked if I was experiencing any new pain or symptoms.

I had been experiencing some slight discomfort in my scrotum, but was pretty sure it was due to anxiety stemming from my scan. Nonetheless, I’ve learned that less isn’t more when it comes to medical issues, so I shared that information with the nurse.

“Is the pain in your right or left testicle?”

“Well ma’am, I only have one…”

She blushed and apologized profusely. I simply laughed and thought back to the initial CT scan in November when they asked me if I had ever been diagnosed with cancer, two days after my diagnosis. I’ve now become accustomed to being the Uniballer.

The scan proceeded as expected. Nothing really new to report.

Gosh, I'm so classy
However, my mind was racing afterwards. When would I get results? The day prior, the oncologist office had called and said Dr. Maurer needed to reschedule since he was going on a trip when my appointment was set. (I later found out that it was a surprise getaway for him planned by his wife - that man definitely deserves a vacation!)

They said he couldn’t see me until July. That wasn’t going to fly with me. I was not about to wait a month to get results. My anxiety about recurrence tends to flare up most often when I know a scan is imminent. I feel pain that might not be there and I get trapped in a dungeon of despair. Thoughts of having to go through chemo again flooded my mind. I began making mental lists of what I would need to do if there was a recurrence - contact my new school, shave my hair that had just regrown how I like it, change wedding plans, and stock up on Joe Corbis.

My thoughts were quickly escalating. I didn’t want to be like that for a month so I pressed the issue of getting to hear from him sooner. Dr. Maurer could just call me with results - I would still be happy to come in in July but I wanted to know ASAP.

On Monday, June 12th (the date of this writing and also my brother’s birthday,) I got a call from the oncology office saying they had a last minute opening at 4:30 and they asked if I wanted it. Um… Yes, yes I wanted it.

Mallory and I arrived at the clinic and were shown to a room. I’m pretty sure I’ve now been in all the exam rooms at the clinic between all my various appointments. Dr. Maurer shortly came in (and my mom joined us via FaceTime) and said the above quote. I was still in remission. What a weight lifted off my shoulders, but I still feel it’s wise to stockpile more Joe Corbis.

He showed me my scan. While lymph nodes were still detected on the scan, none were of abnormal size and the nodes are a normal part of a body. He pointed out different organs to me and even said there was a decent showing of muscle. Thank you, Tony Horton.

The next topic of discussion was my medical plans going forward. Most excitingly, I can now get my port out! This is a huge win for me, as it is really uncomfortable and annoying (especially when taller students give me hugs [which is strictly against my policy of no fun, love, or friendship in the classroom] and slam their heads into it) and I just want it out. Once it’s out, I’ll write a post about the process. Additionally, I’m going to have bloodwork done in October and a next set of scans in December (six months out from today and nearly a year post-chemo).

Dr. Maurer asked me how I’m doing, as I continue assimilating to real life. That’s one thing I really always like about him - he treats me as a person first, and a patient second. I told him I was doing better, but have been getting anxious over the past week about my scans. According to him, this is a normal part of the process and gets better with time. I would be willing to bet my left right nut that I’ll feel this same scanxiety in December, but it helps to know that I can move on when I get the good news.

Thus ends the story of scan numero dos. Although it’s a pretty straightforward and boring story, I will take that over a tale of recurrence (even though I already had some blog titles worked up, among them “Lightning Strikes Twice” and “Guess Who’s Back”). It’s the last week of school and a great way to transition into summer.

In the sage words of the wise American prophet Ariana Grande, “I got one less, one less problem.”