Medication - Not The Savior It Is For Other Diseases

Medication. It’s supposed to be a word that brings hope and joy to anyone who has an illness. It’s a way out of the predicament, a road to health, a path to normalcy. When you have cancer, though, the “cure” is almost as bad as the disease itself. Chemotherapy, the word conjures up so many things to so many people. Poison and cure, remedy and killer, clean and dirty both – this coin has two sides. It was so different from what I expected and also, in some respects, was exactly what I expected. Kind of like eating at Chipotle.

The first chemo appointment

I remember the first time I got my chemo. I had been in the hospital for three months and I had finally gotten a diagnosis. Lymphoma. So, they planned my first infusion for a Saturday. It was the Friday night before and I wasn’t looking forward to “the weekend” at all. I was pondering how I might be able to finally leave the hospital. Hell, I had been sequestered in for months when, suddenly, in walked the nurse. She wasn’t in her normal outfit, though, no – she was dressed like someone had found plutonium at comic-con. Covered from head to toe in protective gear and a facemask that looked like it came from a bargain-basement superhero costume. So I, of course, said, “Soooo... watcha doin’?”

We are starting your chemo tonight! Isn’t that great?” She replied.

I think ‘great’ is a strong word,” I said, “let’s just call it convenient. More importantly, why are you dressed like someone spilled the fuel from a time-traveling DeLorean?

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Of course, being like 25 years old, she didn’t get the plutonium reference (watch Back to the Future you philistine), but the point is that she was dressed as if one drop of chemo touched her skin she would be poisoned beyond redemption. Imagine how that might make a person feel. You are stricken with a deadly disease, cancer, and when they bring in the “cure,” your one hope, your shot for the future, your chance to live, it’s treated with more fear than an AIDS patient in the 1980s. It doesn’t engender much positivity, I can tell you that.

Fighting a "bad" death with a "good" death

I came to find out, though, that that’s exactly what chemo is. It is straight-up poison, a killer of cells, something that could literally murder a healthy person, and they were pumping it into me like Pepto Bismol at a chili cook-off. I was fighting “bad” death with “good” death – but still inescapably surrounded by, you guessed it, death. It does a person’s head in, I can tell you that, and at that time on a Friday evening I had already sent all of my visitors home for the day so I had to face it alone. Not that I’m a stranger to that after the thirty plus years of a chronic illness that supposedly caused my cancer, but that doesn’t mean a friendly face wouldn’t have made it easier to take in the enormity of what was happening.

All of this I had to face up against the seemingly anti-climactic nonchalant-ness with which the nurse began to administer the chemo. Even while dressed like a violently-allergic beekeeper, she set about her task as if I was just another one of her patients getting just another regular medication, which I guess was partially true considering it was the oncology floor but the dichotomy still stuck in my craw. I’m not sure what I wanted her to do – have Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries playing in the background, hand me a commemorative plaque or maybe even shoot me with one of those Wile-e-coyote Acme missiles with the skull and crossbones on it, but doing “nothing really,” just seemed to leave a huge gaping hole in the event. Silly, right?

The biggest most life-changing non-event event

Anyway, the chemo coursed into me and in about the time it took to watch a movie on my iPad, it was done. I didn’t feel nauseous, I didn’t keel over, and I certainly didn’t feel like I had just had a gallon of literal poison shoved into my virgin veins. Well, “virgin” is a strong word, after thirty or so years of IVs, blood tests, and biopsies, it’s probably more accurate to say “Times-square in the 80s, hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, grand dame of 42nd street veins,” but who’s counting? The point is, after everything you hear, see, and inadvertently assume about the big-bad chemo and it’s grim looming persona, when it comes down to it, yeah, it’s treated exactly like the awful poison it is. On the other hand, though, when they administer it, it’s set up, pumped in, and you’re done before you even realize it. It was the biggest most life-changing non-event event I’ve ever participated in.

Well, you know the rest of the story. The treatments worked and beat my lymphoma back until it fell silent. The prognosis is good and I am soon to make the two-year mark where they can officially call it in remission. Still, though, I think about the two sides of this event when I consider that in both chronic illness and cancer, medication isn’t the purely positive savior that it is in many other diseases. For us, it’s more like choosing between eating Taco Bell at 2am and just going home – one means you go to bed hungry and the other means you’ll wake up after eating Taco Bell at 2am. Which one is slightly better? Talk soon.

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