Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Stem cells, phantom bugs and flowers

Life really is a fickle thing. One minute you're a seemingly normal, healthy person, with normal, healthy (and not-so-healthy) habits and duties. Decisions like 'Will I be able to make rent this week?' 'What should I wear to this party?' 'Where should I go for my next holiday?' dominate your reasonably carefree existence. How quickly a cancer diagnosis can change all that. Suddenly, your life is taken over by a big, heavy, threatening task that constantly looms ahead, and the hospital is not just a place you drive past every now and then, or hear about on the news. It's your second home. And every move you make, every change in your body is watched, monitored, discussed and documented. Every phone call or catch-up is to ask about your progress. And suddenly things like money, parties and clothes just don't seem to matter anymore.

I am very used to hospitals now. I've done the hospital circuit; I've been admitted to/received treatment at three in the UK and two in Australia. All of this has now brought me to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne. I’ve only been a patient with Peter Mac for a couple of weeks now, but already I know most of the nurses by name and familiarised myself with their individual quirks and nuances. I also keep bumping into some familiar faces among the patients, which is nice, though I am yet to meet a patient younger than me.

During my first admission to Peter Mac, I spent four days hooked up to a drip to receive my chemo. After that I got to go home for a few days. Those few days 'reprieve' at home were not particularly pleasant. I had some horrible symptoms that landed me in the emergency room on one occasion, and for the most part I felt helpless, weak, sore and completely flat and unmotivated. The days of painting, writing, editing, sorting through old belongings during my previous chemo were long gone. For someone who considers herself quite driven, this was difficult to deal with. I had no desire to answer my phone on some days. Depression suddenly made a lot more sense to me. 

Thankfully I was able to read though, and I voraciously consumed The Help (thanks Kate!) in a couple of weeks, which was really my own achievement over this time apart from the viewing of a few bad movies on Pay TV. 

On Sunday, about day 9/10 of my chemo, mum and I checked into our apartments next door to Peter Mac. The aim was that I would be close to the hospital so they could monitor me during my neutropenic phase and also carry out daily tests in order to collect my stem cells, which we had been boosting with daily injections of a hormone called GSCF. I was pretty much at my lowest point at this stage; I couldn't do much without feeling light-headed or short of breath. I didn’t even have enough energy to pack. After a restless sleep at the apartments, we were up early for my 8am blood test in Apheresis (the department in which stem cell collection takes place). I was feeling very rough. Just walking to the lift, out the building’s doors, then a few metres down to Peter Mac and back down the lift again, was really hard going. “Do you feel like you’ve been hit by a horse?” one of the Apheresis nurses asked me as I stood, or stooped, at the counter. They managed to find a vein (an arduous task for my arms at the moment), take the blood, then we went back to the apartment, where we would wait for a phone call regarding whether my stem cells would be collected that day or not. I crawled straight back into bed and slept soundly until 11am when Apheresis called me and told me not to bother getting up, because my bloods were too low, which explained my lethargic state.

That afternoon the dreaded happened. I checked my temperature (something I have to do four times a day now) and it was above 38 degrees; which generally means two things 1) an infection and 2) a hospital admission. I had also noticed something that looked like a spider bite or sting on my right knee, was becoming very, very swollen and red, and felt hot to touch. Every part of me wanted to be anywhere but in that hospital, but this was how it had to be. I was admitted at 8.30 that night, by which time, the lump on my knee was about the size of a golf ball.

So I settled in. The man in the bed beside me snored loudly. There's always a snorer - then the snorer gets discharged, and you feel relief, until the man across from you decides it's too quiet and works as a very effective replacement. It’s amazing though, I always manage to sleep reasonably well in hospitals. I don't know if the rhythmic hum of the drip machine and the medical staff and equipment moving around me that lulls me into a sense of sleepy security, but after three nights in hospital I didn't even know my night nurse’s name because I would always snooze right through her shift. 

Tuesday my bloods were still too low for the stem collection to happen, but they still wanted another blood test that day so they could monitor the trend. Getting blood out of me had been like getting blood out of a stone, literally. My veins had pretty much disappeared and most blood tests would require three or four jabs up my arm. Until I was able to be booked in for a port or PICC line, I had to endure the torture of nurses tying the rubber band around my arm until it felt like it was going to fall off, fingers pushing and pushing into my arm to feel for a vein, tentatively sticking in of a needle, sometimes failing to strike, sometimes succeeding. Blood sports!

The results showed my platelets (the blood cells that promote clotting) were low at 17 (normal counts are 150-400), which meant I required a platelet transfusion. A bag of yellow stuff resembling murky runny custard was hooked up to my drip, and viola! I had platelets, thanks to a range of generous donors. I was also given two blood transfusions as my red blood cells were also low (my blood type is B Positive! How fitting). My first blood transfusion, one that made me want to go out and donate blood, though unfortunately, my blood is no good to anyone now.

Wednesday morning heralded another dreaded blood test, but this one yielded good results. My blood counts were finally up, and my CD34 counts (the protein found in stem cells) were through the roof! It was about 350, ‘one of the highest they’d seen’ in Apheresis. “Lucky they were sitting down when I told them,” the nurse said. They were even gobsmacked enough to ask her “Are you sure it’s her blood?”
So Operation Stem Cell Harvest was on. First I had to go down to radiology and get a Vas Cath – a long tube that is surgically inserted into a large vein in my neck. It was a rather uncomfortable procedure carried out with some local anaesthetic, but they did the job, and then I was off to Apheresis, who couldn't wait to dip into my stem cell goldmine.
My Vas Cath. Frankenstein-esque

In Apheresis, I was hooked up to a giant machine via the tubes sticking out of my neck, and my blood was circulated through the machine which extracted the stem cells, then returned the remaining cells to my body. There was only one cup of blood outside my body at one time as I sat there for 2-3 hours as my blood wooshed through the machine and through my body. The machine made a curious sound as it worked away, similar to tap-dancing; what I liked to call the 'Stem Cell Song'. 

While that one collection would've given them the stem cells they needed, they brought me in again Friday morning for another go on the machine just to err on the side of caution. This time around we met a nice man called Aaron, who seemed to know a hell of a lot about stem cells. Aaron took some blood from me and predicted it would show a drop in my stem cell count, but again I caused quite a stir when my CD34 counts came back as 750. Now, that was the highest they'd seen! I don’t know what these high counts mean – I suppose it just indicates that my despite what my body has been through, my bone marrow is very healthy (or that I’m a superhero, as a friend suggested. Personally I like the latter theory better). I took a peek at the bag of stem cells before I returned to the ward, which resembled a Tequila Sunrise, the way they went from red at the bottom to a murky yellow at the top (where the white blood cells and plasma were). Mmm … Stem Cell Sunrise! When the official stem cell counts came back, it turned out they had harvested 67 million – which they figured must be close to a record! (They only need a minimum of 2 millon to go ahead with the transplant). I am a stem cell making machine!

My precious stem cells ... straight to the freezer you go!

Then the good news just kept coming. The doctor gave me the green flag to be discharged on Thursday afternoon. My white blood cells had leaped from 6.7 to 40 overnight; there was some kind of out-of-hand malaky going on in my bone marrow (maybe it was celebrating - hey, the stem cells are out! Let's throw a party!). That night I couldn’t wait to get out into the open air, free of all drips and hospital beds and blood tests and doctor visits, so my mum, sister and I treated ourselves to a delicious Thai feast on Smith Street.
It's amazing how quickly I bounce back, once I'm on the up again. For the next few days I was out and about in Melbourne, feeling very mobile and strong. My mother was stunned at my transformation; I was 100 times better than the Beth that had arrived in Melbourne several days ago. 

Saturday, we drove home and I spent a really nice weekend catching up with my little sister and old friends. Being in a small town, I found myself in the same restaurant two nights in a row; both times served by the same young chatty waiter. However, thanks to some crafty wig-wearing, the first night I'd been a brunette, and the second a blonde. The jury's still out on whether he actually worked out whether I was the same person or not.

By the time Valentine's Day came around, a day I for the most part refuse to acknowledge let alone mark in any way, I was pleasantly surprised by the arrival of a bouquet of white lilies delivered to my front door. As soon as I opened the card and read Matt's name I wanted to cry. Flowers, all the way from the UK. It's amazing how special gestures like this can make you feel. Maybe Valentine's Day isn't so bad after all ... 

On Wednesday, like a yo-yo, I was Melbourne-bound again.  Mum and I had to be up at the crack of dawn if we were to make it to Peter Mac at 8.20am to get my bloods done. Inevitably, we got stuck in traffic and got to the hospital at a time more like 9, and then we had to wait in an excruciatingly long queue before my number was called. Peak hour on all counts.
Then I was off to get my PICC line - a long central catheter inserted into my upper arm, then advanced through to a bigger vein above my heart. The line meant that the nurses would be able to draw blood from it and attach my drip to it without the laborious trials of needle jabbing and lamenting over my woeful veins. It was going to make my life and theirs a lot easier (the charge nurse actually said she would throw herself off the 9th floor if I didn’t get one – my rebellious veins had become notorious about the ward). Unfortunately, due to several delays, my 9.30am PICC line appointment became a 1.30pm appointment. 
The delays on the PICC line meant I did not have time to get the first instalment of my chemo, the drug Rituximab, because there simply wasn't time. This was very disappointing because it would extend my stay in hospital by a day. But as this whole journey has taught me, things often don't run to plan, and when they veer off course you can't fall apart because in the scheme of things, it's trivial. I've had to miss out on a lot of things recently (giving away tickets to a band I really, really wanted to see a couple of weeks ago because I was feeling so ill broke my heart). But really, what is a missed social event when you’re fighting for your life?

Thursday I was admitted to Peter Mac for my second round of Hyper CVAD (fifth cycle altogether). I was pleasantly surprised to receive a bed with a view. Long windows gaped out to the gorgeous St Patrick’s Cathedral, its dark steeples piercing a brilliant blue sky. But view or no view, these hospital stays were starting to wear a bit thin. Visitors helped, as did my laptop and Nintendo DS, and the odd meander to Fitzroy Gardens (complete with drip machine in tow, attracting all kinds of stares), but the routine was getting old. I know I have to adjust, because hospital time is going to be a part of my life for some time yet, but it doesn't make it any easier. I still hate the dreariness, the long days, the warm sun mocking me from the window, being stuck to a drip and the horrible hospital food that I don’t want to touch. 

The view could be a lot worse ...

This time around was also difficult because on my third day in hospital the nurse came around and told me I had tested positive for a bug called VRE - an antibiotic-resistant bug that lives in your digestive tract and generally doesn’t cause any problems, but if you test positive for it in a hospital, you may as well have the plague. From then on, nurses, doctors, visitors and even the food staff had to wear a gown and gloves every time they came near me. They also moved to my own room, in isolation so I wouldn’t infect anyone. I felt alienated. The only benefit was that I got my own room and some semi-decent sleep. But otherwise, I felt like a leper.
On Sunday morning, based on the results from my blood tests I could be discharged, but because I had to get the Rituximab as an outpatient on Monday morning, I had to stick around. I was disconnected from the drip and was able to go out for the day, but would return that night to sleep at the hospital, then get discharged the next morning. I was keen to get as far away from the place as possible, though I wasn't feeling great ... I was off my food and feeling weak. 
My mum, sister, cousin and I did a trip to Essendon but after sitting outside at a cafe in the heat, I realized I didn’t feel too well, and had to run myself to the toilet to throw up. It wasn't one of my best days. I got back to my dark hospital room that night, feeling really ill and lying on the bed in discomfort, thinking I’d never sleep. The one good bit of news I got on my return was that I didn’t have VRE at all – there had been a mix-up at the lab. Leper stigma lifted! The staff were apologetic for the mistake, but I got two nights in my own room out of it so ... swings and roundabouts.
Strange dreams and mental images dominated my sleep that night; something else I seem to get around day 4/5 of my chemotherapy. When I woke up in that cold, dark room early Monday morning, I couldn't shower and get out of there quick enough. Then it was up to the chemo day unit to get my belated Rituximab, and then finally, home. At times, living at my mum and dad’s property in the bush has felt isolating, especially having come from the hustle and bustle of London, but this time, it was a safe, leafy haven that I was so happy to see. I have also developed an unhealthy attachment to my bed - I don't think I have ever held such affection for a piece of furniture before - too many years of sleeping on rickety hand-me-down beds in share houses. Just to be out of hospital had instantly lifted my spirits ... being admitted to hospital is almost worth it for the pure elation you feel when you're let out. Almost.
Amazingly, the last few days I have been in great shape. I have been going for walks, eating and drinking plenty and apart from some mild fatigue and shortness of breath – a symptom of my slightly low red blood cells - I feel pretty good, which is in stark contrast to my previous cycle. I've now realised that some of the horrible symptoms I experienced then were most likely a result of my intrathecal – a procedure in which chemotherapy is injected into my spine, which is then carried through my spinal fluid to protect my brain. I have a feeling it had been a bad dose during my last cycle, because I'd never had these symptoms before.

Pancakes on Pancake Tuesday make everything all right.

But nothing's ever simple. While I am so happy to be feeling good right now, it's underpinned by a niggling anxiety that maybe the mild symptoms mean the chemo isn't working ... however, it's not worth thinking about until I get my third PET scan in a couple of weeks.
Things are moving along, and the steps are being taken. It feels so good to tick stem cell collection and  my fourth round of chemo off the list. Every round of chemo means one less to go, that's what I keep telling myself. And while my eyes are always on the bigger picture, I also have to be careful not to look too far ahead either - worrying about a scan that is weeks away is in no way healthy. One day at a time.

1 comment:

  1. Good luck with the 3rd PET scan. All the prayers for your best.