Saturday, April 21, 2012

Welcome home, stem cells!

Day 4 of the stem cell transplant and nothing much to report apart from some severe boredom. My neutrophils have only just hit rock bottom, but so far, so good.
I've been in hospital about 11 days now so you could say I've made myself at home. In typical Beth style, I didn’t realize that I was going into hospital until the actual day. Here I was, thinking I had an extra night free in the real world, when the plan had been to admit me Tuesday night and get things rolling early the next morning. Smart move really, because the nurses probably knew there was no hope in hell I would be getting up early (after four weeks of delicious sleep-ins) and beating peak hour for my 8.30am appointment.

The appointment was to get an ‘arrow’, or central line, inserted in my neck/chest area, which would give them a port through which they could administer the chemo. VAScath, PICC line and now an arrow – as far as lines go, I’ve had them all. And the same young female surgeon, who patients tend to mistake for a nurse, has done them all. We met again, like old friends, this time for the last time. She was very impressed by the results of my last PET scan; she had been quite taken aback by the size of the tumour of my very first scan in London. These kinds of reactions from medical practitioners are all just small reminders along the way that I am basically a walking medical miracle.

So chemotherapy drug no. 1 was a little something called Carmustine. I don’t know if they started with the worst first on purpose, but this drug really hurt. Luckily I slept through half of it because the half I was conscious during was so horrible I wanted to rip the drip out and be done with it. Basically the drug has a high alcohol content, so while it is going in it feels like you are on some kind of horrible bender (without the fun, going out part). For me, my eyes went bloodshot, my mouth and throat burned and I felt nauseated and extremely uncomfortable, to the point that when they offered me morphine, I didn’t say no. After about an hour following, the pain and discomfort subsided. Apparently heavy drinkers usually experience few side effects from the drug, so I guess those several months off the booze have softened me up a bit. :)

The following day was a rest day (though I did not plan on doing much resting!) and I was allowed out all day. 25 degrees, blue skies, a wonderful day in Melbourne. I spent it being a tourist in my own city, enjoying panaromic views of the city from Eureka Tower, going out on ‘The Edge’ – the glass-walled box that pops out and gives you a perspective of the city from all angles, even through the floor. It was a bit underwhelming to be honest, but my cousin’s daughter Jolon loved it so it was worth it.

We survived The Edge!
The day was finished with a light dinner in Federation Square, Swanston Street lit up magically for the comedy fest; the night perfectly balmy and still. A gorgeous night to be out in Melbourne. Pretty hard to go back to hospital after a day/night like that but it had to be done.

The next morning I got to go out for another walk across Collingwood in the glorious sunshine, before being hooked up for my second dose of chemo, the etoposide. This was pretty uneventful really – a couple of large bags, nowhere near as painful as the first day.

The next day was another rest day which I would be spending with a couple of my oldest friends, Fleur and Nicole. I met up with the girls at Southern Cross station before heading across to Edinburgh Gardens for what I had planned to be a small picnic (as it was yet another stunning day in Melbourne). When I arrived at the gardens, I noticed my cousin in-law with his young daughter at the playground. “No way, how uncanny!” I thought as I went over to say hello. Paul said he was at the gardens with my cousin (his wife) Sonya and pointed me towards her group of friends. I looked at the group. “That girl looks just like Jacqui!” I said, recognising the head of white hair among the group. As I got closer, I realised it was Jacqui, and that the people surrounding her were also several family members and friends! My family had organised a surprise picnic for me. Needless to say, this was yet another great day.
Sunday was my last day of chemo (hopefully forever!). I was given cyclophosphamide, a drug I have had before with my original R-CHOP regime, but this time I was getting 15 times the amount. The cyclo can be harmful to the bladder if it is retained in the system, so I had to be given a stack of fluids with the drug. They had to make sure I was peeing it out, so I was given ‘wee juice’ (lasix) several times which kept me going to the toilet. It’s funny how well-acquainted you (and the nurses) become with your bodily functions when you’re sick.
Monday everything was catching up with me. I could feel the drugs washing over my body. I felt dull and flat, and I was starting to realize how long and boring this was going to be.

Tuesday was a momentous day though: the day I got my stem cells back. That morning I was allowed out for a big, healthy breakfast and wandered around East Melbourne, enjoying the beautiful autumn morning; the orange leaves against the brilliant blue sky. When we got back, the little ‘spa bath’ for the stem cells was set up. 23 million of my stem cells, in three bags, were drawn out of a frozen capsule. They resembled frozen salmon. The bags were then dipped into the pool, thawed and hooked up to me via a drip. It’s amazing how simple the whole procedure is, considering it is life-saving technology.

The only side effects I experienced were a funny taste in my mouth from the preservative, which could be remedied by sucking on boiled sweets, and a tickling in the back of the throat. The stem cells have to be administered quite quickly, so before we knew it, the three bags were done. Stem cells, returning to their home, where they would grow and develop new babies – new blood cells.

So four days have passed since then, and now I’m just waiting. For the inevitable … the symptoms to set in – the sickness, discomfort, fatigue, fevers (90% of people on this therapy get an infection). It’s hard to know what to expect because I feel pretty good right now. My main problem right now is boredom and a lack of interest in the hospital food. But it’s early days yet. The lady I am sharing a room with is on day 9 of her transplant, and she is not in very good shape right now. I woke up to her crying this morning; and her day since then has been full of doctors and tests. But every person's journey is different and I'm not going to try to compare my situation to anyone else's. 

On a much more positive note, my amazing sisters and other members of my extended family have decided to participate in The Ride To Conquer Cancer in support of Peter Mac. I can't speak highly enough of the level of care I have received at this hospital - we are so, so lucky to have something like this in Australia. I'm not sure if I'll be up for riding, but I will definitely be taking part in some capacity. You can offer your support here.

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