Friday, November 30, 2012

I can see clearly now ...

Good evening, Day #31. Weeks ago the days were slowly trickling by, and Day 100 felt so far, far away. Now I am already a third of the way, and “kicking goals” to quote my doctor. If I wasn’t swallowing 20 pills a day, wearing wigs and scarves to cover my bald head and spending enough time in Royal Melbourne Hospital to know many people by name now, it would just feel like a regular summer. Health-wise I’m as strong as I can be – my organs are all functioning normally, I have no debilitating symptoms and even my energy levels are pretty good – I am far from housebound and enjoying the many things that North Melbourne and surrounding areas have to offer.

I am still required to visit the Royal Melbourne day centre three times a week for check-ups. Among the familiar faces are a diverse range of haematology cancer patients; some young but most of them old; many of them are post-transplant patients like me; some smiling, some sad; some with chemotherapy feeding into their veins, some with fluids, some falling asleep in their chairs; most with companions like partners or mothers. I am well-acquainted with day centres, having frequented them at London, Latrobe Valley, Peter Mac and now RMH for my various treatments. Sometimes they would be depressing places – you are often surrounded by some very sick people - and I would get this mild anxiety about having to sit in “the chair (morbidly, in my head I would associate it with an electric chair). Even though it is a place of healing, you are also having poisons injected into your body.

I have to say the RMH day centre is different though; it’s not such a bad place to be. I go there enough that everyone is familiar, and the staff are so upbeat; smiles and jokes abound. Quite often it’s a fleeting visit: the nurse performs the general observations, runs off a copy of my blood counts, then I have a brief chat with the doctor about anything that might be bothering me and I go on my merry way. Sometimes I have stay a couple of hours for an intravenous top-up of magnesium (the anti-rejection drug cyclosporin chews up my magnesium levels) or fluids. Soon though, these visits will be cut to twice a week which is a good sign. Next week I also get to lower my daily steroid dose which I am looking forward to because it’s hard to get a good night’s sleep on 35mg of Prednisolone a day. The steroids keep graft versus host disease in check (which I have had no symptoms of as yet) so it will be interesting to see what happens there.

It will still be some time until I find out whether the whole point of the transplant has been achieved and whether my new immune system, “the graft” has attacked the lymphoma cells. Building a new immune system is no small task and at the moment it’s barely clicked into first gear. It won’t be firing on all cylinders until another six months, and until then I still have to be careful in terms of infections (I can actually get measles, mumps and all that nasty stuff that most people are immunised against). I have a "baby immune system" as one nurse described it. My next PET scan will be around Day #60, some time after Christmas. Again this is too early to tell whether the graft vs lymphoma effect has taken place, it will simply be a surveillance exercise. All I can do for now is celebrate that I am feeling well and enjoy the glorious Melbourne summer and festive season that is unravelling around me.

Queen Victoria Night Markets ... I love Melbourne in summer

And I can’t believe how at peace I feel. 2012 has by no means been an easy year which has taken to me some of the darkest places of my life. But right now I feel I have come so far and grown into the person that I want to be. I just have to wait for my body to catch up and heal to complete the picture. It's been a year since I returned from London and I still find myself in limbo; unable to get back to work, get back on my feet and regain my independence and that has been very frustrating. Reconnecting with friends after 18 months abroad and with an illness has been a challenge as well. But at the same time I have had plenty of time to reflect, think about the things that are important to me and what this thing called life is all about, and I feel like I’m in a good place right now, moreso than a lot of physically healthy people.

I feel there are so many positive things happening lately too. While in North Melbourne I have been able to visit fellow Traralgonites Chrissie and Wes and their three-year-old son Aston who has undergone a bone marrow transplant at the Royal Children’s Hospital. It has been a long, tough nine-month journey for Aston who amazingly recovered from stage 4 GVHD and a stint in intensive care, and now he finally gets to go home to Traralgon for good. Seeing Aston doing so well and the way his parents rally around him has been a major boost for me. Around the same time, dear friends of mine in Merimbula have reached a milestone: their two-year-old daughter Pearl is now four years on from her leukaemia diagnosis, has had two years chemo-free and is strong and well. Jimmy Stynes said in his book, “Those looking for perspective will find it in bucketloads when spending time with kids with cancer.” Their resilience in the face of everything they’ve been through is just inspiring and life-affirming. It also shows that even when things seem bleak and neverending, there is always hope.

Today was also a great day because I did something I’ve never done before: I wrote a song. At RMH there is a wonderful music therapist called Emma O’Brien who visited me while I was on the ward for some guitar playing and singing. While I was “inside” I put some poetry together, and today I visited her at the recording studio (yes RMH has a recording studio!), we added some chords to it and we’re planning on doing an initial recording next week. It’s a great song and I’m excited about it. Rock stardom here I come!
Emma O'Brien featured in the November 30 edition of The Age's Melbourne Magazine

Now a funny story to cap things off. Last weekend I went out for dinner in Port Melbourne with my brother and some friends. While I was sitting staring out the window at the beach views, I noticed that my vision was crystal clear. I’m mildly short-sighted and need the help of contacts or glasses to see for long distances. But wait, what was this? I could see ships clear as day on the hazy horizon, and I could read the specials board from the other side of the room. Had my vision magically corrected itself? Had Megan’s stem cell superpowers given me perfect vision? I was baffled by this until I got home and upon inspection of both my eyes, I realized that I was still wearing my daily contact lenses that I had forgotten to take out the night before, when I had flopped into bed exhausted. These lenses had withstood a night’s sleep and a shower, and once they were finally removed, alas, I was blind as before. Classic blonde moment (no I can’t blame it on “chemo brain”, I was always like this). Ah well, I still hang on to the hope that Megan’s stem cells will pass on some kind of superpower, her mad guitar skillz maybe? Her unbeatable Just Dance moves?

So that’s November. A month in which I reached a year since my diagnosis, a month in which I recovered from my second stem cell transplant in a year, a month in which I wrote my musical opus, a month in which the sun shone on Melbourne and reminded me why it is still one of my favourite cities on earth. It’s all good folks, it’s all good. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Freedom and fist pumps

Being able to relax on my North Melbourne balcony in the sunshine and gentle breeze, watching the world go by. Relaxing on the couch watching TV with the fam. Enjoying a home-cooked meal around the table. These are all the things I promise I will not take for granted anymore.

If the purpose of me going through this whole cancer ordeal is to appreciate those small things, then I can say that mission is accomplished. I will never take good health for granted again, and frankly, I am just happy to be alive. (Just to reiterate, I don’t really think there is a ‘purpose’ for this ordeal. I think it just happened because one of my cells happened to mutate and multiply. To me, it’s as simple and unfortunate as that.)

I was in hospital, all up, for about 19 days. I was barely allowed to leave my little glass cocoon, which was room 8 on the 5th floor (though, that said I did have the nicest view and biggest room on the ward – the ‘penthouse suite’ according to the nurses). For most of this time, I was sitting there just waiting fort my neutrophils, which had been sitting firmly at zero for days and days, to increase so I could get out of there. In the meantime I wanted to avoid any nasty bug that might come my way.  There were a couple of days that I was pacing the room so furiously that mum was going to ask the doctor to prescribe me valium. I probably did need it too. It’s quite unusual for me to get anxiety but there were a few days that I felt it heavy on my heart. There were also a couple of mornings where I found myself crying into my porridge (which would add some flavour at least) for no fixed reason. I wasn’t worried about the transplant not working, I was more worried about the days ahead, and how I was going to manage them with even a shred of sanity. I was burdened by the monumental task ahead of me.

So what did I do with my time? I read, though my concentration would fluctuate from day to day. I watched shows like 30 Rock and movies like Clueless. I wrote poetry. I kept a diary. I played on my mum’s iPad. I played SongPop on my iPhone. I tried to keep up with the news, but as with my concentration, my interest in current affairs would wane some days. I spoke to people. And this is where my star visitors come into play – as well as brightening my day they also helped to break it up, as did the letters and notes of support (as if in some kind of poetic harmony, I ran out of letters to read right before my discharge from hospital).

Sunset from my window
I was one of the lucky ones as I didn’t suffer much sickness throughout my stay. A really ugly infection broke out on my face, kinda like an infected pimple, but it didn’t cause me much grief apart from making me look monstrous. From Day +8 to discharge I had a sore throat, but I still managed to eat all the way through and thankfully I never had to be fed nutrition through a drip. I had some loss of appetite and drowsiness, but the flatness, lack of fresh air and boredom were worse. I can’t even say the first few weeks of my allograft were much worse than my autograft. It was simply that the process was longer, and different.

Other things that helped were regular walks up and down the ward (which is about 50 metres long, no kidding) and getting decent sleep every night, which surprisingly I managed. Most of the time I sleep like a baby in hospital. Despite being roused from sleep about five times a night for observations, medications and blood tests, I always fall straight back to sleep and doze until the doctors usually do their rounds at 8-8.30.

Day +12, a Saturday and Stakes Day in Melbourne, was a busy day. I’d been to Flemington racecourse in the Melbourne sunshine. I’d pashed several guys (and even girls), won money on the horses, swilled champagne, took to the DJ decks to spin a few records, hell I even busked on the street.

Was this some kind of crazed rampage day leave scenario? No. My hilarious girl friends took a cardboard cut-out of my head along with them to Stakes Day. What ensued was a sequence of hilarious photos to my phone of my head in a range of compromising situations. It made my day – and apparently a few other people’s too! Funny, because on Saturday I was craving McDonald’s (which apparently I visited at some ungodly hour) and Monday morning I threw up for the first time since I’d been in hospital, which made me think that maybe I had a sympathy hangover, or my cardboard head had been a voodoo doll.

It was a lovely gesture which put a smile on my face for days and reminded me what awesome friends I have.

Proof that I can DJ
Saturday also marked a year since my (unofficial) diagnosis. 11.11.11, a day that will be etched in my memory - the day I took myself to a London hospital, plagued by a cough, abdominal pain and sickness, only to be told several hours after a chest X-ray and CT scan that I had cancer. But I tried not to think too much about it. Right now it is so much more important for me to look forward and embrace the future, rather than dwell on the past, and how far I have or haven't come. So I shrugged it off as another day.

I also missed seeing my favourite band at Harvest Festival that day but that means little to me now.

My debaucherous Day + 12 must’ve been just what the doc ordered, because I woke up on Day +13 to a neutrophil count of 0.1. Could this be the beginning of the great white cell ascension? I wouldn’t know until tomorrow – if my neutrophils continued to rise, then they would call it ‘engraftment’ (which means Megan’s cells have taken to my body, and are now releasing those vital white blood cells). But it wasn’t common for neutrophils to drop as quickly as they rose again during an allograft. Day +14, bang. Neutrophils 0.3. Engraftment was well and truly engaged. I was so, so close to getting out.
Scientific diagram explaining engraftment
My nurse let it slip that they might let me out on overnight leave the next day if my neutrophils kept rising, so I got rather excited about that. I woke to a happy nurse coming into my room, “You’re going home!” Neutrophils 0.5 – I was no longer neutropenic. A fist pump and emphatic “YES!” came as reply. Then the doctors came round and said I could get ‘day leave’ but had to stay overnight in the hospital, and my discharge was likely to be Saturday, so my excitement fizzled. Luckily I had the right people on side, and the nurse in charge did some sweet-talking so I was allowed out on overnight leave instead. I managed to ‘check out’ some time that afternoon, and by then I was too tired to jump up and down with joy, but when I took those first few steps outside and gulps of fresh air, that’s what was happening inside.

I had to go back to the hospital this morning, but they are happy with my progress and have officially discharged me. The nurses and doctors are like beaming proud parents, and telling me “Make sure you come back and visit.” Surprisingly I didn’t cry, even though the Royal Melbourne Hospital nurses have been absolutely amazing. Maybe the lack of tears was because I know that I still have to come back to the hospital’s day centre for tri-weekly check-ups, so it’s not necessarily an emotional goodbye for me just yet. 

My only obstacle at the moment is some niggling morning sickness (nooo, not ‘that’ kind of morning sickness). I’m not sure why it’s popped up so far along in my treatment (as it cannot be chemo-related), but theatrically, I have to run for a toilet or sick bag (now carried in my handbag, it’s the cancer patient’s lipstick) some time before or after breakfast. Not the best start to the day, hence I hope it sorts itself out in the next few days or so.

They also discharged me with enough pills to sink a small ship. Anti-sickness meds, three types of antibiotics, magnesium supplements, pills for my stomach, pills for my liver, steroids (to prevent graft vs host disease) and the very important anti-rejection drugs, which smell bad and are the biggest pills I’ve ever seen. I can now say that to deal with this daily onslaught of meds I am now the proud owner of one of those pill boxes they give out at nursing homes, with four containers for each day marked ‘Morning’, ‘Noon’, ‘Evening’ and ‘Bedtime’. This is what my life has become! I have always said though, this experience has set me up very well for old age, and the pill box reinforces that. (Next thing is the granny trolley).
Pill popper
My kinda granny trolley
It’s been a testing time, and the true test hasn't really happened yet. I still have 85 days to go till I'm in the clear, till I can have some peace of mind, and I know my next PET scan is going to bring its usual dose of anxiety. Some days in hospital were so long, gloomy and boring I thought the end would never come. I feel after all this, I will have the patience of a saint. I still have a long road ahead of me; I will be visiting RMH’s day centre three times a week and I still face the dangers of infections and graft vs host disease, both of which can be life-threatening if left to run rampant. I know those tri-weekly appointments are going to get old and that there are still a few bumps looming on the remaining stretch of road. But I’m out of hospital and that’s the first positive step.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Letter from the inside: day +10

So it’s day +10 and like every drip of saline, the days are slowly trickling by. My neutrophil count has been zero for about eight days now, and unable to leave the ward, I can certainly feel cabin fever coming on. This treatment is testing my patience to every inch of my being. I am hoping that white blood cells, born from Megan’s stem cells, will pop up in my bloodstream soon. But for now it is just another excruciating waiting game. I should just thank my lucky stars that I am feeling pretty good at this stage, but as the nurses say "you are either sick or bored". I'm bored.

For now, I am working towards three goals:
1.     Get out of hospital (hopefully within the next week)
2.     Get a clear PET scan (in about a month and a half)
3.     Get to day +100 with few problems (90 days from now)

So, from a strictly medical point of view, I’m doing pretty well. I started to feel really under the weather at about day +8, when my throat pain increased and I felt weary and drowsy. That night, of the day Obama won his second term of the American presidency, I spiked a temperature. About 90% of patients undergoing my treatment end up with a temperature, so this was no surprise. Additionally a skin infection has flared up on my right cheek, so at the moment I look rather monstrous. I have been on IV antibiotics for this for several days, and it looks like it is being kept under control.
This is much harder than my autograft, simply because things take longer. I was discharged on day +11 of my autograft, and I will no doubt still be here with a zero neutrophil count on day +11 of my allograft. I haven’t even breathed fresh air for coming on two weeks now. There is every chance I could make it to day +20 without my counts increasing, so I have to be patient.

For now I am feeling OK. My throat pain has waned a little bit and they haven’t had to put me on any IV feeding aids, so I’m kicking goals in that department. I can still manage walks around the ward, and still have quite a bit of energy for someone who’s been through the wringer. Got to be positive signs.

As some of you may have noticed, I have resorted to drawing motivational drawings on the whiteboard to keep me going. The box of letters, a gift from my friends from high school, has also helped me remain positive amid the day-to-day gloom. I’ve committed to reading one a day and the photos and cards have put a smile on my face, as well as brightening up an otherwise drab hospital room. Most of all they have helped me maintain a positive outlook – even the notes and cards from people I’ve had little to do with over the past 13 years (showing my age now) – it means a lot that they wanted to drop in a note to wish me well. I still have a few to go – but thanks everybody who contributed, it was such a thoughtful gift.

Another thing that’s given me a bit of a lift is the completion of Jim Stynes’ book, My Journey. Such an amazing and inspirational story; what a man, to face such adversity with such positivity and courage. There is so much I want to quote from this book, but I’ll save that for another time. I recommend this book to anyone, but especially to those who have had experiences with cancer – there will be so much to relate to, and I think it’s a wonderful thing to know you’re not alone. That’s what Jimmy wanted to achieve by going so public with his journey, and I am thankful.
What else? I won $150 by picking a winner (Green Moon) on the Melbourne Cup, which I watched from the comfort of my hospital room. That and Obama’s win, have given me a boost. These are good omens, they just have to be.