10. Prison Break

Back to oncology on June 17. By now, I had stopped taking Xanex. It was incredibly addictive, and I suffered really bad withdrawl. Without it, the tingling returned. But there was no way I was going back to that drug. So here I was, back at oncology, my tingling self. This session would be a short one, with only Gemzar being injected in me. That Friday was special for another reason. It was the first day of summer break for Kate and the kids. What did that mean? No more being alone in the house for most of the day. It also meant something else. More time out of the house.

Up until then, I had limited time outside. I had made a routine out of getting a light breakfast at the local Starbucks. Stephen worked there, so many of the staff knew about my cancer. Their way of helping: they didn't charge me for food or drink. That was incredibly nice of them. I also would force myself to take daily walks. But aside from the Starbucks run and my walk, I didn't have the energy to venture outside much.

Kate changed all that for me. She knew that the house had become a prison for me. So she took me out on long drives. She would drive us through the Blue Ridge mountains, into rural Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. My neck was sore from a deep muscle spasm caused by my anxiety. Still, as the passenger, I got to look around as we drove. And I was struck by the beauty of the mountains and the quaintness of small towns.

As we crossed the Shenendoah River, I was reminded of the John Denver song about West Virginia, "Take Me Home, Country Roads." When I was a kid, my family would vacation in West Virginia. Every summer. And each summer, I would hear that song. Many times. Everyday. I got sick of that song. But now, decades later, the song was comforting, reminding me of the innocence of my youth.

That kind of music wasn't on our radio, though. Instead, we listened to the First Wave station on satellite radio. Mostly '80s music with a deejay, Madison, who became a daily voice in my life. Kate would get her daily fix of Elvis Costello and smile. She has such a pretty smile. Kate would push me harder by taking me on errands, We would shop at Wegman's, where I walked very slow and leaned on the shopping cart to keep me upright. I would refer to these outings as my Wegman's Walks.

Even though we were shopping for food, I still wasn't eating. A couple years ago, my weight had ballooned, and I worked hard to drive down that number. Since then, I had lost 40 pounds. Then, after the start of chemotherapy, my weight began dropping like a rock. So much so that the oncology nurses were concerned about my loss of physical strength. They were spot on. I was feeling weaker by the day. My muscles were fading fast. But I just had no appetite. One day I entered my weight into the iPhone app I was using, and the app rang like a bell. I had met my goal! the app exclaimed in celebration. What a cruel irony. Because it surely was no time to celebrate.

On June 24, I limped into the final session of my second cycle. By this time, the roof of my mouth had thinned considerably. Anything slightly warm was burning hot to me. Another side effect: water began to have a metallic taste. So I switched to sodas and iced teas, but couldn't avoid water altogether. To keep my kidneys functioning, I had to keep the water flowing and tolerate the taste. Yuck. This trip to oncology was just for a blood test, but I felt exhausted. All I could tell myself was, "I'm two-thirds of the way through chemo." That motivated me for a while. But then I thought, what if it doesn't work?

The third cycle started the following Friday, July 1. Just get through the two tough sessions upcoming, I thought, and I will have survived chemotherapy. Whether I would survive for real was another thing. But my focus was on this particular session. Again, I felt like crap. Patience injected her drug cocktail to boost my energy and lessen my nausea. And I settled in for another marathon session, this time with Kate by my side from the outset.

My sight had been blurred by the treatments, so I couldn't read on the iPad. What I could see: others were faltering from the treatments, too. An elderly woman who I had seen often at oncology failed her blood test. Her platelets were dangerously low. So low, in fact, that she could not receive treatment and had to be transferred to the hospital for a blood transfusion. Another guy about my age was in terrible shape. too. He was extremely weak, sweating profusely, with a wet towel wrapped around his head, his upset stomach getting the better of him, with his wife, Dr. Moreas and the nurses trying to help.

With cancer patients, misery doesn't love company. After going through chemo, you don't want anyone to go through these kinds of struggles. That day, I learned that chemo treatments are an endurance contest, and often the chemo wins.

Once back home, my paranoia went into high gear. The ungodly hot summer -- the temps soared into the 100s for weeks on end -- spawned torrential rainstorms every afternoon. I was scared that our power would go out, the house would heat up, and I'd be in the dark. Every afternoon. I looked at the radar on the weather app and the outage map at the power company, and prayed that we would be spared. I would check again and again.

For anxiety. Dr. D. had prescribed paxil. For sleep, ambien. Maximum dosages, of course. I worked hard to try to get to sleep within 20 minutes of taking ambien. Otherwise, it wouldn't help. The drug did give me an extra hour or two of sleep, but still well short of a regular sleep. Paxil helped with my fast heart rate, but it took several weeks for it to have any effect. At the time, I thought, I couldn't wait several weeks!

Then it was back to oncology on Friday, July 8. My last marathon session. Knowing that gave me the strength to get out of bed, be driven to the hospital, and collapse into the chemo chair. I felt awful. I was so weak that Dr. Moreas had to examine me in the chemo chair rather than in a patient's room. As I sat there, I had one of my many talks with God. Why did I need to go through this agony? What did I do wrong? If you wanted to send me a message about my life, couldn't you just drop a note in the mail? I would have read it. The old saying is that God works in mysterious ways. Well, his mysterious ways were making me miserable.

Marla, my nurse for this session, brightend my mood by taking my mind off the treatment. She had just returned from a vacation in Italy with her husband, and I asked her to tell me all about it. It sounded wonderful, and for a while I was mentally transported out of the chemo chair. Then she brought me back by saying that the trip was on their bucket list, which of course reminded me of death. Oh no, not that again. With her help, as well as that from Dana, Julie and Patience, I made it through this session and the next. I was done.

What now? In a way, not having more treatments was unnerving. It was the only routine in my life, and it was being taken away. It meant no more comforting nurses. It meant being forced to know whether the treatments had worked. As long as I was getting treatments, I could take comfort in knowing that the cancer was being attacked. Now I was to know whether the attack -- past tense -- had worked. Yikes!

Dr. Moreas was encouraged because I held up so well throughout the treatments. Huh? I could barely stand. He explained his point. Typically, the oncologist prescribes the maximum dosage of chemothepathy drugs and reduces that dosage based on how well a patient's body, as measured by all those blood tests, holds up. Many patients are strong enough to receive 50-70 percent of maximum dosages. Me? He gave me 80-90 percent. Well, at least I knew why I felt so crappy. But I understood his point: higher dosages have better success rates.

Dr. Moreas' work was done. Now he hold me to let my body recover. Then, back to Dr. Schenk. Oh, that guy. Dana told me that Dr. Schenk likes to perform surgery on a cancer patient within a few weeks of completing chemotherapy. He doesn't want to give the cancer an opportunity to grow back; thus, the short interval.

I dutifully scheduled an appointment with Dr. Schenk for Friday, July 22. We met and walked through the process from here. He wanted me to get another PET scan to see whether the cancer was retreating or advancing. If it was advancing -- meaning, the treatments didn't work -- then he wouldn't put me through the trauma of a radical surgery. And that meant what, exactly? "You wouldn't be a candidate for surgery," he said. In plain English, I was going to die.

Dr. Schenk told me to take a few weeks for my body to recover enough for the scan. And so, I set the date: Wednesday, August 10. That's when I would get a test that would determine my fate. I was scared.

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