Tag Archives: chemotherapy

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 4: Humor

My previous posts have described how mindfulness, physical activity, and a pro-active stance sustained me during my treatment for acute myeloid leukemia.  Alongside these strategies – and not to be underestimated – was maintaining my sense of humor.

To be sure, cancer is no laughing matter. Nothing about it is easy, and it’s certainly not funny. That is precisely why I found it essential to retain my sense of humor upon my diagnosis and throughout my treatment.

Doing so became an antidote to the somber reality of what I was facing. It was a quiet form of resistance that kept the cancer at arm’s length. In my mind, humor was a way of saying you may make me sick and may eventually kill me, but I’m still going to enjoy a good (or bad) joke along the way.

In my interactions with doctors, nurses and staff, I routinely used humor to break the ice and lighten the mood.  It was not a denial of my situation as much as a way of transcending it, and they seemed to appreciate the respite it provided from the gravity of my condition and the details of my treatment.

In my periodic, written reports to family and friends, I concluded each message with a joke. They weren’t necessarily great jokes. They weren’t necessarily new jokes. Some might even say that I favored quantity over quality. But the process of finding and composing them was a welcome diversion that elevated my spirits even on dark days.

For my readers, I suspect they lightened the impact of my often-dire news and let people know I was not losing hope.  And it let them know they could connect with me as the person I’ve always been and not just as a cancer patient.

The standard disclaimer in this series of posts still applies. I have no idea if my reliance on humor had any direct bearing on my successful outcome, but it certainly sustained my spirit over the long haul.

And so, in closing, I would just like to say:

An agnostic, dyslexic, insomniac walks into a bar.

The bartender serves him a drink and says, “Hey pal, you look really tired.”

The guy says, “Tell me about it. I lay awake every night wondering if there really is a Dog.”

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 1: Mindfulness

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 2: Physical Activity

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 3: Being Proactive

steve bSteve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor.  In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness.  His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing. To learn more visit Steve’s website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doctors as Detectives

During my prolonged treatment and recovery from acute myeloid leukemia, I spent many weeks in the hospital with a severely suppressed immune system as a side effect of chemotherapy. This condition is an open invitation to any infectious agents who happen to be in the neighborhood, and I had my share of them.  They included colitis, E-coli, the cytomegalovirus, and several others that were never definitively identified.

I was also on numerous medications, including prophylactic antibiotic, anti-viral, anti-fungal, and anti-rejection drugs as well as other drugs to blunt the side effects of these initial medications.  These drugs nonetheless produced some nasty side effects on their own or in interaction with each other.

The upshot was that on any given day, I would experience symptoms that included fevers, headaches, intestinal indignities, rashes, blurred vision, light-headedness, muscle aches, bone pain, and even persistent hiccups. It was on these occasions that I became acquainted with one of my now-favorite medical specialties known as infectious disease doctors.

I’d only known them as heroic figures in melodramatic movies about plagues threatening all humanity.  But on a more mundane and realistic level, they were also everyday heroes who often provided me relief from a myriad of infections and side-effects.

Their visits would be prompted by my report of unpleasant symptoms or obvious signs like spiking fevers. They would then begin looking for clues like detectives on the trail of a suspect.  They would consider all the medications I was taking as well as their doses and scheduling.  They would listen carefully to my recitation of symptoms. They would prioritize which medications were necessary and which could be eliminated or replaced with others. And they would order blood work, stool samples and other tests to nail down the culprits.

It would often take several days to grow and identify infectious critters in the lab, and sometimes a definitive diagnosis remained elusive.  Even so, their experience, their listening skills, and their hunches often led to solutions that relieved not only my symptoms but their underlying causes.

While it was unpleasant to weather so many infections and side-effects, I came to welcome visits from these doctor/detectives who so often cracked the case, identified the villain, and brought me relief so I could focus on healing and recovery.

Steve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor.  In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness.  His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing.

Facing Chemotherapy 2:Wait for it

When I received my first round of chemotherapy, I anticipated some nasty side effects.  What I didn’t realize, however, is that they take a while to show up. This led to a false sense of confidence about how well I was weathering my treatment.

My stereotype about side effects was evident in a question to my nurse as I was about to receive my first chemo infusion. I asked if I couldn’t get to the bathroom on time, where do I throw up? She smiled and said that was unlikely due to the premeds they used to control nausea.  What she didn’t say is that such side effects would take some time to appear. When I still felt fine a week after my treatment concluded, I got a bit cocky and smugly thought “I’ve got this.”

It was another few days before the expected effects appeared: depressed blood cell and platelet counts, nausea, fatigue, hair loss, several unidentified infections, colitis, an E-coli infection, and a full body rash. My smug confidence was replaced by a humbling awareness that I was every bit as vulnerable as I first thought; it just took a little longer than I expected. While the timing surprised me, my doctors just nodded as if to say this is what we expected all along.

A couple months later, I received multiple infusions of high dose, consolidation chemotherapy to keep me in remission until I could have my transplant. Perhaps because of the higher dose, it took only one week for a low-grade fever to appear. More disconcerting was some rectal bleeding that convinced me to head to the emergency room.  There, my white blood cell count registered .3 (normal = 3.8-11) and my platelet count was 4 (normal = 140-450).  The ER doctor simply said “there’s nothing there” to fight infection or control bleeding. He booked me for a week-long hospital stay and multiple platelet transfusions to control the bleeding.

I consoled myself by thinking that with this response, they must have given me top shelf chemo that would also be effective in bridging me to transplant. But I learned never to be smug about these matters again.  When facing chemotherapy’s side-effects, don’t celebrate early.  Instead, just wait for it and weather it as best you can.

 

steve bSteve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor.  In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness.  His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing.

 

Facing Chemotherapy I: This Stuff Could Kill You

Steve’s Odyssey continued:

 When I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, I received an initial round of “induction” chemotherapy to get my disease into temporary remission and buy time to consider my long-term treatment options.

I had no prior experience with cancer or chemotherapy. My first lesson about this treatment was when my nurse Jane approached me wearing the hospital equivalent of a hazmat suit, face shield, gloves, and mask.  She then placed a thick mat over my torso to protect me from any accidental spillage of the drug. All this vividly symbolized the toxicity of the medication I was about to receive. I realized that while it was intended to cure me, this could only happen by first poisoning me.

It was some time later that I came across an arresting footnote in Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor. She describes an incident in World War II when an American ship carrying mustard gas was bombed, releasing the deadly chemical. Some soldiers died from burns and drowning, but most succumbed to bone marrow poisoning from the mustard gas.

When some creative doctors realized that this lethal agent might also kill cancer cells, they fashioned a closely related chemical compound known as nitrogen mustard to treat blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. As I proceeded to my stem cell transplant, I received a chemotherapy drug called Cytoxan that is derived from this lineage of chemical weapons. The goal was to kill off both cancer cells and my diseased immune system and it worked.  Unlike those unfortunate sailors, however, I received a carefully calibrated dose followed by a cord blood transplant of healthy stem cells that jump started a new immune system.

One of my oncologists captured the role of chemotherapy in transplants succinctly by saying “first we bring you to the brink of death, and then we try to bring you back again.” Needless to say, I’m happy the second part worked as well as the first. More on chemotherapy in my next post.

 

steve bSteve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor.  In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness.  His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing.