Friday, January 14, 2011

Health, Life... and the Lost Elephant's Leg

I had my annual cancer check yesterday and came away with a clean bill of health.  Eight years now, going on nine.  Somehow that makes me feel old in a way turning twenty-five doesn't.  It's weird to go back now.  My oncologist is the same, just as kind, with his cheerful briskness and Indian accent -- only a little greyer.  One nurse is still the same, and one receptionist.  The rest have all changed.  I walk in with my husband and remember being there with my mother and Rhiannon.  The smell doesn't make me sick anymore.  I barely notice it now, that sanitary smell.  For years I couldn't walk into a hospital or doctor's office, or even catch a whiff of my mom's antibacterial hand lotion, without getting nauseous.  Every two weeks I would go into that office and spend five hours in a chair, while a steady stream of poisonous fluid was pumped into me by IV.  Small wonder I developed an aversion to the smell.  Such an odd thing, chemotherapy.  The idea of keeping a person alive by slowly killing them and hoping the thing that was killing them before dies before they do.  Oddly enough, it works better than any other system we've concocted seems to.

It sounds awful, and yes, okay, it was.  But there were good moments too, though it's hard now to explain them.  Rhiannon and I would always try to make the nurses and doctors laugh.  After my hair fell out, Rhiannon shaved her head as well, and the next time we went in she wore a wig and I had a scarf on.  Then when we went into the exam room we switched, and she sat on the table and I put on the wig and sat in the chair.  Then the doctor came in and we got the best double-take ever out of him.

It is weird to go back, but nice too.  I am one of their success stories.  Fun to hear the doctor and the nurse who remembers me tell the newer staff members that I am their poster child.  I am also the reason they take extra precautions, though that is more of a position of infamy than anything else.

There is a shot they give you the day after your treatment, designed to boost your white blood cells and make you more resistant to infection, since chemo really devastates your immune system.  It was fairly new when I was beginning treatments, and all the talk was about how wonderful it was, how it allowed you more of a normal life while you were going through treatments.  Anyway, I got it, and we headed for home.  About an hour later found me being rushed to the ER, mostly unconscious and with plummeting blood pressure.  Nobody had ever heard of anyone reacting to that drug before.  To my knowledge no one else ever has.  I ask, every year, if any other similar things have happened, and the answer is always no... but they religiously keep everyone in the office for a set amount of time after their first shot, just in case.  So that is my legacy.  I had hoped to become famous for some great literary endeavor.  Instead I will go down in history for my weird drug allergies.  Still, I feel a strange sort of (is it pride?) something when I see a television commercial for Neulasta, and hear them mutter very quickly at the end, "In extremely rare cases, a severe allergic reaction may occur as a result of taking Neulasta."

Anyway, going back always gives me a new appreciation for life, for breath, for the energy in my arms and legs, and for them -- for my wonderful doctor and nurses.  It can't be easy to work in such a place, surrounded constantly by death or the threat of it.  They need us, I think, the ones who lived, to remind them why they do it.

Oh, and about the elephant in the title: one of my lucky elephant earrings has lost a leg.  I don't know how, poor thing... but perhaps a three-legged elephant will bring me even more luck.

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