January 9, 2013

A reporter's view of chemotherapy

Richard Brenneman has been, since 1964, a journalist in a half dozen cities and an associate editor of Psychology Today. He currently edits the blog, eats shoots leaves 'n leaves

Richard Brenneman - Today was the first of what will be an even dozen chemotherapy sessions, a toxic battle to contain that aggressive "high grade metastatic micropapillary urothelial carcinoma" that cost us our bladder, with the prostate thrown in for luck.

We learned something new at the start of the session in the pleasantly appointed chemotherapy floor at Kaiser Oakland, just across Broadway from the old hospital building...

Each cycle will begine with a session like today's, beginning with a cup full of steroid [decadron] and anti-nausea tablets, followed by the installation of the intravenous line, with the first potion pumped through the veins being another ani-nausea agent, followed by a hefty dose of gemcitabine hydrochloride along with a separate bag of IV saline solution, then followed up with two-hour infusion of cisplatin accompanied by another separate bag of saline...

We're feeling a bit disoriented and a bit weak. No nausea yet, though we suspect it's coming later this evening.

The Kaiser nurses were excellent, the setting as pleasant as reasonably possible. There are individual TVs. But we were blessed by the presence of a good friend throughout the whole five-hour session, which really helped...

So the adventure has begun.


While we left Tuesday’s double whammy chemo session feeling merely a bit weak, it’s the second day that we’re starting to feel the effects from pumping hefty doses of a pair of toxic chemicals through our veins.

We feel, to quote an old cowboy friend from long ago, that we’ve “been rid hard and put away wet.”

It began with shivvers when we woke up at four, and they passed after we read for an hour or so. Then, when we awakened again three hours later, hiccups came as we lay abed contemplating the day. A half hour later came the nausea, mild but disorienting.

We’ve just popped the requisite pills, ondansetron [a seortonin antagonist] to combat the nausea and dexamethasone [AKA decadron, a steroid] to augment the anti-nausea effects of ondansetron and stimulate appetite. Oddly, one of dexamethasone’s side effects when not used in this combination is nausea.

We double up on the steroid tomorrow and Wednesday, then discontinue until four weeks from now when we have our second double whammy treatment. The drug isn’t used in connection with our next two weekly sessions, which consist only of gemcitabine hydrochloride.

We get a one week break, then start again with the same cycle, which we’ll undergo a total of four times.

The whole cancer experience, which began the September morning we saw blood in our urine and continued through two surgeries, a nightmare stay in a nursing home, and then the latest chemical adventure, has been truly humbling for one main reason: We have discovered that we are rich in the only thing in life that really matters friends.

I won’t name them without asking their permission, but I have been especially touched and deeply humbled by the constant support of my friends here in Berkeley. I was visited daily in the hospital after my surgery as well as in the nursing home by people I’d grown to respect during my days working at the Berkeley Daily Planet. A former newspaper colleague has been my chauffeur to surgeries and my chemo session.

...Family too has been a source of great solace. My ex and our two daughters came to Berkeley to clean house while I was in surgery, and I returned to a home spotless and furnished with both a new bed and a new sofa.

And then there are you, the readers, with your own notes of encouragement and offers of help. I am simply awed.

Whatever the outcome of our current ordeal, our life is much the richer for it, and for that we are deeply, deeply, grateful.


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