Saturday, August 13, 2016

Chemotherapy: A Blessing in Disguise

Chemotherapy refers to -as a quick Google search indicates- the use of medicines or drugs to treat cancer; yes, as plain and simple as that. However, regardless its simplistic definition, Chemotherapy actually means so much more and/or so many other things for many people.

I would say about 99% of the people hate it, and not only people who have actually undergone a chemotherapy treatment, but also people who have just heard or read about it, that much of an importance it has in modern medicine, I guess, that even non-patients seem to have a strong opinion about it.

Today, however, I am here to talk about my own personal experience with chemotherapy. And, just so you know, I am not writing this to try to change your mind, regardless what this one is, I am here simply to tell you about what happened to me, what I think about it and that's it, facts, basically and my opinion based on those facts, of course.  

Even though I was already familiarized with Cancer since my mom passed away from RCC (Renal Cell Cancer) over 4 years ago, I wasn't familiarized with chemo because my mom's cancer was much too advance to even be able to receive it -they skipped straight to an emergency surgery and then radiotherapy, but that was it. After I was diagnosed, my doctor explained the course of treatment to me with an odd tone in her voice, still not sure if it was produced by fear, nervousness or pity for having to say all those terrible things to someone "as young" as me. (I was 32yo at the time and my cancer -Esophagus- isn't a very common one for someone my age, or gender for that matter). After she explained that I would need to get 6 chemo sessions and then probably a few rounds of either radiotherapy or chemo-radiotherapy, I promptly -and in a very calmed way, I must say- asked what was the purpose of the treatment since my cancer was already Stage IIIB and I had already been told surgery was no longer an option for me. "To give you a better quality of life", she said. I had been given 1 to 5 years to live after my prognosis. 

At the very beginning of all this, when I was recently diagnosed, I was installed in the mindset that I would not be taking any treatment; first of all because my sister and I had agreed on that (after what we went though with my mom, neither of us felt like going through something similar ever again) and then, because if I had so little time left to live, I wanted to take advantage of it and do things, you know, live life like a normal person, instead of spending that time in a hospital bed, looking and feeling like crap only to end up in the place: dead. However, I'm not even sure how or when, but things changed and both (my sister's and mine) our minds changed and we decided I should give it a shot and do the treatment. First of all -I guess- because my biggest fear (or one of them, anyway) was to end up connected to tubes and having to eat drink, breathe and basically live out of them; I simply couldn't bare the idea of going though that so, if only to avoid that or put it off for as long as I could, I decided I'd do it and my sister also said that if I had been given the option, then I should do it, so I did.

To be quite honest, that day after talking to Dr. Lee was one of the very few times I cried. I cried because I had just been officially been declared terminally ill and I wasn't ready to die just yet. I was afraid for my sister, for myself and for what was about to come for both of us, given that we live in a foreign country and we're each other's only family.

The very next day they started prepping me for chemo, I would need to take it for 5 days a month, then rest 3 weeks and then back again, like that for 6 months. They gave me 5FU (Fluorouracil) and Cisplatin. They started doing it 24x24, which is when they infuse the medicine for 24 straight hours and then stop for 12hrs and then again another 24hrs of medicine, though you are connected to the IV the whole time and those 12hrs you just get a saline solution, but you are basically "plugged" the whole time. Before connecting you to the IV, they give you a shot that I'm not sure what it was but it has a really particular smell and it was HORRIBLE, I still get a bad sensation even just thinking about it, I felt tiny little electroshocks all over my body and felt like I wanted to escape my own body, so I would just go into fetal position and try to sleep it off asap. Then, I'd be connected for 4-5 days straight. What happened to me during those days wasn't so bad really, especially compared to what happened to me after those days. Usually I'd just get really exhausted, nauseous, appetite loss, a metallic taste in my mouth and constipation. Still, not fun at all but, again, nothing compared to what was in store for afterwards. Most of the time I was at the hospital, I'd try to sleep as much as I could, you know, so that time would go by "fast" so I could feel almost as if I was sleeping it off.

When I went home, I was happy because just being home and out of the hospital makes you feel better already, then, the real side effects would come. For the 1st round, it was not THAT bad, I lost my appetite, got really nauseous and disgusted by a lot of food, especially Korean food -and it's hard to be disgusted by it when you live in Korea and it smells like food everywhere at all times. After the 2nd round I got all swollen, not my feet nor hands like I'd read so much on the internet, but basically my face, one day it got so bad I went to the ER, but just wasted my time coz it was a "normal thing", part of the side effects, but nor the doctor nor anybody else had mentioned it'd happen so I had no idea what was going on. It's important to say side effects are accumulated, I mean, on top of the one I got at the hospital, I got these others ones, it's not like they switched, no, I had them all at the same time.

Dr. Lee said they'd be monitoring the chemo's results by making tests every 2 sessions and so, after the 2nd one and just before beginning the 3rd one, she told me the first 2 session had reduced the cancer 10%. I thought it was good news, I mean, it is a small percentage considering the stage I was in, but still, you have to be happy about winning little battles, you know?

For the 3rd round I got mouth sores, OH-MY-FRIGGING-GOD! Those things are horribly painful, that was another time I cried (only the 1st one after the terminal ill declaration cry). Pain was EXCRUCIATING. I couldn't even open my mouth because it'd hurt like hell to even try to open my jaw, let alone drink and much less eat ANYTHING. Pain was real, I don't think I had EVER felt that kinda pain in my life, I truly did suffer so much with these ones. For the 4th one, I got a lot of vomiting, A LOT! And also lots of headaches, plus the little ones (side effects). And just right after that 4th one -and almost overnight, I must say-, the 2nd worst one happened: the hair loss. For many people it's "just hair", I know, but you cannot say something like that until something like this happens to you, you know? I remember it hurt me a lot seeing my mom lose hers and she'd always had short hair so the difference wasn't THAT shocking, but it hurt and I felt bad for her but tried to comfort her and tell her that I rather having her bald but alive...then I came to find out that helps but not too much. 

Even though it may seem like something really shallow and vain, losing my hair was definitely one of the biggest hits I got from cancer, that is just something I am dealing with even to this day and pretty much everyday, and now I have hair again, short but brand new and healthy. Some days, I couldn't even bare looking at myself to the mirror because all I saw was a monster. I was all sick-looking, swollen and bold. I HATED looking at myself so I'd just avoid the mirror everytime I went to the bathroom. Needless to say I didn't want anyone else see me like that, I didn't even want my sister to see me like that but she had to be there to take care of me, so there wasn't much I could do there. She was very good and told me I didn't look like a monster, but I know very well I did.

When I came in for the 5th session was horrible, they did the tests they did every 2 sessions and they took too long, then there was a mistake with one of my blood tests, my red cells were too low they did a transfusion and even after it the readings were still low, but it turns out it was because they were reading the results from the tests done right before the transfusion, when they read the one from after they were okay; so the transfusion did work -obviously. Anyway, I was there about a week and after so many tests Dr. Lee told me she was being transferred to another department and I'd get another oncologist, Dr. Ro -a very old man, but a good doctor. After knowing the results from all the testing, Dr. Ro said I was now eligible for surgery (Ivor Lewis surgery, that is). I didn't wanna get surgery because the one surgeon that performed that particular surgery was one that had misdiagnosed me earlier so I didn't trust him, but Dr. Ro said he "strongly recommended" me to get the surgery and that that doctor (Dr. Park) was the best surgeon to perform that particular surgery. So we thought about it and agreed to it. 

To make a long story short -since this post is mainly about chemo, not my whole cancer history-; I got the surgery a few days later, then I got 28 sessions of radiotherapy and the CT done during the very last one came out all clean. So, basically, it was all because of chemotherapy, o at least, that's what started getting rid of the cancer, in my case.

So yes, chemo does destroy you in so many ways, it makes you feel the most unhealthy you've ever felt, the ugliest you've ever been, it drops your self-esteem to the floor, it scares you because of the many things going on with your body that you don't know about and therefore are so scared of, it makes you sad, it makes you weak, it makes you feel powerless, useless and so many other things no human being wants to go though, yes, but at the end of the day, it is only because of all of that that you get to feel better, stronger, healthier, more confident and just good. So if you as me, I would say it is 100% worth it. You know when they say "no pain, no gain"? I think they're pretty much referring to chemo. And I know a lot of people are against it because it is bad and it kills a lot of your good cells and it makes you unwell (like, really unwell), yes, is also killing the bad cells (the cancerous ones) and, slowly, little by little the good cells can regenerate and your body can go back to normal and get rid of the bad ones. And like I said at the beginning of this post, this isn't something somebody told me, or I read somewhere or overheard it, no, I lived this experience, I went through all of this myself and I am now alive and way healthier than I was before chemo, thanks to it.

So, I would say, if you're in that position or time where you need to decide whether you do chemo or not because of its "history", I hope this helps you decide and gives you -at least- a little bit of hope and lets you know that, in order to become a stronger person, you first need to put on a fight, a really good one and show that you can go through it and survive it and end up kicking ass. Ultimately, it is that "small" sacrifice that will lead you to a better place.

Also, if you are in that situation, ask your doctor ALL the questions that come to your mind, no matter how stupid you may think they are, you need to get all the weapons that you can get and information is an important one; information is power and this case is no exception, the more you know, the better prepared you'll be for what's to come and the better you can fight it. If you already asked your doctor all the questions they could answer and still feel hesitant and want to know more information first hand, feel free to ask me, I'll be glad to help :)

In conclusion, yes, Chemotherapy is definitely a blessing in disguise.