JOURNAL: On the road, one step at a time

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One of the best pieces of advice I received from my primary care doctor upon being diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in April was to take it one step at a time.

That advice proved invaluable, especially when trying to process my emotions and helping my family through theirs. As tears filled the eyes of my loved ones, I think I remained somewhat stoic, leaning on early indications that with treatment everything would be alright. 

But still, there were awesome implications. After getting married last August, my wife and I bought a house in Gray in February. Being a new homeowner is enough of a struggle, without cancer. Suddenly the life we hoped to build was in jeopardy.

Mine was not a loss of what I had, but a loss of potential. Anything was no longer possible. There were tangible limits on what my life could offer. There always will be.

It terms of doctor’s appointments, it wasn’t difficult to take one step at a time, since I had procedures scheduled every week – CT and PET scans, removal of a lymph node in my neck for biopsy, installing a mediport and finally treatment.

Once the dust settled, however, taking the journey one step at a time became more difficult, especially when the disease’s impacts on my lifestyle and diet became apparent.

I am a musician who used to play my Irish music in bars once a week, but have since had to give it up. Also, I cannot eat many of my favorite foods, nor can I live the active lifestyle I have hitherto enjoyed.

Then came yesterday (June 28), my fourth, three-hour session of chemo. It marked the end of my second cycle, as two chemo sessions constitute one cycle. Since I had originally been scheduled for four cycles, I am presumably halfway through my battle.

At first, this might seem like a time of celebration. The midpoint is where the road to be travelled becomes shorter than road already traveled.

But that is a fleeting thought. In many ways, traveling an unknown road is easier than traveling on a road one is familiar with. The unknown road brings surprises, first experiences and mental processes that makes the time go by quickly.

A well-known road, however, can be more difficult to travel, especially when one knows every bump and bend along the way. The monotony makes it more difficult.

These days, I can feel my emotions sour the weekend before treatment. After all, I know exactly how my body is going to react. Monday night, I’m exhausted. Tuesday I feel funny, but not sick, since the IV drugs for strength and anti-nausea are still working.

But by Wednesday I am rendered useless. I am unable to escape the undercurrents of nausea, which are sometimes extreme and other times tolerable, despite three different medications. I survive on soup, bread and crackers. Afternoon naps. Sipping water and Gatorade. Constantly answering the question: How are you feeling?

This continues into Thursday and most of Friday. By Saturday I start to come around, in terms of nausea, but then the side effects of my Neulasta shot take hold. These shots are needed because chemo kills white blood cells and neutrophils, which are vital to fighting off infections. Neulasta side effects include significant deep-bone pain in the chest, legs and the lower back.

One thing I am looking forward to next week are updated PET scans, which will show how the cancer is reacting to the treatment. I’m no doctor, but I can see a difference. The bump on my chest is retreating and the area between by shoulder, collar bone and base of the neck is no longer full of swollen lymph nodes.

What I cannot tell, however, is the status of the lymph node implanted into my sternum, which caused the intense pain that finally pushed me into the doctor’s office. After July 7, I should know how it is reacting and whether I will need radiation, in addition to my chemo.

But even with these answers so near upon the horizon, the road ahead somehow seems longer that road already traveled.

Randy Billings can be reached at [email protected]

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