Kathy Vantran: Journalist Chronicles Cancer in the Fight of Her Life
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While in New York, however, I got a call from the oncologist saying the first chemo had to be moved to the day after Christmas because of a family emergency. In a way, I was so glad to have that reprieve; I knew I had to go through chemo, but I wasn't looking forward to it at all. I still wasn't fully recovered from my four surgeries, but moving quickly was important because of the fast-growing cancer cells.
On Dec. 26, we headed to the first chemotherapy appointment. Although I was nervous and didn't know quite what to expect, the first session seemed to go well, at the time. The nurse oncologist said if I was to get sick, it probably wouldn't be for a couple of days after chemo.
Of course, it wasn't long before I proved to be the exception again. I got home, ate a little something and tried to rest; but by 2 a.m. I was in the bathroom puking my guts out.
Before the start of each chemotherapy session, I had to have blood work done to determine "tumor markers." The ovarian cancer tests track the amount of CA 125 protein in the blood, which is elevated in 80 percent of ovarian cancer cases. The breast cancer tests monitor the amount of CA 15-3 and CA 27-29 protein in the blood, which can also be elevated in the presence of cancer. These initial tests, for breast and ovarian cancers, would create a baseline from which to chart progress.
Initially, my markers were very high. It was 424 for ovarian cancer (normal is less than 21), 93 (normal is less than 37) and 59 (normal is less than 32) for breast cancer. Normal markers vary depending on the lab conducting the tests. The idea is for the numbers to go down with each treatment. While the numbers for the ovarian cancer went down after the first treatment, those for breast cancer went up. This was a bit unsettling, to say the least.
The doctors changed one drug in the chemo mix, and from then on the numbers dropped each time. Although I still got sick after each chemo session, it was nothing like that first night. And for that I was very grateful.
Chemo really wiped me out. I was nauseous and constipated and didn't have much of an appetite. I got mouth sores, and my favorite foods didn't taste right.
I was weak and could barely walk up and down the stairs. In fact, one night, I went down to let the dogs out and collapsed. The dogs
licked my face and barked and my loved ones were soon at my side. I was able to get into the living room and on the couch and regained my strength before venturing back upstairs, promising not to go downstairs by myself again.
It was during this time -- when I was still recovering from the surgeries and taking chemo and medication to stave off the effects of chemo -- that I felt the worst. My bedroom became my safe haven and my prison. I didn't venture far. There were many times when I would break down in tears and wonder how I was going to make it through.
But then, the pictures of my loved ones on my bureau would catch my eye, and I'd re-read the get well cards, especially the handcrafted ones from my nieces and nephews. I'd look out the windows at the blue skies, the green grasses of spring and the daffodils in bloom. I'd look at the two large golden dogs sleeping beside my bed, and I knew there were too many precious things to live for. I took a deep breath, wiped my eyes and continued the fight.
My Hair Hurts
One of the hardest things to deal with during chemo is when your hair starts falling out. I never thought I would care too much, but I did, and I hung onto it as long as I could. But, when clumps of my hair were on my pillow in the morning and more clumps landed on the shower floor, I decided it was time to shave my head.
They tell you that your hair will fall out, but I
don't remember them saying how much your head would hurt while it did. My sister made a silk pillowcase, and that helped some, but it literally hurt just to lay my head down. Needless to say, this was another symptom I could do without.
Because chemo destroys good cells as well as the cancer cells with each treatment, my iron levels decreased. I started eating liver and then taking iron supplements to augment it. The doctors said if the iron level got too low, I would need a blood transfusion. I really didn't want one, and fought it as long as I could. But after my seventh treatment we went from the infusion center to the hospital, where I spent the night getting three units of "O negative cocktails." My sister and 14-year-old niece were here for this adventure. A few days later, I was feeling much, much better.
May 21, 2008, was my last day for chemotherapy, and it's a day I shall remember for the rest of my life. Those five months and eight treatments took a lot out of me and my loved ones. But we finally made it.
Doctors and caregivers say it's important to celebrate the successes along the way, and I couldn't agree more.
Although I wasn't up to the task, I was very moved when I found out that my youngest niece decided to participate in a walk for cancer on Mother's Day weekend. Both of her grandmothers are cancer survivors too. The participants had an opportunity to say what they were going to do to fight cancer, and my niece's response was to tell her friends to use sunscreen and to help take care of her Aunt Kathy. I tear up every time I think of it.
Radiation: 'A Piece of Cake'
The next step was radiation. Treatments were to be every day, Monday through Friday. I was slated for 28 overall treatments, then six more in a concentrated area on my incisions from the breast cancer.
Radiation is a precise treatment with a laser beam. Before you begin treatment, the technicians and doctors do several X-rays and scans to pinpoint where the radiation should be aimed. As they go along, they draw lines on your body with a marker, and when they're done, you look like a roadmap. They also do a process called "tattooing," where they shoot dark ink under the skin to mark certain areas.