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Posts Tagged ‘chemotherapy’

About a month ago, I had my very first acupuncture treatment (ever!). For years now I’ve heard and read about how helpful acupuncture can be, especially for symptoms that don’t always respond well to traditional Western medicine. But I was so put off by the whole idea of getting stuck with a bunch of needles, I never tried it. Besides, before this dance with cancer I was really darned healthy and never felt a real need for acupuncture.

When my discomfort from the “hand and foot syndrome” (a nasty side effect of Xeloda) was enough to keep me from doing things I enjoyed, a fellow yoga student, who also happens to be a well respected acupuncturist, offered to treat me in hopes of relieving some of the chemo side effects. I was reluctant, but my pain was great enough to get me to go. Now, five treatments later, I’m so glad I kept that first appointment!

So, I’ve found myself in the unlikely role of telling everyone I meet how great acupuncture is. Seems like time to post a blog entry about this whole acupuncture thing.

Look closely - there are needles in my back!

First: It makes a difference who you go to.  I really like Leah Fineberg. She’s compassionate and nurturing at the same time as being funny and direct. We talk and laugh throughout the appointment, sometimes comparing notes about our families (who’s driving us crazy and why), sometimes dissecting the last yoga class (“were there an awful lot of deep twists, or what?”), and sometimes she just listens while I complain about the lingering side effects of chemo. But the thing that really matters to me is that I like how I feel after my interactions with Leah. That hasn’t always been my experience with “healers.”

SecondIt’s not about the needles.  At my very first appointment Leah told me, “I don’t have to use needles on you.” She took my pulse at several points on my wrists and throat. She applied pressure with her hands to my shoulders, back and hips. And then, when I was comfortable and she decided she’d like to try the needles, it was really no big deal at all. I was nervous enough before she inserted the first one to jump a little when her hand touched my back (before the needle even came close…). But then I didn’t even notice when the needle itself went in. Since that first time, if I feel anything at all, it’s as if a finger thumps me lightly. Usually it’s not even that much. Once in while (infrequently) I’ll feel a tiny poke or pinch that happens briefly and then it’s over. It’s not nearly as bad as having blood drawn – not even close.

ThirdIt’s so soothing you won’t believe it.  I tend to feel cold more often than not (except when I’m having a hot flash – which is a new phenomenon for me – but afterward I go right back to feeling cold). So when she heated up needles on either side of my spine I was in heaven. For the first time in ages my spine felt warm and supple, not stiff and achy like is has while I’ve been in treatment for cancer. She uses something called “moxa” (an herb that’s applied externally and burned like incense). Apparently, using the moxa together with the needles allows you to relax even more. Now, I look forward to this part of the session more than any other single thing she does. The overall experience of acupuncture has turned out to be very comforting, but the heated needles are the bomb!

Heated needles ... mmmmmm!

FourthThe healing effects are almost immediate.  I usually leave Leah’s office feeling light and peaceful – even if we’ve talked during the entire session. Something about the treatment calms me immediately. And Leah has said my “pulses” have gotten better with each visit (I’ll just have to trust her on that one). I feel certain I’m getting benefit from having these acupuncture treatments, but – in answer to those who ask if it’s “effective” or not? – it’s something I experience as being very healing, and that counts as “effective” in my book!

Acupuncture is also a very individual experience. It may not be for everyone. I’m normally kind of reluctant about things I don’t understand. But, in this case, I can say without any hesitation that acupuncture has helped me better deal with the side effects and stresses of cancer treatment. And for that I can only be grateful!

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Well, I can’t quite believe I’ve gone 10 days without blogging! What’s up with that?

Truth be told, I’ve been back on the roller-coaster of feeling good one day, crappy the next, terrible the next, then somewhat okay again…only to start the whole process over in some variation of the theme.

I’m sorry to have to admit that I’ve begun really struggling with the mounting side effects of chemo. I was sorting through a big pile of prescription info a few days ago and came across one for Xeloda. I decided to actually READ the list of side effects printed on the Walgreen’s info sheet (okay, I know, I should have read these months ago…but all the doctors and nurses kept telling me what to look for, so I skipped that particular homework). I was a little shocked to read this:

Xeloda Side Effects

The reason I was shocked is that I’ve experienced every single one of the side effects listed here! And I’m not “80 or older” either! Granted, some of them have been worse than others (the “hand-and-foot syndrome” is currently the most problematic for me, closely followed by “tiredness, weakness, dizziness, headache.” But I can put nausea and vomiting at the bottom of the list, thankfully).

A well respected acupuncturist, Leah Fineberg, who attends the same yoga class I do (she’s been across the room from me for a couple of years, but I never really got to know her until recently) offered to work with me to try to alleviate some of the side effects. I had my first appointment with her last week. It was also my first ever acupuncture appointment, so I was a little nervous. She immediately put me at ease by saying she might not even use needles on me during the session, but after checking my pulses, she said she felt I was strong enough for a few “baby needles.” I was pleasantly surprised that I felt nothing more than her soothing presence when she inserted a number of needles in my back along either side of my spine. A little later she put some in my feet and, again, I felt no discomfort. In fact, the entire session was very relaxing. But she impressed me the most by the research she had done before I arrived. She’d looked up “hand-and-foot syndrome” on the internet, and had also gone to the trouble to discuss it with her husband, an M.D. with whom she shares office space.

She was able to tell me more about the condition than my oncologist had! It turns out the reason the problem arises has to do with excreting the toxins of chemo. I already knew that the chemo was passing out of me through my saliva, urine, and bowel movements, but I was unaware that it also leaches out of the pores of my skin, primarily through my palms and soles. In effect, it’s poisoning the skin – hence the discoloration and pain. Leah also told me that the two things I should avoid are heat and pressure on my hands and feet. Well, um, how exactly do you avoid pressure on your feet – unless you give up walking? And, avoiding pressure on my hands means: no gardening, no cleaning, no typing, no handicrafts! What am I supposed to do? Sit around and watch TV all day? (That would actually be another problem as I don’t have a TV connection…). And no hot showers? Are you kidding me?

So, I’m in a quandary. I told myself I would try to make it the full six months on chemo. Then I told myself I would try to make it at least four months. But, here I am at the halfway point and I really, really, really want to quit.

Leah’s husband, Don Fineberg, also took the time to talk with me. He could hear my desperation to quit, and he gave me some innovative ways to think about the decision. I am very grateful for his time and advice, and it definitely helped me focus more clearly on what my true goal is…but I’m still in a quandary. I sort of feel like the only reason I would choose to keep going with this treatment is to prove that I can. Somehow that just doesn’t seem like the right reason to continue. In my heart of hearts, I know I’m cancer-free and I strongly believe I am not destined to be one of the tiny percentage (less than 10% of cases like mine) that has a relapse. By taking the chemo for the past three months, surely I’ve reduced that percentage even more.

Anyway, that’s where I am these days. Not sure what I’m going to do. But I do know this: I’m going to garden, walk, type, make things in my studio, clean (occasionally) and go to yoga. Pressure or not! And enjoy my hot showers…

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Recently, as I was going through my stash of old sheet music looking for inspiration and something interesting to use in the creation of one of my assemblage angels, I came across a piece with the words “con fermezza” – an instruction to the musician to “play with firmness.”

For some reason this idea appealed to me. Lately I’ve been trying to see this leg of my journey with cancer as an opportunity to recreate my life more artistically than ever. An artist I admire named Keri Smith says in her book Living Out Loud: Activities to Fuel a Creative Life that “play is the most important element in discovering who you are.” So I’ve started working on playing more…and in my case, since play hasn’t ever been my strong suit, I think I need to practice with firmness!

Con Fermezza Angel

In continuing my regimen of taking chemo these past few months, I realize I haven’t particularly wanted to accept the myriad side effects as they are building. I seem to have created this idea in my mind that I’d be able to “breeze through” this round of Xeloda. But odd things keep developing that I can no longer ignore. So I took this list of things with me to talk about with my oncologist at our last appointment:

  • The “hand and foot syndrome” is getting worse. The skin on my palms and soles is much redder, the tissue has very little elasticity now, and my fingers ache all the time.
  • Moles, freckles and age spots – call them what you like – are cropping up on my hands, feet, and face at an alarming rate now. I’m especially aware of new ones on my nose and above my lip (creating a nice shadow effect that makes it look like I have a faint mustache!)
  • My vision is changing. It’s become uncomfortable to wear my contact lenses. My eyes simply burn sometimes, and I occasionally see “floaters” and spots.
  • About a half hour after I take the pills, I have a lot of abdominal discomfort. I generally have to lie down for a while until the pain passes (which it usually does within a short time).
  • I’m rarely able to sleep through the night. I fall asleep just fine, but awaken in the middle of the night and have trouble getting back to sleep.
  • I get tired a lot. The fatigue comes on quickly, like hitting a wall. I’m seemingly fine one moment and the next I’m not.
  • I only want to eat sweets – nothing else tastes very good or holds much interest for me. I have little enthusiasm for food (except for cakes and breads and pies and chocolate).

To each of my complaints, Dr. Fekrazad gave nearly the same answer: “Yes, that’s from the Xeloda. And it’s probably going to get a bit worse.”  Oh, joy.

But here’s what he said that I could appreciate: He described his role as similar to that of a parent who takes their child in for a nasty shot. The child is crying and screaming from both fear and pain.  The parent knows it’s awful for the child, but also knows it’s for their benefit. They don’t like inflicting pain on their baby, but under the circumstances it’s what they feel they have to do.  Con fermezza.

Then Dr. Fekrazad actually said these words: “I know I’m poisoning you. I know it’s difficult.” He also said that while he strongly recommended I stay on the chemo until July, if the time came when I knew in my heart I couldn’t tolerate it any longer, he would agree to stopping the treatment early. He said he trusted my intuition about when “enough was enough” and that he would support me if I made the call to quit before the six months was up.

So, I’ve done a little more self examination (does it ever end?) and decided that maybe I can approach this part of the journey in the same fashion as my creativity. Play with firmness! Think of this whole chemo treatment reality as just a game – laugh at my freckle mustache, get a pair of quirky horn-rimmed glasses, wear gloves all the time (like it’s Hollywood or something), live in pajamas and sleep during the day when I have to, enjoy being up at night when the world is all quiet and there’s nothing to distract me from playing. And eat cake.

Con fermezza.

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Sorry for the delay in getting a “health update” out there. I’ve been so darned busy with all the normal daily activities of life (and so very grateful to be able to say that!) that the blog took a backseat for a bit!

I saw my surgeon, Dr. Brown, for a follow-up visit (can you believe it’s been 3 months since my colon surgery?) and he said I was doing great. There’s still a little “tightness” where the incisions are, but that’s normal and will soften over time. I also still have a tiny bit of “seepage” but it’s fairly minor and should also go away with time.

The only disappointing bit of news is that he wants me to see a urologist now. It seems when they remove the rectum, it leaves the pelvic floor unsupported for a while, until the organs and tissue shift around and fill in the space. So, he now thinks it’s possible that my bladder has “tipped” slightly (as things are rearranging themselves and vying for space in my abdomen), and this could be what is creating some newer symptoms I’m having. (I swear, I absolutely DID NOT go through the challenge of colon surgery and having to adjust to life with a colostomy only to end up with urinary incontinence! Not at 48!) So, we’ll just see what this next specialist has to say about things. Dr. Brown is referring me to a woman urologist, someone he felt I would “really like.” Uh-huh.

Meanwhile, I’m on my third round of Xeloda since starting back on chemo in January. I’m sorry to note the side effects are building with each round. The main thing is I get suddenly fatigued without warning. Sometimes I’m able to push through it and other times I just have to lie down and nap for a while. Often though, by the time I should be thinking about going to bed for the night, I’m finally wide awake and not so tired anymore. So, it makes for an odd rhythm to my days.

another chemo side effect

Another side effect – one my oncologist checked for at each office visit during last fall’s treatment, but which never happened then – is a skin problem with the palms of my hands and soles of my feet. The skin is slowly getting redder and redder, and it feels very “papery” – as if it will crack easily, which it does. It’s not terribly painful, but I can tell it’s getting a bit worse with each dose of Xeloda. So, I’m constantly slathering on various moisturizers, including a nightly coat of Bag Balm and wearing little white cotton gloves to bed. Very charming.

Got Moisturizer?

I’m due to see Dr. Fekrazad on Wednesday. I’m sure we’ll discuss all of this and more. I believe he’s going to order another ultrasound on my arm that had the blood clots. If they’re still gone (fingers crossed!) I’ll be able to stop giving myself the nightly shot of Lovenox. My belly will be very happy about that as the bruises from being poked so regularly are starting to seem permanent!

In the way of happy news: I’ve been back to yoga class a few times. I’ve felt well enough to take an hour-and-a-half long class for level 1 and 2 students. My sweet teacher, Linda, has been very encouraging, telling me I’m doing great. She said I still have good balance and even some of my former flexibility, but I really need to build my strength up again (she gently mentioned my skinny arms are like “little bird legs…”). However, I did manage a nice head stand – my first time doing any kind of inversion in about eight months. It was a little disorienting and I was nervous about my colostomy “voicing its opinion” about being upside-down, but thankfully it stayed quite for the minute or so that I was balancing on my head.

I’ll report in again after Wednesday’s appointment at the Cancer Center.  For now, I’m off to try to get some rest…

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Yesterday I finished the first two-weeks of my Xeloda “adjuvant therapy” (a fancy medical term for additional chemotherapy after the primary treatment is over, to lower the risk of recurrence). I also had an appointment with my oncologist Dr. Fekrazad so he could monitor how things are going. The bottom line: “so far, so good!”

I haven’t really noticed any significant side effects from this round of Xeloda. I had some brief stomach cramps the first couple of days I took it, but discovered if I take all my various supplements about a half-hour before the Xeloda pills, I don’t seem to have the cramps. I started to suspect that putting about 15 pills in my belly at one time was maybe a bit too much! I’ve also felt just a little fatigued in the afternoons – so some days I just succumb to it and lie down for a nap, and on other days I seem to manage to push through it. In general, I haven’t experienced anything really debilitating, at least not yet.

Some of my daily regimen...

Yesterday’s visit to the Cancer Center was my first in six weeks. Everybody who saw me commented on how good I looked! I know I was pretty pathetic looking during my daily visits last fall, so it probably didn’t take much improvement for them to think I looked better! Nonetheless, it felt great to have a bunch of people seem so happy to see me doing well. I think one of the things that makes the job of working in a Cancer Center fulfilling is watching patients get well.

I had to have blood drawn while I was there.  Since I don’t have the port any longer, I’m back to getting blood taken from a vein in my arm. Fortunately, they had no trouble this time. Since I’m still on Lovenox (a blood thinner), that may have helped make the whole process a tad easier.

As of today, I’m on a one-week break from the Xeloda. After that, I go back on for another two weeks, following the pattern of two-weeks on, one-week off for the next six months. Here’s the rest of the plan Dr. Fekrazad laid out for the coming months:

  • I’ll see him every six weeks, unless I have a problem and need to see him sooner
  • They’ll draw blood at those appointments to look for specific cancer markers
  • At the end of March, I’ll have another ultrasound on my right arm to make sure the blood clots haven’t returned
  • If there are no clots, I can then stop taking the Lovenox (yay! no more nightly shots in the belly!)
  • In June they’ll schedule another CT scan to look for signs of cancer anywhere in the body
  • In July I’ll need to have another colonoscopy (that should be weird – they’ll have to go in through the stoma since there’s no “other entrance” any longer)
  • And, finally, if all goes well, I’ll stop taking the Xeloda in July (right around my birthday!)

So, that’s what there is to report health-wise. Happily, it looks like I may need to start blogging about more exciting things than my good health very soon! On that note: I went to a yoga workshop over the weekend (yes! a yoga workshop!), so perhaps I’ll give you a post about that next time…

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