A day in the life of chemo: Positivity is medicine, too
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
About to start chemotherapy the other day, Michael Meyer was in a joking mood.
"It's been a treat," he said, when asked how chemo has been going so far.
That lighthearted spirit has helped Meyer get through a challenging time recently. The Lawrence geologist woke up one morning in December practically blind in one eye, his head thrumming. Doctors later found a tumor in the sinus cavity near his right eye. It was cancer.
From the start, the 61-year-old was matter of fact: Tell me what I have to do to get better and when I have to do it. He was more interested in getting a second opinion and finding out whether Lawrence Memorial Hospital had a good oncology center than dealing with his emotions. That attitude fits with his analytical personality (his family, not surprisingly, was slightly more concerned).
The Journal-World recently spent a day with Meyer as he underwent chemo, hoping to shed light on what many believe to be an arduous process.
LMH oncologist Irfan Jawed notes that it doesn't have to be that way. He says younger patients often avoid the symptoms many people associate with chemotherapy: severe weakness, nausea.
Either way, he says, chemo is still the best treatment option for the majority of cancer patients. And if someone is worried about the side effects of ingesting toxic chemo drugs, the result of not treating cancer is much worse.
"Really, there is no easy way out," Jawed said, noting that oncologists provide patients with drugs that help offset the worst chemo symptoms. "When the patients come to me, I tell them that the most important thing is the will to fight. We have some influence, but if the patient is not willing to fight, our hands our tied."
Meyer is one of the lucky ones, in that he hasn't suffered from some of chemo's more severe side effects. Still, it hasn't been a cakewalk.
Two days after each treatment, Meyer's stomach gets "edgy," as he describes it, which he relieves by snacking on some crackers or carrots. After that, he gets a funny taste in his mouth along with dulled taste buds. These symptoms usually last two weeks.
And after his first chemo treatment, Meyer's hair started getting stringy and dry. It came out gradually after that, a few clumps at a time. Now he's gone from having a bushy, brown mane to being bald.
During an exam the other day, Meyer answered "no" to each of nurse practitioner Lori Winfrey's questions about his symptoms — until she got to weight loss.
"I am losing weight, but that is by choice," said Meyer, a Chicago-area native who still has traces of a Windy City accent. "I'm eating more fruits and vegetables but less carbs."
"Does Dr. Jawed know about it?" Winfrey asked (Jawed was out sick on this day). "We want to let your body worry about one thing at a time, and right now it's worrying about that cancer."
After Meyer arrives at the oncology center every three weeks, nurses attach an IV into his port, a device implanted in his chest so he doesn't have to be stuck with an needle every time he gets a chemo treatment. On the recent day, there appeared to be some blockage in his port, so he was sent to radiology to find out what was going on.
In a room with a giant X-ray machine in the middle, nurses wrapped Meyer, who lay on a table, in heavy blankets. As usual, Meyer cracked jokes. A nursing student in a Jayhawk radiology vest commented on how impressed she was with his positive attitude. Radiologist Jim Mandigo found a small sheath on the end of Meyer's port, a result of the body trying to repair itself around the foreign object.
Back upstairs in the oncology department, nurses flushed out what was blocking the port. A nurse called the oncology pharmacist, who started preparing the cocktail of drugs. The nurses pumped Meyer with Benadryl, Tylenol and anti-anxiety medication, to help him through the chemo.
Meyer would be sedentary — except for bathroom breaks, in which case he had to wheel his IV stand with him — for the next four-and-half hours. Not surprisingly, he doesn't mind.
"It's a nice chair you can sit in and do things, and the people are nice here," he said. On this day, he brought along his computer so he could type up an abstract for work. Otherwise, he reads or talks on the phone.
Meyer seemed to know as much about how his treatment works as the medical professionals providing his care, as he explained each chemo drug and how it was developed. He says he's read up on these things online since his diagnosis, but it also helps that he's a PhD research geochemist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Even so, he isn't sure what caused his cancer. It might have been stress from working nights and weekends for so many years. His dad had rectal cancer but was also the type who avoided the doctor religiously. Meyer has a different attitude.
"What's the alternative?" he asked. "My life's on the line. If I let it go unchecked, I would die."
His chemo is expected to wrap up in April. After that comes radiation, which is expected to last a couple more months. Jawed said there's a 70 percent to 75 percent chance Meyer's cancer will be cured.
Meyer says he isn't so much fighting his cancer as he's putting trust in the professionals.
"I take the attitude that I'm going to live my life," he said. "I'm not going to let the cancer stop me from doing the things I want to do."
"They're going for the cure," he added, before repeating himself, perhaps to reassure himself that his positive attitude is the right one to have.
"They're going for the cure."