It was the middle of April 2017. After 4 weeks of radiation and chemo, my bodily systems began to crash and burn. I had completely lost my voice. I had a persistent bad taste in my mouth and had lost all interest in food. It was nearly impossible to swallow. My bowels were locked-up. There was severe pain at both ends. Eating, drinking, talking and sleeping were become very difficult. It was during this time that some friends and family really started to worry. My wife was really scared. This was the beginning of the last three weeks of my treatment. Nothing was easy during this period.
On top of all that, I experienced another annoying side effect: nosebleeds. I was awakened in the middle night feeling like I was drowning. It was my own blood. It took several hours to stop the bleeding. Unfortunately, the nosebleed came back persistently, even while I was receiving treatment. It made it more than a little challenging to lay still during radiation treatment.
Things turned dramatically worse quite suddenly. It was Friday night, April 14, 2017. Coughing and sneezing attacks came upon me and grew progressively worse. My nose started bleeding profusely and despite my best efforts, I could not get it to stop. And then the violent vomiting started. Debra called our close friend Joe, who jumped in his car and came to our house as quickly as he could.
Joe, an experienced health care practitioner, recognized that the bleeding was coming from broken blood vessels in my nose. After trying a number of things that failed to stem the bleeding, we called the Oncologist on-call who said get to the Emergency Department at the local Hospital. I was hurting badly. Only my arms and legs were spared from pain. Without intervention, there was no way I would be able to sleep.
Going to the ER on a weekend night is like going to the airport during the Christmas holiday season. Needless to say, it was quite busy. The nosebleed was resolved by cauterizing the broken blood vessels. (Look it up – it’s kind of like “welding” your flesh.) I was dehydrated, so some IV fluids were brought on board. That helped a lot. The details are foggy now, but I am certain there were some strong meds for pain.
After several hours in the ER, the doctor on duty said that there was nothing else to be done. Joe drove me back home. I was no longer bleeding, coughing or sneezing. I was not feeling great, but I was relatively tranquil – probably just exhausted and enjoying the benefits of the pain meds. And so, with the help of a humidifier and special lozenges, I was able to get some sleep. It was a fitful sleep, as it seemed I awoke every 20-30 minutes. I was drinking as much water as I could, even though it felt like broken glass in my throat. And so frequent trips to bathroom added to the interruptions. On one such trip to the bathroom that evening, I actually fell asleep while standing. I awoke on the floor with severe pain in my knee. I had hyper-flexed my leg in the fall to the ground. The only good news was that the pain in my leg took my mind off the other discomforts.
The next day was dominated by my battle with constipation. I tried everything. Nothing brought relief. It was also becoming more and more difficult to swallow anything. One of the constipation therapies I tried seemed to close off my throat. Ugh. It was a
I spared my wife much of the hour-to-hour dreariness during the night by staying in our guest room. But during the day her worried state grew visibly worse. She said that she felt helpless and unable to do anything to help. Somehow, I survived the weekend without going back to the local hospital. But just barely; enough to make it to my next appointment at Penn Medicine on Monday. Joe returned to my home early on Monday morning to drive me to my appointment.
On the way, Joe told me that I needed to be hospitalized. He said he would encourage my doctors to admit me to the hospital. (Actually, I think his words were something like “there is no way I am bringing you back home in this condition. They WILL admit you. They MUST admit you.”) Joe was right. I think we were only 3-4 minutes into my appointment when the Physician’s Assistant picked up the phone and called the hospital to arrange for me to be admitted. The Medical Oncologist had warned me that this might happen. Weeks before, he had told me that the side effects of the radiation and chemo could cause my systems to shut down. And so, here I was: a little more than halfway through treatment and my bodily systems were failing. The only good news is that the treatment was working; the tumors were shrinking.
I was relieved to be admitted to the hospital. I knew I could not manage at home in my condition and my experience over the weekend. My body was going to need all the help it could get if I was to be able to continue the treatment that was killing the cancer.
In my next entry, I will discuss “surviving in order to heal,” which is how I came to view my time in the hospital.
One additional note: I know it has been a long time since I have posted to my blog. As I have shared multiple times in the past, it became difficult to continually revisit the challenging times in order to write these posts. I didn’t want to go back there anymore. I was moving on. But recently, a very close friend of mind was diagnosed with a lymphoma. This kicked me in the butt. And so, I will work to meet the commitment I made back when I was just starting my own treatment. I will continue to try use my experience battling cancer to help others.