My Dear Cancer (Part 3): Chemotherapy: Chemo, oh Delightful Chemo
During my younger years, there was a series on television that I enjoyed watching. It recounted short stories that developed around a small family-run restaurant in America. In one episode, it’s thanksgiving and, as usual, the family is preparing to open the restaurant for the homeless people in the area. Every member of the family, both children and parents, meticulously decorate the restaurant, set the tables, and cook their most special meals. When evening comes, the homeless people arrive. They’re a little ashamed but mostly thankful, and they take their seats around the tables. For a moment, the father glances at the door and is astonished by one of the homeless men coming through the door. After they exchange glances, the homeless man quickly leaves the restaurant and runs off. The father quickly gives chase and catches up with him on a dark, dirty corner before calling to him by name. The two men have tears in their eyes. It seems they were old friends who had grown apart over the years, and the homeless man was deeply embarrassed by his situation and had wanted to hide himself. The father hugged him and told him, “You know, our situations could have been reversed if this much had been different” as he held up pinched fingers to indicate a tiny amount. Since then, I’ve never forgotten these words.
I was also very intrigued by chaos theory at a young age. We all hold the delusion that the gains and losses in life have some invariable order, and we need this assurance, yet our experiences do not verify this. On the contrary, life seems to flow with a disorder at the edge of order, or is an order at the edge of disorder? There are these small possibilities that lead to greater changes. Cancer and all the subsequent events are a prominent example of this reality. A humbling experience is waiting in the accumulation of those small things, and there is an unexpected opportunity for self-discovery on the border of suffering! A deeper understanding emerges from the intent to learn!
All of these things can be triggered at any moment by a small possibility.
I had been feeling unwell during the month following surgery. Since then, I hadn’t been to work, nor had I been able to do whatever I wanted like in the old days. My strength came back gradually, but not fast enough. Moreover, I wasn’t finished with cancer yet. I would need to start chemotherapy soon, and my knowledge of this was very limited. I, Funda, could not reconcile with this situation yet, so how was post-chemo Funda going to cope? We would see.
We needed to find an oncologist before starting chemotherapy. The oncologist determines the treatment protocol to apply and monitors the patient regularly. When the day came to meet my oncologist, I left early in the morning, together with İnan, to go to the hospital. The oncology unit faced a garden with an open space before it. Just inside the entrance, there was a canteen and registration desks. On walking through the door, I was astonished by the number of people inside. We made our way through the crowd and went upstairs, but ended up in a waiting area that was even more crowded than downstairs.
From conversations with the other people there, we gathered that the appointments were running late. Due to the long waiting time, exhausted patients were building up. I thought this room looked a bit like a bus terminal because the patients from outside İzmir had bundles and suitcases, which they used to sit on or rest their heads. In general, there was a tired atmosphere everywhere. Most of the female patients preferred to cover their heads with a headscarf, while the men and children did not hesitate to expose their hairless heads.It was mainly the young children that hit me the most, because there were children of all ages with cancer…
In addition to the people waiting their turn, some young, well-dressed pharmaceutical salespeople were continually coming and going with their attaché cases. They avoided looking as us patients as they went in and out of the doctor’s office. It made me crazy how serious they took their superfluous occupation. I felt that at any moment, I would stand up and pound on someone, even if it meant tearing out my stitches. İnan tried to settle me down, but there was no need really.
The secretary finally called out my name and we were taken into the doctor’s office. Our doctor was young and tall, and he welcomed us at a distance that was approximately equal to his height. İnan told him the whole situation in detail, and the doctor responded by offering some short-notice treatment. After discussing the subject quickly, İnan expressed thanks from the both of us, and the doctor gave us the file after accepting our thanks. After wishing each other success, the negotiation for this required transaction was concluded. I, on the other hand, understood the conversation a little differently. It seemed that I would receive a treatment every 21 days, with there being 11 in total, and they would be at the highest dose of chemotherapy. In addition, before each treatment, there would be many medical examinations to determine whether I was ready to receive it. On the way, I expressed my astonishment to İnan about how the doctor managed to examine me without touching me once. “It’s amazing how technology has progressed, isn’t it İnan?” I said sarcastically.
With the wad of paper we’d been given, we left the hospital and walked through the gardens. The trees were very beautiful, the wind was beautiful, and the cigarette was good, but the coffee was terrible. On reminding ourselves that we had some distance to cover, we headed home.
Being at home always does me good. I am very adept at creating a place that belongs to me. Together, we reorganized the living room so it was more comfortable for me. After the operation, I needed to lie down in a more upright position, and during my long periods on the sofa, I needed to keep myself occupied. The living room was ideal in this respect, because I cannot spend a whole day in a small room. I need an open, spacious room, all because of my menopause!
The day before my first chemotherapy treatment, İnan came home with a pouch in his hand. Within that seemingly ordinary, nylon bag were my chemotherapy medicines. This was just the beginning, and I wanted to establish a special bond with these medicines. I could not stand the idea of them being injected into my body while I was afraid of them. It would have meant resenting them at every turn. Therefore, in the dead of night, when everybody was sleeping, I took the bottles and told them that I wanted healing from them. I expressed my gratitude to them and told them that I wanted to be in harmony with them. I told them they could stay peacefully in my home tonight, but early tomorrow, we would all be going to the hospital.
A book attracted my interest years ago. It described a study about water conducted by Masaru Emoto. Emoto would deliver various messages to water and then freeze it before taking microscopic photographs of the ice crystals. His intention was to demonstrate that water crystallized in different ways according to the messages they receive. Now, if we could communicate with water in this way, what could we do with the large amount of water held in our bodies? This study inspired me deeply.
As far as I understood it, the issue was like this: As a being, if we focus our interest on an object, the object will no longer be the same as the original object. Because of our interest in it, the object interacts with us and changes. Observations in quantum physics verify this phenomenon, pointing out a deep connection between the observer and the observed. I had experienced this in every sphere of life, so I certainly couldn’t stay away from my meds.
After a peaceful night at home, me, İnan, and my meds were on the road early in the morning. On arriving at the hospital with my bottles, we merged into a huge crowd. We looked up and down for nurse Ayşe, who would administer my chemotherapy, and found her near another patient. She was a tall, smiling lady with short hair. At the opposite side of the crowded unit there were about ten armchairs arranged in a line. On these, the chemo was given while sitting. I also saw some rooms with beds for patients unable to sit. In all, there were five or six nurses endlessly working in the unit. Nurse Ayşe set up access to my veins after asking me to sit on an armchair in front of the television. While hanging the bottle over me, she told me the treatment for today would last about six or seven hours. I couldn’t believe it. What would I do for such a long time? Well, I’d at least brought some books along with me, but was it really possible to read books for seven hours straight in such a place?
There was nowhere to avert my gaze. I always somehow made eye contact with someone else. Sometimes a smile flashed on that person’s face, and sometimes it was just a blank stare. There wasn’t much conversation going on, so I opened a book and began to read. My eyes closed and opened from time to time, and later on, I noticed that about an hour was passing each time this happened. The book became irrelevant, and there was more sleep than anything else, which explained the blank stares I got earlier. There was also another strange experience when I suddenly needed a pee. I tried hard to hold it, because I thought it would cause problems for Ayşe. After all, the things in my arm would need to be removed and put back on again, and she didn’t have time to rest as it was. The inevitable time came when I finally asked Ayşe for assistance. To my surprise, she told me it was a normal effect of the chemotherapy serum. I later noticed that the rest room was never completely empty. One minute, all the seats were empty, and the next minute, they were all taken again. There were plenty of pee breaks.
Finally, at around six in the evening, my medicines finally finished. I didn’t really feel anything because my body was numb after sitting for all those hours. Not much beats breathing fresh air after leaving a hospital, and the evening sun warmed me as I sat between the massive trees. I smoked a cigarette in the garden as the hospital gradually emptied and became quieter, appreciating it greatly after the last six hours. Still, I’d got through it. Bring on the next ten treatments.
The day of the treatment doesn’t indicate the effect of chemo. That comes the next day and the days afterwards. I woke up on the second day with aches in my body that fluctuated between dull and intense. On the third day, I needed to be rubbed, sometimes softly and sweetly but sometimes hard and rough. On the fourth day, I didn’t want anyone to touch me and preferred to simply lie down. I eventually understood that whatever happens in the first ten days, it takes the next ten days to pull yourself together again. At least I didn’t get the expected nausea.
There’s no need to overthink the time spent on the chemotherapy seat. After all, the aftereffects only last for five or six days. If you don’t worry too much about the fatigue, nausea, diarrhea/constipation, loss of appetite, aches and pains, depression, and so on, you can use these days for all kinds of worthwhile endeavors that don’t require too much continuity and discipline.
Like many people who’ve recently become acquainted with cancer, I began to watch various programs about cancer, zapping between the channels on TV. I listened to all the recipes, prescriptions, and treatment suggestions from knowledgeable experts until I was fed up with all the herbs, roots, and stems. I finally realized that I could not spend the next two hundred days like that. Watching all those programs might have increased my knowledge of cancer, but it wasn’t increasing my joy in life, so it wasn’t helping at all. As I struggled desperately to decide what to do, my intuition came to the rescue and suggested that I look at my feelings. At first, the only criterion for me was this: If it’s good, continue it; otherwise, leave it! Seeing the benefits of this course, I decided to let the things that made me laugh, entertained me, relaxed me, rehabilitated me, and provided me with awareness into my life.
As I learned about this problem and thought about it, I realized how grateful I was to my intuitions for guiding my choices during that period.
That said, it is an indisputable truth that intuition complemented with knowledge can perform much better. Knowledge is a valuable resource not to be disregarded, especially when you’re a cancer patient. For example, through knowledge, I can now see how it is possible to contribute positively to the flow of many things during the chemotherapy process. Even though it can be very unpleasant, it can give a lot of time, which is a priceless commodity for all cancer patients.
To put chemotherapy treatment into perspective, we need to consider how cancer occurs. We know that the immune system eliminates the countless abnormal cells that our bodies produce, preventing them from spreading. Sometimes, however, it cannot do this, and the abnormal cells multiply 600 times faster than healthy cells and form the structure we call cancer. We can therefore say that cancer is directly linked to the immune system. Cancer can appear on an organ, or it can manifest itself in the blood or the lymphatic system surrounding the body. While there’s usually the opportunity to operate on organs, this isn’t the case with the surrounding systems, so a pharmaceutical intervention is needed. Such interventions are also commonly applied after cancer surgery. In a sense, we could say that chemotherapy compensates for an insufficient immune system.
Unfortunately, the medicines used in chemo attack not only the cancerous cells but also the healthy cells. This means to respect the cell-producing processes of the body, it is necessary to have a 15–21 day break between chemo treatments.
It seems very significant to be able to rapidly eliminate the cancerous cells in our body through surgery and/or chemotherapy, but we can’t so quickly assume the effectiveness of chemotherapy. During the treatment period, how the stunted cancerous structures will act after the medication ends needs to be carefully monitored. This stage is the most delicate part of the treatment, because so many factors interact, and doing something may affect whether we recover or continue to produce cancerous cells.
Briefly, we could say that a chemotherapy treatment leaves the body partially destroyed, with cancerous and healthy cells being affected and an immune system that’s been crippled. One of the basic problems of this treatment is how the compromised immune system can be the cause of secondary shock for cancer patients. I can say that I have personally tested and verified the statistics in this area while having breast cancer and eleven sessions of chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.
It is more beneficial to understand that chemotherapy does not focus on the source of the cancer—it’s more of a result-oriented approach. We should understand that we are gaining some extra time to get a body free from cancerous cells and a compromised immune system. Many patients, including myself, fail to make sense of this period and do not know what to do with it after chemotherapy. Due to the uncertainty, many patients have more inner calm while receiving chemotherapy than they do afterwards, and this is not surprising at all.
I am of the opinion that a real healing should come together as a whole, so I’m not sure how reasonable it is to call an approach that cures one side and destroys another at the same time a “treatment.” On the other hand, I regret that the medical discipline has lost its holistic outlook and had its practitioners fragmented. Technology has become the dominant mechanism, and medicine now seems to have an umbilical connection with the pharmaceutical industry. Accordingly, I think the problem we face is not a simple one, but rather a serious mistake in our fundamental approaches to our bodies and health. Perhaps, one day in the future, we will regain a holistic sense that will drag us out from this loop of demolition and reconstruction. Until that time, we will continue to be thankful for the existence of critical approaches that question the established medical treatment methods. Even if they do not eliminate this delusion by themselves, they may help us to develop a new sense of health.
In such a process, no cancer patient can be told to wait for a recovery, because there’s not much time left for the doctors to reach this holistic sense. Moreover, there’s zero possibility of a cancer patient becoming all-knowing about cancer. We’re therefore left with a simple situation: The cancer patient makes a choice from the available possibilities according to the probabilities and necessities within the scope of his or her knowledge and intuition. In this way, healing occurs based on a statistical mean, and there’s always is a significant amount of chance/fortune/destiny at play.
Based on all this uncertainty in our health, is there any importance to what we practice?
There is only one answer to this fundamental question: Yes! What we do, what we practice, is very important. I believe that anything that pulls us out of dilemmas and prevents us from becoming trapped in something will seriously contribute to our health. Whatever treatment we choose, we can either start it with a mind focused on trouble or transform it into an awareness of the wholeness of our being, so we can re-form it. We can also learn to balance feelings while experiencing those uncontrollable ups and downs by rehabilitating our minds and intuitions.
The reputable physicist and philosopher Yılmaz Öner once said, “Each mind has a feeling, and each feeling has a mind.” If everything is so connected with everything else, we had better give up the relationship we have established with our bodies. If our bodies are not our property, as we believe them to be, but rather beings in an equal relationship with us, why don’t we consider the marvelous things we can do together?
Transforming all these things is no doubt based on conscience and nature, and it is not result oriented but process oriented. It is not concerned about future events but rather what is happening at this very moment. It is a desire to understand things as “both this and that” instead of dividing them into “this” and “that.”
Whatever happens as a consequence, accept this with peace.
(To Be Continued)