Onco

There’s been a lot of cancer talk the last couple of days in the Apple-centric corner of the internet. Yesterday, Federico Viticci of MacStories shared on Twitter the happy news that his recent PET scan came back negative. He followed that up with a little more detail today on his personal blog. Greg Pierce of Agile Tortoise responded with his survival story: 22 years and counting.

Cancer’s a pretty common topic of conversation here in the Drang household. Last Saturday was the one-year anniversary of my wife’s last chemotherapy treatment. It’s a date that, in some ways, means more to us than the anniversary of her mastectomy, which was back in November. We certainly don’t consider the last chemo visit to be the end of her treatment—the daily Tamoxifen and other pills are a continuing reminder that it’s not over—but it was the end of a long slide in which every treatment made her feel worse.

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
— Winston Churchill

The most perplexing part of cancer treatment is how it takes a seemingly healthy body and puts it through hell. When she found the lump, my wife was feeling great. The demands of having small children underfoot were behind her, and she’d gradually been able to spend more time doing things for her own enjoyment. She’d been running for a few years and was in training for a half-marathon (which she ran a couple of weeks before the mastectomy). The woman with cancer looked and felt strong, healthy, and beautiful.

The cancer survivor, on the other hand, was beat up. First the initial assault of the surgery, and then the drawn-out infliction of chemo. It was like The House that Jack Built:

This is the Taxotere and Cytoxan, which prevent the return of the tumor.

This is the Neulasta, which stimulates the production of white blood cells, which were killed by the Taxotere and Cytoxan, which prevent the return of the tumor.

This is the steroid, which dulls the bone pain caused by the Neulasta, which stimulates the production of white blood cells, which were killed by the Taxotere and Cytoxan, which prevent the return of the tumor.

This is the laxative, which alleviates the constipation, which was caused by the steroid, which dulls the bone pain caused by the Neulasta, which stimulates the production of white blood cells, which were killed by the Taxotere and Cytoxan, which prevent the return of the tumor.

I know I’ve missed a step or two in there somewhere, but you get the point. Each chemo cycle was a push down a flight of stairs, and she’d only get halfway back up before the next cycle came along.

But after that last infusion, the last push down the stairs, she’s been climbing back steadily. Today was her quarterly post-chemo visit to the oncologist, and the news was good: the tumor markers in her latest blood test are in the range they ought to be, and the Tamoxifen is doing its job, keeping the estrogen that fed her tumor at bay.

Her hair is back—well, not exactly her hair. Her hair was straight, but what grew in was wild and curly. Sexy. The curls won’t last, though. In the last month, we’ve started to see her old hair reassert itself. By fall it will have pushed the curls out far enough to be clipped off. I’ll miss them—they were the kooky symbol of her recovery—but it’ll be good to see an old friend return after two years’ absence.

Unlike Federico, my wife has never declared that she’s kicked cancer’s ass. Partly this is a function of age—you tend to be more cautious when you’re 50 than when you’re half that age, especially when all the statistics of your treatment talk about “five-year survival rates.” Partly it’s the recognition that the treatment that kicked cancer’s ass did a pretty good job of kicking hers, too.

But it’s been a year since the end of the beginning, and all the signs are pointing in the right direction.


4 Responses to “Onco”

  1. Sharat Buddhavarapu says:

    It’s been a year since I found out my grandmother, who lives in India, had breast cancer. This was a few days after my aunt had been diagnosed with the same. That aunt died 11 days after her diagnosis.

    Thankfully, it was near my spring break from college, and I flew to India to be with her for a little while. At the time, my mother and my sister had spent a year abroad in India and they decided to stick with her through the end of summer, when my sister would be re-enrolling in her middle school in the US. I remember when they showed me the pictures of their last day in India and not recognizing my grandmother at all. She’d lost all her hair, even her eyebrows. She was emaciated. And all this just for an extension of her life by about 2 years, because the cancer was already stage IV.

    Cancer sucks. I hope your wife’s recovery and healthfulness continue for a long time to come.

  2. Helge Gudmundsen says:

    This piece resonated deeply with me. Come May, it will be one year since the last chemo session of my wife.

    All is going well now, but I wouldn’t wish her ordeal on anyone.

    All the best for you and your wife.

  3. Clark says:

    Hope your wife’s recovery continues. My father in law got a rare brain cancer that typically has at best a six month survival. He’s going on nearly four years now. I thought about that when reading Viticci’s story the other day. Anyone who gets cancer shouldn’t assume the typical is what will happen to them.

  4. Oliver says:

    Best Wishes to you and your family. Hope your wife get well very soon.

    I got pancreas cancer 1 year ago with 37. The same that killed Steve Jobs. Never expected to be in a situation where i have to tell my 3 1/2 year old daughter why i walk every week to the doctor and why i’m often not the best dad.

    Now it’s one year over and a lot of doctors helped me. Without one of the best german chirugist i had no chance. (The tumor was wrapped around some important veins). Now i can’t wait to get the rest of the chemo therapie finished.