Drama At Chemo

I approached my most recent round of chemo (Round 8 of 12) with some trepidation because I knew that my CEA was going to be tested, my blood pressure had been elevated based on my readings at home (a common side effect of Avastin) and I was feeling some strange pain in my left leg that I feared was a clot (a less common side effect of Avastin).  Plus, I’d been hacking and suffering from a cold for weeks, thanks to my four-year-old daughter who spends her days surrounded by germ-carrying little humans who hate to wash their hands, and I was nervous that my cold might for some reason have a negative impact on my blood counts such that I wouldn’t be able to receive treatment.  Three people accompanied me to chemo – Josh (who usually shows up halfway through but was able to go with me from the start that day), my friend L (a newbie to chemo since he’s been traveling to cool places like Myamar and Thailand for work – so jealous) and Josh’s friend J, who is also a newbie and who was visiting us from San Diego and had been staying with us over the weekend.  I have to clarify that J is really a friend of Josh’s although I’ve gotten to know her over the years.  They met years ago when they were young lawyers in New York; Josh stayed in New York while J moved to San Diego, where she is still a lawyer, but spends most of her time swimming, surfing and rock climbing.  In my own defense – and you’ll understand why I say this once you hear the whole story – I’d told J that morning that she didn’t have to come to chemo with me, that Josh and L would also be there.  Being in the infusion center can be a sobering and distinctly un-fun place for some and I was giving J the opportunity to walk in Central Park instead of sitting around watching me get treatment.  But J insisted…  J was supposed to fly to Ohio that evening to see her mother, so she would be leaving for the airport early directly from the cancer center.

The first order of business at any chemo treatment is getting a huge needle inserted into the port and then to have blood drawn through the port.  The results of that blood test will determine whether chemo can proceed as scheduled.  I took my seat in the brown recliner while Josh, L and J stood about eight feet away against a wall directly opposite.  I had plastered numbing cream over the quarter-size bump under my right collarbone and had stuck clear tape over it about an hour before in preparation for the stick.  A couple times before, the numbing cream hadn’t done such a good job and it really hurt.  So I always tense up before the huge needle goes in.  For that reason, I asked my entourage to distract me with funny stories, jokes, anything so I wouldn’t feel any pain.  It worked – there was no pain.  The nurse then went about drawing blood, inserting about three tubes into the plastic line coming out of the needle.  This part is totally painless.  Josh and L continued to talk to me as the blood was being drawn.

Then, suddenly, J says after some minutes of being completely silent, “Oh my God…” and she topples backwards.  At first, I thought she’d tripped over something – what I couldn’t say.  Josh and L couldn’t react quickly enough to catch her (and I obviously was in no position to run and catch her although I probably had the clearest vantage point), so in a matter of miliseconds that at once seemed like an eternity, we all hear this huge boing, almost like the sound of a heavy bowling ball hitting a cement floor.  It was disturbingly loud, like nothing I’ve ever heard.  J is 5’7” and so one can imagine a head free-falling from that height would make quite a noise.  It even bounced up and down again from the initial force.  Nurses (but not mine since she was still tending to me) came running over – it was chaos in the infusion center.  “No, don’t move her,” they warned Josh and L as Josh and L made to lift her into a sitting position; J had already regained consciousness.  Machines, usually used to measure the vitals of cancer patients, were wheeled over to measure J’s blood pressure and pulse, both of which were shockingly low (her BP was 84/43 and her pulse was 45).  Someone placed a pillow under her head and her feet were elevated and placed on a chair in an effort to get her vitals back to normal.  911 was called because even though we were in a hospital, the cancer center is not equipped to handle head traumas.  911 took a good 20 minutes to arrive – good thing no one’s life was really in danger.  Poor J was confused about what happened so we had to tell her.  She was immediately concerned about whether she had had a seizure because as she said, “I can’t rock climb if I’m having seizures.”  It’s funny what the mind thinks about in moments like these.  “J,” we said, “we’re more concerned about your head injury and not about whether you’ll be able to rock climb.”  The nurses assured her that she had not had a seizure, that most likely J had fainted at the sight of the needle and blood being drawn.  Apparently, people fainting at the sight of needles and blood is a known medical phenomenon.  J was baffled by this explanation since, while she doesn’t like needles, she’s certainly watched blood being drawn from herself before and has even witnessed live childbirth without any issues.  Eventually, 911 wheeled J away and Josh rode in the back of the ambulance with her up to Cornell, where the fine doctors there diagnosed her with a skull fracture and bleeding in the ear.  She was instructed not to fly for a week and was admitted to the hospital for one night.  She stayed with us the following night and then boarded an Amtrak train to Pittsburg where her mother picked her up to return to her childhood home in Ohio.  Fortunately, a skull fracture, at least the kind J has, is not a big deal.  So she is fine and she’s graciously allowed me to share this story with the world.

So my cancer fighting friends, the lesson in all this is:  when you have people come with you to chemo, especially if they’re new to the experience, make sure they’re sitting down when the needle goes in and the blood is drawn.

I told my cousin C about what happened, and she said, “Julie, why do these crazy things happen to you?”  Honestly, sometimes I do feel like the weirdest things happen to me and I’ve no idea why.  But on to the good news from that day.

After J was taken to Cornell, I and L went up to the 8th floor to see my oncologist, Dr. C.  Word had apparently traveled from the 5th floor about the drama.  My blood pressure was 160/88, very high, but understandable under the circumstances.  Dr. C. told me to go see my internist about getting my blood pressure treated anyhow based on my readings at home. Avastin will likely continue to elevate it over time.  He felt my leg and proclaimed that I had no clot but he would send me to have an ultrasound just to be certain.  My blood counts were all good so we could proceed with chemo.  And then he told me the best news of all.

MY CEA WAS 5.8!!!!  WOOHOO!!!!  That’s a significant drop from the 16.5 from five weeks previous and the 19.8 from the week before that.  I don’t know if it’s the Avastin or what but whatever it is, it’s working!!!  I was so happy.  It isn’t normal yet but I have hope that it will get there.

The next morning, my internist measured my blood pressure four times and all four times it was 110/70, perfectly normal.  No medication for now.  It’s very possible my blood pressure is fluctuating because of the Avastin but prescribing meds now might make it too low.  An ultrasound later that morning confirmed that I did not have a blood clot.  The side effects from this round weren’t any worse than previous rounds (which is to say the side effects haven’t been bad at all, although I think I am shedding more hair, but nothing noticeable yet).  So, all in all, there was lots of good news to wrap up a chemo round that began with quite a bit of drama.


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Thomas Leung
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 19:41:39

    Great news! Not surprising about the person falling and hitting their head. The major reason why you’re not standing when you get your blood drawn either.


  2. Tyler
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 21:17:39

    Wow! So glad to hear the good news. Looks like J took one for the team. I hope her head feels better soon. Julie, it is wonderful to hear such great news. I hope that the new med takes you all the way to your goal number. Happy Thanksgiving to you, Josh and the girls.


  3. Katie
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 22:04:45

    I am so happy for your good news! My doctor doesn’t check my CEA regularly, so I don’t know what mine is doing. I won’t have another data point until I go for another MRI on dec. 16th

    Have a wonderful thanksgiving!


  4. Debbie whitmore
    Nov 26, 2013 @ 22:31:19

    Great news about your CEA! Chemo is working its magic! I’m glad your friend is ok now 🙂


  5. Dana
    Nov 27, 2013 @ 12:00:54

    Whop Whop, doing a happy dance. Wonderful news during the holidays. Blessings to you and your family.


  6. Michael Stults
    Nov 27, 2013 @ 21:01:22

    At my treatment center they regularly have student nurses for the day. I saw a student that was observing the flushing of a PICC line run toward the restroom. Regretfully she didn’t make it. 911 and the whole routine as well. I don’t think they transported her but her advisor was called. Poor thing may have rethought her choice of occupations


  7. Krista Waller
    Dec 01, 2013 @ 12:39:08

    Great news about your CEA! Hope your friend is feeling better 🙂


  8. Cirincione, Norma F.
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 14:43:45


    I imagine your friend won’t be offended if I tell you that I had a smile on my face once I read that she was OK. It’s quite a story!

    Even more important, I am thrilled that you had good news this time around.

    I send you and Josh and the girls my warmest for the Holidays.

    With fondness,

    Norma F. Cirincione | Director of Alumni Relations and Associate Life
    Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP
    Assistant: alovoi@cgsh.com
    One Liberty Plaza, New York NY 10006
    t: +1 212 225 3150 | f: +1 212 225 3848 | m: +1 646 894 3019
    http://www.clearygottlieb.com | ncirincione@cgsh.com


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