Life with cancer treatments

I recently finished months of treatment for recurrent breast cancer. The recurrence began with a sore armpit and a lump that was palpable and then not. A transfer injury X-ray showed a fracture, and a scan found that fracture to be old and my lymph nodes enlarged.

My local surgeon did a biopsy quickly, but it was three weeks before my medical oncologist called me with the results. For treatment he suggested several types of chemotherapy.

Another scan showed how far the cancer had spread. In the meantime I did Internet research and talked with other people. I sought our administrator’s opinion because she was a nurse-levelheaded and supportive. She talked about the possibility of having my lymph nodes removed, saying it could rid me of the visible cancer and alleviate some pain. My surgeon had previously told me that the medical oncologist usually made the decision about surgery. But the administrator thought it was my decision to make.

I was disappointed in my medical oncologist’s handling of the situation, and I wanted to see one whose office is closer to me. Treatments would take time and I did not want to travel 50 miles for my care. An aide and nurse from the nursing home took me to the first appointment with a new oncologist and we discussed many things. After another consult, I decided on aggressive chemo with radiation afterwards.

I had to figure out how I would get to treatments. I have funding that provides me with a driver for outings, so I used that service to travel to chemo. Since the hospital’s chemo nurses could not assist me with toileting, I got permission from my doctor to wear a catheter on treatment days. The catheter allowed me to relax during treatments and not be concerned about the large quantity of IV fluid I was receiving. Without it I would have had to return to the nursing home to be close to a bathroom.

After each treatment my driver and I went out for lunch and then shopping. That helped take my mind off how I felt. I only had major nausea the night of chemo and I had difficulty sleeping. The night shift aides at the nursing home fed me crackers, my stomach relaxed, and I went to sleep.

I experienced bad stomach cramps several hours after treatment, usually when I was lying down. That meant the aides had to get my “sick and anxious” self up and to the bathroom. Sometimes I was almost hysterical because of the pain. A few times we had words and I ended up apologizing for almost everything.

I thought the aides would get used to me in treatment mode. But I guess no one ever gets used to seeing a person that vulnerable. I ate despite a sore and swollen throat and a sore mouth. I knew I had to eat to get through it.

Sixteen chemo treatments were over before Christmas. The local radiation oncologist felt it was too difficult to treat me, and it was another two months before I found one who would. The radiation oncologist in Columbus insisted I travel by ambulance. I did not want to, but an iPod with my music and napping made it bearable.

It was three weeks before radiation reddened my skin. Even with mild soap my skin blistered. Treatments were stopped and five days later I got my last regular treatment. I was in pain from the radiation burns and grumpy from getting up earlier to get ready to be transported. After healing for 10 days, I got my three boost treatments.

I was very tired when I finished, and recovery will take time. I learned a great deal about communication and coordination with the nursing home during my treatments. There were minor glitches with the ambulance companies, and it took the staff time to get used to my strange schedule. But management and staff here cooperated and I did the best I could to help them assist me.


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Kathleen Mears has been a nursing home resident in Southeastern Ohio for the past 14 years

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Long-Term Living 2010 August;59(8):56

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