Friday, April 24, 2015

My Side Effects: Chest Pain and Heartburn

Although six months have passed since my final chemo treatment (hurrah!), there were several posts I drafted during chemo and never got around to posting because I was too exhausted to keep up. So here I am, half-a-year later, finally getting around to updating those drafts. I figure a few after-the-fact posts are okay.

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Chest pain and heartburn. Not exactly the same.

Throughout the course of my cancer adventure, the reasons for my chest pain varied.

At first, it was probably the tumors growing under my sternum. Plus, my anxiety facing the possibility of a difficult diagnosis. Although "pain" isn't the right word for what I initially felt. In some notes I wrote in preparation for my first doctor appointment (weeks before a CT scan revealed Tiny's friends), I described the sensation as "pressure."

During the passing weeks, the pressure increased. Wearing my normal clothes hurt. My shirts strangled me, dresses deprived me of precious O2, camisoles constricted my chest, my bras were too tight. I might as well have worn a corset all laced up, like that one variation of Snow White in which the queen gives her a cursed corset and the ribbons lace up so tight she can't breathe.



I often unclasped my bra to relieve the pressure, even if I was in public. Later, I gave up and stopped wearing a bra, which posed other problems. Both options led to embarrassment. Whatever. A girl's gotta do what's a girl's gotta do to breathe. (See below for my eventual solution to this conundrum.)

I also read that chest pain is a symptom of anemia. Considering I was moderately anemic throughout my chemoification, this seems a viable reason for my discomfort.

Once chemo started, heartburn affected me. I was resistant to accept the heartburn theory for a while. Heartburn is for old people. Not someone in her late 20's. It's difficult to accept that one's body is not as healthy or strong as one would like it to be, which I'm sure is true no matter one's age.

Another reason I resisted accepting that I had heartburn is because the pain I experienced wasn't a burning sensation. (Semantics cause so much trouble.) 
I personally think the term "burn" is misleading. Burning is fire and heat. Maybe some people experience this, just not me. I felt crushing chest pain. As if my heart had been transplanted with a sea urchin.


Um...minus the spikes.


Yeah. Something like that.

There were only a few times when I could say, "Oo! Yup, that's heart burn." Yucky stomach acidity.

My Solutions

—Prescription strength antacid. Worked like a charm! As soon as I started taking it daily*, the chest pains diminished. The only exception was a couple days during treatment #10 and #11 when my dietary choices upset my stomach. What can I say? I love pizza rolls! Bonus, around the time I started taking the antacid, the horrific mouth burning significantly decreased. Correlation or coincidence? I don't care as long as I could eat food with minimal pain! 
(*Initially I thought I only needed to take the antacid on chemo weekends. After consulting a pharmacist and my oncologist, both recommended taking it daily for maximum effectiveness until chemo ended.)

—Purchased new shirts and tank tops that were a size or two larger than I normally like to wear.

—As for the bra issue, I had to make my own. That's right. I made my own bra. Nothing in the market or on the Internet matched what I needed (believe me, I looked). Sports bras were too tight. Bra extenders were still too tight. Camisoles with so-called built-in bras were too thin. As I mentioned, going braless posed other problems because I can get rather, uh, perky. (Walking from 100+ degree heat into a chilly, air conditioned store will do that to a person.) I needed something loose, easy to slip on, and with enough padding to prevent embarrassing situations. So I bought an inexpensive wireless bra, did some cutting and sewing, and voilá! The final creation was the most comfortable, magical, marvelous bra I've ever worn/made/owned. It's not perfect, but it worked. Six months later, I still enjoy wearing it from time to time.

Further Reading

Every person is different and their experiences will vary from mine. Always discuss your particular symptoms and concerns with your doctor.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

My Long Overdue Post-Chemo Post

Hair has been growing. Energy levels are back to normal. Life goes on!

Nearly six months have passed since my final chemo treatment. Wow! Time has flown.

I've been meaning to post updates about life post-cancer. Because, it's a bit weird. My oncologist informed me that it was natural to have anxiety as a cancer survivor, and yeah there are days when the possibility of a relapse scares me and I wonder about my future. Ultimately, I can't worry about it, because the future isn't written yet. Gotta keep living!

I still need check-ups every three months to make sure everything is hunky dory, both in terms of watching out for long-lasting chemo side effects (of which I have none so far) and potential relapse (also none so far). Luckily for me, Hodgkin's lymphoma has a low relapse rate and most HL patients are cured with first-line chemotherapy. All of the statistics are in my favor. Hurrah!

As for other updates...

First, the sad news: back in November, my oncologist told me she would be relocating. I'm happy for her, moving on with her career and all. Sad for me. I could not have asked for a better oncologist to help me through the tumultuous journey. I was able to see her one last time before she moved in December.

The good news, also back in November my port was explanted!

I'm grateful the device made receiving medications easier, however I am super glad it is gone. If I had kept it in, I would have had to revisit the infusion center once a month to get it flushed to keep the catheter clean and clear. Considering how accessing it each time made me nauseous—with or without chemo—because of my reaction to the saline and/or heparin, removing it was the best. It also signified an end to my cancer adventure.

On Friday, November 21, my Aunt Debbie accompanied me to the hospital. We arrived at 6:55am and left around 10:30am. The procedure itself lasted just over an hour.

I have learned to be more vocal about my needs and desires, so prior to the procedure I had a few questions/requests:

1) Can I be more conscious than sedated during the procedure, like last time during the implant

Answer: Yes! Woohoo!

2A) Can I keep the port? 

Answer: No, because it is a biohazard. =(

2B) Can I take a picture with the port? 

Answer: YES! (see below)

3) Can anything be done about the nasty little scar* from when the port was first implanted?

Answer: The doc wasn't sure. Usually they make a second incision or something. He said he would take it into consideration and see what he could do.

*Side note: Funny story. Sooort of. When the port was implanted, there was a little mix-up about when it would be okay to remove the surgical glue. The take-home instructions claimed it would fall off on its own within seven days. On day eight, the glue was still stuck in place so I removed it, which apparently was too soon (the nurse practitioner later told me fourteen days was the ideal wait length; um...that would have been nice to include in the instructions). When I removed the glue it was obvious the incision had not quite healed and I had to return to the interventional radiology department so the nurse practitioner could tape it with surgical strips. This technique was not very effective and the scar healed weird. Every time I looked at it, it reminded me of a slug.


Returning to my explant procedure story, as requested I was mostly awake, although the nurse increased my sedative at one point because she said she noticed I was wincing. All in all, I remember about half of the procedure: the set up, an x-ray, a blue drape, the prep, the stinging lidocaine injection...

A different doctor performed the explant, not the doc I met during pre-op. New doc and I had a great chat during the procedure. Unfortunately, I don't remember most of it. Apparently she gave me a lot of great life advice. Guess I'll have to fill in the gaps with my imagination!

Bonus: She removed the scar tissue as requested! Yay! The new scar is longer and just as wide as the old scar, but it looks a lot cleaner and less slug-like. I'm satisfied with it.

Me + Port
Yellow bruise a few days later.
The bottom line is the new scar.
The top line was more bruising.

Those are all the updates I have for now. I hope more will be forthcoming, but I make no guarantees.


My Nephew Remembers

Back in mid-January, my 3-year-old nephew and I were watching Guardians of the Galaxy at his house. In the opening scene, a young Star-Lord/Peter Quill visits his dying mother. When the scene showed her, my nephew pointed to the TV screen and exclaimed, "Manda! That's like you!" How observant.

Meredith Quill, Galaxy of the Guardians, Source

For the record, at the time, my hair looked like this:

Jump ahead to the first week of February. I have several apps on my phone to entertain my nephew. One of these is a hair salon in which you select a picture of yourself (or anyone) and create outrageous hairstyles: wash, dry, cut, buzz, grow, curl, straighten, color, add bows and hats, etc.

For example, I gave my nephew this make-over:

When it was his turn, my nephew took a lot of time styling my hair. He sat quietly and focused intently while I chatted with my sister. After several minutes, he tapped me on the shoulder and proudly showed me his creation:

At least it's better than Aunt Gollum.