I am given a small break before starting chemotherapy, and I savour every moment of it, spending all my time thinking and meditating…and preparing myself for what lies ahead of me. Several times, I wake up in the middle of the night, sweat pouring down my whole body, as I remember more vividly than I ever have before Uchechi’s chemotherapy ordeal. It is so real, it almost feels that we are back with her in South Africa all over again.
Unable to stop myself, I call Ebere to ask her questions about all I have forgotten from our sister’s ordeal.
“Babe, before Uchechi started her chemotherapy, were her lymph nodes already involved?” I ask casually.
“Which kin question are you asking me after all these years, biko!” she retorts. “Anyway, no they weren’t. I’m surprised you’ve forgotten, especially after the way we rejoiced the day the doctor told us.”
I do remember. I’d only just hoped I wasn’t remembering correctly. Uchechi was also told her lymph nodes were clean…but yet her cancer had metastasised aggressively. I guess this means I shouldn’t be screaming from the rafters just because my own cancer hasn’t spread. Just because it hasn’t done so now doesn’t mean it won’t eventually.
It’s high time I accept that, eventually, this cancer is going to kill me, whether I like it or not.
“Have you considered scalp hypothermia?” Dr. Chambers asks. “You have such lovely hair, and I’d be sad for you to lose it.”
My hands reach for my afro, which I haven’t even been taking great care of. I remember how Uchechi’s hair fell off, starting with the day several clumps detached from her scalp as she showered. I remember how broken we had all been by that experience and how it had brought the cancer beast to reality for us. If anyone had been doubting Uchechi’s diagnosis, losing her hair was pretty much the clincher.
I decide to take Dr. Chambers advise and try the cooling cap therapy, to preserve my hair. On the day of my first session, I take painkillers as Dr. Internet suggests I do, and when the cap is strapped to my head, I brace myself for the ‘5 to 10 minutes only’ of intense pain. Except the pain lasts longer than ‘5 to 10 minutes’ but for the entire 30 minute duration. And the cold feels a whole lot worse than ‘taking ice-cream on a very hot day’, as I have read it feels like. No, it is nothing but unpleasant and I find myself in the worst agony of my life as the intense cold grips not only my head, but indeed every atom of my brain. It is the most debilitating experience ever, and as I leave the clinic I know I will not be returning.
That night, I decide to take matters into my own hands.
With a pair of clippers I buy from the drug store, that night, standing in my bathroom, I make the decision to shave off my hair. I know I will never have the motivation to return for another cold cap session, and I also know I can’t allow myself suffer the heartbreak of watching my hair fall out. No. I will not. Instead, I remain focused on doing things my way and keeping control of as many aspects of this journey that I can.
When I am done shaving my hair, I stand there, staring at my bald reflection in the mirror….and for the first time since all this started, I see the Ezi everyone probably does…the one who has cancer. I run my hand across my neck and see for the first time how frail I am looking. My clavicles are more pronounced than ever and my t-shirt is already hanging loosely on my petite frame. It looks like I have lost at least 20lbs…and I haven’t even started treatment yet!
The night before my first chemotherapy session, I actually sleep pretty well, which is surprising, considering all my anxiety. In the morning, I actually have enough of an appetite to eat a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, following which I even go for a run.
Getting to the hospital, one look at me and a deep frown forms on Dr. Chambers face. I don’t know if it’s my bald head or the fact that I am, once again, unaccompanied. Luckily, he dwells on neither and instead introduces me to my Nurse, a pleasant looking Asian woman called Penny. As today is the first treatment cycle, everything is doubled for the loading doses as we don’t really know how my body is going to react. Will it hurt when the infusion is connected to my porta cath? Will I get any, all or none of the possible listed reactions to the drugs? It’s anybody’s guess, really.
Penny is very cheerful and chatty…maybe a little too chatty. She settles me into a cosy, small room with walls painted a soothing aqua colour. She points out the location of the toilet, which she is sure I’ll soon need as a lot of fluid will be pumped into my body! She then checks my blood pressure and temperature, talks me through the process proper and even asks if I will like to listen to any particular type of music. For someone whom music plays a big role, I surprise myself by answering with an indifferent shrug. Lying on the reclined chair, music is the last thing on my mind, and when she starts playing a Kenny G CD, I tune off.
Finally, I am hooked up for the infusion. Penny first of all draws some liquid and blood from my port, to ensure everything is working, before connecting a bag of saline.
“So this is how the process goes Ezeeoma.” she says, and I actually find myself amused by her pronunciation of my full name. “There’ll first of all be a saline flush, then comes the Herceptin, then another saline flush, then the Pertuzumab, then another saline flush, the Docetaxel, and a final saline flush.”
I nod in understanding, having already heard this a thousand times from Dr. Chambers.
During the first saline flush, Penny offers me a cup of tea and I accept, partly in amazement. As I lie there, sipping tea while having the flush, I am amazed by how far things have come in the decade since Uchechi had her own treatment. For the life of me, I don’t recall her being this relaxed during any of her sessions. Sipping on the tea, I actually wonder why I have been so worried, thinking the process isn’t that bad. After the saline, Penny proceeds to connect the Herceptin. The rate of flow is quite slow as I need to be monitored for any reaction.
“Are you sure you don’t have someone who can accompany you next time?” she asks. “This can be a very dull procedure.”
I smile politely and shake my head. “It’s fine. I’ll just try to nap if I get too bored.”
As the drug passes through, I suddenly start to feel really cold. Not even when Penny adjusts the room temperature does this make a difference. There we are, in the middle of summer, and I am shivering like I’m naked in Antartica. Penny takes my temperature and sees it has fallen dramatically.
“It’s probably because the drugs are refrigerated for storage.” Penny says, cranking up the heating, and wrapping me in a thick blanket.
I don’t know if it’s the cold, but I suddenly start to feel off…. not sick or anything like that, but just not quite right. I realize that the drugs are finally starting to take effect in my body, and my heart races in fear at the very thought. The infusion is slowed further and I gradually start to warm up, although not enough to throw off the blankets. At one stage, I actually do fall asleep very briefly, awakening when Penny has put in the saline flush.
The second infusion (the Pertuzumab) and then the third one (the Docetaxel) last for almost 3 hours, but go considerably well. Overall, the whole process takes about five hours, and by the time it’s over, I still feel very much like myself.
Once all the infusions have gone through, Penny checks me over again and gives me my Filgrastim injection with an ice pack. The chemo will, no doubt, hammer my white blood cell count, so the Filgrastim is to stimulate my body to produce more white blood cells. I’ll have to administer myself, but thanks to my experience from the egg freezing, self-injections are no longer novel or scary to me.
“You’re really a strong one!” Penny remarks, as I throw on my scarf and carry my bag. “Your first cycle of chemo and you almost look like you just went to the Mall.”
“I feel perfect!” I remark, excited. “In fact, I think I’m going to go for a run as soon as I get home. Or maybe even the gym…or perhaps a swim.”
“Don’t push it though.” Penny reprimands. “You need to rest. Sometimes, these drugs come with delayed reaction.”
I nod politely, convinced there will be no such delayed reaction for me, not with how fantastic I’m feeling.
“Your next cycle is in exactly a fortnight…that’s on the 28th.” she goes on. “And try to come with someone next time, okay? You might not be as strong then.”
I am smiling smugly to myself. If I have come this far alone, why on earth will I need anyone next time?!
I call for an Uber, and when I get home, I make myself a bowl of pot noodles and settle in my sofa to binge on Netflix. At some point, I fall asleep.
It is the nausea that jolts me awake.
I don’t even have enough time to rush to the bathroom before I throw up everything I have eaten, and then more, all over my living room floor. So weakened am I by the violent bout, I am only able to crawl away from where my vomit lies, but no sooner have I crawled a few meters do I throw up again. At this point, I am unable to move any further, and just collapse right there on my vomit, adding more to it as first the afternoon, and then the night, rolls by. When the sun rises the next morning, I awake lying in my vomit, and as I peel myself from the floor, I am weeping uncontrolably. Even though I have no food at all in my system, I manage to get out a mop and I proceed to clean up the mess I have made. Because I am so weak, it takes three times the duration it ordinarily would, but I am determined not allow myself wallow in the stew of my vomit. After furiously scrubbing and mopping the hardwood floor, I get into the shower and furiously scrub my entire body, desperate to rid myself of the pungent smell. I am barely able to throw on a t-shirt and a pair of shorts before I crawl into bed with a big bowl by my side. A part of me is ravenous and desperately wants to eat something…but a bigger part of me is appalled by the mere mention of the word ‘food’. So I lie there, drifting in and out of sleep, sleep punctuated with several wet and dry heaves into the bowl beside me. By the end of the day, I am weakened not just by hunger…but from having expunged every single thing in my body. The next day, I manage to drag myself to the kitchen to nibble on some dry bread…but no sooner have I eaten a few slices do I find myself rushing for the toilet bowl to throw up. In the end, I give up and just lie on my bed, waiting for hunger to kill me before the chemotherapy can. It isn’t until five days after my chemotherapy session that I start to feel human again.
And I realize that I have underestimated this process.
By the time my next chemotherapy session comes around, it is with fear and trepidation that I make my way back to the clinic. I am tempted to forgo the whole process and just wait for the cancer to kill me, but I eventually decide to just take the bull by the horns and go anyway.
From the sympathetic look on Penny’s face, I know I must look exactly the way I feel.
“You had a rough time?” she asks.
I shrug, still trying to appear like Superwoman. “Just a few days when I couldn’t really stomach food. But I’m fine now.”
She nods in understanding, more understanding than I give her credit for, before she proceeds to hook up my line and starts the process all over again. Maybe because I now know what to expect, the minute the fluid hits my bloodstream, I start to have something of an anxiety attack. My heart is racing and I find myself short of breath. I almost want to throw a stone at the speaker softly playing Michael Bolton’s greatest hits. I want this over. I want it all to be over.
The five hour session seems like ten this time, and the nausea doesn’t even wait for me to get home before it begins. Sitting in the Uber on the way home, my head is spinning and I am praying I don’t throw up all over the back seat. Thankfully, I manage to restrain myself till I get home, and as I rush to the toilet, I can feel the indications of an extremely bad stomach. I remain in the toilet for the rest of the day, with violent diarrhea and even more violent vomiting. I am afraid to leave the toilet, for fear that I will mess up the rest of my house. When I am too tired to sit on the toilet seat for much longer, I slide down to the floor, where I remain as daylight turns to night
It is another rough few days, and this time I feel even worse than I did after my first treatment round. I have a burning sensation in my fingers and toes, and painful sores have formed in my mouth. When I finally gather the strength for a shower, I catch my reflection in the mirror and can not recognize the painfully thin woman looking back at me.
“Uchechi…” I call out at the reflection, because it looks just like her…especially at the tail end of her life.
That is when I know, without a doubt, that I am going to die just like she did.
That night, I am able to manage a meal and with the resulting strength I have, I sit on my porch for the first time in a long while, my iPad in hand. I know I am on the last lap of my life. I know there is no way I can survive 4 more cycles of chemotherapy, let alone radiation. I know I am only inches away from being six feet under…from my very last breath.
So I decide to write.
One Last Breath (Creed) – July 03, 2017
Please come now I think I’m falling
I’m holding on to all I think is safe
It seems I found the road to nowhere
And I’m trying to escape
I yelled back when I heard thunder
But I’m down to one last breath
And with it let me say, let me say
Hold me now
I’m six feet from the edge and I’m thinking
Maybe six feet ain’t so far down
I’m looking down now that it’s over
Reflecting on all of my mistakes
I thought I found the road to somewhere
Somewhere in His grace
I cried out heaven save me (save me)
But I’m down to one last breath
And with it let me say, let me say
Hold me now
I’m six feet from the edge and I’m thinking
Maybe six feet ain’t so far down
Maybe I shouldn’t even bother with any more treatment. Maybe I should just lie here on my front porch and wait for death to come and get me.
Because come and get me it will.
I turn 40 the day before my 3rd chemo cycle. Sitting on my living room sofa, I can’t help but feel saddened about where life has brought me on this landmark occasion of mine. As a child, I’d envisioned myself almost a grandmother at the age of 40. A few years ago, I’d seen myself as married at the very least. A few months ago, I would have been content to just be in good health.
But here I am, 40 years old and neither of these things.
I allow the day to go by without fanfare of any sort. I just want the day to end as quickly as possible. Except that it ending will signal yet another day of chemotherapy.
Something like being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
I make no pretences as I leave for my chemo. I throw on an old t-shirt and tie a scarf loosely on my head. I make no effort to hide my sunken eyes and drawn face. This is what having 2 cycles of chemotherapy has done to me.
This cycle feels even worse than the earlier two, and as I ride back home in my Uber, I make up my mind that this will be my last session. I now understand why my mother vehemently refused the treatment. She was right about it not being a decent quality of life for anyone. No. I’d rather live fairly decently…until I don’t. Not like Uchechi who suffered so much…only to suffer even more when death came calling.
Getting out of the cab, I see someone standing by my gate, with a bouquet of roses in his hand. As my eyes focus, I stop dead in my tracks in recognition.
He looks at me, clearly not sure I am the same person. “Ezioma?” he calls out.
“What do you want?!” I snap, angry that he is seeing me in this state, looking bedraggled and haggard. “How did you find me here?!”
“I went to Durham to surprise you for your 40th birthday.” he says, his eyes still probing deeper into mine as his concern rises. “I’ve spent the last year doing nothing but thinking about you, and I decided to fight for what’s mine. You’re still my wife, Ezioma. We’re not divorced yet.”
I step back as he makes to come closer, and look away from him, unable to make any eye contact, unwilling for him to get an even closer of me looking the way I do.
“Ezi, are you okay?” he asks, reaching for me.
“And how did you locate me here?!” I retort, moving even further out of his grip.
“I saw Seth. He told me you’d left.” he answers. “He said you said you were going to your favourite place in the world. And then I remembered you’d told me about a little cottage on Rosler Road in Friday Harbor. Remember you told me it was your favourite place when we were in the Maldives? So I got on the very first flight here.” he chuckles to himself. “I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find the exact cottage, but apart from the fact that this is the only leased property on the street, everyone seems to know the cute black girl and where she stays.”
“You need to leave. Now!” I say, my voice quivering as I start walking to my door extra fast. “I don’t need you or anyone here. I’m not your wife. You need to go back to your life in Manhattan!”
“Ezioma, what’s going on?” Dili demands, his voice high in his panic. “You don’t look like yourself.”
“Just go away!” I yell, my back to him, as I fumble to open my door, my hands quivering. “Please, just go!”
“I’m not going till you tell me what’s going!” Dili exclaims, and from the quiver in his voice, I know he is on the verge of tears…and who can blame him. I reckon he didn’t expect to see me bald and weighing less than 100lbs.
I don’t know if it’s the feel of his hand on my shoulder, or the expected reaction from my recent session, but my head suddenly starts to spin.
As I lose consciousness, I hear him shout in panic as he catches me as I fall. I hear him kick my door open, place me on the couch and dial 911.
And everything goes completely blank.
A Love of Convenience! returns on Monday, January 07, 2019.
Catch up on Ezioma’s story here:
- A Love of Convenience! 1: Handbags & Gladrags
- A Love of Convenience! 2: There she goes
- A Love of Convenience! 3: The day will surely come
- A Love of Convenience! 4: Russian Farmer’s Song
- A Love of Convenience! 5: Moonlighting Strangers
- A Love of Convenience! 6: Knocks me off my feet
- A Love of Convenience! 7: A simple kind of life
- A Love of Convenience! 8: I can’t help it
- A Love of Convenience! 9: Edge of desire
- A Love of Convenience! 10: The Fear
- A Love of Convenience! 11: Ordinary People
- A Love of Convenience! 12: Me and Mrs. Jones
- A Love of Convenience! 13: You could be happy
- A Love of Convenience! 14: Linger
- A Love of Convenience! 15: Sunday Morning
- A Love of Convenience! 16: Drive
- A Love of Convenience! 17: Bohemian Rhapsody
- A Love of Convenience! 18: Sailing