I'm disappointed that I did not write more from Houston, but I was so incredibly busy or far too tired to get to it. I know that sounds crazy, but I couldn't get myself to do it. I do have many, many story nuggets that I plan to get to writing now that I can breathe a little bit. But for now I'll do a broad-brush review to get up to speed.
Most importantly, I became an aunt for the second time two days ago. My sister-in-law delivered a beautiful, healthy baby girl: Anna Gisele. She now joins my sweet, sweet nephew, Jake, who somehow is suddenly going to be two years old in August. I am so happy for Eric and Rachel and their newest addition: the news of their good health and sheer happiness eliminates all of the difficult times in my life. I cannot wait to meet her. Before we left for Houston, Craig and I got in some Jake time and his smile and baby language are the best medicine. Together with Anna there are going to be many heart melting moments to come this summer for sure.
After the initial whirlwind of activity in Houston settled, things got pretty tough for me. This was right at the time when my parents arrived. They were with us for the last nine days of the trip. It was really nice to have them there to mix things up and bring a taste of home. I felt badly at first that I was not up to being a gracious hostess and it took me some time to realize that that was not why they were there. Even after nearly two years of being a cancer patient, I still do not do well with accepting help and support. It is a tremendous struggle for me.
Once I accepted that my parents weren't there to sight see in Houston, but rather to just be there for me, I realized that it was okay for me to nap or not want to go out and explore. I am so fortunate to have parents and a husband that care about me so much that they'll sacrifice everything to do what I want to do. Sometimes that made me lash out because I want them to do what they want to do. It's a difficult balance of being extremely grateful and also not wanting to be a burden to anyone. I constantly try to think about what it would be like to be in my caregivers’ shoes and I'd want to be there right with them as well – even if they were just a blob on the couch as I was much of the time.
My mom gave me fantastic back rubs and introduced me to Bananagrams – I don't know what took me so long to discover that amazing game! We played many rounds of that and hung out in my parents' apartment watching silly TV once I finally let my guard down some. My parents rented a car, so my Dad became my chauffeur around Houston, which was helpful to run errands and to get places more easily as my energy had been completely zapped. This allowed us to check out the Houston Museum of Natural Science – including its awe-inspiring butterfly garden, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts' Sculpture Garden, the Japanese Garden in Hermann Park and a scrumptious downtown Farmers' Market. The city really does have so much to offer, much of it right up my alley.
We did get in a trip to Galveston, TX, on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico as well. It is only a short hour-long drive from Houston – Papa behind the wheel. I loved that place. I could have rolled around in the waves like a pig in shit all day long. The ocean water was the perfect temperature and the waves were strong and rolling. The four of us enjoyed some Gulf seafood and took a Duck Boat tour around the island and right into the bayside water as we learned about the history and goings on of this very unique island.
Despite the incredible wind, Craig and I plopped on the flour-fine sand of the beach while my parents did some further exploring. I spent most of the time in the water by myself diving in and out of the crashing waves. The salt water helped to clear my blocked nose and ears and the pressure of the wave undulations felt so good on my back – Mother Nature’s massage therapy.
Easter was spent mostly on the couch or the bed in our apartment. The Easter Bunny did find us there in the form of a bag of candy left outside our door and a beautiful bouquet of flowers that came from my Gramma and uncle back home. Plus, the adorable cards that arrived for the holiday and otherwise. After much internal (and external) debate, we all did make it out for Easter dinner in Rice Village – a Houston neighborhood that I came to love, which is adjacent to Rice University. We ate at a fabulous restaurant called Benjy's. The food was so good that I actually ate half of it and thoroughly enjoyed seconds for lunch the next day.
I love to travel and I love to see new places but there is a difference between being on a chosen vacation and being in a place far from home because you have to be there for treatment. We made the most of every moment that we could, but we missed the comforts of home badly, especially at night when I was remiss of distractions. I missed my Sammy dog tremendously. I did a lot of crying and a lot of yelling. I had many breakdowns and I know that this is because I didn't have my normal coping mechanisms with me at my disposal.
It's at times like this past month that I realize the things that really matter to me in my life. I missed my family and friends. I missed my alone time. It bothered me tremendously to not have nature and woods around me. It bothered me that I couldn't write and that I couldn't go to yoga class. I missed walking and hiking and the Farmington River. I missed having the basic necessities to cook our own healthy meals. I missed recycling. I missed tasty water out of the faucet. I missed quiet. I missed my pillow and bed.
After coming back from San Antonio, exactly as predicted by my doctor and nurse, all of the crappiness set in during week three. I got incredible backaches and tenderness and the fatigue became extreme. I had only a few hours of energy in me each day before I had to take a nap. The record heat and humidity in Houston did not help. Heat in the 90s, humidity 95% some days. I love, love, love the sun and warm weather, but the humidity made my already reduced breathing more labored, and I found myself often in the sanctuary of our air conditioned apartment, which is very unlike me. But the extreme temperature was too much for my body to handle. This worked out okay though because both my parents and Craig run hot and I was actually on the same body thermometer as them for once.
Appetite has continued to be low and I’ve dropped weight. I’m working hard at getting food down, but it’s certainly a chore. I have constant dry mouth. With barely any saliva, it feels like I’m walking around with cotton balls stuffed in my mouth, which takes away the appeal of food. Certain areas of my tongue are also very sensitive to harsh tastes and make it difficult to eat. However, I’ve still avoided any full-blown mouth sores. My lips are another story, though. They are swollen and cracked and in the mornings, especially, I have Herpesesque growths on them that hurt like a mo’ fo’.
On top of the chemo side effects, I caught a cold something nasty, or it's allergies, no one knows. But in any case, it still hasn't quit. It came on with a sore throat in San Antonio, which left but settled into a very rumbly cough, plugged ears and drippy nose. My parents and Craig had to put up with a lot of coughing fits around them. I saw a nurse practitioner in the "fast track" team at MD Anderson, who after ruling out a virus with a sinus wash, kept me on the antibiotic and told me to treat it symptomatically. The symptoms are still persisting, but have gotten better with rest and my home environment.
The good news is that I made it through the entire month down there without ever needing blood products and I required only one shot of Neupogen. I got this really because I asked for it as I did not want to be off of my pills for any more than needed. The schedule has worked that I've had to take a break from the pills for 3-4 days every other week. I've been able to tolerate the other side effects enough to avoid longer breaks. However, the drugs knack for knocking my blood cell count down is really nothing that I have control over, so the Neup shot helped my white blood cells soar back up (in one day) to far surpass the required ANC level of 1.0.
On Tuesday I met with Dr. Younes and Amy again to go over my first month. They were both impressed with how well I did and said that I was able to keep more drugs down than expected. They are still really exploring how much is tolerable and suggested. There are only 23 people that have been on this combo drug study and only eight of them have Hodgkin Lymphoma. I’ve kept diligent track of the symptoms I’ve experienced in hopes that it’ll help them better asses this drug tolerance and efficacy.
The meeting with the doc was very lighthearted. Both my mom and Craig came with me and we had a lot of laughs with the medical team and they gave me the thumbs up to continue treatment back home and get my blood cell levels checked locally with Dr. Dailey at Hartford Hospital. I felt much more at ease meeting with them and hearing that I’m tolerating the drugs well. I tend to be very hard on myself and outside assurance that I’m doing okay is very helpful to me.
To make the travels back home to Connecticut even sweeter, we scored a ride with the nonprofit organization Corporate Angels Network. The charity sets up cancer patients and their caregivers with rides on corporate jets that have open seats on a given trip. We lucked out in that one was going from Houston to Jersey City. They even set us up with a Lincoln Town Car driver from Teteboro Airport right to our door in Tariffville. These were both donated services. The travel effort and financial burden it relieved were instrumental. The experience of traveling in sweet, comfortable rides with incredibly generous corporate execs wasn’t so bad either. They were kind and fun and so, so accommodating. We felt like royalty.
When we arrived home, we were met with balloon clusters and vases of bright flowers in every room of our house. There was a big, adorable “Welcome Home Craig and Karin” banner spread across our dining room table and our refrigerator was filled with all of the essentials. Our neighbors and their kids had been busy. Their incredible thoughtfulness brought huge smiles to our faces. Our smiles continued when our friend Melissa delivered Sammy back to us and we had a good cuddling/petting/tail wagging session. Then all three of us crashed into a sound sleep in our respective couch positions.
I haven’t been doing much besides sleeping since. I slept for 12 hours the night we got back, was up for a few, then back to bed until Craig got home from work. Thursday night was particularly rough. I woke up in the middle of the night with an intense headache. The pain was so bad that I stumbled out of bed and vomited my brains out. I hate, hate vomiting. This is only the third time I’ve thrown up in two years of treatment. I was barely even conscious and can’t believe that I made it to the toilet. Craig woke up to the noise and found me hugging the thing with my face down on the bowl.
I got back into bed with a cold compress on my head just in time for the 4 a.m. live coverage of The Royal Wedding, so at least that was a plus. The nausea and headaches persisted into the next day. As difficult as it was for me to do, I e-mailed my trial nurse to tell her what was happening and ask for a break over the weekend. I can tell without even checking that my counts are low as my energy level is so shot. She wrote back: “Absolutely.”
Basically, the ball is in my camp with this clinical trial and I need to listen to my body and speak up when things get to be too much. I know my body intimately and my medical team wants the best for me. We all want to give the drugs the greatest chance to work, but also don’t want to kill myself in the process. I’m hoping that on Monday I’ll be able to get back on the treatment regimen. Right now though, my body is telling me–in no shy terms–that it needs a break from the toxins and the travel and requires a ton of sleep. I am listening.
Some Houston Pix: