Former Gawker fellow Robert Kessler was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of cancer, in December. He'll be writing dispatches about his experience of the disease and its treatments for Gawker on his personal Kinja page, Cancer? I Hardly Knew Her.
Cancer is, among many other things, an exercise in accepting chaos.
Of course it's a lot of other things, but since my diagnosis in early December, nearly everything I thought I knew about my illness has changed. Stage II became stage IV. Follicular lymphoma became diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. One prescribed chemotherapy regimen became another.
As I type these very words, I am on the sixth day of a planned five-day stay in the hospital.
In some ways, the uncertainty has been the hardest part of having cancer so far. Nothing is really certain, and doctors, careful not to give you false hope or create undue alarm, tread lightly around you: There's a 40 percent chance of X. It seems unlikely that Y. In a world without promises, when something is a certainty, you cling to it. It's this that made the past week in the hospital so difficult.
I checked into the hospital last week for my very first chemotherapy treatment, an aggressive cocktail of drugs called, without any irony whatsoever, EPOCH. The first treatment is done inpatient, due to concerns about some pretty serious side effects from the drugs, but overall the process seemed simple: Go lie in a bed for a couple days while nurses pump you full of drugs designed to shrink tumors. What I wasn't anticipating is how things could veer so wildly off course.
Shortly into my stay at the hospital, doctors discovered that I was bleeding internally. While it was probably due to one of the tumors in my intestinal wall breaking down, there was no way to know for sure, and my doctors opted to take action. This meant inserting an IV line into my left arm (in addition to the permanent PICC line I now have in my right arm), and starting another medication intended to lower the acid levels in my stomach. When that didn't work, I had to receive two blood transfusions and was put on a clear-liquids-only diet. (A later endoscopy was inconclusive, but it looks like the bleeding has stopped for now.)
Throughout, my concern remained the same: Will I have to stop chemo? Fortunately, I did not. I was able to complete my first course.
The logical mind reels during cancer treatment. Here is a world where cause and effect have no value. What caused my cancer? What effect will it have on my body? These questions have no answers. To be honest, there is no real value in asking. At this point, the only thing that matters is getting well.
I don't really know what is coming now. My hair could begin to fall out soon. I feel well right now, but that all could change at a moment's notice. The chemo has left me with a severely compromised immune system and even a slight fever could put me in the ICU. The outside world becomes a real bitch now, especially in the city of subway coughers and grimy handrails. There are other side effects that I could face: nausea, chills, cramping, mouth sores, bleeding, constipation, anemia, fatigue and changes to my appetite. I may feel all or none of these during what is called the "nadir period," which is 5-7 days following the end of each chemo treatment. But for now I'm thankful to be feeling as well as I am, and I'm learning to embrace cancer's chaos theory.