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Monday, May 16, 2011

The vulnerability of cancer -- what happens when your body fails you

I know I haven't been writing on a regular basis in this blog. The semester really kicked my ass, energy wise. And then realizing that I was dealing with low-grade depression also left me for a loop (thank goodness for a great psychotherapist--I can't say enough positive things about Dr. Phyllis Hicks!). And of course the end of semester is always just a busy time--meeting with students, grading papers, tying up loose ends.

But perhaps I also haven't been writing because I've been taking a break from thinking about cancer or thinking about my cancer in particular. And I realize that I've been a bit allergic to thinking about myself as a cancer survivor or someone with cancer. It's not, exactly, that I want to pass as a healthy person (and by writing that, I don't mean to suggest that I'm not healthy right now, but as someone only a year past diagnosis and less than a year past chemo and surgery, I'm not exactly sure that "healthy" is what comes to mind when I think about my body) or to deny the experience that I had this past year with chemo and surgery--and the uncertainty that any cancer diagnosis brings. But I think I wanted to think of myself as "normal" again--or at least as not a cancer patient anymore.

Yet two weeks ago I was thrust in the belly of the beast so to speak--because I flew to Milwaukee to see a favorite aunt of mine (I'll call her "T" to protect her privacy and that of my uncle "B"). Aunt T was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia last February. My original plan was to fly out to see her over the summer, but then 2 months later I received my own cancer diagnosis, so 2 weeks ago was the soonest I could fly out to spend any substantive time with her. Unfortunately that time was spent in the Bone Marrow Transplant ward, where she returned to after her successful haploidentical transplant (in her case a stem cell transplant from 2 different sources) due to infections she had developed, which also led to her malnutrition issues, which then led to edema (swelling). I had originally planned to visit her and to help with her homecare post-transplant surgery, but instead I found myself visiting her every day for the week that I was there, observing proper protocol for someone who is in an isolation room--meaning, I scrubbed my hands thoroughly and put on a paper gown before entering her room, and I scrubbed my hands thoroughly after I left.

[Note: these procedures were more to protect other bone marrow transplant patients from catching one of the infections that she developed rather than protecting her from anything I was bringing in, although I'm sure that must have helped]

The good news (because I should cut to the good news) is that my aunt is improving and the even better news is that the transplant seems to be working--her body is producing white and red blood cells--remission may well be part of her future.

But good news aside, it is sobering to visit anyone in a bone marrow transplant unit, regardless of the prognosis. It was a chance for me to see, very up close and personal, what happens to us when our bodies fail us--particularly when we receive a cancer diagnosis so extreme that it requires what seems to me to be a radical procedure--to erase one's immune system and source of blood and replace it with someone else's (or multiple someone else's in my aunt's case). Any transplant has risks and dangers involved--a bone marrow transplant is no different, and, indeed, is in many ways more risky, I think, because of the concern of the cancer coming back despite the pain and agony (physical but especially emotional and psychological) of the transplant.

I was worried before leaving for Milwaukee that I would feel freaked out--that seeing my aunt in the hospital and visiting her, particularly, in the BMT ward, would hit too close to home--would make me feel my own vulnerability regarding a cancer diagnosis too keenly. I was worried that I might freeze up around her--that I would be awkward and werid--would not know the right thing to say or do. I suppose in many ways I felt the way that others feel when confronted with a loved one who is sick or has cancer. I suppose in many ways I felt the way that many healthy people hearing about my breast cancer diagnosis felt--that they didn't know what to say or do and worried they might say the wrong thing.

And while the first two days were hard for me, emotionally, I quickly recognized that as hard as it might have been to see my aunt in her current state, it was much harder to BE my aunt. And being with her for a week was illuminating to me about how much she wants to live--how much she wants to fight her disease (her motto is "kicking butt" with respect to her cancer--perhaps we are both angry Asian American women when it comes to this disease). It was illuminating, to me, to see my aunt in her condition because I realized that at some point, this might be me or it might be someone else I love. And what I mean by that is, in spending time with my aunt in the BMT ward, I recognized the fragility and vulnerability of the human body.

I know I've written about this before, but my cancer diagnosis has had me thinking more and more about my own mortality and about what the end of my life will be like. It is uncertain--all of our lives are uncertain in that respect--but I feel after this recent experience with my aunt that I have a greater appreciation for what happens when our bodies start to fail us, regardless of the reason why and regardless of whether it's temporary (which I hope it is in my aunt's case) or permanent (as it will be eventually for all of us).