Leaving Chemo Behind

I notice more changes in Jack every day as the chemo starts leaving his body. Most of these changes are good, and others are not so good but are likely temporary.

I have to say that as much as I want to leave chemo – and the whole experience of cancer – behind us, I can’t help but be reflective. We lived with treatment for more than three years and much of it became routine (albeit unpleasant routine). Suddenly we are in a different routine and even though it’s a normal life routine (mostly), it’s new again and quite a change. And even though we’ve lived with a regular life routine before, it’s new to us because we have been so changed by Jack’s illness.

So please bear with me as I continue to write about living with – and after – cancer. There is still so much to process.

Jack and Dez

Jack and Dez

The first change I noticed in Jack after chemotherapy ended was the increase in his energy level. Less than a week after ending treatment, he woke up on his own and popped out of bed with all of the vigor of his pre-cancer self. Now, he doesn’t jump out of bed ready to face the day every morning, but most mornings he is fairly easy to rouse now. As I posted on Facebook the first day this astonishing thing happened – when you have a young child, you spend a good deal of time wishing they wouldn’t wake up so damned early every day. That wish changes when you have a chronically ill child who sleeps in every day.

So even if he is back to waking up early on weekends, I have a new appreciation for the early rising!

With that said, MY energy level has not increased in alignment with Jack’s! As much as I’m celebrating the return of my kid’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed side, I am also finding myself wishing for quiet and solitude more often. It feels like all of the energy Jack couldn’t muster over the last three years has simply been stored up and waiting…and now it’s a flood.

I’m hoping his energy level will get to be a bit more manageable with time. I am sick of hearing myself tell him to please stop shrieking like a raptor or to not be so wild and IN his brother’s face. Sigh.

Today as I felt a headache coming on, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard Jack complain of a headache in a while. While on chemo, he essentially lived with a headache all the time. He got used to it and only asked for Tylenol when it got particularly bad – that tended to happen 1-3 times a week. When I asked Jack today when the last time was that he had a headache, he couldn’t remember. That’s a good thing!

Jack’s body is getting rid of the chemo in a physically noticeable way, as well. The meds had dried out his skin quite a bit, damaged the nail beds on his two big toes, and interfered with the process of normal skin shedding, creating some discoloration in areas. He also became extra sensitive to the sun, so even limited sun exposure resulted in him being very tan (and looking like a raccoon when he takes off his glasses). Now his skin is reacting to the lack of chemo in his system – his throat has broken out in an itchy rash (mild but still annoying) and it has edged up to his cheeks a bit. His lips have become chapped, as well, and he is even thirstier than he was when on the chemo. Clearly his body is trying to get rid of the junk and work on repairing itself.

That is also clear in the amazing increase to Jack’s appetite! He has eaten like a bird the last three years and since he was diagnosed at 5.5 years old, he has gained only about 8lbs (and didn’t consistency maintain that). He has gotten taller during that time, but no matter how we tried to add in calories in the absence of a decent appetite, he has remained on the disturbingly thin side. 

We don’t really have to worry about adding calories now – we just need to keep the fridge and pantry stocked. Jack eats ALL.THE.TIME. He wakes up starving, he eats everything in his lunch (whereas before we threw away so much of it that he didn’t eat), and he snacks constantly. All his meals are bigger now and he generally clears his plate. And then asks for more. He is kind of a human garbage disposal now!
I’m looking forward to his knees being less knobby even though that means I’m also going to be spending a ton on new clothes.

It’s kind of a strange time. I had expected life to calm down with the end of treatment but it hasn’t quite done so. It’s better, but it will still take time to let go and settle into life post-treatment.

End of Treatment!

Jack’s been off treatment for over a month! I’ve been terribly remiss in posting about it here. We took a few pictures, though. The first is his last day of chemotherapy in the clinic. The second marks the last day of oral chemotherapy altogether!

We’ve already seen a big difference in Jack. He is full of so much energy now! He has a huge (it seems to us, anyway) appetite! He’s waking up on his own a lot in the mornings rather than needing to be dragged out of bed. It’s AWESOME!

His Broviac catheter has been removed from his chest, as well. That is both good and bad. Good because we don’t have to go to the ER for a fever anymore and we don’t have to worry about dressing changes! Bad because it means now Jack needs to get blood draws with a needle from now on…

And he is deathly afraid of needles.

We tried to get labs drawn this week and it was a miserable failure. We are now looking at finding a therapist who specializes in EMDR (a therapy used for PTSD) in kids to deal with the trauma issues he has developed. We need to get this done soon and quickly! We can also try a finger prick approach, but I am not convinced that will work any better than a needle in the arm. Even if it does, he needs more therapy – his fears and nightmares (and NIGHT TERRORS) are still terrible.

So, that’s where we’re at with that. We are celebrating the end of treatment tomorrow by hosting a party in Tilden Park. Jack has come up with some cancer-themed games he wants to play and we’ll eat, drink, and toast to the fact that we survived the last 3+ years!!

Fuck cancer, y’all.

So Many Appointments

Jack has so many appointments. ALL THE TIME. Chemotherapy is only part of cancer treatment – there are a lot of extras that come along with it. Bonuses, if you will. (Ha!)

This is a snapshot of Jack’s January appointments – minus the things I’ve pushed off into next month, like the one that checks that his spinal fluid pressure isn’t damaging his optic nerve or the echocardiogram to measure organ damage from 3 years of chemo. It also doesn’t include the learning and psychological assessments he’s had at school this month.

January 2 – Ultrasound to check for damage to veins from Broviac catheter (looks good! whew!)

January 9 – Therapy

January 12 – Pediatrician due to dizziness, fatigue, headaches, nausea (inconclusive!)

January 15 – Lab draw (to hopefully explain dizziness, fatigue, headaches, nausea)

January 16 – Breathing treatment

January 20 – Lumbar puncture, oncologist exam, chemotherapy infusion

January 21 – Eye exam

January 22 – Dental cleaning (if his platelets and white blood cell counts are high enough)

January 23 – Therapy

January 27 – ADHD Assessment

As you can see, the longest stretch we’ve gone without making a trip to Kaiser was 7 days. BUT! Add on Desmond’s well-child check (January 5) and that stretch disappears.

I think we might spend more time at Kaiser than at home.

Three Years

Jack was diagnosed with Leukemia three years ago.

It’s been three years since I heard, “This is the best kind of cancer to have.”

Jack - first day of Kindergarten, before cancer.

Jack – first day of Kindergarten, before cancer.

Three years of worrying that he could die from a cold or infection or even just a side effect of treatment.

Three years of worrying what damage the same treatment that would cure him would cause. Heart damage? PTSD? Learning disabilities? More cancer?

He’s had 12 or so lumbar punctures in the last three years.
Plus Four surgeries – two Broviac catheters placed and one removed, and the placement of a PICC line.
Three infections – one likely viral, one due to a rare bacteria, one due to a common bacteria.
Four hospitalizations.
Countless toxic drugs, blood draws, dressing changes, line flushes, doctor appointments…

Jack has lived with monthly “Roid Rage,” as well as daily headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, trouble walking, numbness in his extremities, bone pain, skin sensitivity… His appearance has gone through drastic changes thanks to weight gain, weight loss, and hair loss. He’s dealt with acidosis and pseudotumor cerebri for much of the time. His personality has changed – I no longer describe him as carefree.

He has missed so much school in the last three years – half of kindergarten, at least a third each of first and second grade. We’ve had 504 and IEP meetings – and it’s only now, three years into this, that he is getting the proper assessments.

He has developed food aversions to the things we used to try to administer pills. He won’t touch applesauce or peanut butter anymore. He avoids yogurt and nutella.

It’s been over three years since he’s gone swimming. He will do anything to avoid an extra dressing change!

It’s been grueling for all of us. We are beyond tired, beyond shell shocked. We are different than we used to be. Cancer is a part of our life now. When treatment ends, it won’t go away.

Still, we are looking forward to the end of treatment - March 20, 2015. Maybe we will breathe more easily then.

Three years is too long to hold our breath.

Jack, age 8 - Christmas 2014

Jack, age 8 – Christmas 2014

So Many Experts, So Few Explanations

We’ve seen quite a few doctors over the last week to address Jack’s recent paralysis incident and an increase in headaches that don’t want to go away. Two pediatrician visits, one neurology visit, and lots of phone calls have occured. We have one more appointment Friday with the eye doctor just to make sure things are okay.

None of the doctors had answers for us. No one knows what caused the paralysis and the headaches seem to be tension headaches. Everything looks benign and so we will do nothing for now and hope it goes away (and the paralysis incident doesn’t recur). Perhaps being out of school will help.

Jack’s pediatrician has been great during all of this. He is really good at following up on what is going on with Jack even when we don’t reach out to him directly (usually we call the oncology clinic because we tend to assume whatever is happening is probably due to chemo). He took me aside after the appointment yesterday to talk with me privately, away from Jack. He wanted to know how I was doing and let me know that that we could come to him anytime – that he would figure out what is going on so that we don’t have to. He even went so far as to say he’d noticed that the oncology clinic seems to feel that I’m a worry wart since the things I report that are happening seem to differ from what his dad’s household reports. He doesn’t seem to share this opinion with them, and understands that kids are unreliable when reporting illness – and this is especially true with Jack.

To give an example, if I reported to the docs that “Jack was feeling weak” – it would be because Jack told me that he felt like a chicken filled with whipped cream instead of bones. Jack’s dad would usually not think anything of that kind of statement coming from Jack, other than that Jack is a bit goofy and unique in the way he describes himself. If Jack reports that he got a weird shivery feeling (but he doesn’t feel cold) – I would check his temperature (more often than not he’d have a temp, even if it was slight, or it would be an early sign he was coming down with a cold). Jack’s dad would just assume he was chilly.

I don’t know if this occurs because Jack spends more time with me or just that he tells me more about his feelings or maybe I am some kind of master decipherer! But unfortunately the differences in what is reported between households has the oncologist questioning ME instead of his dad. And I guess maybe they prefer to hear that Jack is doing fine on chemo.

This is partly why David is taking Jack to more appointments these days – to show that it’s not just me (and also to spare me the stress of dealing with these jerks). But it seems that a lot of the damage has been done in the oncology office’s eyes, so we just deal.

In any case, the talk with the pediatrician yesterday was both reassuring (that we have SOMEONE who understands what is going on and who will take the lead on monitoring Jack’s care from a holistic perspective) and frustrating. It’s pretty upsetting to feel that I am not being respected by my son’s oncologist, someone I have to rely on to cure and keep my son alive, and it seems the pregnancy hormones have me a bit more sensitive when it comes to feeling judged negatively as a parent. I’m having a hard time shaking it now that I’ve been reminded.

David and I avoided asking Jack how he was feeling this morning and just sent him off to school, fingers crossed that he would last the day. And it seems he has. There are only 7 more days of school left until summer break, so hopefully we can make it through and we will all get a break from the grind.