Chemo and Tuna Cravings

Special to The Times

What can I say about chemotherapy that hasn’t already been written in a million pop songs?

--writer Marjorie Gross


One of the big ironies about my stint with cancer is that I feel fine--great, even--and so my doctors are going to make me really sick in order to cure me.

Though no longer in the primo shape that came with a number of years of dedicated gym-going (I got busy and got a life), I’m still not unfit. And unlike some folks who have a nagging pain or worse that sends them to the doctor and ultimately produces some terrible news, I had nothing other than a couple of dull lumps, which turned out to be malignant.

But these need to be reduced before they’re cut out, and anything else that might be lurking in my bloodstream needs to be zapped. (It takes a billion cancer cells to make a lump you can feel, which means there could be 100 playing in your big toe right now and you wouldn’t know it.)


Consequently, I’m going to get hit with eight rounds of chemotherapy. Its job is to kill off fast-growing cells, which includes cancer, but also hair and stomach lining cells. And while my doctor feels that in between rounds I should be leading life normally, he also admits that as matters go on, I’m going to be just that much more tired and wrung out.

I’m having fairly aggressive chemo, which contradictorily means I only have it once every three weeks--more frequently would kill me. I have been asked, “What kind of chemo are you on?” I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. It’s information overload that hopefully, like the ins and outs of escrow, I can quickly discard from my brain when it is not needed anymore.

Oh, all right, I’ll look it up. Adriamycin and Cytoxan. There. Hope that made a difference.


From the many friends who asked, “What’s it like?” it’s clear that the hows of chemo remain a mystery to the uninitiated, who envision something straight out of Stanley Kubrick.

The reality is, they settle you in a comfy chair (“not the comfy chair,” exclaimed my Monty Python fan husband, quoting the Spanish Inquisition sketch) with your arms on a pillow, and your feet up, BarcaLounger style. You can watch TV, read a magazine or watch your support group (who came with you because you can’t drive yourself home) act out skits. An IV is inserted and a saline drip started. If you are me, a discussion then takes place between the chemo nurse and your nurse practitioner / sister about the various semi-permanent doohickeys that could later be inserted in you, eliminating the need for repeated vein-finding throughout this process. Though sparing your veins is a comforting thought, semi-permanent doohickeys are not.

Once the drip is going nicely, two or three potions are added that are designed to combat nausea and encourage sleepiness--encourage sleepiness except in the 1% of patients who are instead made silly by the drugs. Including lucky me. One of these drugs can also cause burning in two, er, intimate locales. A sharp “Yowsah!” will cause your chemo nurse to inject more slowly and mix with more saline.


After some time for the drugs to take effect (and the silliness to really kick in), two very large syringes are wheeled in, one clear, one supernatural orange. This stuff is so deadly that if it falls on your skin, it can instantly burn you. Who on earth thought it would be a good idea to inject it into your veins?

So this toxic liquid is slowly eased into the IV line. If the line is good, you don’t feel any burning, but because the liquid is refrigerated prior to its application, it soon feels like someone inserted a block of ice under your skin. It’s not that unpleasant--just weird. A tight dry feeling up and down my sternum followed the second injection, so once again the nurse slowed down. My nostrils also dried out but that too quickly went away.

Everything drained, in my case in under an hour, it’s time for another nausea shot--this time in the hip--and home you go, hopefully to slumber land.


My doctor told me to write off the evening of Chemo Day and the day following; from my vast experience of two rounds, I can say that the following week was also somewhat of a wash. Knock wood, I haven’t felt all that bad--the anti-nausea drugs were, as advertised, plenty effective--but I did feel like two jigsaw puzzle pieces that almost, but not quite, fit together. I just didn’t feel right, and my brain occasionally felt slightly scrambled. Sleeping came in waves; sometimes didn’t happen much at all. As the weeks pass in each cycle, I feel more like myself, though I can get terribly tired after an ordinary day by pre-cancer standards, sometimes falling asleep as early as 6:30 p.m.

My hair loss started in earnest a few days after the predicted two-week mark, when the many strands filling my hair brush were joined by large clumps from the top of my scalp. I tried a comb-over, but then decided to stop avoiding the inevitable, and take charge. And so, with my mother-in-law at the controls, we reenacted the head-shaving scene from “G.I. Jane.” Since then, I’ve watched the remaining stubble get thinner and thinner. Interestingly, the bulk of loss so far has taken a Scott-Hamilton-male-pattern-receding-hairline form. People say I look good bald, but I know the truth. I look like an elf. From outer space.

Meanwhile, the big deal is food. Ask anyone--I like food. But when food, if not causing actual nausea, at least makes me feel funny, then I’m willing to skip it entirely. Except now, that also makes me feel funny. I imagined my reaction to be like morning sickness, and my six-months-pregnant friend, Suzanne, confirmed with her almost identical experience.


For about a week after a treatment, I have to eat every 15 minutes (it seems), or else I feel dizzy and queasy. I’ve even taken to leaving something (a banana, a cracker) on the night stand to eat before getting out of bed in the morning. But I also have to find food that neither the ingesting nor the mere thought of causes further queasiness. This means I tend to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what I can eat next. It gets old quickly.

Also in common with Suzanne, my usual culinary gusto has been affected; I’m eating like I did in seventh grade. My childhood obsession with tuna sandwiches has returned, along with similarly unadventurous cravings for hot dogs, and other uncomplicated fare. And while I did go to ObaChine and Patina well along in Cycle 1 (courtesy of good friends who wanted to be nice to me--this used to be a sure-fire method), and enjoyed them both, it wasn’t quite the same.

So now I have a new, double goal: Get cured of cancer and regain the ability to properly enjoy the pumpkin squash soup at Patina.


Next Month: Alternative therapies.