Wednesday, November 25, 2009

It's now up to you, Erbitux

Thirty-three sessions of radiation therapy couldn't blast cancer out of my body, and chemotherapy didn't work, either. So now it's up to a drug called Erbitux (Cetuximab) to succeed where all of the other treatments have failed.

Another episode of spontaneous bleeding delayed my departure from home Wednesday morning. By the time I got the flow of blood under control and dumped another sealed bag of bloody gauze and bandages in the Dumpster behind my apartment, I was a half hour behind schedule.

I made it to Kaiser's Oncology Department on time for my scheduled appointment, but not early enough to claim one of the select private or semi-private rooms in the oncology ward. By the time I checked in and had my vitals taken, all of the rooms had been filled and patients were being assigned to individual chairs in the high-traffic open area around the nurses' station.

I plopped myself down in chair No. 5 —all 131 pounds of me— opened the newspapers and waited for the day's adventure to begin.

Before long a nurse named Gilbert —wearing scrubs that were inside-out— came along to get the action under way. Gilbert started an IV on my left arm and began feeding me Benadryl before beginning the cancer drug du jour.

Today's dose of Erbitux was expected to take about two hours to deliver, and I hoped to spend as much of that time as possible asleep. The chair I had been assigned to, however, had seen better days: the only way I could recline was by leaning all of the way back and propping up the footrest with my kneecaps.

Around that time I realized that a woman sitting opposite my station had initiated a staring contest. Every time I looked up, her eyes were riveted on me. I held the newspaper over my face to get her to stop but each time I peered over the top of the page she was still staring at me. I shut my eyes and hoped the Benadryl would lure me to sleep but even then she didn't get the clue that I had no interest in a stare down; whether I liked it or not, I was her guy.

In desperation to make her stop staring, I got up, unplugged the IV stand from the wall and walked to the rest room.

While checking the bandages on my face, I was struck by something that had escaped my notice before today: Either Kaiser has installed fun-house mirrors in the johns in the oncology ward, or my head is getting rounder. I may have begun my cancer odyssey bearing a resemblance to Ben Stiller, but I've definitely moved on. Draw three circles on my forehead and you got yourself a bowling ball.

When I resettled into my chair, the woman who had been staring at me was now getting an IV of her own started. She left me alone for the rest of the visit, but I memorized her features in case I spot her in the ward when I return next Wednesday.

By noon, the Erbitux bag was empty, so Gilbert in the backwards scrubs came around to remove the IV and hand me my schedule of treatments. Barring intolerable side effects, I have eight more Erbitux sessions scheduled between now and the end of January.

Too bad it's too late to arrange to hop a red-eye to New York City. With my head swollen as it is now I bet I could I slip into tomorrow's Thanksgiving Day Parade as —good grief!— a Charlie Brown balloon.

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