My Personal Journey through Head and Neck Cancer – Getting Ready for Treatment

Getting Ready for Cancer Treatment

Due to surgical scheduling availability and other factors, I could not start treatment for my cancer until January 2, but then things would move very rapidly. I would have preferred to begin immediately for peace of mind, safety, and to get things over with, but I was assured that this would not affect my care in any way, and things really had been progressing very rapidly.

As it turned out, the three weeks from diagnosis to treatment were very useful. I had been told to expect to have limited activity for about three months once my treatment started, two months of radiation and chemotherapy, and another month for recovery. So I had some time, but not a lot of time, to prepare.

At this stage I was more fearful of the treatment than I was of the disease. I felt sure the cancer would be cured—pretty sure. I had the best doctors, personal support of family and friends, and a good outlook. But I was the one who had to go through the treatment, and it scared me. Would I be vomiting for months? Would I be able to eat? Would I need a feeding tube? Was I healthy enough to withstand the fight my body was about to undergo? Would other problems crop up, related to, for instance, my blood pressure or heart? Would my airway be cut off so I couldn’t breathe?

I’ve always been a worrier, so I visited my internist to discuss my general health, ability to withstand the planned procedures, to be sure my blood pressure was under control, and to see if I needed medication for anxiety. My internist was reassuring. My blood pressure was going to go up and down during treatment, and would be dealt with if needed at the time. There was no point in trying to guess ahead. My health was otherwise fine. I normally like to push through on my own strength, but she encouraged me to take a low-dose anxiety medication if I felt I needed it. The anxiety was affecting my appetite, and it was important to keep my strength up. There would be enough opportunities ahead to tough it out, so I should not deprive myself of medications that would make my life better. This was all temporary, after all.

I went home with a prescription for Lorazepam, 0.5 mg. I was to cut the tablet in half unless I needed the full strength. When I filled the prescription, I was looking at a tiny tablet only 1/8 inch in diameter. “How am I supposed to cut something so tiny?” I asked Chris. “You’ll find a way,” he said. The pill was scored, and when I carefully lined it up in the pill-cutter, I got one piece that was half-size, and crumbs. I wet my finger, picked up and swallowed the crumbs, storing the single piece for the next time.

The pills did take the edge off, and I was able to focus on other matters. After a couple of days, I found I did not need them, but was glad to know they were there in case difficulties cropped up later.

I made a decision early on not to do too much research on line about my disease and treatment. I trusted my doctors and family members to answer my questions and tell me what I needed to know. I didn’t want to confuse myself or panic by discovering issues of needless concern and obsessing about them. But I did investigate some techniques other cancer patients had used to deal with their cancers to prepare myself mentally.

There are a lot of support groups out there, but few are specific to my kind of cancer. There are a lot of very worthy and helpful groups available in the Chicago area, and although I’m sure they are valuable to many cancer patients, I’m a very private, I’d-rather-do-it-myself sort of person. None of the groups were convenient to where I live. I would keep this as an option, but not jump right in, since it would require a major time commitment I felt I needed elsewhere, at least at the start. Maybe later.

I gave meditation some study. I went through some exercises on YouTube, and found they helped relax me. I learned to focus on my breathing and set my Apple watch to prompt me to take moments throughout the day to relax and breathe deeply. I learned to sit quietly and focus on a particular part of my body, like the bottom of my feet or my fingertips. The moments were relaxing and helpful, and didn’t take much time or effort. I trained myself so that, in likely stressful times, I would be ready to use the techniques.

I believe in exercise, but find myself making excuses. I thought I would feel better overall if I did even a small amount of exercise regularly, so I started to walk an indoor track for 20-30 minutes each day.

I am a lifelong Catholic, but I view my religion as a personal and private matter, so you don’t find me bringing it up very often. But of course a diagnosis of cancer is likely to generate either anger or devotion. For me, it goes against my nature to blame God. It is human nature (and Catholic guilt!) to at least question whether or not one has done anything that brought this disease about, but I quickly put these questions out of my mind and turned to active participation in the healing process. It was going to involve prayer. I slipped my rosary beneath my pillow each night, so that I could pray if I was unable to sleep, or, if I slept well, before getting up in the morning. I sought out the patron saint of cancer, Saint Peregrine, printed his prayer, and I read it before bed each night. There are other times prayer is important to me, and I will tell you about that later.

Some friends have recommended alternative medicine or non-traditional procedures that may be helpful along with traditional medical care. I looked at a few of them and decided they were not for me. After working for thirty-seven years in the medical field, fortunately always with the best medical care providers, I am convinced that traditional medicine, although not a perfect science, is the safest route, especially for something as life-changing as cancer.

My mind prepared, I then turned to practical matters.

Christmas was coming up, I was not ready for that, and I was in the midst of many projects that would need to be delayed or cancelled. I had almost three weeks to get it all done.

I’ve always been a “do-er.”I started on those things I knew had to get done before I began treatment. Only three weeks to accomplish everything, including some matters I had been postponing for too long because I didn’t think I had time for them. I sorted the important matters from those that could wait, and searched my mind for things that would come up while I was being treated. Things that could be done at a future time were stacked, and unimportant matters were pitched.

In my life as a writer, speaking engagements consume a large part of my time, and I was going to have to disappoint people who were looking forward to hearing and meeting me. Not only would my schedule be full of appointments and care requirements at home, but my energy level, appearance, and ability to handle pain were going to play a part. I contacted everyone involved, explaining that due to health reasons I would need to either reschedule or cancel. I was fortunate that every person chose to reschedule instead of cancel, and all were very understanding and expressed concern.

I do a number of administrative tasks for a community chorus. I had to organize and look through all pending matters, see that I had paper trails, back up data to a thumb drive, and communicate any needed information to others that might need it at a time I could not get it for them.

I am responsible for the archives at the Lemont Area Historical Society, and I had to sort pending matters, leave instructions, and meet with people who would need to carry on the work of the archives during my absence. My coworkers are excellent, but it still took three sessions to get this set up.

I had to anticipate what personal and financial matters would come up during my “break,” and one of these was income tax preparation. So I spent the better part of three days balancing bank and investment accounts that had been accumulating and setting aside materials that would be needed for tax preparation, as well as catching up on any financial matters I had been ignoring.

With all of that out of the way, I turned my attention to Christmas. John and Clare, my son and daughter-in-law, offered to cook Christmas dinner, and my other son Bob, daughter-in-law Dolly, and two-year-old granddaughter Mia, who lived in Indiana, were going to stay with me for a few days over the holidays. But I had not yet done any shopping, since my focus since before Thanksgiving had been on medical care.

At this point, I was leaving the house very seldom. This was partly due to everything I was doing at home in preparation, but also because I didn’t want to expose myself to catching something by being around others. I probably obsessed about this more than necessary, but I had a real fear of catching an infection or, horrors, the flu. I happen to be allergic to flu shots and had to take my chances. Shopping would have to be limited this year, but I was determined to make up for it with thoughtfulness, and hope I accomplished that.

The holiday turned out great. I had plenty of time to spend with my family. The gifts I received were mostly comfort items selected to make my treatment period more comfortable: soft pajamas and wraps, pillows (made by my grandson, Aidan), a large purse to carry everything needed for daily treatments, and the like. Clare and John outdid themselves with dinner, and the day was relaxed and memorable. Bob and Dolly were on hand to field any questions I had about my upcoming treatment. I felt ready to tackle whatever was to come.

The last thing was to be sure there was enough of the right kind of foods in the house. Due primarily to nerves, I was already experiencing loss of appetite and had lost five pounds. I had to be sure I had foods that were appetizing and provided the right nutrition for me, while being sure Chris, my husband, had enough of the foods he liked available.

I am neither bragging nor complaining about all this preparation. What I am doing is advocating that patients starting a cancer regimen take time to think carefully about what must be done before treatment and what can be delayed until after treatment. Some forethought can help to avoid things that could crop up at the worst possible time, that is, during the most difficult part of treatment. This is, of course, different for everyone. Perhaps knowing the things I chose as important will help to set personal priorities.

I had a visit with my ENT the day after Christmas, for preoperative exam, discussion, and hearing test. Chemotherapy sometimes causes hearing loss and ringing in the ears. Although it is not common with the agent I would be on (Cetuximab) a baseline hearing exam was recommended and done. My hearing test was not perfect, but pretty good all in all.

I had a few days left to relax with Chris before treatment began.

Next week: Cancer Treatment Begins

About Pat Camalliere

Pat is a writer of historical mysteries. She lives in Lemont, Illinois.
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One Response to My Personal Journey through Head and Neck Cancer – Getting Ready for Treatment

  1. I am keeping you in my thoughts. I admire your consideration to set things in order with clients, associates, and family. I sense your inner strength and believe it will serve you well. I also think your recording of this “journey” will be helpful to many readers who one day may face similar circumstances. Best wishes!

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