Sickbed Stories

Do I Feel Sorry For Myself by Joanna Leary

Posted on: February 12, 2011


PART I: How did I know I had cancer?

I found a lump on my neck in May of 1996. When it swelled to the size of a softball on a Sunday morning I went to the emergency room, only to be told by a tired, busy, resident that it was ” just an infected lymph node, very common, probably I had a cold or something.” He prescribed Amoxicillin which I refused. The swelling was very painful and it and the doctors attitude left me feeling very upset, but it got better within a week, and I determined to put it out of my mind. The lump never completely disappeared and I noticed several times it would swell slightly but didn’t think about it till September of 1996 when my skin began to itch fiercely. When my kids began to comment on my constant scratching, “lets call her itchy…hee! hee!”, and I had bleeding areas on my arms from scratching, I went to the doctor. He gave me Hismanal and had me out the door in under 5 minutes. At the time that was fine, it was just a case of allergies, right? However, the Hismanal didn’t help at all even though I really wanted it to.

After an excruciating winter of itching I began to feel something was seriously wrong with me. Mainly, the itching was driving me mad. It was driving my husband mad, too.

In March my husband was called in for jury duty and sequestered for 2 weeks. During this time I began to have very serious symptoms coughing, shortness of breath, vomiting and a general feeling of danger and doom. However, I thought my husband was the one in danger, not me. I began to feel rather childish about clinging to my husband and crying when he left. I had never been this way before.

I also began to lose interest in the things I had enjoyed before and spent my afternoons sleeping very deeply, in spite of 10 plus hours of sleep. I couldn’t sing a hymn in church or take a short walk with out puffing and coughing. Nightly I began to dream of dying and would wake up feeling discouraged and depressed. My family and my home began to show the neglect in spite of spurts of activity. So, in April of 1997 I took my husband for reinforcement and went back to our family doctor. I complained loudly about his previous treatment of me and he suggested doing an ultrasound to look at my gall bladder. He also prescribed Claritin which didn’t help my itching or my budget ( it’s $80.00 a month!). On the follow up visit I learned the ultrasound was normal and my doctor suggested that the itching was probably due to my “moods” and ” how was my marriage?” I emphatically said it WAS NOT my moods, because I woke up at night itching when I wasn’t aware of having any moods. His final advice was to see a dermatologist which turned out to be his best advice. I found out about a dermatologist in Ottumwa, Iowa through my husband’s secretary and was able to get an appointment in 30 days.

Several times I thought of canceling the dermatologist appointment. I had found some skin cream (Vanicream) and some oil (Robathol) that helped, a specialist would cost too much, he wouldn’t be able to help, I was too tired. When the time came I did keep the appointment and was surprised when the doctor sat down and listened and began to take notes as I told him of all my symptoms. I guess I felt he would just be interested in the itching, but he began to ask questions about my other problems, such as coughing, vomiting, and weight loss. To my surprise he had me put on a gown then did a complete physical. He then told me that he thought we were dealing with some type of lymphoma, probably Hodgkin’s Disease. After sending me for chest x-rays and blood work he referred me to the surgeon for a biopsy. Since I couldn’t see the surgeon that day due to other obligations, I made an appointment to come back the next day when I got a bad report from him on the chest x-ray (I had a tumor 10 cm in diameter pressing on my heart) and the blood work. I knew the doctor was serious when he spent 15 minutes visiting with me when his waiting room was full and later had me sit down in the nurses’ break room before I left. It was from there I phoned my husband and he came over from the college where he teaches. I had surgery to biopsy the lump in my neck. By that afternoon, the surgeon confirmed that the lump looked malignant and I was scheduled with the Oncologist the next business day which was Monday.

PART II: Chemotherapy
W R I T T E N 1 9 9 7

After meeting with the oncologist and having a bone marrow biopsy, I started staging. Staging consisted of two CT scans, a gallium scan which took four days, a pulmonary function test, and a heart function scan.

Before I was completely finished with the gallium scan my doctor made the decision to start chemo, since I had a large tumor (10cm) pressing on my heart. She put me in stage IIIA and decided to do 6 cycles, or 12 sessions of ABVD chemo. I started on May 5, 1997. I had chemo intravenously for 2 times then on July 2 I had surgery to have a Hickman Catheter.

I would really recommend the Hickman, or a Porta-cath, to any one having chemo. I had such a problem with my right arm aching and the tendon in my right shoulder flaring up after chemo, I had to have the Hickman. It does however, need to be flushed daily and the dressing changed at least twice a week. Since I am allergic to the op-site plastic covering, I have to bathe, not shower. This was fine when I didn’t have hair, but tricky now. Also, it does hurt if I do any violent arm movements.

I finished with chemotherapy two days before Thanksgiving, not quite long enough to be able to actually taste the turkey. Yes, I did have some rather major nausea toward the end of chemo. Since I had a Hickman catheter I attribute most of the sickness to blood drawing and flushing the Hickman cath too fast.

PART III: Radiation Therapy
W R I T T E N 1 9 9 7

Less than a week after Thanksgiving I began appointments to get me ready for radiation therapy. I have had a very hard time with the whole idea of radiation. I found it very frightening and when I feel frightened I get angry. At my worst I turn into a blithering idiot.

I’m done with radiation now. I have enough hair to go without a hat and not freeze, but my hair is not normal. I think it looks like poodle hair. I still get tired out easily. I told my 6 year old that I thought I had the magic school bus is in my esophagus, by which I mean I had a large lump and it is painful to swallow. I’ve lost all the weight I gained during chemo mostly from just eating slowly and taking small bites. You really do fill up faster when you eat more slowly.

God is good! I am through with treatment and found out Thursday, 5 February that the cancer is gone. Now comes the adjustment to life as a healthy person, and a non-patient. Not as easy as you might think! I still have to have surgery to have the Hickman Cath removed, lab work and doctors appointment every month for the next year. Then yearly appointments to the oncologist and dermatologist.

There is also the very real fear of getting another form of cancer, because of the chemo or radiation, which is a carcinogen. Back to normal life? I doubt it! But, God has brought me safe thus far and will bring me through to the end.

PART IV: Remission!
W R I T T E N 1 9 9 8

On January 20, 1998 I underwent my last radiation treatment. I had been told I would require 25 sessions, but the Radiation Oncologist decided that everything looked well and 21 sessions were enough I had started coughing and feeling short of breath during the last couple of chemo sessions and this had gotten a lot worse during radiation. I think that and the fact that I was steadily losing weight and that I was having a hard time emotionally with radiation influenced his decision to quit at 3,000 curies. The coughing and shortness of breath really concerned me as they were symptoms of the cancer to begin with. I found out that it is a common side effect of Bleomyocin. I saw a pulmonologist who gave me an inhaler and explained that my lungs were bruised from chemo that was aggravated by radiation which included my chest. He said they would probably recover in time and that it didn’t really seem too bad. This turned out to be true. I stopped coughing in about a month after finishing radiation. Within a few minutes and with no fanfare, I was through with cancer treatment. Two weeks after finishing radiation I had to go through the same procedures as in staging to make sure the cancer was in remission. This included a CAT scan, a gallium scan which took 5 days and a pulmonary function test. Everything looked great and I got the good news-REMISSION!

PART IV: 17 Reasons I Don’t Feel Sorry for Myself
W R I T T E N 1 9 9 8

  1. No, after being around hospitals and oncologists office I have met many people much sicker than I am. Some have had cancer recur for the second or third time.
  2. I have three healthy children. Some Hodgkin’s patients can’t have children even after treatment.
  3. I have cancer NOT my children.
  4. My children are not at higher risk for cancer or Hodgkin’s.
  5. Thirty years ago I would have been given only a few months to live, now I have an 80% chance of complete recovery.
  6. I have a husband who loves me, supports me, helps me, and tells me I still look good. (He said that even when I didn’t have hair.)
  7. I have had an invaluable chance to stop and reflect on life and what I was doing with mine, to reevaluate and make changes which I hope will be lasting.
  8. I have discovered that small things which used to irritate me about people no longer matter.
  9. People, especially Christian brothers and sisters are even more precious to me.
  10. God has a plan. This was my first thought on hearing that I have cancer.
  11. This is not an accident. God knows what he is doing.
  12. God will use these trials in my life for His perfect will. Romans 8:28 ” …God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose.”
  13. God loves Me, Jo Ann Ready, and doesn’t do mean things to His children or punish them out of spite.
  14. My children are learning a valuable lesson about life and helping others that they couldn’t learn as well any other way.
  15. I have a loving church family who have spent hours and days helping me cooking, cleaning my house, watching my kids, cheering me up, driving me places, shopping for me and many, many other things.
  16. I have neighbors who care and go out of their way to call and see how I am, bring me gifts, and offer to help. One neighbor has taken my daughter to and from school every day this year and refuses any pay.
  17. Our 4-H club has given me so many cards, gifts and even money, that I’d have to make another page just to list them all.

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