The following is a commentary from Morning Edition, Sept. 6, 2006:
It's a lot like being trapped on a roller coaster. A really good one with lots of twists and turns and huge drops — the kind that make your stomach turn over. "It," in this case, is life with cancer. And the chemo makes your stomach turn over, too, but that's a different issue.
In some ways, the life of a cancer patient becomes predictable. You learn the rhythm of the chemo. The first day, five hours hooked up to a machine pumping poison into your arm — that's the start of the cycle. The third day, that's the first big drop on this ride. That's when the side effects hit hard. The nausea in the morning that you just have to fight through. The fatigue and so on.
And then it gets better over the next couple of days. The second week is easier, and the week off? That's a little bit of heaven.
But then every once in a while, they change the ride. New drops, new twists, new fears. That's the ride I went on a few weeks ago. We thought everything was going fine. I was down to just one drug, with fewer side effects, and we thought that would hold the tumors in place. But it didn't work. In just a short time, the cancer grew and new scans showed a new danger: a tumor on my spine. That's one of those drops that makes your stomach turn over.
So I'm back on the original chemo with something added: a new drug that shows some real promise — it might actually shrink the tumors. We won't know for a while, not until I take it for a couple of cycles and we do new scans.
As much as the twists and turns of this ride affect you physically, the ups and downs play havoc with your emotions, too. You look for hope where you can find it. You brace yourself for bad news. But when it comes, it still hits harder than you were prepared for.
When you can, you smile and reassure everyone in your life that the ride isn't too bad. Other times you can only admit that that last drop really got to you.
After a while, you forget what it was like to not be on the ride — that life on solid ground is over, at least for now. Your ticket is for a truly wild ride, and there's really no way to get off.
And no one else, as much as they want to, as much as they may need to, no one else can really ride along with you. They can watch; they can be supportive. But when you're up there on top of the ride, looking down on that huge drop in front of you, you're the only one in the car.