»  Taki's Magazine

March 8th, 2012

  Life at Half Speed

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I'll admit it, I was apprehensive about the chemo. Some decades ago a female relative of mine — not long married, infant daughter — was diagnosed with cancer and subjected to the treatments of the time, both radiology and chemotherapy. The results were appalling. She lost her hair; her face and body shape changed horribly; she became immobile. The little infant daughter couldn't understand what was happening to her Mommy, and no-one could explain to her. When the poor woman died at last, everyone in the family murmured "Thank God!" to each other, usually followed by something like, "If I get what she had, please please someone put a pillow over my face."

These things are much better calibrated now. I doubt anyone's ever going to enjoy chemo, but it's a long way from the horror show of that childhood memory. What happens is, you go to a room about twenty feet square with barcaloungers set around the sides. Next to each barcalounger is an IV stand on wheels. You sit in one of the barcaloungers and roll up a sleeve. A nurse pierces a vein in your arm and fixes a grommet in it, with a tube up to the IV bag. Then you sit there for anything from two to six hours — bring a good book — while every so often the nurse comes over to change bags.

I had supposed I'd emerge from the place feeling awful. In fact one of those IV bags had some kind of steroid in it, I forget why. The effect was, I emerged looking for a fight. I ran the twenty miles home down the expressway, pushing aside cars and trucks that tried to pass me. Arrived home, I punched my way through the house wall, and there would have been a Duke of Marlborough moment there but unfortunately my lady was not home.

Alas, the good stuff soon wore off, and then some. The base state for a chemotherapy patient, at least for this one, is listless apathy. Everything seems to move at half speed. Tasks I could accomplish in a couple of hours now take all morning. This isn't particularly unpleasant, just income-diminishing for a freelancer on piece-work.

There is also the phenomenon of "chemo brain." It strikes different people different ways. The way it strikes me is, that nothing's interesting any more. Part of my editorial duties is trawling through news sources looking for interesting items. With chemo brain, there aren't any. Nothing's interesting. My kids aren't interesting. My neighbors aren't interesting. The movie we rented from Netflix isn't interesting. My opera CDs aren't interesting …

Excuse me, I have to go lie down for a spell.

That's better. The other annoyance (if it was interesting enough to get annoyed about) is that I have to be obsessive-compulsive about hygiene. Chemo kills bad cells — cells that are multiplying out of control. As well-calibrated as it is nowadays, though, it kills a lot of good cells too — in my case, white blood cells, the first line of defense against infection. I'm wide open. I wash my hands every fifteen minutes. I wear surgical masks to ride planes, trains, subways.

It all goes against the grain. I have no interest in health, never have had. The health magazines scattered around the chemo room are even less interesting than the occasional Time or Newsweek. The videos about health shown on the widescreen TV up on the wall are snoozers. I couldn't care less about any of it. I feel about my body the way St. Francis of Assisi felt about his when, on his deathbed, he apologized to it, calling it "poor donkey." It's just a vehicle for getting around in.

Apparently, however, health is one of those things that cares about you, whether or not you care about it.

Excuse me again, I have to go wash my hands.