“Three percent’s nothing. Do it,” says my friend, Julie. Two to 3 percent of people who undergo the chemotherapy prescribed by my oncologist get permanent neuropathy,
nerve damage in the hands and feet. “Three percent’s nothing.”
Easy for you to be so cavalier, I fume to myself. You don’t have cancer.
“Three percent’s not a big risk. Have the chemo,” echoes a woman in my cancer survivors’ group. I try to picture 3 percent. A hundred people is, perhaps, a full house in a small movie theater, a theater in a multiplex. Three people: that’s half of a half of a row. I could be one of them, rising painfully from my seat after the movie and limping out of the theater on nerve-damaged feet.
Someone on NPR talks about blowfish, the Japanese delicacy that, if not cooked just right, kills you. A small percent of people who risk eating this treat are poisoned and die—say, 1 percent. I want to yell at the people who tell me 3 percent’s nothing: “Would you eat blowfish?”
To others the choice is obvious. But the chemo my oncologist recommends, CVP-Retuxan, could cause permanent neuropathy, and neuropathy might mean I couldn’t dance anymore, and then would I want to live? I need dance—belly dance—like I need drinking water.
The oncologist offers an alternative chemotherapy called fludurabine. Percent of people who get neuropathy from this drug: zero; neuropathy isn’t one of its side effects. But bone marrow loss is, and that damage could make future treatments impossible if the disease returns. Doctors tell me that my kind of cancer is chronic, that it typically recurs in six to 10 years after remission. So if I’m given fludurabine now, I live the next approximately a decade knowing it may be my last.
I lie awake at night. I cannot say yes to either option. (You call these options?) I consider letting the cancer kill me. The problem with this choice is what happens before I die: I’d get sicker and sicker. The tumors would grow, possibly causing lung failure or a stroke. Not great for dancing.
I pray for guidance. I discuss my dilemma with doctors, practitioners, and friends. I’m leaning toward CVP-Retuxan, and, just in case I decide to do it, I make an appointment to begin treatment.
Appointment day arrives, and I still don’t know if I can go through with it. But on the drive to the hospital, I air my last doubts with my friend and loving adviser, Sharon, and decide yes. I feel no relief to have made a decision. I say a silent prayer: “God, I haven’t felt your presence lately, and I miss you. I’ve made the best decision I could but I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing. So please bless this choice, or please block the chemo from happening. Oh, and if You don’t mind, could You please give me a sign?”
At the hospital, a nurse takes my vitals, inserts an IV tube in my wrist. I say a blessing. Chemo starts. I lie in bed, gazing out the plate-glass window at a tree-covered hill. Sharon sits close by, working on her laptop.
As CVP-Retuxan drips into my veins, a woman pokes her head in the door, introducing herself as a practitioner of guided imagery. The hospital offers sessions to patients; am I interested? I am. I close my eyes, and she leads me through peaceful scenes.
“What does health look like?” she asks at one point, and I picture myself dancing jubilantly at a party in my living room, which is decorated with balloons of every color. I am spinning like a dervish. My friends surround me, everyone dancing . . .
Just moments after the sessions ends, I hear Sharon exclaim. “Look!” she says, pointing out the window. I turn, and see a double rainbow. Sharon rushes out to get my nurse.
“Call me crazy,” the nurse says, “but I believe in signs. You’re going to get well.”
Four days later I get neuropathy—the tingling and numbness in my feet and hands that I’ve been dreading. But the oncologist lowers the chemo dosage, and I continue treatments. My tumors go away. A few months after treatment ends, so does the neuropathy.
I’m practicing spinning.
Chaya Malika is a 43-year-old Oaklander dancing her way through her second bout of B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She writes for her mental health and has mastered the art of editing in waiting rooms. She aspires to master the art of shimmying.
Click here to go back to the main feature page.