Drip, Drip Goes the Arsenic
Many of us have bucket lists; those little or big goals that we dream about, plan for, and check off as part of a life well lived. My bucket list usually includes travel and photography. However, since being diagnosed with leukemia, I’ve developed what I call a “Bizarre Bucket List”. This list includes doing things I never dreamed of, or planned for, and yet I feel they’re deserving of some sort of recognition. As they happen, I announce to whomever is within earshot, “This is going on my bizarre bucket list!”
“So what’s on this bizarre bucket list,” you might ask?
Well, at the top is:
- Spend hours each day having arsenic dripped into my veins.
Yes, that’s right… arsenic. Bizarre, right? That’s why it made my list.
I’ll share more bizarre bucket list items in the future, but the arsenic thing… well, that deserves its own little mention.
Treatment for the Big “C” and Little Me
On day 12, immediately after my diagnosis of acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), my treatments began: a daily infusion of arsenic, along with ATRA pills (all-trans retinoic acid), a vitamin A derivative. Ask me to take a big dose of vitamin A each day in order to cure my cancer, and I’m high-fiving the doctor. But the idea of injecting arsenic into my body was a scary one. I jumped online for some Sara-down-the-rabbit-hole-research about the treatment protocol. What I learned was that the medical uses of arsenic go back more than 2,000 years. It’s a well-known treatment in traditional Chinese medicine. I’m fortunate that this East meets West story of treatment took place. This fairly new combination of chemo for APL patients is less harsh on the body then standard chemo; I won’t lose all my hair, and the success rates for a full cure have drastically risen because of it.
The Hospital – Thankful but Traumatized
I feel torn about my time in the hospital. I’m incredibly thankful to my doctors, nurses, and the supportive staff for working to save my life in a caring and compassionate way. But I’m also traumatized. I know… that’s a strong word.
Being frightened for my life, I was determined to be a model patient and do whatever was asked of me. But being poked, injected, medicated, and awoken time and time again after just falling asleep wore on my psyche. I missed my own bed and being able to see outside. I felt a deep sense of loneliness. Not because I didn’t have family and friends giving me love and support. I did. But, I was alone in this fight. No one could do it for me and I was scared. The medications caused insomnia, so I spent most nights lying awake, listening to the sounds outside my room and doing battle with my thoughts. My Fitbit fitness tracker said I was averaging a little over 3 hours of sleep a day. This made it much harder to deal with the effects of treatment and my emotions. About three weeks into my stay, one of the patient care techs told my parents that I never complained and was always pleasant. But, I had a hard time hearing this compliment. Inside I was miserable and wanted desperately to go home and rest. And I felt guilty about having negative thoughts.
“I’m surviving!” I had no right to complain.
On day 24, earlier than most APL patients, I was wheeled out of my hospital room and down to the car waiting to drive me home. There were silent tears and a lump in my throat that made it hard to make small talk with the person pushing me. She seemed to understand. As I rode in the car, the afternoon sun colored the Tucson mountains, dotted with majestic saguaro cactus. The peeks rose sharply from the valley, strong and enduring, and it was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.