We have had a doozy of a winter here in New York. As anyone who has been watching the news knows, New York has had a flurry of snowstorms (ha), which have led to snow days and a melange of cold and flu viruses for our family. But let’s back up. Back in February, I had my monthly appointment with Dr. G, at the Cancer Center. I had been feeling lousy the prior week, after my son had come down with some sniffles and a slight cough, but I rallied sufficiently for the appointment. The major issue at that appointment had been the skin rash I had developed over the month of January, which was red, itchy, and getting progressively worse. Out of concern that this rash was a reaction to the Ibrance, Dr. G wanted me to see the onco-dermatologist that day. The dermatologist thought that my rash was likely a result of skin sensitivity and dryness from the Ibrance, not a reaction to the drug itself, and sent me on my merry way with a couple of prescription creams.
Later that week I hosted a small get-together for Valentine’s Day for a few friends. As the morning progressed, I began to feel worse and worse, and eventually took my temperature: 100.8, which necessitated an immediate trip to urgent care for a chest X-ray, bloodwork, and a flu swab. Unfortunately, the urgent care clinic didn’t have a rapid flu test, so I was sent home with Tamiflu, just in case. My symptoms were getting increasingly worse, and I was fairly sure I was getting a sinus infection: my face throbbed, and my teeth were so painful and sensitive I was convinced they were going to fall out of my mouth. I was in parts congested and constantly blowing my nose, and my chest felt like I was being held underwater. However, the urgent care clinic dismissed these symptoms, still convinced it was the flu.
By the time I got home, I tried to reach my oncologist to discuss the urgent care visit with her, but she couldn’t make any calls without the bloodwork results. I called the urgent care center back, but they said the bloodwork wouldn’t be back until the next morning, and to just start the Tamiflu. By the time I tried to relay this back to my oncologist, the office was closed, and I was redirected to the on-call oncology fellow, who agreed that I should take Tamiflu until we had the flu swab and bloodwork results. I took my Tamiflu dosage and went to bed, feeling discouraged, sick, and stressed. This was my first illness post-diagnosis, and I had nightmares of myself slowly succumbing to a sinus infection that couldn’t be stopped, raging rampant throughout my body.
As most of us do, I tend to become slightly melodramatic when sick, but breast cancer plus a cold (and what I continued to insist was also a sinus/chest infection) magnified the drama of malaise to new levels. I felt so anxious about what was happening in my body, and felt so ignorant to the newness of it all. Was this the new normal with cancer and a cold, or was the sinus headache a symptom of brain metastases? Was my cough and chest tightness a sign of infection, or a mass in my lungs? I felt so lost in the sea of worry and illness, and so confused at the mixed messages I was receiving from my body. Finally, the next day, the urgent care clinic called back with my bloodwork and flu swab results: my white blood count was low, but still in normal range, and my flu swab was negative. I spoke to my oncologist again with this information, and she agreed it was likely a sinus infection. She called in an antibiotic and within a few days, I was feeling mostly better, despite a lingering post-nasal drip which caused a nasty-sounding cough that hung on for two more weeks.
I should note that at this point, I had been getting bloodwork done every two weeks since I started Ibrance in January. This serves several purposes, but primarily provides a snapshot to the doctors indicating the strength of my immune system. At this point, my bloodwork has continued to look good. My body has tolerated Ibrance at it’s highest therapeutic dose, with minimal side effects – the only major side effects I have had are occasional GI issues, hair thinning, and mouth sensitivity, particularly with spicy foods.
By this point, my cough finally started to go away, and I was weaning off of my nighttime cough suppressant/post-nasal drip/sleep medication combination in favor of my usual sleep medication cocktail. It’s a good thing I was feeling better, because within a week, we were walloped with back-to-back nor’easters, which knocked out the power in most of our area for a number of days. Fortunately, our power stayed on, but Felix missed two days of school due to the snow, ice, and residual issues from the storms. By the second storm, we all had a bad case of cabin fever. Unfortunately, Felix also developed an actual fever, and fell very sick by the end of the second snow day. For the next few days, he barely ate or drank, and was spiking the highest fever I had ever seen on him. After reassurance from the pediatrician that it was just a really terrible virus, but not the flu (his swab also came back negative), his fever finally broke, but not after several days of fitful sleep, as he was too uncomfortable to soothe himself, and wanted to be held whenever possible. I had never seen him so sick, and we were looking forward to a family trip, first to Arizona, and then Texas, the following week.
Unfortunately, the consecutive days of little sleep, coupled with my weaker than normal immune system left me vulnerable to Felix’s awful virus. By March 12th, only a few days before our trip, I came down with the same cold. After almost a week, I thought I was turning the corner, but woke up the morning of my birthday, March 19th, with the telltale sinus pressure I had just gotten over a few weeks prior. After a game of medical round-robin, I finally was able to talk to my oncologist, who called in a stronger antibiotic and took me off Ibrance for the next 7 days to let my body heal and process all of the various medications I was taking. At this point, I had developed a large cold sore on my mouth as well. I could feel my body just tapping out, and I spent nearly all of my time in Arizona sleeping and trying to heal. It is only now, almost seven weeks after my initial cold symptoms, that I am finally starting to feel like myself again, and slowly regaining some energy.
In the midst of my illness upon illness, I stumbled upon April Doyle’s article, Crying Uncle, via The Underbelly (a fantastic breast cancer publication). I found myself nodding along with her overwhelming fear, and dread that this is the beginning of the end. This flu season has been tough on everyone, but the last couple of months challenged my resolve, and dictated a new normal for my family with regards to illness. No longer do we have the luxury to just power through it, but all of us have to shift into high alert. Do I have a fever? What are my symptoms? Should we call the doctor? What if? What if? What if….
Soon, we hope to have one more data point regarding my treatment. Yesterday, I had my first PET scan since starting Ibrance. This scan will indicate whether my cancer is progressing, or whether I am stable. If I am stable, I remain on my current line of treatment. If I show progression, then we will find a plan B. I am cautiously optimistic, but anxious nonetheless. My recent illnesses frightened me. I have seen how easily my body can be weakened, even if I feel reasonably good in all other respects. At every monthly appointment, Dr. G has indicated that she thinks my breast tumor feels smaller and possibly less dense. In addition, all of the bone pain I was experiencing several months ago has essentially gone away. When I started treatment, I was relying on heavy painkillers to get through the day, because my bone metastases were so cripplingly painful. Now I take nothing.
So now, we wait, and hope – hope that the seemingly endless sick days and snow days are behind us, and that spring, the season of new life, is around the corner.