While the total experience of chemotherapy – nausea, fatigue, hair loss – was rough, the actual days spent getting the infusions at the cancer center were not so bad. In a way, they were even pleasant.
I’m not saying I would choose to spend my summer vacation in an infusion center. However, under the circumstances of my illness, infusion days were positive experiences for me.
At RCINJ Hamilton, the small satellite center of Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey where I had my first months of treatment, the infusion center is a surprisingly bright, warm place. Most of the reclining chairs in which patients sit for treatment face floor-to-ceiling windows, which look out onto a garden. Little touches, like a shelf of books for pleasure reading, make the space a little more homey than your typical hospital environment. There’s always a basket of handmade blankets and hats, and patients are invited to take one.
The nurses are kind, and do their best to make the difficult ordeal of cancer treatment as comfortable as it can be. Their most important job is to make sure you get the right amount of the right medication, and to watch for any immediate side effects or allergic reactions, but they also offer warm blankets, pillows, cold drinks, and a bag lunch. They are busy, but not too busy to check on patients and ask “Do you need anything?” You can ask them about your symptoms and side effects, and sometimes they think of things the doctors have overlooked that can help you feel better. A friend of mine who is a nurse and a cancer survivor says chemo nurses are the nicest nurses around, and I believe her.
An odd but helpful assortment of caregivers pass through the infusion center: volunteer reiki practitioners, therapy dogs and their handlers. On infusion days I also usually saw the research nurse, the social worker, and the nutritionist. Dr. Saraiya works in the same building, so sometimes he would stop over between patients to say hello.
Sometimes my partner or a friend came along, and we would sit and talk. I had some of my best visits with people I loved on chemo days. I usually brought some good books and my laptop. The cancer center has Wi-Fi, so I could do a little work or catch up on email. The chemo stations have televisions, but I never used them.
One note: The combination of drugs I received during my first round of chemotherapy – carboplatin, Taxol, and Avastin – made for a long day. The infusions started in the morning and went until late afternoon. Whatever your doctor tells you about how long an infusion will take, either add a couple of hours or ask a nurse. The doctor is thinking about how many minutes it takes to administer the full dose of each drug, and he or she is probably right about that. A nurse, however, will also think about the time it takes to get registered and settled, flush the port, give you fluids, administer supplemental medications to minimize the possibility of reactions, and get the right medications from the hospital pharmacy. This will give you a much more accurate sense of how long you’ll be at the infusion center.
Yes, chemotherapy as a whole was exhausting and uncomfortable. On infusion days, though, it wasn’t bad at all to sit back and let nice people take care of me.