Sunday, December 9, 2012

Heart Beats

I went into labor with Teddy on my due date -- February 11, 2008 -- which was totally my Type-A style. It was the middle of the night and I wasn't exactly sure that it was labor at first, but it felt painful and it felt like he was on his way. Brian timed the contractions and we waited at home for them to get closer. When, that afternoon (after watching Hairspray), the contractions got close enough, we headed into Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to meet Teddy.

Like me, Teddy kind of stinks at life transitions and his transition out of the womb wasn't a graceful one. Eventually my doctors gave me pitocin to encourage the lad along. But that drug knocked down Teddy's heart rate and it became clear that the doctors were going to have to go in after him. A nurse stuck a two-pronged little plug into his head so that they could closely monitor his heart while they prepared for an emergency C-section. For a few minutes, Brian and I waited alone in the dark labor and delivery room and listened to Teddy's heart beat. Lying there listening to the pauses between beats, I remember thinking it was the scariest thing I'd ever been through. I wanted nothing more than his little heart to keep beating. But I didn't want to hear it. It was too fragile and far, far, too important.

*  *  *

I'm not much of a cuddler and neither is Teddy. When he's sitting on the sofa and I sit next to him, he'll move over if, by chance, we get close enough that we're touching. I used to take it personally but I don't anymore. He likes his personal space, as do I, so I give him a joking little pinch when he rejects me and I don't think much more about it. 

Annabel isn't totally cuddly either, but she'll give me a good snuggle every now and then. Early this morning she and I sat on the couch while she drank her bottle, and she let me snuggle close to her. A few minutes later, I got greedy and boosted her onto my lap, which was awesome, despite that it still isn't comfortable for her to lean back on my chest. While she and I sat there in front of the Christmas tree, I put my hand over her chest and felt her quick little heart beat. She sat quietly chugging away on her milk and Miralax, but I didn't let my hand linger on her heart for long. Again, far too important. 

*  *  * 

My friend, Kristin, recently finished her 16-week chemotherapy regimen. I've written this before, but again, Kristin has totally amazed me with her strength through the grueling chemo process. Through it all, she has taught full-time kindergarten while she and her husband, Corey, have raised two kids under three years old. I often feel triumphant when I shower, so you can imagine how much I think of her daily feats.

About a month ago, Kristin learned that she had developed heart trouble as a result of one of her chemo drugs. The chances of congestive heart failure as a side effect of Adriamycin are pretty small, and for no known reason, Kristin found herself on the bad side of the unfortunate statistic. When I heard about Kristin's heart, my stomach sank and I felt the room spin around me. Hadn't this woman been through enough? I never even told her, but I couldn't stop thinking about her.

My chemo regimen does not include Adriamycin, and my drug, Taxotere, while it can induce the type of allergic reaction I experienced, does not have the same heart risks as Adriamycin, at least as far as I know. Both of our treatment plans, however, include Herceptin which can be, for a relatively small number of people, toxic to the heart. Now that she's done with her chemo, Kristin needs her heart to be strong enough to tolerate the Herceptin for a year. If it isn't, her doctors will consider stopping the Herceptin infusions. No one should ever feel like they have to decide between congestive heart failure and cancer and while I know that Kristin will be just fine, I hate that she needs to face any of the fear involved in this crappy situation.

As I've written about before, I found my tumor because of Kristin, and so perhaps naturally, I see her path as somewhat of a preview of my own. I know that Kristin hasn't been feeling well and that she's felt tired and short of breath. It makes me so mad that she would have to feel those things while she's just trying to carry her baby girl up the stairs. And I think her experience, coupled with the feeling of anaphylactic shock that I can't seem to shake from my memory, have been the root of my recent anxiety about my own heart function. 

This morning the kids played hockey in the basement while I exercised for the first time in weeks. The Neulasta shot from a few days ago made my whole body very achy, but I didn't care -- I was set on breaking a sweat due to something besides a fever or a hot flash. So while Teddy puck-handled in his Christmas pajamas and Annabel cleaned the ice on her zamboni (i.e., her little pink car), I jumped on and off the elliptical for 30 minutes, digging tennis balls out from underneath storage shelves when they disappeared and I heard an, "Uh-Oh."

When my heart rate got going just a few minutes in, I got scared. I worried about Herceptin and hives and the devil's heat. But as Teddy sang along to my usual playlist (of course, Annabel danced), I kept my cool and my workout remained uneventful. I got winded, but not in a way that felt wrong. As my legs spun around, I imagined the valves in my heart pumping blood through my body. I thought about cancer cells dying. And I kept an eye out for slap shots coming at my head.

Long before cancer, I heard lots of statistics about women and heart disease. I never worried about it because figured that with exercise and generally good health, I could avoid falling on certain sides of those statistics. But now a healthy heart feels like something I should never have taken for granted. It feels like something that's not so much in my control. And I hate that. Because I really love control.

I think that's partly why for years I've told Brian that I hate hearing his heart beat when I give him a hug or fall asleep next to him. Just like I hated listening to Teddy's heart beat right before he was born and just like I didn't want to feel Annabel's heart beat this morning. It's really scary for me to touch something upon which my entire happiness relies. It's not fun to realize I have no control over that most precious thing.

Those frightening and disconcerting thoughts lead me straight back to hope and faith and modern medicine. They lead me back to problem solvers, like the Dr. Murrays of the world, who somehow discovered how to take the heart of one person and put it in the body of another. It sucks to think that one problem could lead to another, and I hate that anyone, especially Kristin, has to deal with serious side effects of drugs that should only be her allies. But I truly believe that problems have solutions. And I have the utmost faith that we will find those solutions should we need to.

On Halloween, my heart decided that it really hated my chemo drug. Kristin's heart isn't too pleased with her's, either. I know I could think up a cute little metaphor about how the figurative size of our hearts will overcome all that, but that just feels really cheesy. Instead, I'll just say that chemo drugs don't screw around. They are our allies, despite that they can cause some serious collateral damage. I can only hope that the future brings with it drugs that cause fewer and fewer damaging side effects. In the meantime, I'll be thankful for the drugs we do have. Because in the end, those drugs will kill cancer and we will overcome all of the B.S. that they happened to bring along with them. 

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