Anemia is a Bitch
For the record: Yes. Cancer is way worse.
But the thing about anemia is that it can make it impossible to function. The tumor in my abdomen hurts like a mother on a pretty regular basis, but I can deal. The back and hip pain it can cause? Manageable.
Feeling the blood rush from your upper body upon standing and subsequently feeling extremely weak and having a throbbing in your head after walking across the room? Becoming physically exhausted to the point of needing to lie flat after attempting to curl my hair? That's a bitch.
What exactly is anemia? It's a lack of red blood cells/hemoglobin in the body. Since red blood cells deliver oxygen to the body, if you don't have enough, your muscles don't get enough oxygen. You can feel generally fatigued or even notice your individual muscles feeling weak or over exerted despite minor activity.
Anemia is incredibly common, especially among women of childbearing age and children, and there can be a lot of causes. Sometimes they body isn't getting enough iron or B vitamins. Sometimes a disease or infection (sickle cell anemia or malaria, for example) can cause the problem. Trauma or blood loss is the third primary cause, and the one I have experience with.
The main reason women are impacted by anemia more than men is that we bleed regularly. No car accident or injury required. I've had minor anemia in this form for awhile. It can make you feel tired and like yoga was way harder than usual. I've been turned away from donating blood because my hemoglobin was a half point low. Most issues like that can be resolved by eating a steak or taking an iron supplement. No big deal.
When you bleed WAY more than you're supposed to, though...well that's when it becomes debilitating.
Assuming you all read the TMI saga about my hemorrhaging blood because of this stupid tumor, you can see how that happening several times a week can start to wear on a person. It started out that I was missing a little work for fear of spontaneous bleeding and causing a hazmat situation at work. Working in a call center with a tight schedule and unpredictable call lengths isn't really conducive to running to a bathroom if I think I feel a blood gush coming on. I felt okay, though. A little more crampy than usual, and less energetic, but I could function okay.
Gradually, though, I started getting lightheaded. It was harder for me to perform simple tasks. Most people, even anemic people, don't need a rest break after operating a curling iron. Getting dressed was a challenge. I wasn't confident in being able to drive. At that point, I checked in with my nurse practitioner and started with some iron supplements.
One night, I felt like I was going to pass out after a particularly large amount of blood loss and went to the ER. That's when I found out if you aren't close enough to passing out, they give you a bag of saline, charge you $4k and send you packing. Waste. Of. Time.
So....back to sitting at home. I've been asked why I haven't been able to work. I mean, it's just a desk job, right? Well, aside from the aforementioned bathroom emergencies, the people at work seem to appreciate when I wear clothes. Occasionally, we are required to walk. Like, into the building, to meeting rooms, etc. Given that putting on clothes, washing my face and brushing my teeth (not even counting makeup or hair) can take an hour and require many rest breaks, it's not likely that my driving would've been up to par, and walking across a 100 degree parking lot and up a flight of stairs, then across a large building probably would have actually made me pass out. Maybe I could make it work with careful planning, but if there was a fire drill or something, I'd be screwed.
Anyway, I told the story of my send ER visit, complete with vibrating leg warmers. Sadly, that wasn't the last of it. Those 2 units for me from a 5.5/12 to a 9/12, then back to 8/12 for my hemoglobin levels. I felt pretty good for a few days, but there was more blood and more fatigue and dizziness. It's bad when you can actually gauge where your hemoglobin is. "Am I bad enough for the ER? Nope. Drink a protein shake and wait."
I mentioned how fatigued I was last week when meeting my radiation oncologist, so we checked my red blood cell and hemoglobin count again. Not a PR, but 6.1 will get you a transfusion. Since chemo and radiation can impact your blood cells, I got 3 units this time. I had about 3 or 4 days of feeling great before the symptoms came back this time. If I had to guess, I'd say I'm around a 9 right now.
The easiest way for me to tell when it's getting bad, or at least for others to see it is pale skin. I know. How could you ever tell on me? The lips. My lips are normally pinkish. When they're nearly white, it's not good.
For me, an okay day means I can go microwave some food and feed the cat and pour a glass of milk without having to rest in between. When it's close to transfusion time, I walk to the kitchen, grab the counter if I moved too fast and the blood is rushing from my head. I'll grab food, put it in the microwave, feel my head throbbing and my heart racing, then hurry back to the couch for a break. Food sits in the microwave for a few minutes until I'm ready to try again. Sometimes it takes a couple rest breaks. A bowl of oatmeal took me 15 minutes once.
Maybe I should break and talk a little about blood transfusions. So, it's pretty straightforward. You lay down in a bed, the nurse starts an IV, they connect a bag of blood they've carefully matched to your blood type and brought in from a blood bank, and the blood gets into your veins. One thing to note: blood is damn cold. They refrigerate it. It is perishable, after all. And clearly, microwaving it would be bad. So you have cold blood going into your warm body. You'd think the blood would warm up, right? I'm convinced it brings your body temperature down to refrigeration levels. The heated blankets at the hospital were no match for my cold toes. There's nothing painful about it, in my experience. They monitor your heart and oxygen levels to make sure it's not being pushed in too fast and to ensure you're not reacting poorly to the blood. I'm young and my heart is healthy enough they were able to get the blood pumped in at about one unit every hour. Most times, they take it slower to alleviate stress on the heart, especially since people are usually admitted to the hospital and they have time. My second transfusion was kind of a quick drive by. Fortunately, no adverse reactions to the blood.
My only issue has been the tape on the IV. That stuff is ITCHY. That and the first hospital stay, I may have bent my arm with the IV in it while sleeping and busted the IV...so they had to use a nifty machine to hunt for another vein in my forearm. I have invisible veins. Even the machine could hardly find one. That one hurt. I'm a trooper, and it wasn't excruciating, but there's a reason they go for the elbows first.
So at home I sit. I take my iron, multivitamin, and eat a lot of meat and spinach. Once I start treatment next week(!!!!), the tumor should start to shrink, and the bitch won't make me bleed. There's still a chance I'll need more blood, but hopefully we're looking at the light at the and of this bloody, dizzy tunnel.
Commence with the vampire jokes.