Let’s Go Birding, chemo style

September, 2015

Should I laugh? Should I cry? I didn’t know which. The true experience of mixed emotion slaps me right in the face, hard.

“Do you want to go birding?” my wonderful husband Chris asks. It used to be a simple “yes!” and we grabbed our gear, made sure Kitty was set and took off. Since I’m back in chemotherapy, it’s a different story.

As of this writing, I am a 10 1/2 year survivor of stage IV ovarian cancer. We are a month into a clinical trial with a new drug (trametinib) and I am having all kinds of side effects that we are trying to control while still maintaining a sense of normalcy in our lives. For us, birding is a normalcy. So…let’s go birding, chemo style.

After saying “yes!”, I start getting ready. Make sure I take all my drugs on time and in the right order. Shower with tepid water as no hot water is allowed and blot dry. We don’t want to irritate the rash and blisters any more. The rash is like a really bad case of the zits. Brush my teeth but not too hard to irritate my gums. Apply anti biotic topical cream on the rash on my face, neck chest and upper back, then face cream, then healing cream then sun screen.  And most of all, be sure and brush your teeth before applying creams or you have to do it all again. Then lotion on the rest of the body as the trial drug dries out all of my skin. I don’t have a small body…

I’m tired out by this time so have to stop and take a rest. I sit down and Chris lovingly covers my big toe blisters on both feet with triple antibiotic ointment and gauze so they don’t become infected.  

After resting a bit, I start again. My hiking shoes won’t fit because of the edema in both legs so flip flops it is. They don’t do so well in the blackberry bushes but I’ll be careful. Good thing we covered the toe blisters.  Chris helps me and we carefully put on a rash guard long sleeved top so as not to wipe off all the lotions or you have to reapply them, and a floppy hat to protect the rash on my head, face, neck, shoulders, chest and upper back.

Sun screen is the worst for your optics as it eats away at the rubber.  I have to apply sun screen to all uncovered skin…which means my hands as well, especially since I have blisters on them too.  So..I have to be very careful and TRY and not get any sunscreen on my optics!!!!  Yeah, right. Maybe my spendy Leica’s will last as long as I do.

Both hands in the “U” area between my index fingers and thumbs are covered in blisters so…I double the sunscreen on them, all the time wondering…how the heck am I going to carry my mono pod with my camera on it, which is hard for me to do in the first place let alone carry it without getting any sunscreen on everything!!  I must look into some kind of UV protective gloves.

After an hour and a half of getting lathered in creams and lotions and getting dressed, we get my bag, water, fanny pack, camera, mono pod, binoculars, hat, iPHONE and pink bean (for calling the birds)…and we are ready to go! So much for the early birds!

We chose to do the clinical trial in Santa Cruz, CA out of several hundred locations in the U.S. as it was geographically favorable to us than any other. When driving back and forth from the RV Park to my doctor appointments in town, we had seen a sump that looks like it had a lot of bird activity. The sump is located on a produce farm and is fenced and gated. We pull into the outlet where the farm sells their produce along with fresh baked pies (yum) to ask for permission to bird the sump. The owner is gracious and allows us to do so.

We park at the highest end of the sump. I ask Chris to back in so I can sit in the Jeep if I get tired and still be able to photograph and use my “bins”. The bank is steep and only enough room for me to stand outside the Jeep on either side.

Chris grabs his gear and takes off to the far side of the sump. We are hoping to get a photo of the Virginia Rail today. I peer down into the tule bushes that surround the open water.  There are several Mallards and coots and I see a Black Phoebe hawking insects over the water.  Other than that, it’s pretty quiet.  

We had shot Sora the day before, until my hands got so frozen from the cold north wind I couldn’t move my fingers any more and Chris took me home. With no protection, the wind howls through this open red and green terrain of strawberry fields and it’s cold, even in September. Of course, we’ve also noticed that I am constantly cold since I’ve began my fifth go at chemotherapy.

I see Chris down at the other end of the swamp.  Looks like he’s just shooting away.  Lucky guy’s probably in a flock of Virginia Rail’s.  He’ll be back with the award winning photo of one before I snap my first photo since it takes me ½ hour to get everything set up without getting any sunscreen on anything and keep everything from blowing away, sync the bluetooth between my pink bean and my iPHONE and get the call going….ahhhh…finally…now, all I need to do is get that “just right” photo.

I get out of the JEEP, strap on my binoculars and fanny pack over my heavy fleece jacket and add my floppy hat. I get my mono pod adjusted to the right height, camera settings adjusted, lens fully extended to 400mm, AF, and focus on the tule bushes where I figure the Rails are hiding.

My binoculars that I’m reluctant to touch are now dangling from my chest, my floppy hat is fastened down securely, my pink bean audio device is dangling from my fanny pack mid waist and synced with my iPHONE. I open up my trusty birding app, select “Virginia Rail”, tap “sounds” and start calling for the Virginia Rail, ready for action.    

And then it hits me. All of a sudden, out of nowhere..the BIG “D”. Another side effect of the chemo. I won’t describe what happened then altho I contemplated long and hard about it as oh boy, was it a scene. The passing traffic probably had a few laughs over it. Twenty minutes later and several Wet Ones, I get back in the car and waited for my wonderful Chris. An hour later, he came rambling back to the JEEP, no Virginia Rail but he had a big smile on his face.

Should I laugh? Should I cry? I choose to keep laughing and keep looking for the Virginia Rail.

Virginia Rail

Virginia Rail

Just another birding adventure from Birds We See. Happy birding from Chris and Debbie.

1/21/2016  I am doing much better controlling my chemotherapy and we are happy to report my condition remains “stable”.  Eleven years ago on January 14, 2005, they gave me 5 months to live.  Hang in there fellow survivors!

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One Response to Let’s Go Birding, chemo style

  1. mom says:

    Debbie, I don’t cry very often, but when I think of you and all you are going through, and reading this letter really brought on the tears———-I love you, Sweetheart, and I love Chris for taking such good care of you !!!!!!!!!!! Your loving Mom

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