The Nausea of Cancer

04/02/2013 03:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2013

So one morning I was flipping through the channels trying to find a weather forecast, when I stopped on a video of a little girl who was obviously battling cancer. In the video, she was having a good day, which is something to absolutely suck the marrow out of when you get it.

But then my attention quickly turned to the anchor. She was commenting on this video, and the condescension in the air could choke a mule. I seriously did not understand where her attitude was coming from.

And then it became clear: the story was about a mom who is giving her daughter marijuana oil to battle the ravages of nausea. And this anchor thought she'd inject herself into the debate when she said, and I'm paraphrasing, "Giving pot to a child... I just don't see this as good parenting. She's going to get addicted. She's going to eat lots of trans-fatty foods! She's going to lose brain cells later in life! The side effects could be horrendous! She'll end up turning tricks for beer money at the Gas 'n Sip!"

Okay, I made a couple of those up, but you get the point.

It's hard to actually convey just how horrendous nausea can get. With my own experience, I didn't have a lick of it after my first three days of chemo. The docs said that most of that was because of the anti-nausea drugs. I just thought it was because I was willing myself not to be sick.

And then came day four. On day four, you feel like death warmed over... lethargic, aching, and your stomach feels so "twitchy" that you feel any move you make will result in vomiting up your own toenails. Your only recourse, so you think, is to throw up. So hopefully you make it to the toilet, drop to your knees, hold on to the seat, and vomit up everything in your belly, which at 7am is equal to about a half-shot of water and bile.

For those of you that have ever vomited like this, again, usually after a bender, you know that the taste alone makes you wretch, making you gag and try to throw up even more, but you have nothing to give. And now your already twitchy belly goes into muscle spasms so fierce that you curl up like a cartoon magnet. You breathe hard, first through your nose, and eventually through your mouth, because you simply can't get enough air through your nostrils.

Finally after a couple of minutes, your muscles relax, and you move from your knees to your bum, sitting against the wall, praying that you never have to go through that again.

"God, if you get me out of this..."

But here's the really ugly secret. After you have thrown up, you don't feel any better... at all. In fact, you feel worse, because once you realize that throwing up doesn't help, you start to fear it. The experience is so brutal that you will do anything you can to keep from throwing up. You move slower. You avoid food, partially because you know you won't keep it down, partially because nothing sounds tasty to actually eat. For nutrition, you start drinking things like Ensure, Gatorade, and Pedialyte, because God help you if you dehydrate. And all of this happens on day one of nausea.

What I didn't realize is that I would have to survive another six days, another 144 hours, of this hell. And this was just after my first round of five straight days of chemo. I would go through three more rounds of five straight days, with every round of nausea getting worse and worse. Chemo drugs are cumulative. The side effects are cumulative.

And eventually, the nausea drugs stop working. Ativan is the first one to give. After that stopped working, they kicked me on to Zofran. When Zofran failed miserably, they bumped me up to Zyprexa, which, by the way, is used to treat bi-polar and schizophrenia when taken in higher doses. And it, too, eventually stopped working.

Which takes us to the final drug available for this: Marinol. When my doctor told me that he was prescribing me medicinal marijuana, I really didn't know what to expect. I thought maybe I'd take the bottle home, pop the cap, and see maybe six or seven "J's" rolled up with instructions to "Toke one every four to six hours for fast, effective relief." Much to my surprise, I opened up the bottle and saw a bunch of little brown pills. My wife explained to me that they take the edge off, without giving you the high that comes from regular marijuana. My wake 'n bake friends simply asked, "Dude, what's the point?"

But holy crapjack did it work! It actually brought my nausea back to Round 1 levels, which in relative terms, was a remarkable achievement. It was just enough to get me through my last week of purgatory, and I'm forever grateful for it.

Which brings me back to the video of the little girl. If I've learned one thing at all about going through cancer, it's that you do what works. Period. When you battle nausea, or any other crippling side effect, all bets are off. If the only things you crave are bananas because they're the only thing in nature that tastes exactly the same way coming back up as they did going down, then you only eat bananas. If you have to reverse your schedule because you seem to feel better in the evening than the morning, then you reverse your schedule. And if Marinol or marijuana oil is the only thing on God's green earth that keeps you from wanting to physically crawl up and die, then you by all means take it.

For the mom of this little girl, I applaud you for doing what you can to make your daughter's life tolerable. I hope we would all have the courage to do the same.