Coping With Cancer: Medicine 101

By Margaret Nyman

October 27, 2009

Left brain, right brain, I never remember which side does what. One thing I do know, however, is that I’m not a numbers person. I’d rather write a 50-page paper than add a long column of figures, even if I had a calculator. That’s why keeping track of Nate’s pill bottles and medicine doses is almost more than I can handle. The 8½” X 11″ grid hospice gave me today to write everything down was intended to help but has only screamed, “You can’t!” from its place on the kitchen counter.

The hospice doctor and the head nurse of our team spent 90 minutes with us today, examining Nate and talking over his current pains and frustrations. Nurse Gina volunteered to stay an extra half hour to tutor me on the meds. My slow responses to her drug instructions must have triggered anxiety in her as she feared for her patient. She and I lined up all the containers, which included meds we used to use, meds we are currently using and meds we will use in the future. The minute she began referring to the drugs by their real names, I got lost.

Excusing myself to get a thin-tipped indelible marker I said, “You can tell me what and when, and I’ll translate it for myself on the label.”

She chuckled like I was kidding but bravely started in: “Ondansetron is for nausea,” she said, “and he can have up to three pills, eight hours apart, over 24 hours.” I wrote on the container, “Nausea, 1 at a time, up to 3.”

She continued: “ABHR is a gel you rub on his wrists if the ondansetron isn’t working, and he can have it twice in 24 hours.” So I wrote “Break-through nausea, wrist, twice.”

We handled each vial, packet and tube, she reading the technicalities on the labels and me making them idiot-proof with my marker. I felt much better when we were done, especially after we’d labeled the four morphines with their differences, none of which we are yet using. Just reading the word “morphine” on so many pill bottles made me shaky over the great unknown of Nate’s and my medical future together. Nevertheless, we completed our task.

My little pharmacy looks a lot like the leftovers shelf in our refrigerator with the meds grouped in Ziploc Bags. In addition to pills for pain, anxiety, sleep, mood, nausea, constipation and swelling, we have a gel for bone pain and another for dry mouth. There are also special mouthwashes, lip balms, skin creams and (gulp) suppositories.

As the nurse was leaving, she filled my cupped hands with a pile of bright green, rubber gloves. “You’ll need to wear these when you administer the gels,” she said, “or you’ll be medicating yourself when you apply them on Nate.” Some of those medications were starting to sound pretty good. She must have sensed that, because as she left, she gave me a strong hug, and it worked even better than the gels might have.

Tonight my sister Mary, a nurse, came over and pulled me out of my medical quicksand. Sitting on a kitchen stool, she recorded each drug name and its prescribed dose on the paper grid, using nurse-lingo like “M” for midnight and “N” for noon. Just watching her pen fly over the little squares was comforting. She completed the job accurately and thoroughly, relishing the process.

God’s tender loving care is in the details. Through the medical perplexities of this day, he made sure all my questions were answered, and he put my mind at ease (both brain sides). He also showed me (again) that if I have to walk through a maze, he’ll keep me from making wrong turns. Whatever the needs, he’s always got them covered.

Guest contributor Margaret Nyman chronicles the 42 days after her husband Nate, a patient at Rush University Medical Center, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Read more posts by visiting the Coping With Cancer section or subscribing to the RSS feed. Her personal blog is at

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