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Column: Getting back to running

This week, for the first time since I was diagnosed with breast cancer in March, I pulled on my running shoes, put a knit cap over my bald head and hit Kanawha Boulevard.
As you might imagine, my first run in seven months was slow and short. I took a lot of walking breaks.
The next day, my second run was like that, too. My friend and running partner went with me for the second run. Naturally she’s in better shape than I am right now. I felt bad for slowing her down.
We only got a little ways down the Boulevard when my legs started to burn and I said I needed to stop.
“We can slow down,” she said.
Actually we couldn’t slow down by much. We were already crawling thanks to me. We got a little more than two miles in that day.
No matter my speed and distance, it felt so good to finally be out there again. And I’m grateful for a friend who will run with me and cheer me on, even when I slow her down.
I had been meaning to start running again. I’ve been told that staying active will help me get through radiation treatments without many problems. Plus, between the changing colors of the trees and the comfortable temperatures, October is a great time to run.
But I’ve had a lot of excuses not to start running.
My legs have been so sore lately. I think it’s a lingering side effect of chemotherapy.
Even when I haven’t walked or otherwise exercised much, they feel like I’ve run 10 miles. It’s weird because the rest of my body feels fine. My oncologist didn’t seem too concerned about it once he asked me about my symptoms and determined it probably wasn’t a blood clot. A few women in the breast cancer Facebook group said they’d also had leg soreness and that exercise had helped.
My bald head is another thing that was holding me back from running. It’s fairer to say my attitude about my bald head held me back. I’ve been self conscious about it. I wanted to wait to run until I had enough hair to cover my head.
I’m three weeks out of chemo, and while my hair is slow starting to grow, right now I have nothing but peach fuzz to show for it. I wear a wig to work, but i obviously can’t wear one while I’m running.
I thought running while bald might make other people uncomfortable. Overall I’m feeling much better but with a bald head, I still look sick. I still look like a cancer patient.
But for whatever reason that rainy Sunday, I decided to go running. I took the lower level of the Boulevard’s walkway, and wore a hat, but otherwise tried to get over caring what I looked like.
I expect that my runs will be slow and short for a while, but I’m so glad to be running at all.

My running partner, Carlee, and I at the finish of a half marathon a couple years ago. .

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Column: Getting acquainted with radiation

While getting set up for CT scan Friday morning, I tried to reason with the man running the machine. I was back at the CAMC Cancer Center, this time in the radiation oncology department for a preliminary appointment.
In a few days, my radiation treatment will start. In addition to the scan, I was there to get three tiny tattoos — markers in the center of my chest and on my sides — that will somehow factor into positioning me for those treatments. Getting tattooed did not sound pleasant.
“Can’t you use permanent markers instead?” I asked. “You could put tape over them so they don’t come off, and put more ink on whenever they start to fade.”
No. Even permanent markers come off, and these three markers needed to be permanent. But he assured me that it wouldn’t hurt.
I didn’t believe him. I had already asked another of my health care providers — a breast cancer survivor — and she said it would.
I expected the worst. I thought he would come at me with a tattoo machine. But once the scan was over and the time came for him to put the markers on, he took out a lancet, not a tattoo machine. I only felt a tiny pinch for each of the markers. It was over in no time, and with minimal pain.
“Was that it?!” I said.
That was it. I had dreaded this appointment since I was told about it five days before. All week, I told everyone who asked about treatment that I had to have three tattoos and that it would hurt.
Once again, I had been built up something in my mind and made it worse than it actually was. I’ve decided that with cancer treatment, it’s difficult to tell what’s going to be hurt and what won’t. It’s hard to determine what I should dread and what I shouldn’t.
As I’m writing this, I have about 10 days before my first radiation treatment. I’ll have 28 treatments total. I’ll go in for them five days a week.
The appointments are quick — maybe 15 or 20 minutes each. The doctor told me that for the first three or four weeks of treatment, I may not have any sort of reaction to the radiation.
By the fifth week, though, my skin may dry or flakey like the start of a sunburn. Some people even have blistering. The good news is that skin heals quickly from radiation.
Exhaustion is the other side effect I’m likely to experience on radiation. The doctor said it’s similar to the tiredness you feel when you’ve been out on the beach in the sun all day. Some women I’ve talked to about radiation say they sleep 18 hours a day during treatment.
Every body is different. I’ll just have to wait and see how mine takes it.

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Column: My first COVID-19 test

I was scrolling through Facebook on a Friday morning when I saw it. A restaurant where I had recently picked up takeout announced that one of their workers had tested positive for COVID-19.
And as coincidence would have it, that person had last worked at the restaurant the same night I got dinner there.
Still, I wasn’t too concerned. I had worn a mask. The restaurant employees were also wearing them. Plus, I was inside the restaurant only three or four minutes at the most. I also had no symptoms of the coronavirus.
But as an employee of the local health department, I have been encouraging people to get tested for the virus, and my coworkers were holding a free drive-up testing event that same day. Possible interaction with someone who has the disease felt like the perfect excuse and opportunity to experience first hand what it’s like to have a COVID-19 test. I decided to go to Shawnee Sports Complex.
The line that day was mercifully short. While filling out a little paperwork, I chatted with some of my coworkers I hadn’t seen in a while. One of them gave me my flu shot. Then it was time to pull the car up to another station for the COVID-19 test.
I’d heard a lot of descriptions of COVID tests. By now you’ve probably either seen one done — Governor Jim Justice recently had one live during his media briefing — or you’ve had one yourself.
One of my favorite descriptions came from WCHS reporter Bob Aaron, who did a story about one of the health department’s drive-up testing events. I believe he called it “up your nose with a rubber hose uncomfortable.” Fortunately for all of us, though, the test involves a small swab up your nose, not a rubber hose. Bob was right about it being uncomfortable, though.
When the man who did mine left it in for a few seconds, my eyes watered. He warned that he was going to twist the swab and that my eyes would water again. They did. Then the test was over.
My official review of getting a COVID-19 test — it wasn’t that bad.
Honestly, after five months of chemotherapy that requires regular blood tests, any medical tests with no needles or blood is fine by me. Even getting my flu shot was a welcome change of pace.
Two days later on Sunday evening, I checked the website they gave me for results and got the answer I had expected — “SARS–CoV2 not detected.” I didn’t have COVID-19.
Even when it’s expected, hearing that you don’t have a contagious disease is always welcome news.

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Column: Celebrating the end of chemotherapy

My last day of chemotherapy was a celebration. At some cancer centers, a patient finishing either chemotherapy or radiation therapy rings a bell during a ceremony that signifies the end of their treatment. I’d seen videos of patients ringing the bell while cheering hospital staff look on. There are no bell-ringing ceremonies at the CAMC Cancer Center. I asked one of the nurses once and was told that’s because not all patients make it to the end of their treatment to ring the bell.
I’ve thought about that a lot these past few days.
I knew not to expect a bell ceremony, so I brought a party with me to my appointment Friday morning. Well, more specifically, I brought cupcakes. It was my very small way of thanking the oncology nurses for all the care they’d given me during my treatment.
Doctors diagnose and make decisions about treatment plans, but a good nurse can make the difference between a good day and a bad day of treatment. They’re the ones who drew blood for my labs each week and hooked me up to the chemotherapy drugs. They answered my questions and brought me a warm blanket and an occasional snack to keep me comfortable. Admittedly, 9:30 a.m. is kind of early for a dessert, but they still seemed to enjoy them.
My treatment that Friday morning went smoothly.


Two of my coworkers showed up at the Cancer Center after my treatment to surprise me with posters, balloons and roses. They had conspired with my mother, who came in from Ashland, Kentucky every week to take me to treatment. When I texted my mom that I was done with treatment, she stalled to give them enough time to get from the health department downtown to the Cancer Center in Kanawha City.
I stood outside waiting for maybe 20 minutes, rather annoyed that she wasn’t there yet, even though I had told her when I’d be done. Before too long, there came Julie and Kandy in their face masks holding big blue signs that read “We love Lorithebrave,” (a reference to a social media name for myself) a bunch of helium balloons and a vase of white, purple and pink roses.

It was such a sweet surprise. Because I’m working from home, I hadn’t seen them in person in a while. It was so good to visit with them.
My last surprise of the day was from a good friend who after work brought over a cheesecake with a picture on it of late actress Rue McClanahan, who played Blanche Devereaux on “The Golden Girls.”

The Golden Girls helped me get through chemotherapy treatment. Many nights I’d fallen asleep on my couch watching and laughing at the antics of Rose, Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia. I’d seen many of the episodes already but I rewatched the entire series. The cake also had an altered version of one of Devereaux’s famous lines from the show, “Eat dirt and die, chemo.” My friend also brought over a 6-pack of one of my favorite beers. I had abstained from any alcohol since chemo started because I read it can interfere with the drugs and cause their side effects to be worse.
My day was full of celebrations because there was so much to celebrate. I had finally made it through five months –16 rounds — of chemotherapy. I was one big step closer to being done with cancer treatment, to calling myself a survivor rather than a patient.
Chemotherapy took my hair, my energy and many nights my sleep. It made me anemic. Some days, early on in treatment, I felt so bad I cried. Other days just moving from my bedroom to the couch to work was an accomplishment.
I thought this day would never come, and now it finally had.

Column: Immunity and weekend plans

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Note: I’ve decided to start posting my column here after it’s been published in the paper. This one ran Sunday, Sept. 20.

The nurse read my labs, furrowed his eyebrows and looked back at me.
“Your immune system is down this week,” he said. “It’s not a problem, it’s just at the lowest it’s been during your treatment.”
I was at the CAMC Cancer Center that morning for my penultimate chemotherapy treatment. I was so close to being done that I could practically feel the hair regrowing on my bald head. Up until that point, we’d been talking about our plans for the weekend. My friend and I were planning to go to a farm in Putnam County and take photos in a field of sunflowers.
This immune system stuff wasn’t really surprising news. If you know anything at all about chemotherapy, it’s that it weakens your immune system. Infections and viruses like the flu can be more serious in cancer patients, so even those who aren’t going through chemotherapy during a global pandemic are told to avoid sick people and take precautions. But it was news. While my red blood cells had been done previously, before then, none of my previous weekly lab tests had revealed any issues with my immune system.
You might think having a weakened immune system in the middle of a pandemic would scare me, but it didn’t. The thing about the novel coronavirus pandemic is that it’s already causing me to do everything I can do to avoid catching a disease I’m not immune to. When I’m not holed up in my apartment (I am most of the time), I’m wearing a mask, avoiding crowds, staying at least six feet away from other people and washing my hands frequently. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught me well what to do when your immunity is down.

Me in the canoe at Beech Fork


So I didn’t change my weekend plans, though the rain on Sunday altered them a little. My friend and I decided to go to Beech Fork State Park in Barboursville Saturday. We paid $1.50 to feed the carp and then rented a canoe. It was a nice afternoon with plenty of social distance. It was so good to feel well and to be out doing something different for the first time in a while. The sunflower field closed because of rain on Sunday, so we didn’t get to go.
Speaking of things closing, did I mention I’m almost done with chemotherapy? As I’m writing this, I’m three days away from going in for my last treatment. If you’re reading this on Sunday, I’m already done.
This chemotherapy drug, Taxol, has been mild on me compared to the previous regime of Adriamycin and Cytoxan. The worst part for me was anemia, and that seems to have gotten better on its own. Many patients get neuropathy from Taxol. My fingertips have started to feel kind of funny in the last couple of weeks, which makes me think it might be the start of neuropathy, but it’s not been bad.
Despite the mild side effects, I’m ecstatic to have this part of cancer treatment behind me. All week I’ve been thinking of how to celebrate after work on Friday. I’m looking forward to growing out my hair and eventually getting back to running.
This won’t be the end of cancer treatment; I’ll have radiation next. Stay tuned to hear how I deal with the burns and exhaustion I’ve heard are so common with that form of treatment.
On another note, thank you to everyone who has donated to my online fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. It means a lot to me to be able to help raise money that benefits cancer research and supports programs for other patients.

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An update and a request

Things are overall going swimmingly with my chemotherapy treatments. By this time next week, chemotherapy will be over. I will have completed 12 rounds of Taxol and four rounds of Adriamycin and Cytoxan.

Taxol has been a walk in the park compared with A/C. I’ve not been nauseated and had the severe headaches that I had on A/C. Even the brain fogginess I had with A/C seems to be better.

Taxol has had its own side effects, but they’re less severe. My nails are discolored. I try not to use them much for fear they’ll come off. I’ve had nose bleeds. Then there was the anemia I’ve written about before. To my surprise and delight, my body has healed on its on from that. I didn’t need the blood transfusion my health care providers thought I would. Some days, I’m really fatigued.

But I haven’t had the bone pain or neuropathy that can be so common with Taxol. I’d like to attribute it to the ice gloves and socks that I bought, but the truth is it might be my age and my lack of nerve damage before this process started. While I’ve tried to use the gloves and socks, I still hate the cold, and I’ve been able to keep the gloves on for very long. I’m sure they’re doing some good, but I don’t know how much.

I’m very much looking forward to being done with chemotherapy. I’m really tired of being bald. I can’t wait till I can start taking vitamins to help along hair regrowth.

I’ll meet with a radiation doctor at the end of the month to learn what that process will be like. I’m hopeful it will be easier than chemotherapy, but we’ll wait and see.

This week I also signed up to fundraise for the American Cancer Society. The organization supports cancer research and also offers resources to cancer patients and caregivers, like a 24/7 hotline for questions about cancer. Because of COVID-19, they’ve had to cancel Relay for Life events around the country. That’s their biggest fundraiser of the year. I wrote about it in my newspaper column for this week and interviewed a couple of their staffers.

My goal is to raise $2,500 for the organization. If you’d like to help, go to my fundraising page: http://main.acsevents.org/goto/loriakersey

The view outside the Cancer Center from where I sat during my most recent chemotherapy treatment.
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Anemia and how to solve it

My nurse put down in front of me three cups of different fruit juices.

“I’m ready for you,” she said.

After the last two weeks of me getting light-headed or sick and nearly passing out after blood tests before chemo treatment, she brought the juices to help me recover just in case it happened again.

I’m not sure what was causing it. Last week a nurse told me I could be dehydrated and that I should eat before lab tests. I spent all day Thursday and some of Friday morning with my water bottle in hand. I made myself pancakes for breakfast Friday and put snacks in the bag I take to chemo.

This week a physician assistant told me it was probably my fear of needles and aversion to blood. I tried to take her advice of closing my eyes and thinking about the beach. The beach is not a nurse’s office. No one ever came at me with a needle at the beach.

Yesterday went much better, though. I didn’t even feel light-headed and I was able to walk back to the waiting room and then to chemo without a wheelchair. A little victory.

You’d think cancer treatment would have me over my dislike of needles and blood by now, but no.

Speaking of which, I was told this week that I have been getting progressively more anemic over the last few weeks and if it gets worse, I’ll need a blood transfusion. I can’t tell you how much I dislike that idea. It grosses me out.

I said this to the nurse who delivered the news and he kind of laughed. He said it sounds like a bigger deal than it actually is. Apparently the chemo does this and it’s a routine procedure. I’m hoping that somehow my numbers get better next week and I don’t have to have one.

I have noticed that I get winded just walking sometimes. I’m told that could be a symptom of anemia.

I’m a little frustrated that this has been an issue with me and no one told me until yesterday. Could that be why I had been getting sick during lab tests? Surely someone would have mentioned it to me if it was.

Anyway, yesterday marked the halfway point for Taxol chemotherapy treatment. If all goes as planned, I’ll be finished with chemo in mid September. That’s just in time to have a much better fall than summer.

After chemo comes radiation treatment. I’m not sure how long that will take. I still need to meet with that doctor.

Things are moving right along.

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It’s in the bag

No one told me undergoing cancer treatment would turn me into a walking pharmacy.

I keep a bag now that has the remedies for most of the common side effects to chemotherapy treatment and the drugs that come along with it. (Kind of fitting that I’m using a giveaway bag from an Association of Health Care Journalists conference).

Most important are the prescription anti-nausea medications I take after each round of chemo. I also keep saltines and ginger chews in there just to help.

Can’t sleep? Here’s an over-the-counter sleep aid, Melatonin, and a container of ZZZQuil gummies. (At night, I also turn on an essential oil diffuser with lavender oil to help with this.)

Have a splitting headache (a side effect of the anti-nausea medication prescribed to me by my doctors)? I’ve got ibuprofen and Aleve. If one of them doesn’t work (and it probably won’t) check the freezer for an ice pack and try to sleep (even if it’s 6 p.m.)

There’s tea tree oil that I hope will keep my fingernails and toenails from turning black and falling off. So far they just kind of hurt and keep me from using my fingernails for things that might cause them any stress.

I keep sunscreen in there, too. Chemotherapy, radiation and surgery scars all increase sensitivity to the sun, so I’m more careful this year to apply it when I’m out.

Constipation? Diarrhea? Yeah, got stuff for them both.

I’m grateful for the drugs that are helping me through this, but looking forward to a time when I won’t need them.

Just 10 more rounds of chemotherapy left to go. I can do this.

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Until next year, Charleston Distance Run

Note: I promise not to do this a lot, but I wanted to share the column I wrote for today’s Gazette-Mail, just in case you missed it. I liked this one.

I’ve run the 5K portion of the Charleston Distance Run most years for the past few years, and 2020 was going to be the year I finally ran the entire 15 miles.
I’ve run five half marathons and countless other 5K races. But until this year, I’d never got up the nerve to sign up for the full Distance Run.
Besides being 15 miles, it takes on Labor Day weekend. If that’s not actually the hottest part of the summer, it sure feels like it. It could be because by late August or early September, I’m sick of the heat.
I’ve seen other runners sweating hard on Kanawha Boulevard in mid July in preparation for the race and thought to myself how smart I’ve been to train for races that take place in December or November. I really like avoiding heat stroke.
Then there’s the legendary Capital Punishment Hill. That doesn’t seem fun no water what time of year it is.
At the same time, I’ve so wanted to do this race. There’s something about it that makes me nostalgic.
Maybe it’s because it seems like every Charleston runner has a story about running it. Maybe it’s the way the city comes out to cheer on the participants. Maybe it’s the spaghetti dinner. I don’t know.


My uncle would run it when I was a kid. I remember hearing that he’d trained for it by running Route 21 from Sissonville to Charleston. That seems like a crazy feat when you’re a kid.

My uncle Gary and I after the 2019 Distance Run.


In the past few years, he and I have started the 5K portion of the race together. I’m a slower runner, so despite our age difference, he finishes first. (My grandmother jokes that if I keep running, one day I’ll beat him).
When I got the news that the Distance Run is cancelled for this year, I of course was not surprised. Even the Boston Marathon was canceled for this year. The organizers made the right move.
I would not have been able to run the race this year anyway because of cancer treatment. I started out the year training for training for the race by running Carriage Trail’s hill. I think I had worked my way up to running seven miles.
But I have not run since March when I was diagnosed, unfortunately.
I’m to a point in chemotherapy treatment where I get fatigued, even though I don’t exercise much. I walked a block in the heat Sunday morning and it was enough to make me sick.
But I will run again.
The race organizers gave us the option of having a refund for the registration fee or deferring it to next year. I chose to defer mine until next year. It’s my way of believing that I’ll recover from this. That I’ll get my life back. That cancer won’t have the final say.
When I was a reporter, I wrote a story about a woman who ran the 2015 Charleston Distance Run after finishing lung cancer treatment. She had run it before she was diagnosed and had a terrible time with it. When her cancer went into remission, she returned to conquer it.
I have to believe that I will, too.

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Pink hair and the last of the Red Devil

I’ve had my last chemo treatment with the drugs with Adriamycin and Cytoxan. The former is referred to as the “Red Devil,” both for its bright, red Kool-Aid color and its nasty side effects.

I complained about the side effects in my last post. When the nausea is bad, it’s really bad. I’ve been lucky I’ve only had a couple bad days.

The nausea has been progressively worse after each round, so I’m bracing for when it hits next week.

Adriamycin is so toxic that the nurses put on gowns to administer it so they don’t come in contact with the drug. It makes my bodily fluids toxic for two days after treatments. It could cause tissue damage if it somehow is administered outside a vein.

It could damage my heart (a less common side effect).

But the important thing is that it’s a powerful drug that kills cancer cells.

The end of A/C is a milestone worth celebrating, but chemo isn’t over. Soon, I’ll start a weekly chemo regimen with the drug Taxol for 12 weeks. My doctor assures me it’s much easier on bodies than A/C.

So I’m looking forward to that.

Hair loss is a Red Devil side effect. I’ve been wearing a pink wig to deal with that. It got me a couple stares and few compliments at the Cancer Center. I think it’s fun, and if there’s ever a time I needed fun, it’s now.

Pink hair, don’t care

It’s not something I’ve ever done to real hair. I’m pretty plain Jane when it comes to that. But when will I get this chance again. Hopefully never.

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Cancer treatment is daunting

With three rounds of chemotherapy down (and more than I’d like to admit to go) I’m to the point where I can predict what days I will feel bad.

I was told the second and third days after treatment would be the worst, but that’s not been true for me. I have chemo every other Friday right now, and I don’t feel bad until the following Thursday and Friday.

So it should have been no surprise that when I ventured out for a doctor’s appointment early yesterday morning, I was setting myself up for a bad experience.

But I underestimated how bad I was feeling and kept my appointment with a new primary care physician. My oncologist recommended getting one to oversee my care.

The nurse took my blood pressure, but it was so low she called in another just to check. She had done it correctly; I was just sick. And my doctor didn’t seem to know what to do with me.

I took one side off my face mask and tried to breathe through the nausea until I could make it out of the exam room.

We made it through my medical history, physical exam and my request to PLEASE WRITE ME A PRESCRIPTION FOR SOMETHING TO HELP ME SLEEP.

“I think I’m going to throw up,” I said.

“You’ll tell me if you’re going to, right?” was his reply.

Luckily, his attending physician came in after him and escorted me out, apologizing and telling me to call her in a week if melatonin didn’t help me sleep through the steroids after chemo.

I made it to the lobby bathroom of the doctor’s office before getting sick in my face mask. A nurse brought me another and told me to bypass their checkout line.

I felt too relieved to be embarrassed about it. The nurse offered to wheel me out, but I genuinely felt better after it happened. Until then, I wasn’t sure I would even be able to drive myself the 5 minutes home.

Cancer treatment is daunting.

I am amazed that even though 245,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year (according to the CDC), our best treatment for it these toxic chemicals that may make me sick, bald and may cause me to go into early menopause.

It makes me sad to think that some cancer patients will live out their last days like this. This is no way to live.

Once chemo is done, I’ll have radiation. From what I’ve read and heard, I can expect burned skin general exhaustion during those days.

Between feeling sick and not being able to see most people to avoid getting COVID-19, it’s hard not to be discouraged.

But there’s reason to be hopeful. I have one more round of the chemo drugs adriamycin and cytoxan before I switch to taxol. My doctor tells me it’s easier on people.

I’ll have to wait and see.

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More on the haircut

Being bald (well, close to it) takes some getting used to. I went to my hairdresser about a week ago and got it buzzed off.

Soon, I’m told, I’ll lose even the tiny hairs that make my head feel foreign when I run my fingers over it.

I’d been dreading losing my hair for obvious reasons, but my hairdresser made the haircut fun. (Shout out to Jim at Spa Bliss in Charleston).

He cut my hair first into a mullet and we took a picture before he cut the rest of it off. I expected to be crying, but we mostly laughed.

I can say I’ve had a mullet now

I almost felt guilty asking my hairdresser to cut off my hair. It felt like asking a friend to be a co-conspirator in this disease taking my hair. But I’m glad I had a professional do it.

I’m still getting used to seeing myself without hair. I’ve always had thick hair. I catch my reflection in the mirror without it now and it startles me.

But I don’t mind the shape of my head as much as I thought. When this is over, I think I could wear a pixie cut. As it is now, I look like a Buddhist monk.

I’m still looking for appropriate hats and head covers. I’ve been wearing a light pink baseball cap with the words “girls support girls.” It was a gift from my sweet co-workers. I like it but it doesn’t quiet fit my head.

Me in the hat while holding my nephew.

The headscarves I ordered from Amazon are still in a drawer in my bathroom. I’ve watched a few YouTube videos about tying them but I still don’t feel comfortable with it enough to wear it outside my apartment. Not that I leave much.

I’ve ordered a wig and a ball cap. With wigs, I can play around with colors and hairstyles. Why not?

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Hair today, gone tomorrow

It finally happened, almost exactly to the day I read and have been told it would. My hair is starting to come out. I noticed it recently when I ran a brush through and much more hair than usual ended up in the brush.

I thought I would be more emotional about losing my hair. Maybe that will come when I cut it all off. I made an appointment with my hairdresser for this week.

I don’t trust myself to do shave it and having a loved one do it with clippers doesn’t seem kind to them.

It may sound like I’m sad, but I’m really OK. Hair grows back. This is just part of the process. It might be nice not to have to deal with drying and straightening my hair for a few months, especially during the heat of the summer.

It may be longer. I’ve read that it doesn’t grow back immediately after chemo treatment.

I need to round up all the hair ties and hair products lying around my apartment and put them away.

For now, I’ll just try to keep it from shedding everywhere and maybe try to learn how to tie a head scarf and keep it from falling off.

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Chemo starts

I’ve had one chemotherapy treatment so far and several more to go.

The actual treatment part wasn’t so bad. The CAMC Cancer Center is nice and quiet. Each patient area has a recliner and a television.

The hospital’s no-visitor policy is still in effect, so I went alone. I didn’t mind.


The nurses are kind. They brought me cookies and were great at distracting me by talking at any chance of pain or discomfort.

I brought a laptop, listened in on a meeting call, responded to emails and did other work.

Chemo is administered through a port the surgeon implanted beneath my skin below my left collarbone. Once the nurses start the IV, the worst part was over.

So far the only side effects to chemo I’ve had are these: I didn’t sleep well in the days after infusion, at times my thinking was fuzzy, and my face broke out really bad. I was expected to be sick to my stomach but the drugs they gave me must have knocked that out.

The prescription steroids they gave me after treatment made it impossible to sleep. The night after treatment, I woke up at 2 a.m. and was awake the entire day after that. It was miserable. The second night was only a little better.

I’d heard of “chemo fog,” or “chemo brain,” the terms cancer patients use for the concentration and thinking issues that chemotherapy gives them. I noticed it, too. Luckily that feeling was temporary.

I expect these are the last few days I’ll have my hair, but it hasn’t started to fall out yet

I’ve washed it more lately because there’s no chance over-washing is going to make it dry and brittle before it falls out. It might as well be clean so I can wear it down while I still have it.

I have a drawer full of head scarves ready to go.

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We were supposed to be in Tennessee

The calendar app on my phone is an almost painful reminder of all the fun I had planned this year but have had to cancel. Right now, the app tells me, my family was supposed to be on vacation in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. It would have been a whole week of hikes and late night porch sitting and probably kitschy shops and tourist attractions with my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews.

Last year, we sat out on the porch of the cabin late into the evening and listened as coyote howls answered the sounds of nearby sirens. We saw black bears. We hiked to the top of Clingman’s Dome for the breathtaking view of the mountains.

But COVID-19 did not care one bit about our travel plans, or that I was really looking forward to playing with my nieces and baby nephew. That I need a few days of waking up to a cup of coffee and a good book on a front porch rocking chair in the mountains. Just like it didn’t care about my best friend’s grad school graduation or the countless weddings it canceled.

The vacation will hopefully be postponed, not completely canceled. I’ll still get to go, pandemic permitting, if I can hold on to enough vacation days (that may be tough while battling cancer).

Postponed vacations and canceled celebrations are just some of the many micro aggressions waged on us by this pandemic. I call them micro because they’re not nearly worth mentioning next to the tens of thousands of deaths COVID-19 caused in this country.

But I also think it’s OK, even mentally healthy, to let ourselves be kind of bummed out about them. Pain and disappointment are relative, after all.

And we’re allowed to feel all of it.

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A new opportunity

Picture of the paper and my favorite coffee mug at my newspaper desk circa 2017.

In case you missed it on Facebook or Twitter yesterday, I started a column at the Gazette-Mail, the paper I reported and edited for eight years.

I hope it adds some nuance to the conversation about cancer and the coronavirus and the two of them together. Most of all I hope it’s interesting to some people and maybe an encouragement to some, too.

I really appreciate the newspaper giving me the opportunity to share my story.

I hope you’ll read it and subscribe to the paper. We need journalists now more than ever.

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The why questions

“Cancer is no respecter of persons,” my mom said to me recently when she was in town to take me to a doctor’s appointment. She’s certainly right.


I don’t spend a lot of time these days on the “why me?” questions. Honestly, my life until this point has been so free of trauma, sickness and grief that sometimes I wonder how it’s taken this long for something bad to show up.


But I do wonder about the medical reasons and causes for my breast cancer. Until this came along, I thought I was healthy.


I’m a long distance runner (though admittedly a slow one). There’s a rack full of running medals hanging on my wall. My last half marathon was in November. I was looking forward this Labor Day weekend to finally running the hilly course of my town’s 15-miler, the Charleston Distance Run.


At 35, I’m not even old enough that doctors recommend regular mammograms. When I found a lump in my right breast earlier this year and told my gynecologist, he initially told me it was probably just breast tissue, but he referred me on for further tests just to be safe. (I’m so glad he did).


No one in my family has had breast cancer. I can only think of two other family members who had cancer at all. One was a great uncle who died the year before last. The other was my grandfather, a coal miner and longtime smoke who had both black lung and lung cancer. The latter probably hardly had to do with genetics.


After my diagnosis, I was tested for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations that increase the changes of cancer. Both were negative.


Then there’s the type of breast cancer that I have: triple negative. That means the tumor isn’t fueled by the hormones estrogen or progesterone or the HER2 protein. Triple negative breast cancers account for 10 to 20 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses, according to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. They have a higher rate among young women and black women.


Triple negative cancer is more difficult to treat and has poorer prognosis than other types within the first years of treatment because there are fewer drugs that target it. I’m trying not to dwell on that last part.

But it’s really of no real use to ponder why. I have breast cancer. The why makes no difference in the end.

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A happy memory

I want to share a happy memory with you. I figure, if you’re following a blog about having cancer long enough, you’ll read some painful things. I want to remember good things, too.

It was earlier this spring, March 1. My boyfriend and I had gotten up before daylight on a Sunday morning, dressed in nice clothes, and driven three hours to a Cincinnati church to see my nephew be baptized.

Monty was born in November to my brother Daniel and sister-in-law Gabby. He has big, round cheeks that make him look Daniel in pictures of him from that age.

Dressed in his tiny, blue button down sweater and camo pants, he’s already more hip than I’ll ever be.

The church is an old building that’s been remodeled. A giant mobile of God’s eyes (crafts from the congregation’s children, I’m told) hang from the wooden beams that line the church’s high ceilings. Purple light illuminates a dark wooden altar at the front of the church.

It takes both my arms to hold Monty, whom I’ve been handed before his big moment during the service. As we sing hymns, I shift his weight from my hip to my shoulder, marveling at how much he’s grown since I’d seen him last at Christmas.

When the baby gets fussy or my arms need a break, I pass him off to my mother at my right. She and dad have made the trip from Ashland.

By this time, a virus that originated in Wuhan, China had already made its way to the United States, claiming in Washington state its first of tens of thousands American lives.

Stay-at-home orders to stop the disease’s spread will keep me away from loved ones and church services for a while.

By this time, I already had cancer in a lump I’d discovered in my right breast.

But I don’t know any of that yet.

What I do know is that I’m sitting in a wooden pew with people I love, singing the church songs I sang as a child.

Whatever happens, I’ll keep this memory, too.

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A little help + some good news

Cats are awful nurses but OK company.

I’m a week out from surgery, and I’ve been surprised at how much it knocked me out.

The “outpatient” in “outpatient surgery” to remove the tumor may have deceived me into thinking it would be a minor occurrence.

At the beginning of the week, I was telling friends and family not to worry, I didn’t need anything. I am strong. I’m independent. I’ll be OK.

When my sister offered to cook me meals and drive them two hours down Interstate 79 from Fairmont to me, I said yes. People want to help, I thought. It makes them feel better when bad things like cancer happen. I should let them.

My mom stayed the first 24 hours with me after the operation (plus she bought me groceries and cleaned the whole apartment, because moms are awesome). After she went home, my boyfriend checked on me morning, noon and night, warmed up meals, kept me company, and even helped change the gauze around my JP drain. (How’s that to test a relationship of less than a year?)

I am glad she came. I’m glad he was there and my sister thought to bring me food. Turns out, I definitely did and do need help. I’m not sure how I would have made it through without it.

For the unfamiliar, a JP drain is a tube that’s going into my side just below the incision site. It’s attached to a sort of ball that’s collecting the fluid that’s gathering in near the incision. (I’m sorry if you’re squeamish and that grosses you out, but, well, I’m squeamish too. Imagine how I must feel when I have to drain it and measure the fluid 2 to 3 times a day.)

I’m still waiting for the surgeon’s clearance to remove the drain, but I’m not in pain. I’ve been out on some walks after work over the last couple of days. I’m feeling much better, except that my incision site itches and the sharp plastic on this drain keeps poking me.

I think when the doctor calls and finally sets the appointment to remove the drain, I may put on a nice dress and break out one of the five remaining bottles of wine some friends/ former colleagues gave me (thanks Greg and Dawn), just to celebrate. I hate it that much.

But despite the drain, there is some good news: my surgeon says he’s confident he removed all of the tumor, and its “margins are clear,” which I take to mean there’s no cancer left. There was cancer in one of my lymph nodes, but not in the surrounding ones, which I’m told means its unlikely that it’s gotten anywhere else in my body.

Also, my genetics test has apparently come back negative for the genes that cause breast cancer. Not having the genes means there’s less of a chance that cancer will reoccur. Some women who test positive choose mastectomies just so they won’t have to worry about getting breast cancer again down the road.

I’m not out of the woods yet, though. My surgeon is referring me to an oncologist. He said that at some point chemotherapy would be recommended.

I’m trying to mentally prepare myself.

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Surgery day

When the day comes, I wait alone in a hospital room to be taken back to surgery. I’m having a lumpectomy, which is outpatient surgery. I’ll be home the same afternoon.


My mom has come in from Kentucky to be there for me, but because of COVID-19, the hospital isn’t allowing visitors. She can’t so much as come into the waiting room with me. She drops me off in the morning and retrieves me — doped up and disoriented — that afternoon.

We start the morning with her pastor leading us in prayer over her vehicle’s speakers. I may have turned my nose up a bit when she mentioned wanting to do this. I don’t know her pastor. But I admit, it gave me a certain kind of peace.

By now, I’m used to hospital visits alone. At appointments so far, hospital workers wearing face masks and armed with thermometers guard the entrance of the buildings. They check me for a fever and ask about my recent travel history and whether I’ve had any cough or shortness of breath.


This day, they give me a face mask to wear, though I have no travel history or COVID-19 symptoms. My nurses and doctors all wear one too. I find it difficult to communicate with a face covering. We rely so much on facial expressions.

My nurse that morning, kind as she is, misspeaks. She tells me after I change into the hospital gowns, “We’ll bring back your family to wait with you until surgery starts.” It’s probably something she’s said to hundreds of patients over her career, so much that she doesn’t think about it, but it isn’t true today.
“My family isn’t here,” I say. She apologizes, remembering that she’s been off work for a while and that protocols have all changed since then. “It’s OK,” I say. “Mom will be here for me this afternoon.”

I’m not really alone, though. She and the other nurses are very kind and there’s a television that I will eventually switch to “The Price is Right” as the scheduled surgery time comes and goes.

My nurse reads a note about me passing out from my last IV. She gets me heat pack and holds one of my hands while another nurse puts in my IV. (Then she sanitizes both mine and her hands because COVID).

A friend from high school is a nurse in the recovery room. She stops by before the operation just to say hi, even taking over her face mask for a moment. She’s brought me handmade face masks that I may need to wear in public, especially if or when chemo treatment treats. Turning to go back to work, she calls to another nurse, “That’s my friend. Take care of her.”

***


Sitting in a hospital recliner waiting, you have all the time in the world to think over what could go wrong with your surgery.
What if I don’t wake up?
What if the anesthesiologist only administers part of the drugs and I feel every part of it while I’m paralyzed and unable to tell the doctors to stop? (A doctor friend told me a story like that way before I got sick.)
What if they operate on the wrong side of my body?

None of these things happen. By the afternoon, I’m sleeping off the anesthesia in my bed.

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I should get used to needles

The woman (was she a nurse? a radiology technician?) hands me two hospital gowns, what looks to be pajama pants and a pair of footies and points to the bathroom where I can change into them.

I go in and put on the whole get-up, taking one more work call before I rejoin her. It’s an especially busy time at work. I don’t want to miss something important.
I’m at the hospital for my first ever MRI.
About a week before, I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. This test will help my doctor can find out if the cancer is anywhere else but the lump I’d earlier found in the upper corner of my right breast.
“So, who is Brittany to you?” she asks, referencing a nurse friend who also works at the hospital where we are.
“She’s a friend from high school,” I say.
“She told me to give you a hug for her.”
We give each other a knowing smile and put out our elbows towards one another as if to make them touch. It’s a gesture I’ve come to call a COVID hug.
There is no unnecessary touching now. No shaking hands or hugging. Not during a pandemic.
“OK, now we’ll just put in your IV and take you back,” she says.
I felt the dread rise up in me. I had mentally prepared to be in a noisy metal tube for a half hour for the MRI, but not for a needle in my arm.
I hate needles. Vaccines don’t bother me much, but I hate the idea of putting something into my veins. But a needle poke could be the easiest thing I’ll have to get used to over the next few months. So I silently vow not to make a big deal about it.
I look away as she ties a band around my arm and inserts the needle, content to pretend it’s not happening.
I guess my body doesn’t get the memo that we’re being brave about needles now. Suddenly, I feel light-headed. Just as suddenly, it’s like I’m falling through a tunnel, losing consciousness.
As my head goes down, a nurse takes hold of my shoulders, waves smelling salts under my nose. I jolt back to life.

• • • • •

Compared to briefly passing out, an MRI is easy. Inside the machine, it sounds like a bad dance club. The woman has turned on top-40 radio to take my mind off the loud, rhythmic metal thumping sounds I hear in the tube.
When the test is done, she explains why I nearly passed out at the needle. My body had a “vasovagal response,” to the needle, she says. “You can Google that later.” In short, my body overreacted to the emotional distress caused by the needle.
“See, you’re learning all kinds of things,” she said.
That, I am.

Pink hair and other questions

If you haven’t kept up with my story, seeing me out in town with pink hair might come as a shock. I usually sport a plain brown ponytail. You might not even recognize me.

My cancer treatment hasn’t exactly been a secret; I’m writing about it in the newspaper. So I figure people generally know I’m wearing a wig.

Occasionally I run into people who haven’t heard, or those I haven’t seen in a while.

It took my middle school principal a few seconds to place me when I ran into him at a recycling center recently. We both had our masks on and I had pink hair. I always feel the need to tell people about chemo to explain the hair.

In case you forgot what the wig looks like

Strangers’ reactions have been interesting.

Most people are nice. One cashier at the outdoor section of Capitol Market told me the color was flattering on me.

Others are more curious.

A few weeks ago I stopped in a store to pick up some ketchup. A man with his mask around his chin asked me, “Is that your real hair?”

I’d never gotten the question so boldly. But what could it hurt to answer him honestly?

“It’s a wig,” I replied. I should have stopped there, but I don’t know how to.

“I’m a chemo patient,” I said.

This only invited more questions.

“Oh, what kind of cancer? Is it bad?”

So there I was explaining my medical history and prognosis to a stranger in a Dollar General while he stood too close to me in line. Then he went on about his medical problems.

I’ve never been so happy to get through the line and out of that store.

Then there was a truly bizarre walk I took across town recently when people shouted at my about my hair three different times.

One woman shouted “I love your hair.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Is that a wig?”

I must have stared blankly back at her when I said, “yes.”