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Column: Starting to feel it

In the movies and comic books, radiation gives mortal men superpowers. Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider and became Spiderman. Gamma Radiation made Bruce Banner into The Hulk.

I am nearly to the end of my 28 radiation treatments, and so far all it’s given me is red, irritated skin and the ability to nap before bed and still sleep soundly through the night.

This week, for the first time since radiation started, I’ve started to feel the side effects. I was expecting this. My doctor told me I wouldn’t feel anything for the first couple of weeks, and that I would feel it more toward the end of my treatment.

Right on schedule, my skin has become red, not quite like a sunburn. But this is breast cancer treatment, and I’ve never felt a sunburn on this part of my body. (If you’re taking notes for you or someone you love, Aquaphor works wonders).

My skin’s reaction is actually pretty good to others. Honestly, it doesn’t hurt that much. Radiation can cause anything from red skin to flaking and even blistering.

I’ve also noticed I’m more tired than usual. A couple of times I’ve gotten home from work and fallen asleep on the couch not long after. I usually wake up from the nap and go right to bed.

The doctor compared radiation treatment to spending a day out in the sun. In both situations, radiation (from the sun or a machine in the Cancer Center) makes you tired and your skin burns.

I’ve also been nauseous at times this week. My doctor told me that can be an indirect side effect of the treatment.

Overall, though, I have much preferred radiation treatment to chemotherapy. It’s been a breeze compared to the nausea, sleepless nights and other side effects that chemotherapy brought with it. Everyone is different, though. I’ve heard from people who have said that radiation was much worse for them than chemotherapy.

I expect the sunburn feeling and the exhaustion to intensify this week as treatment continues. As I write this, I have three radiation treatments left to go before cancer treatment is officially done.

The hardest part of radiation has been getting up early and being there five days a week. Even that isn’t so bad. I’ve found that living in Charleston, just across the river from the CAMC Cancer Center, has made my experience easier than most. Cancer patients drive from other counties to get here. My 10-minute drive is a piece of cake.

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What radiation treatment is like

I figure there may be a few of you who stumbled onto this blog because you’re going through your own cancer treatment. Maybe you have questions about what it’s like.

With that in mind, here’s what radiation has been like for me so far.

I’m about to be done with my 28 radiation treatments. I go every weekday to the CAMC Cancer Center for treatment. Luckily, the treatments are relatively quick.

My treatments are usually scheduled for early in the day — around 7 a.m., so that I can go before work. The cancer center let me tell them what time of day I prefer, although not all appointments are that early.

When I arrive, I scan a registration card to let them know I’m there. Usually within a couple minutes, they call me back to get changed into a hospital gown. There’s a men’s dressing room and a women’s dressing room.

Patients put their clothing and belongings in a locker. Another minute or so and I get called back for the actual treatment.

Since my cancer was in my breast, I lie face up on a bench on the radiation machine (it has a more formal name, but that’s what it is). My arms are over my head with my hands gripping handles.

The therapists adjust my body to a precise position.

The room is kind of cold, but the therapists put a warmed blanket over my arms.

The most uncomfortable aspect of this type of treatment is exposing myself to strangers, but even that you can get used to. Laying on a machine with my chest exposed was awkward for the first day or two. By a few treatments in, I was chatting with the therapists about the weather and weekend plans. Everyone at my cancer center has been extremely kind and respectful.

The therapists leave the room, and a big thick wall closes in the doorway.

It’s hard to describe the treatments themselves. I can’t see much but the ceiling, a monitor and the machinery moving around me, buzzing and making other noises. I don’t feel the radiation or anything at all during the treatment itself. It’s over within 10 minutes or so.

Only recently have I actually felt the side effects of radiation. My skin is red, despite the layers of Aquaphor and lotion I’ve been putting on it every night. It hurts, much like a sunburn would.

And I’m exhausted. I sometimes take naps before bed. Occasionally I’ve been nauseated to the point of throwing up. That wasn’t one of the side effects my doctor mentioned, but I’m sure it’s from the radiation.

But luckily this will all be over soon. Monday is my last treatment.

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Column: Not so easy on the eyes

With cancer treatment, there’s always a new side effect to discover. This week, it was my eyes. I got an eye exam for the first time since I was diagnosed with breast cancer back in March. I’ve always been nearsighted, but now, nearly two months after finishing chemotherapy, my vision is worse. I needed a stronger prescription.
If this means anything to you (it didn’t to me until I Googled “how to read a glasses prescription”), my right eye went from -1.25 at my appointment last year to -1.75 this week. My left eye went from -1.00 last year to -2.00 this time. The change was significant enough that my eye doctor and the woman at the counter in his office made remarks about it. Otherwise, my eyes are perfectly healthy, the doctor said.
I was at first concerned that vision change might be a temporary side effect of the cancer drugs. Some of the chemotherapy fact sheets list blurred vision as a possible side effect of Taxol. The last thing I’d want to do is invest in new eyeglasses and contact lenses and then find out later that my eyesight change is a temporary side effect.
The day after my eye exam, I called my eye doctor’s office back and asked a medical technician about it. He assured me that my eyesight may improve a little eventually but it’s likely permanent. Apparently, chemotherapy changes the eyes. (Incidentally, so does being pregnant or having diabetes). I checked with the ladies in the Facebook group for breast cancer patients — some of them said they had experienced vision changes after chemotherapy, too. One woman advised me not to bother with an eye exam until my treatment is over.
A change in my eyeglasses prescription is a small thing, to be sure. But it’s also another reminder of how much chemotherapy affects the body. When I started chemotherapy treatment back in May, I never would have guessed eyesight would be an issue. It’s always something. I had hoped that once it was over, life and my body would go back to the way it was before treatment. But I’m not there yet. I’m still finding out about all the ways it has affected me.
On another note, something that chemotherapy took from me is slowly making its comeback: my eyebrows and my hair. I never knew I would miss my eyebrows so much until they were mostly gone. Now that they’re growing back, I look like more of a human.
As for my hair, it’s still peach fuzz, but everyday there’s more of it. It’s fine and soft and there’s not enough of it yet for me to stop wearing wigs. But soon there will be. I’m looking forward to that.

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Column: About the running

I wrote recently about getting back into running for the first time since I was diagnosed with cancer in March. To be honest, I have not been keeping up with it regularly.

I have more than one excuse.

One is that radiation starts early on weekdays, and I don’t want to get up before then to run. Then when I get home from work in the afternoons, it’s really easy to talk myself out of going.  

But the main reason is that I usually don’t feel like it. My legs don’t feel like it. They’re still sore. It’s not all the time, but it’s enough to defer me from running. No one told me this would be a lingering side effect of chemotherapy, but I’m convinced it is. 

I sometimes forget about being sore. My legs don’t hurt when I’m sitting still or lying down. Then I start to move and my legs just hurt. They’re stiff. To see me stand up and try to walk, you might think I’m much older than I am. That’s usually when I’m reminded that I’m very much still getting over chemotherapy treatments. 

Despite using the ice gloves and mittens some, I did develop some neuropathy from chemotherapy, too. (That’s not to say cryotherapy didn’t help. I bet it would have worked better had I been able to keep them on the entire time. The cold was too much for me.) I feel a numbness in the bottoms of my feet. It makes running a bit uncomfortable.  

A friend of mine who’s been through cancer treatment told me that I will eventually feel like myself, but it might be a few years, not months. 

I tell you this because a few cancer survivors and caretakers have reached and told me they read my column. If they were to measure their recovery or that of a loved one by what I’m writing about, I’d hate for them to think I’m back to running full speed without any issues a month after chemo. I’m not. My mind wants to. I miss seeing Charleston from the 35th street bridge as I’m running across it. 

And I haven’t given up on running. I have hopes that I’ll eventually get back to full speed. I know I will. To be honest, I was never that fast a runner anyway. 

In other news, as of this week my radiation treatments are halfway through. Because they’re five days a week, they really have flown by. As I wrote last time, I still haven’t noticed any reaction to the treatments. 

I should be finished with them — and cancer treatment altogether– in a little more than two weeks. Can’t wait until I can officially call myself cancer a survivor rather than a patient.

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Column: Good riddance, chemo port

Lying in the hospital bed before I was taken back to surgery, I had the briefest of second thoughts about removing the port that had been implanted below my collar bone since just before treatment started. The port is what the oncology nurses used to administer chemotherapy and draw blood for tests.
Before my cancer treatment started, I was given a choice: my veins or a port.
The nurses could put an IV in my veins each time they administered chemo, or the surgeon could implant the chemo port into a vein in my chest and have chemo administered through it. I chose the port.
Now, more than a month after chemotherapy ended, I was finally going to be rid of it. I’ve noticed that toward the end of cancer treatment, if it’s going well, there are several milestones. That day I had reached another one.


And while I had been happy about having the port removed, I started to get nervous.
What if the cancer comes back? What if I have it removed only to find another tumor somewhere?
I keep hearing (mostly from fellow patients) that triple negative breast cancer is aggressive. Part of me is scared that I’ll have to have another port, and go through more chemotherapy.
I can’t remember exactly what the surgeon said when I told him about my doubts. At a previous appointment, when I said the word “recurrence,” he smacked my hand.
Even if, down the road, the cancer returns, it’s good to have the foreign object out of my body for now, he told me.
I woke up after a quick outpatient surgery that day with no port. A bandage covered the making of what will soon be a scar on the left side of my chest. Goodbye and good riddance.

My radiation treatments are going OK so far. I haven’t noticed any skin reaction or exhaustion, which are the two things I was told to expect. Any tiredness I do feel I attribute to getting up earlier than usual.
My treatments have me up and at the Cancer Center an hour before work starts. I can’t complain about that; I asked them for early time slots. Treatments are five days a week.
The process starts with changing into a hospital gown. Then I’m taken back to a room with a linear accelerator — the machine that delivers the radiation. The worst part may be lying on an uncomfortable bench with my arms above my head while the machinery swirls around me, occasionally beeping. It may also be the country music the therapists play.
The treatments themselves are quick.
I’m usually done in time to go get coffee on my way to work.

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Column: A new appreciation for pink

When I came back to my office earlier this month for the first time since March, I found a bright pink bulletin board with pictures of my face, printouts of this column and information about breast cancer.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and I am literally the face of breast cancer within the building. Later, in another really sweet gesture, the Kanawha County Commission recognized me for continuing to work while undergoing cancer treatment in a proclamation for Breast Cancer Awareness month. Then I was interviewed for a local health podcast that focused on the disease for this month.

The bulletin board at work.


But believe it or not, when I started this column and my blog, my goal was not to raise awareness of breast cancer. Selfishly, I started writing as a way to cope with my diagnosis and treatment.
All I’ve ever wanted to do is write. So when life gave me breast cancer, that’s what I wrote about. If the column and blog increased people’s awareness that women in their 30s get breast cancer, or if it encouraged women to get a mammogram, that’s amazing. I’m glad to have been a part of that.
Generally in years past, I’ve been annoyed at some of the things done in the name of breast cancer awareness. It deserves attention, to be sure. I’m willing to bet that raising awareness of breast cancer over the years has increased screening rates and saved countless lives.
The bulletin board, proclamation and podcast are all great ways of raising awareness.
But some of the messages put on t-shirts associated with breast cancer awareness are just crass. The sayings “Save Second Base,” or “Save the Tatas,” really annoy me. You will never catch me in a t-shirt that says “Cancer touched my boobs, so I kicked its ass.” I do appreciate the sentiment, though.
Then there’s October 13, No Bra Day. Apparently on this day women go without bras as a way to raise awareness of the disease. The point of awareness is to encourage women to get their mammograms or do self exams.
So what does going without a bra for a day do to encourage women to get a mammogram? Nothing on its own.
This month, if you’re looking for a way to increase Breast Cancer Awareness and save lives, before you commit to going without underwear for a day, encourage your sisters or girlfriends to schedule their annual mammograms. If you can, consider giving to an organization like the WVU Cancer Institute, which operates Bonnie’s Bus, a mobile mammography clinic that provides screenings and education to women. Or give to the American Cancer Society, which among other things funds cancer research.
The color pink is a part of breast cancer awareness month that I’ll forever see differently after this year. Pink used to bring to mind something soft and cute. Something pretty or sweet. But none of those describes having breast cancer.
These days, I don’t feel cute at all.
There’s nothing cute about having a head with just peach fuzz a few weeks after ending chemotherapy. It’s not cute having half of each eyebrow and just a few eyelashes.
Nothing was pretty about having four rounds of Adriamycin and Cytoxan that made me nauseated, or the 12 rounds of Taxol that’s turned my finger nails a yellowish color. It’s not cute having a body that’s still sore a month after chemotherapy.
A woman’s body after a double mastectomy is not cute. There’s nothing pretty about the medical debt that people accumulate while battling cancer.
Having cancer isn’t cute or sweet. It’s been incredibly hard sometimes. It takes courage to get a life-threatening diagnosis and get up and go to work the next day. It takes physical strength to endure the chemotherapy regime. It’s not easy to feel peoples’ stares when you’re out in public without a wig or a head covering.
Breast cancer pink isn’t soft or sweet. It’s brave and strong. It’s powerful.
I hope my sisters wear it proudly.

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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.