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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: 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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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.

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.”

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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.