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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
For this week’s column, I wrote about being referred to a fertility specialist before starting chemo to talk about the possibility of having kids after treatment.
Here’s an excerpt:
“My doctor at first tells me he doesn’t know of any reason I couldn’t have a baby after treatment, as long as I waited long enough. But he ultimately refers me to a fertility clinic in North Carolina that will freeze my eggs and store them, just in case I need them later, if I pay them enough.
I Google the average costs for such a service, check my insurance plan (fertility services are not covered) and then quickly decide to let fate determine whether I’ll ever give birth.
Between that and paying for the impending medical bills for cancer treatment, I couldn’t afford to have children, anyway.
Babies or not will become one more decision this disease will make for me. Just like it could ultimately decide if I live or die.
You can read the whole thing here.
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.
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.
“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.