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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: 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: 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.

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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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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.