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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

Column: Going it alone at chemotherapy

If you have to have chemotherapy, the Charleston Area Medical Center Cancer is as nice a place to have it as you could ask for. 

I remember writing about the Cancer Center’s fundraising and development on the site of the old Watt Powell Park when I was a reporter. Now I’m at the Cancer Center once a week for chemotherapy, plus for the occasional checkup with my oncologist. 

As you walk through the door, you see a big wall of windows and a chandelier above a comfortable looking seating area on the first floor. The second floor has a nice patio area that I’ve never been on. 

On chemotherapy days, I sit in a recliner in my own little station with a television and a remote control. 

The nurses offer me warm blankets and sometimes snacks. I’m separated from other patients with a glass panel to one side and an aisle to the other. It’s comfortable.

In the time of COVID-19 though, the Cancer Center can be a lonely place, as well. 

A big red sign sitting at the entrance to the hospital warns “COVID ALERT. No visitors are permitted.” Hospital workers take your temperature and screen you with questions about potential exposure to the virus with each visit you make. 

Cancer patients have to be even more careful during this time to avoid getting COVID-19. Chemotherapy can make your immune system compromised. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that some cancer patients are more likely to experience complications from COVID-19.  So I’m glad the hospital is taking extra precautions to keep us all safe. 

The no-visitor policy means chemotherapy patients attend their infusions alone. (I’m assuming there may be some exceptions to that with patients who are sicker than me.)

Once I got a message from CAMC that patients could bring one visitor with them. My mom drives in from Kentucky each week to drop me off and pick me up, so I invited her to come with me that week. Then I discovered that it didn’t apply to the Cancer Center. That makes sense to me. I figure it will be a while before that’s an option for cancer patients again.

In the waiting room, we wear masks. To encourage social distancing, only some seats are available to sit in. That makes it difficult to strike up conversations with people beside you in the waiting room. Last week I wanted to tell a fellow patient how much I liked her floral printed face mask. I figured we might have a lot to talk about. But there wasn’t a good way of getting her attention, so I let it slide. 

Some cancer patients might be bothered that they can’t take someone to chemotherapy.  Many people drive much further than me for their appointments, and the company might be nice. 

But I don’t mind going to chemotherapy treatments alone. Until I started using the cryotherapy gloves and socks, I would bring a work computer and answer emails and do what I can. It’s a nice and quiet place to work. 


Speaking of cryotherapy, I gave it another shot last week and again I hated the cold. I also worried a little bit about restricting blood flow to my hands and feet during chemotherapy. I don’t want to do anything to prevent the chemotherapy drugs from doing their job and killing any possible cancer cell in my body. But one of my favorite doctors assured me this week that wearing the gloves and socks on my hands and feet is not likely to prevent the drugs from doing their jobs. Especially since my cancer was in my breast. So I’ll try again.


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.

Column: Bidding farewell to the red devil

Chemotherapy is not done, but I have reached a sort of milestone. I’ve had my last treatment of the drugs Adriamycin and Cytoxan, or A/C, as cancer patients commonly refer to the pair. In the world of cancer treatment, Adriamycin is often called the “Red Devil,” both for its bright, red Kool-Aid color and its nasty side effects.
The drug can cause tissue damage if not administered correctly. It can also cause heart damage, though that’s a lesser occurring side effect.
I’ve read that Adriamycin can cause burns if it comes in contact with skin. Instructions on WebMD call for anyone who comes in contact with it to “immediately and completely wash the skin with soap and water.” If it gets in your eyes, flush them and “seek immediate medical attention,” it says.
Nurses at the Cancer Center put on gowns to administer it.
Other common side effects include low white blood cell count, increased risk of bleeding from low platelet count, appetite changes, nail changes, hair loss, nausea, vomiting and mouth sores.
Farewell, Adriamycin. I will not miss you.
Next up in my cancer treatment is 12 rounds of weekly Taxol treatments. While some of the side effects for Taxol will overlap with Adriamycin and Cytoxan, my doctor tells me Taxol is typically much easier on bodies than A/C treatment. I am cautiously optimistic that the next three months will be better than the last two.
Like everything else when you’re new to cancer treatment, I’ll have to wait and see.

So far, I’ve found chemotherapy to be daunting. I typically can predict when the bad days and nausea are coming. Not every day is bad, but bad days are very bad. After the last round, I got sick in the office of a new doctor on my first visit there. I should have canceled the appointment, but I underestimated how bad I felt that morning. I’ve mused about this more on my blog.
I don’t want to be too negative about chemotherapy. After all, it’s saving my life. I’m grateful for that.
But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 245,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Going through chemotherapy makes you wonder why we haven’t come up with better ways to treat a disease that affects so many people.
I consider myself lucky and my reaction to the drugs mild. I’ve heard of women with what sounds like way worse reactions than mine.
It makes me sad to think that some cancer patients live out their last days with the adverse side effects of chemotherapy. On my worst days I think, this really is no way to live.

Hair loss is one side effect that is not likely to go away for me right now, but I’ve found something that helps. I’ve been wearing a pink wig.
If hair loss can be described as fun, this wig is making it fun. And the reactions to it in my new Facebook profile picture have all been positive.
I don’t typically wear bright colors in my hair. In fact I rarely do much of anything with my hair. That, more than anything, might be the tell-tale sign that I’m wearing a wig for people who know me personally. It’s easier to have pink hair while I’m working from home. I doubt I’d get by with it or even have the nerve to try it in an office setting.
But right now, it’s helping to lift my spirits.


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.

Column: Reeling from a haircut

It’s been a week since my hairdresser buzzed my hair off and I still get startled sometimes when I catch my reflection in the mirror.
I had been dreading cutting off my hair for obvious reasons, but my hairdresser (shout out to Jim at Spa Bliss in Charleston) made it fun. He cut my hair first into a mullet before buzzing the rest of it off. I thought I would be crying, but we ended up laughing a lot.
I’ve been wearing baseball caps: a light pink one with the words “girls support girls,” and a gray one with some fitness company’s logo on it. The former was a gift from my sweet co-workers, the latter was a freebie my boyfriend passed along to me.
The head scarves I ordered on Amazon are all in a drawer in my bathroom. I’ve watched a lot of Youtube videos about how to tie them, but I still don’t do it well enough to feel comfortable wearing one while I’m out in public.
Without hair, I look something like a Buddhist monk. My family had a more generous description, comparing me to Demi Moore in “GI Jane.” Frankly, I don’t see it.
I don’t like not having any hair. I don’t like the feel of the tiny hairs as I run my fingers over my head. I don’t like the way my head gets cold sometimes. I definitely do not like the way I look.
I know this is the second column I’m devoting to losing my hair. It may seem trivial to focus on my appearance while I’m facing a life-threatening disease, but breast cancer has such a profound impact on a woman’s body image and appearance that I think it bears repeating.
I’ve been fortunate, so far, that when the surgeon removed my tumor, he left my body looking mostly the same. There’s only a three-inch scar. Some women have one or both breasts removed completely and reconstructed. I know that down the road, should the cancer return, that could be my fate, too.
I’ve ordered a dark, wavy wig. Spa Bliss used a sample of my hair to order a wig in my own hair color.
I’ve never been one to dye my hair bright colors, but I’m going to use the opportunity to play with wig colors and styles. Why not? This is a good time to try out new things.
Besides the haircut, something else that was new happened to me. For the first time, I felt sick from the chemo. Not really sick, but I had enough nausea to have a bad afternoon. I was scared that nausea was going to be my new normal, that I’d never feel well again until after treatment.
With some medication and some rest, though, I’m feeling much better and I’m grateful.
Until then, I didn’t really know what I was up against facing cancer and cancer treatment. Writing about my experience here and on my blog has been a way of processing it for me. People keep telling me that what I’m doing is brave and inspiring, but I don’t see it that way. Writing has been a way for me to remain detached from it, to respond to it like the reporter I am at heart.
But last week when I felt sick, cancer felt so big. Writing felt like a silly and ineffective way of trying to contain it.
I’m going to keep at it, though. I can only hope that someone will get as much out of reading this as I get out of writing it. I still feel like my readers are indulging me. Thank you for that.