Column: The end of cancer treatment

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Note: This column, published Sunday, is the last I’ll write about treatment for the Gazette-Mail. I plan on continuing to write updates here.

As I left the CAMC Cancer Center early Monday morning, I snapped a picture of the parking lot and sky outside. I wanted to remember how I felt walking out those doors after my last radiation treatment.


I carried with me a sheet of paper from the Radiation Oncology staff certifying that I had finished my prescribed course of treatment with “courage, determination and good nature.”


This is the last cancer column you’ll read from me. I am officially done with breast cancer treatment.
Even now after 28 rounds, my skin hasn’t had too bad a reaction to radiation. It’s red and itches like crazy, but there are no blisters. I’ve been treating it with a mixture of hydrocortisone cream and Aquaphor. I continue to feel tired, as I expected to.


From diagnosis to surgery to chemotherapy and radiation, these past eight months have been a fight. A global pandemic has only made it more difficult. In some ways, I’m not the person I was before March. I don’t look or feel like her. I’ve still got a ways to go until I’m completely recovered. I’ll always be onguard for signs the cancer has returned.


But I realize how lucky I am to get this far. Hang around a cancer center for too long and you’ll hear stories of people who are not as fortunate as I have been. I think about them often.If there’s one thing this year has taught me, it’s that I can’t take my life and health for granted. I’m grateful that I caught the tumor in my breast when I did. I’m grateful for the doctors and nurses who treated me. And for the family members and friends who have supported me.


Throughout treatment, writing this column has been an outlet for me. It’s been a way for me to process what I’m going through. At times I’ve felt like my readers have humored me by continuing to follow along. It’s not always been exciting, and I appreciate everyone who has trekked with me over these weeks.


Thank you to everyone who has reached out after reading with words of encouragement. You have certainly made this time in my life a little bit easier.


I hope my story is a reminder to you not to skip out on those doctor’s visits and cancer screenings. I hope it teaches you the importance of knowing your body. At 35, I didn’t even have regular mammograms before I was diagnosed. Had I not noticed the lump myself, I could not have had the mammogram and biopsy that ultimately confirmed my cancer. My cancer fight could have faced an entirely different outcome had I been diagnosed later.


If you’re caring for someone with cancer, I hope these glimpses into my life have helped you understand more about what your loved one is going through. If, God forbid, you ever get cancer or face another life-threatening illness, I hope reading this has helped you believe that if I can get through treatment, you can too.


I’d like to thank the Gazette-Mail for giving me the opportunity to write about my experience here. Despite the circumstances, it’s been a great feeling having my byline back in the newspaper each week. I had missed it so much.


I hope you’ll continue to follow my writing on my blog and that one day I have another chance to write for you, next time about something other than cancer.

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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.

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: 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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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.