Category

Chemo

Fear and Loathing in Allergy Season

The incorrigible villain known as pollen is once again plundering my lungs of breath, scorching my throat, and welcoming me into its lukewarm arms with dual ear infections. Post-cancer, I’ve had a difficult time finding antibiotics and medicines that respond to my body in a satisfactory way. My immune system is now an extremely callous, obstinate version of what it used to be. In some ways this is good—I generally am sick less often—but when germs and infection do invade, they tend to have a competitive advantage. Chemo changes the body considerably; I never used to have any allergies and now I’m allergic to numerous things including pollen and most of the human race. Cancer hollowed out my old body and refilled it with new contents.

Human nature encourages us to act bitter to these misgivings in life, but what if we decided to embrace the terrible things that have happened to us? Is it wrong to celebrate my sickness as I sit here freezing in two sweatshirts with tissues and various bottles of antibiotics and pills in front of me? I rejoice in these reminders that my health is not guaranteed, because it means I’m alive. Cancer taught me to appreciate the best and the worst of life; the worst sometimes being the more valuable experience.

After cancer, one battle ends and a new war starts. We’ve been dragged and burned through a nuclear war zone and then thrown back onto our trembling legs and told to run back into the world’s unfamiliar embrace. We stumble to recognize this new world we live in, where fear and worry are trivial words for which we no longer recognize their express meaning because they are now intrinsic to our character. We are made of fear, but we’ve internalized it so we can control its power within our conscious and rearrange where it dwells. We conquer fear and vanquish it to the attic in our minds until a small beam of sunlight illuminates its silhouette and exposes the curled up corners of a chilling satisfied smile veiled in the shadows. But we grin back, because when you’ve seen that menacing face, you’re no longer controlled by it. We control the beast. It no longer dictates us; we are free because death does not frighten us.

New beasts may inhabit the darkness: anxiety, depression, hopelessness; but their power is limited to the shackles we place on them. They are defeated in the acknowledgement of them and the ability to govern their size and influence. The moment you stop fearing death is when you can live unadulterated in your lust for life and be present to every raw emotion that unearths from the shadows.

That is where you find the confidence to finally write your own destiny.

This is where you learn to embrace your new post-cancer body and unlock the healing power contained within your mind. It’s how you learn to be the most enthusiastic girl in the world with a recurrent double ear infection and a throat that feels like I’ve swallowed a fucking razorblade.

So feed the beasts you want to grow: confidence, happiness, appreciation, love; in turn, this will starve the ones you wish to die.

 

 

7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting Chemo

Hands and feet in ice!

Chemo drunk is a feeling I can’t justly describe with words and adjectives.

I’ll take you back a bit: It’s December 21 and I’ve just finished my last chemo session at the hospital. I’m home, trying to have a conversation with my mom, but my eyes keep fixating on the velvet glow from a Yankee Candle. She says something funny and I laugh, a few seconds too late.

My mind is soupy and slow, like bisque that’s started to congeal. I hear words but my thoughts are lost in the emptiness of space. I meticulously toil over sentences, calculating each one through my head with the speed of an early edition fax machine. Something metallic catches my eye, the hardware on my mother’s purse, and now I’m hypnotized by how the silver reflects the flickering candle. It feels like my eyes are lost. They don’t know what to look toward, so they find light and drift to it drunkenly. My body is buzzing inside. I’m an old noisy refrigerator.

This feeling is nothing like alcohol intoxication. This is what it feels like to be dying. My cells, both good and bad, are being devoured as the poisonous cocktail of chemotherapy drugs flows through my veins. I’m being brought to the brink of death, just so I can rebuild. It’s war; destroy the enemy with brute force, but the victor suffers the casualties of battle as well.

You don’t want to be left wounded on the battlefield. Chemo is an experience we’re mostly unprepared to handle. My first few times were terrifying and I didn’t know what I was doing or what to expect. So, I’d like to share seven things I wish I had known about chemo before I started.

  1. You should drink so much water during chemo that you will feel like a water balloon. If you can’t drink water, try Gatorade, juice, or popsicles. I suggest you pack a lunch like you’re in third grade and your mom has just let you buy anything from the grocery store. Chemo is time-consuming and boring; knowing that you will have a few hours to sit around and eat whatever you want is something to look forward to.
  2. Ice your feet and toes! I’m shocked at how many hospitals don’t practice this method to prevent neuropathy. My infusion nurse would bring me two buckets of ice water and rubber gloves before chemo. I’d soak my hands/feet for one long, miserable hour during Taxotere (docetaxel) treatment. It’s not fun, but I never had any neuropathy or damage to my nails.
  3. You’re toxic. Your pee and saliva are toxic. The nurse will tell you that you need to flush the toilet at least twice and don’t share food or drinks with people.
  4. Chemo isn’t the only drug you’ll be getting. Steroids, antihistamines, anti-nausea and anti-anxiety drugs are just some of the usual pre-chemo meds. I took Emend (aprepitant), which is a three-day pack of pills that prevents nausea. I never threw up
  5. Dress warmly; hospitals are cold. Bring fuzzy socks or slippers for after your feet get an ice bath.
  6. If your hair falls out, it will start on the 14th day following chemo. And it kind of hurts. It felt like dull needles digging into my scalp. By the time I shaved my head, I just wanted it gone. I also was a little drunk (champagne), because I had a head-shaving party. … Which leads me to my last point. …
  7. You can still have a normal life. I had a party two weeks after my first chemo. I got drunk. I shaved my head. I cried. I sang Elton John songs with my friends until 3 a.m. I was alive. I was grateful. And I’m still alive because I never once let cancer or chemo stop me from living. You’re going to be fine. Drink the martini. Buy the fancy shoes. Keep on living your life, but with a tad more moxie.

Why You Should Never Ignore Your Intuition

I’m sitting in a dimly lit massage room, waiting for the masseuse to come back. A large clap of thunder explodes outside as the lights start to flicker between varying degrees of brightness. Aren’t massages supposed to be Zen, relaxing? This feels like the start of a horror movie. Oh God. How do I leave a note for somebody to please relocate my body to a dressing room at Neiman Marcus instead of the Massage Envy in a shopping center?

My thoughts are interrupted when the door opens. It’s the masseuse lady; she’s holding an iPad, reading over my health questionnaire I filled out moments ago. She has a slightly puzzled, sad look on her face as she reads about my colorful life as told by yes/no/fill-in-the-blank questions. It’s the same look I always get when people see that I had cancer: long puppy dog face.

I smile in an attempt to disrupt this pity party. “Yeah I had breast cancer, I’m fine now. Do you have one of those boob-pillow things? I can’t lay on my stomach very easily with these foobies.” The conversations that follow are predictable. The first question is almost always: “How did you know you had cancer?” Well, I didn’t know. I think that people ask me that because there is a preconceived notion that breast cancer makes you feel sick or it hurts. Like when you know you have a cold because you’re coughing and sneezing. Anna says she assumed that cancer made you feel sick, and that it mainly only happened to older, unhealthy people. Right now, take all those ideas you may have about who gets cancer and bury them. Let them be as dead as Juicy Couture tracksuits.

For two years I unknowingly had cancer. It was 2013 when I discovered that pea-sized lump. I sat paralyzed on the couch, Googling breast cancer for hours as waves of fear washed over me and made my body numb with anxiety. My intuition immediately told me I had cancer. I begged my gynecologist to squeeze me in for a sonogram. After the breast sonogram, I got a call from a very chipper woman “There’s nothing there, you got all worried about nothing!” Her voice was filled with phony enthusiasm, like saccharin and crushed Prozac. But I craved those reassuring words so much that I swallowed every promise she told me and buried the fear deep inside. After my second sonogram 6 months later, and again at 12 months I was told “You’re fine!” Did she really think I was fine, or did she just brush me off as a 28-year old hypochondriac? Was I crazy to question her about why a non-cancerous tumor was getting bigger? Why didn’t she recommend a biopsy? We trust these people with our lives, but in reality they don’t enjoy unearthing bad news just as much as we don’t enjoy hearing it. Maybe that’s why she didn’t dig, and neither did I. I now realize that a framed piece of paper saying that someone is a doctor will never trump a gut intuition.

Finally, I went to a different doctor who biopsied the lump, and well, you know the rest. I guess I had to grow a backbone and stand up for my intuition. It was either that, or start digging myself a grave. I could have buried my head in the sand, and listened to my doctors who all told me that I couldn’t get breast cancer because I was too young, too healthy, and had no family history of the disease. I’m not saying don’t listen to your doctor; I’m saying listen to yourself first and foremost and find a doctor who agrees.

I’m sure I’ll still get asked all of those questions a thousand times more, and I’m happy to answer them. But please educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of breast cancer. It could just save your life.

Namaste, ladies.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

Go ahead, insult me. I dare you.

There is a disheveled little karaoke bar that is walking distance from my old address. It’s across from a strip of beach that’s lined with predominantly vacant snowbird condo buildings that are older than me. Inside the nautical-themed bar, it’s a sea of peppered gray and balding heads bobbing above a tide of Tommy Bahama button-ups and sun-bleached T-shirts advertising various Key West bars. It’s the least pretentious bar you could ever imagine visiting.

The South Florida city where I live is famously pretentious. It’s a place where money and beauty are common, and deciding whether to drive the Bentley or the Maybach to the grocery store is an actual choice for a lot of people. Where the hard-bodied weekend warriors masquerade through the sleek nightlife in their designer camouflage to atone for their insecurities. They’re peacocks fanning out their Chanel feathers.

The karaoke bar is a sanctuary away from the peacocks. After chemo, I sought out these safe places where I could avoid the size 0 birds and their irrationally beautiful skin and hair. Girls can be cruel, and when you don’t have hair, eyebrows, or eyelashes, the thought of being caught in the sightline of a Regina George-type (Mean Girls) will make you sweat like a polar bear on South Beach.

That evening, I was wearing a long, brown wig and a floppy, black hat. I had on fake eyelashes and stenciled eyebrows. It always was quite exhausting to get my face ready for public view, but I did it wearily because I needed a liquid remedy with friends after my week. Upon ordering our drinks at the bar, I overheard a male voice near me say, “Why would she wear a hat indoors at night? It’s dark out. You’d look better in that hat, anyways, babe.”

I froze. I came here to escape those exact words that he spoke, and yet here I was in my secure little nest being judged. The peacocks had infiltrated. I could have pretended that I didn’t hear it. But I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t stand up to this pejorative frat boy in the name of all of those who have been victims of the mean girls and boys in life.

So, I turned slowly to him with squinty eyes and said,“Oh, you don’t like my hat? If you want to know why I’m wearing a hat indoors, then you should just ask me. Because this is why.” I dramatically ripped off my hat and wig to reveal my bald head. “I had cancer. So, NEXT TIME … before you open your mouth to judge someone, you’d better think about me (insert expletive).” Drop mic.

The horrified faces of the frat boy and the girl almost made me feel bad for what I had done. Almost.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only time something like that happened. Cancer can make you fragile, but its moments like these that will ignite a fire deep within. We have a confidence that is unshakable because it does not rely on our outward appearance. Go ahead, insult me. I dare you.

By condemning each other, we’re only breaking ourselves and submerging our own insecurities — women, especially. We need to stick together. We need to empower each other instead of condemning, because a rising tide lifts all boats. I encourage you to strip away your own intangible veils the way I ripped off my wig. If we remove the façade, we’ll realize we’re all just men and women fighting the same struggles.

Bury the gossip, the office chatter, the neighborhood rants. Who are you really competing with or trying to impress? Think about it. And then go watch Mean Girls for a good laugh.

This article first appeared on breastcancer-news.com.

White Lies, Rainbows and Puppies

White Lies, Rainbows and Puppies: Sometimes We Just Need a Good Cry

Sometimes I get really sick of talking about cancer. I get sick of hearing my own voice, of talking about wigs and boobs, of posting photos of my chemo-hair updates with the inflated enthusiasm of an elf on crack. At times, I want to pretend that it all never happened. To never speak the word cancer again. To never write a single syllable or utter a single breath on the topic. Sometimes, my overzealous optimism becomes too full and embellished; it collapses beneath the burden of its own weight. It’s a difficult job to always be a cheerleader.

Sometimes I just want to talk about cat memes and tacos. Like, what’s cancer?

When a person asks about my cancer experiences, it can be an out-of-body experience. I am standing right next to this human who looks like me, watching her talk. “Chemo didn’t even make me sick. Me and my friends went out to a beach bar and drank vodka martinis a few days after my second chemo!” Remember that show VH1 Pop Up Videos? A white conversation bubble pops on the screen. “True Story: She had one drink, 8 days after chemo and had to leave the bar because she was nauseous and had unbearable heartburn! LOL.” That info nugget indicts me of my white lies. Of my cancer propaganda that narrates an altered story.

I will never outwardly admit that things weren’t all rainbows and puppies. It’s the big sister in me who is being intrinsically protective. I’m hiding the callous truths from my friends and family who may get cancer at some point in their lives. I’m guarding my own ego. Because, as bad as things may get, I am the type who never will admit to it. It’s mind over matter.

As a cancer survivor, we all have a myriad of internal struggles about coming to terms with what we’ve been through. Everyone will say “You’re so strong, you’re so brave.” In truth, we don’t feel that way. We try to act fearless for everyone else’s sake. Brave? Me? Bravery is when you run into a burning building to save a baby. We’re not running head-first into cancer. We didn’t choose this. We’re running head first into survival. And it can be exhausting.

So, forgive me and forgive us, when we’re not always standing tall with our hands on our hips and projecting a rainbow beacon of bravery like a pink Care Bear. As much as we wish we were a magical cartoon with superpowers, we’re mortal humans who still put on our unicorn yoga pants one leg at a time.

So, if you’re a friend or family member aboard this ugly rollercoaster with us, just know that sometimes we just want stillness. Sometimes we don’t want to talk about cancer like it was an educational summer camp we attended and came home adorned in badges and medals. Sometimes we just need to hide in a closet and cry.

We are grateful and happy to be alive, but it’s equally gratifying to occasionally have a good ugly-faced cry and think about how far we’ve come. We recall those little white lies that we told our friends and family, “Oh, I feel great! Surgery was a breeze.” Because, unless you’ve been there, you’ll never be able to handle our horror stores of physical pain and aching despair.

But we know the real truth. The stories we tell others may have a fake sparkly tint to them, but it’s not without reason. We rewrite them to selflessly protect you. And that’s what I believe makes us brave.

*Article first published 4/28/17 at Breastcancer-news.com by me, duh.