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.

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. 

Life updates!

Time for life updates and shit!

So I haven’t written on my blog in about a month! I guess I’ve been busy living life, which is probably a good thing. I am THREE months post chemo now so it’s time for an update!

I’ll start with the hair. The hair on my head is growing, but at a glacial pace. And it looks like I have early male pattern baldness because it’s really sparse and patchy on the top of my head. It’s very Prince William-esq. But on the bright side, I bought a fab new wig that is very Kate Middleton-esq, so it’s a royal win! The hair on the rest of my body seems to have no problem growing. I’m seriously going to invest in laser hair removal soon. I went 4 months without having to shave anything and now that it’s growing again, I feel like Chewbacca. BTW, can you imagine how many sessions Chewbacca would need to laser all his hair off? Just putting that out there.

My eyebrows are back! The eyelashes are back also but they’re really short. I can’t even curl them, so I’m still rocking the falsies when I go out with friends. If you want some amazing ones, check Sephora for their Luxe collection. Mine stayed on overnight and they look fluffy and real.

Also, I’ve had some not-so-cool updates. Last week, when I met with my oncologist we found a lump in my right breast (the one that had cancer) right under the skin. I had it sonogrammed twice and looked at by three different doctors and ALL of them agreed that it was NOT a cancer recurrence. My breast surgeon, who performed the double-mastectomy last year, said it was actually “fat necrosis” which he said was common in women who have had mastectomy operations. Basically, he said that there was a pocket of fat (ew) in my boob and it “died” when they removed all the tissue because it couldn’t get enough blood circulation. So it shriveled up into a ball and died.

So actually, I found the lump first. The morning of my oncologist appointment, I felt my new circus boobs out of curiosity because I knew that she was going to do the same thing at my appointment. Well, fuck. I found that lump and the gates of hell opened up. I was hysterical, hyperventilating, couldn’t breath, couldn’t stop crying. I was a hot mess. HOW could this happen again?? Jeff insisted on going with me to my appointment after he saw how hysterical I was. As soon as my doctor walked into the exam room I burst into tears and screamed with a squeaky, quivering voice that I found a new lump. She quickly assured me that it was nearly impossible that I would have a recurrence this soon after chemo, but nonetheless she scheduled a sonogram, appointment with my breast surgeon, and a PET scan.

I had my PET scan today. My surgeon and oncologist both told me that it probably wasn’t necessary, but since it was already scheduled and approved by my insurance it was up to me if I wanted to do it. To me, it is necessary. Last year when I had the first lump in my boob, I was told by half a dozen doctors that it probably wasn’t cancer and that a biopsy wasn’t necessary. Well I’m fucking done with doctors saying whishy-washy shit like “probably” and “not likely” so I need hard proof these days. I’m not saying I don’t trust the doctors; but, if my health is in question I need actual test results to show if I’m healthy and not an opinion or observation that I’m healthy.

In other news, the PET scan that I insisted on getting was a disaster. For those who have never had a PET scan, what they do is inject you with a radioactive tracer first (which is supposed to detect any cancer cells in the photos), and then you lay down in a big tube thingy that looks kind of like a tanning bed and it scans your body for about 15 minutes. Science. It took three nurses and eight different stabs in my arm to get the tracer IV injected into my arm. EIGHT. Three on the bend in my arm, two on my wrist, and three on the top of my hand. The winner-winner-chicken-dinner was… a vein on my knuckle. Holy shit balls of fire, if someone ever tries to inject a needle into your knuckle you need to stop them and then karate chop them in the throat. I actually almost passed out during the whole ordeal because you also can’t eat food for 12 hours prior to the exam. And yesterday I was forced to eat a carb-free, sugar-free, caffeine-free, alcohol-free prison/torture diet that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. So basically the whole experience sucked a big bag of dicks. (sorry mom)

Afterwards, I stormed out of the hospital godzilla-style, shooting lasers out of my eyes and eating anything in my sight (all while looking like a heroin addict with track marks all over my arms). Seriously though, as soon as I got home I probably ate 3,000 calories worth of food because I was so hangry. I don’t understand how celebs deal with not eating carbs and sugar.

I am told that I’ll get the results on either Friday or Monday. I have a good feeling about this though! I don’t think the cancer is back! But please send good vibes, say prayers, do an Indian dance, pray to your Justin Beiber shrine, whatever. I need that shit. It’s still rattling my nerves hard core that I even need a PET scan, and that I found a lump in my stupid fake boob. Ugh. I’ll update my blog when I get my results so stay tuned. Check those boobs ladies. Ciao betches. Xoxo

2 Months Post Chemo

So it’s been almost 2 months since my last chemo and I’ve had a few interesting developments to share. Weird body changes happening here guys. I think menopause and puberty joined forces and formed an evil axis of power set to self destruct my sanity.

First of all, all of my eyelashes and 90% of my eyebrows fell out. WTF! That completely blindsided me. I was extremely excited that my sparse lashes and brows would start growing back but instead, they started falling out despite my liberal application of expensive eyelash serums. (Sigh… what a waste of money too.) I even bought a Groupon to get eyelash extensions! (which expires in March, again WTF/FML)

On the bright side, I am now slowly mastering the art of drawing on eyebrows and applying those defiant fake eyelashes. For any men reading this, applying fake eyelashes is the worst. It’s tedious. It takes multiple tries. We will probably cry at some point, and yes you can literally poke your eye out or glue our eye lids closed. I’ve done both. Men, the next time you consider going out on a date with a wrinkled shirt because you’re too lazy to iron it, please think about the horrors of fake eyelashes and remember that this is the kind of shit girls go through to get ready. Now go iron your damn shirt.

Some parts of my body are losing hair, and others are regrowing hair. Like, the top of my head is not really growing hair yet, but my legs are (cute). The new hair growing on my body has also created a super-neat phenomenon called Kertosis Pilaris. This is a skin condition caused by a buildup of keratin in the hair follicles which result in tiny red bumps all over your skin. It looks like a rash or rosacea and it’s all over my legs and arms. Just regular lotion is supposed to help, but I haven’t noticed any difference yet.

I know, I’m painting a very attractive picture of myself: hairless, sweaty-from-hot-flashes, rash-covered-alligator-skin, hairy legs. Hot.

Oh yeah, and can’t forget about nails. I had a pedicure last weekend and the nail technician said he thinks my big toe nails are about to fall off. So I’ve got that going for me.

Lastly, I have one small good side effect post-chemo! Since I started taking Tamoxifen last month, I’ve had a decreased appetite. Nothing drastic, but I don’t have the urge to stuff pizza in my face all day. So I think that’s a win. So far, the only downside to Tamoxifen is that it gives me crazy hot and cold flashes.

Oh God, I’m essentially describing myself as a hideous, disgusting monster. I’m not self-hating on myself; I’m not really that bad. And I do maintain my dignity: I never go outside of the house without at least doing my eyebrows and throwing on a wig. I don’t wear fake eyelashes every day, and somehow I still manage to pass as a somewhat attractive member of the female race. (I think my new cleavage helps considerably.)

Although I’m having some annoying post-chemo side effects, I’m incredibly grateful that they are POST-CHEMO side effects. So can I really complain? Hells to the no. It feels so free and refreshing to be finished, that nothing can dim this minty-fresh-outta-chemo-plus-I-got-new-boobs feeling. I am cancer free and I’ll take that any day over a full set of real eyelashes. 🙂 Ciao betches!