On the Cancer Roadmap: Fighting, Healing, and Mystery
It is 2am. I usually sleep well throughout the night, but I am up with thoughts racing through my head.
Two weeks ago, after a Taxol chemotherapy treatment, I was hospitalized due to neutropenia (dangerously low white blood cell count resulting from chemo, a condition that makes it impossible for bodies to fight infections, while also masking symptoms, making it problematic for patients to express specific pain to find the infection source).
Since that stint, my oncologist switched my chemo cocktail from Taxol to CMF (Cytoxan/Methotrexate/Fluorouracil). CMF is a historically tried-and-true chemotherapy used for breast cancer patients that may also address my autoimmune issues with the Methotrexate. The CMF only requires three treatments instead of the five I had left of Taxol.
So… after yesterday, I only have ONE MORE CHEMO SESSION!
This will mark the end of a chapter in the book of cancer. I only have one more month of the routine of medi-port-access, blood labs, oncologist check-in, chemo suite, steroid/anti-nausea/chemo infusion, and one last unstable walk to the car as the toxins course through my veins. There will be just one more month of chemo side effects. I felt like treatment was never-ending; now it is imminent
The physical effects of the CMF haven’t been significantly different than the others. I am still nauseous, and have some vision difficulties and also severe bone and joint pain from the Neulasta shots I self-administer the day after treatment. This drug works within the bone marrow to stimulate white blood cell growth (and ideally avoid neutropenia).
Nevertheless, despite this light at the end of the tunnel, I feel like now have more mental anguish to add to the physical maladies.
I have been afraid of the post-chemo blues. I have also been afraid to face myself and move from a place of fighting to a place of healing. Cancer is an anxiety-stricken illness, because it is more or less invisible and the “fighting” doesn’t have a length of a race to run. Taking “HIGH ALERT” chemotherapy drugs regularly has made me feel like a fighter, and I have tried to deal with the daily ill effects of chemo like a champ.
Now, moving towards one more surgery, ten years of hormone therapy pills and seeing the oncologist every few months instead of every week, doesn’t make me feel like I won the fight, it makes me anxious that my trainers are stepping away and this mysterious cancer is just hiding somewhere else.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer I remember feeling disconnected — almost like it was not the truth — because I felt fine — my breast did not hurt (in fact, I could barely feel the affected area). I felt as tired as an 8-week postpartum woman should, but no worse and certainly not afflicted by a grave illness at age 32 with no family history of the disease. Yet, I was met with serious-talk from doctors, tears from friends and family, and more flowers, balloons, and pink-themed trinkets than I have received in my lifetime. The barrage of doctor appointments, set up with unprecedented haste for the healthcare world, and a rapidly scheduled double mastectomy shocked my mind into believing it was serious.
In the testing-and-waiting-weeks I binged watched the C-word, The Fault in Our Stars, and the documentary The Emperor of All Maladies. I read all published Kindle cancer memoirs. I imagine most in my shoes would avoid depressing-cancer-related media (particularly the ones with known and inevitable sad endings), but I could not get enough of it. Since I did not feel sick, I had to convince my brain that I was indeed ill — in a way that pathology reports could not convey.
During treatment I have given myself a lot of leeway. I act sad when I am sad, I eat what I want, I sleep when I can and I cut down significantly on my workload — spending through savings, but believing that was a necessary expense for the fight. Sometimes that fight included buying spring dresses for my baby girl. Irresponsible or not, I felt like I fought to get through each day as best I could, and many were not easy. Hot flashes have caused me to rip off my hat in a sweaty mania in public, much to the horror of the easily impressionable youngsters in my midst. Nevertheless, being bald was a mark of my fight.
I have to start changing my life back to the life it will be, starting with G.I. Jane hair and menopause, at age 32 and I am afraid to do that. I am definitely not ready, but I see the time looming and want to be prepared — whatever it may look like.