Why I Wear Pink, Part 4 — The Chemo
Have you ever heard one of those drug advertisements on the television or radio where half of the ad is the drug benefits, and the other half of the ad is all about the side effects?
What would you think about this list?
- Hair loss
- Easy bruising and bleeding
- Anemia (low red blood cell counts)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Appetite changes
- Mouth, tongue, and throat problems such as sores and pain with swallowing
- Nerve and muscle problems such as numbness, tingling, and pain
- Skin and nail changes such as dry skin and color change
- Nail loss
- Urine and bladder changes and kidney problems
- Weight changes
- Cognitive changes affecting concentration and focus
- Mood changes
- Changes in libido and sexual function
- Fertility problems
- Metallic taste in the mouth
- No sense of taste from food
Sounds like some pretty bad stuff, right? Might make you think twice about taking that for your blood pressure or cholesterol.
But wait, there’s more!
That’s the list of side effects from chemotherapy — just a general list. It doesn’t count the specific list of side effects which can include:
- Arthralgias and myalgias, pain in the joints and muscles.
- Peripheral neuropathy (numbness and tingling of the hands and feet)
- Hypersensitivity reaction (basically an allergic reaction)
- Heart problems
- Hand-Foot syndrome
- Low white blood cell count
Let me tell you, chemo is a bitch. I know, because I watched my wife go through it.
Here we are, in the 21st century. We have vaccines for just about everything, we can bomb a car speeding down a highway halfway around the world, pretty much everything we touch is connected somehow to the internet, and scientists argued for much of the last decade about growing an entire animal from a petri dish (remember Dolly the sheep?).
But our treatment for triple negative breast cancer?
Take no prisoners.
Basically the equivalent of early 19th century trench warfare. As one friend told me, hopefully we will look back at chemo in ten years the way we look back at bloodletting and leeching.
But we’re not there yet.
It sucks. Progress is being made, no doubt. Many breast cancers now have targeted treatments now that can reduce the chemo burden. I didn’t even know there were different types of breast cancer until we were forced to learn about it. Let me tell you, that’s not a class you want to take.
I want to tell you about triple-negative breast cancer. That’s what they call all the other breast cancers that don’t have hormone receptors and thus, don’t have targeted treatments. Tara got the pleasure of a visit from that beast. That’s the bad one. Only 10% of breast cancers are triple-negative. It has the highest rate of recurrence and mortality of all of them.
We got lucky.
But it wasn’t easy.
Where to start? Maybe it was the class that Tara was required to take specifically to inform her of the shitty side effects of chemo. Or maybe it was the cardiogram to get a baseline of how well her heart functions. That’s because one of the chemo drugs — while it’s hopefully killing cancer, actually damages your heart muscle too. There’s a lifetime limit as to how many treatments she can get from this drug, it’s so bad. It’s called Adriamycin.
That drug mixed with another one was called “Red Devil.” It literally comes out of the IV bag red, goes into your body, and yep, turns your pee red. And the hangover from that chemo cocktail puts you in bed for a week.
But wait, there’s more.
The second part of that drug cocktail was called Cytoxan. Guess what? That drug was derived from mustard gas.
Yeah, the internationally-banned chemical warfare agent from World War Two. Apparently the guys exposed to it never got cancer. So hey, let’s use it to help people WITH cancer!
Do a google search on mustard gas. Click on the “images” tab of the Google Search results.
It’s some pretty horrifying stuff.
But thousands of women every day have that pushed into their bodies, in the hopes it will kill the cancer inside of them.
Let me tell you my experience with these drugs.
We tried to fight the hair loss. There are actually ice-pack helmets that you can use to try and freeze out the chemo from your scalp and negate hair loss. We tried it. It required dry ice to freeze the ice packs to 20’ below zero and then wrap them around her head. Change them every 30 minutes, for two hours before, three to four hours during, and two hours after chemo treatment. Eight hours of basically frostbiting your scalp into submission. It was miserable.
What we didn’t know? Tara’s particular brand of cancer required chemo that didn’t care how cold her scalp was.
So, after two treatments and four weeks of agonizing nausea, weakness, fatigue, and pain, the hair started falling out. At first it was just a few strands. Then it was clumps.
Let me tell you, picking your wife up off the shower floor while she sobs at the hair that is literally falling off of her head is not fun. It’s devastating.
I tried to help her cut it short. I am a terrible barber, but she looked great with short hair (and does now too!).
It kept falling out, so eventually we shaved it. I don’t think there’s anything quite like giving your wife a buzz cut. It was miserable. She was so strong, so calm. I was a weepy sobbing mess. Not because she was losing her hair. Her strength and beauty — and my weakness and fear — were never more clear to me than when she watched stoically as the clippers shaved her head down to stubble.
Hair loss is the most visible symptom of chemo.
But wait, there’s more.
There’s the nausea and pain. Skin problems, mouth sores. Fingernails and toenails start peeling, cracking, or even falling off. Your digestive system is a wreck.
Some women get thrown into early, overnight menopause. That’s no fun either. Muscle strength and bone density plummet while hot flashes and other unfun symptoms come for a visit.
But wait, there’s more.
If you’re lucky enough to get dose-dense chemo, which is a nice way of saying you get a triple-shot of poison, it destroys your immune system. So you have to get another shot to boost your white blood cells.
That shot ramps up your bone marrow, which is not comfortable. Sometimes the bone pain in your arms and legs is excruciating, and this is on top of all the other nasty chemo symptoms.
And we were lucky. Tara’s doctors really tried to help manage her symptoms. She had five or six drugs she took just to help with the nausea, pain, and inflammation from chemo and white cell booster shots. But it still sucked.
No more carpet-bombing cancer. No more scorched-earth chemo. Let’s send these nasty drugs the way of the leeches and lancets of old.
We’re getting there, but you can help hasten the day when every breast cancer patient has an immunotherapy, a targeted hormone therapy, or a protein-tracking smart bomb that only kills cancer cells and leaves the rest of our wives, mothers, sisters and daughters to tackle all of life’s other challenges and opportunities.
Let’s don’t settle for trench-warfare that leaves nothing but damaged bodies, hurt hearts and aching souls in its wake.
Make a contribution to the Real Men Wear Pink campaign. Support life-saving research to find better treatments and better tests to diagnose and treat breast cancer.
Support programs that help breast cancer patients get the emotional, mental, and physical support they need to get through treatment. Let your donation be your way of telling cancer, “No more!”