Today’s treatment was painless and seemed to go faster than the first one. The scariest moment always seems to be when Patty accesses my port, and that’s nothing. She’s good, so there’s absolutely no pain or discomfort involved in that.
Like the first time, I experienced the unusual Cytoxan side-effect of a kind of stuffy burning in my sinuses as I was receiving it. I also felt it in my head (next to my scalp) and in my ears and throat. It’s uncomfortable, but not painful or horrible. And like the first time, I now feel very tired and I have just a hint of that same anti-nausea induced headache that I had before. I’m trying to stay ahead of it with Tylenol this time. We’ll see what happens as the days progress. Hopefully I learned my lesson last time and I can let go of expectations and just take each day as it comes.
This time there were five other women in the room at the same time I was there. Patty introduced me to two of them right away, and I had a wonderful conversation with them. They are both in their early 50s and gave me all kinds of advice about hair and chemo treatments and side-effects. (Patty told me that Thursdays seem to be “breast cancer days” in the office, so most of the patients are breast cancer patients and are women.)
In talking to my fellow chemo-mates, I was struck by the fact that every cancer patient has a story. The only thing we all have in common, really, is that we have cancer. And sometimes we meet someone else who may have a similar diagnosis or who may have gone through a similar treatment, but even then the story we each tell is as complex, interesting, and unique as each of us. These stories are important and no matter how many I hear, every time I hear a new one I am awed at the power and depth of the human mind and body to fight and to overcome.
The first women I met today were J and M. (I forgot to ask their permission to post their names, so until I do that I’ll just use their initials.) They were talking with each other when I first arrived and it was obvious that they know each other pretty well. As it turns out, they are at close to the same place in their treatments (near the end for both), so they’ve made the journey together and have gotten to know one another throughout. After Patty introduced us they both jumped right in and started asking me questions and telling me their stories. I didn’t take my computer this time, but I felt a little like Harriet the Spy as I jotted notes about our conversations in my notebook so I could remember what I wanted to tell you.
The moment I heard J talking to M, I knew I liked her. You could tell just from listening to hear that she is a dynamic, positive, no-nonsense kind of woman. She looks at this whole thing as a pain in the ass, but takes the viewpoint that it is what it is and that she’ll just get through it. She’s tough and gritty and doesn’t take no for an answer. She wore a red bandana jauntily on her head with funky earrings peeking out from underneath next to wisps of gray-white hair. She had her footrest up and she wore black flip-flops with a little bling on the straps. She is 53 years old, and told me that she discovered a lump in her breast one morning in the shower by accident. She immediately called her doctor, had a mammogram, and one week later was having surgery. I am just realizing now that I neglected to ask her some very important questions, like what kind of cancer she had and whether she had a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. (I suspect lumpectomy, but I don’t know for sure.) J talked about how upset her 23 year old daughter was when she found out her mom had cancer. J’s mom also had breast cancer at 53, but following a mastectomy with no chemo or radiation she survived and lived to be 78 years old before she passed away from unrelated causes. J also told me that she (J) had genetic testing done after she was diagnosed and that it was negative, despite the fact that several of her mom’s sisters also had breast cancer.
At one point J mentioned that her hair was coming in gray even though it was not gray before chemo. I asked her what her hair used to look like and she pulled out a picture to pass around the room to show us. When I saw it, I couldn’t help catching my breath. Her hair was long, luxurious and curly and a stunning shade of golden red. I thought that it matched her electric personality perfectly. She said that she was going to miss it, but I think she’s going to look equally as striking with gray hair. She’s going to be one of those women who can just pull that off with style. J said that when her hair started falling out she poured herself a martini and had her brother-in-law shave it off for her.
M is also in her early 50s and is energetic and positive and chatty. She talked about the trauma of having her hair fall out all over her body in the shower one day, and about what a relief it was to have her hairdresser shave it off later that day. She told me that she purchased two wigs before she lost her hair and that she loves them because they are so much better than her regular hair. She said that now she has the hair she has always wanted. Her words of wisdom were to make sure I either take my wig off when I cook or have someone else cook…she singed one of hers over a hot grill. M noticed a lump in her breast shortly after she had had a mammogram…which did not show the lump. She said that the mammogram images were just centimeters too low and didn’t catch it where it was located on the top of her breast. She had her doctor check it out, and an additional mammogram showed the lump and then she found out that it was cancer.
While we were talking, another woman came in and sat in one of the chairs near us. J, M, and K all knew one another. K is about 60 or so, and she told us that she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 in her right breast. At that time, she had a mastectomy followed by a breast implant. She went through chemo and radiation and then she received a clean bill of health and a positive prognosis 5 years later. She and her doctors thought she was home free, and then she got breast cancer in her left breast. She had another mastectomy, but chose not to have reconstructive surgery or an implant on that side. In her words, she said that she just decided she would be a unicorn for the rest of her life. Once again, she went through chemo and radiation and then was clear for 5 years. And then she got bone cancer, which is what she is being treated for now. She told me that she has been coming to this oncologist’s office for 10 years. Her first oncologist committed suicide. And her first surgeon died, which proved to be a big problem when her implant deflated recently. She is having a hard time getting any information about the implant (which is now 5 years outside of its 10 year warranty) to determine whether or not she needs to have it removed. As shocking as this story is, K told it exactly the way she would have told a story about running into an old friend at the grocery store. This is her story and her life—as far as she is concerned it’s not dramatic or horrible or depressing. It just is what it is.
After going through this three times, you are entitled to be impatient with the whole thing and K was definitely impatient. Every time someone’s IV machine beeped, K asked the nurses if she was done yet. After the nurses gently informed her three different times that she still had a little while longer to go, she turned to me and said that she didn’t know how the other girls can stand it….it makes her stir crazy to have to sit there. Then she popped a Tootsie Roll in her mouth, took a swig of her Diet Pepsi, and opened her book back up again while she waited impatiently for her own beep.
As we all settled in with our books and the various cocktails coursing through our IVs, yet another woman joined us in the room. She was a tiny little woman, about 70 years old (I am guessing on some of these ages, and I may be way off!), who could not have weighed 100 pounds, wearing a pixie-style shiny white wig and a bright green sweater. She used a walker to get to her chair, but then hopped right up and gracefully pointed her toes like a ballerina in her white Keds as the nurse adjusted the footrest for her. She knew all the nurses by name, and cheerily chatted with them as she told them about how excited she was to have a lunch date with her three children after her appointment. While everyone else read, she gazed out the window with a Mona Lisa smile on her face, watching the sky (because that’s all she could have seen from her angle) and dreaming about lunch with her kids. I didn’t get a chance to talk with her because she was too far away, but I would love to know her story.
I am so happy to have the opportunity to get to know these women. To talk to them you would think that this is all some kind of fun adventure. Their positive attitude is refreshing and uplifting.
In other news, apparently I am an overachiever in the hair department. Patty, J, and M all remarked on what seems to be an amazing feat—I still have all my hair and it looks good. Today is the 15th day after my first treatment, and I guess I’m supposed to be well on my way to losing it by now. However, don’t get too excited. I noticed quite a collection of stray hairs in the sink and on the bathroom counter as I got ready this morning. I can’t pull out chunks yet, but when I run my fingers through my hair (which I find myself doing obsessively now, just to check) my hand inevitably comes away with a piece here and there. We’ll see how long my overachiever status lasts.
My good friend Rachel drove me to and from my appointment today, even though I tried to dissuade her. I knew that they wouldn’t let her join me in the treatment room because of space limitations and I hated to think of her sitting out in the waiting room for 2-3 hours. She insisted that she didn’t mind waiting, though, and I was happy to have the company on the trip there and back. When we got into the car to go home, one of the first things she did was to comment on the hard rock music playing in the waiting room. The funny thing about that is that she had not read my last post and I hadn’t told her the story about the Beastie Boys and Pink Floyd. She came to the same conclusion as I did…that someone on the office staff is into rock music. Rachel told me that she looked around the waiting room as she listened to the soothing sounds of Van Halen and wondered just how much the senior patients sitting there were hating the music selection.