What I Learned From Cancer and Chemo
Chemo Is Debilitating
Chemotherapy treats cancer via the use of cytotoxic drugs, i.e. drugs that kill living cells. Unfortunately, these drugs can be pretty indiscriminate, so a lot of vital bodily functions get nuked, too. I had a pretty intensive regimen — four cycles, each featuring one week of drug infusion (through a port temporarily implanted in my chest) followed by two weeks of recovery. My body needed every moment of that recovery time, and then some. After my first infusion, I was so weak, I fainted at home on my way out of the bathroom, busted my chin open on the hallway floor, and had to be rushed by ambulance to the ER, where they ended up patching my chin with surgical glue. Following that, my family made me wear one of those Life-Alert pendants (yes, the “I’ve-fallen-and-I-can’t-get-up” kind) around my neck for the duration of my treatment. With every infusion, I felt worse, to the point where I reverted to the fetal position, with barely enough energy to shower, or brush my teeth, or eat. During and after my last treatment, I was so weak, I ended up having to have two blood transfusions.
Chemo Is Deceptive
And then there were the random sensory aversions. After my first infusion, I started to become nauseated by the smell of coffee (which, if you know me at all, is both tragic and incredible). Then, I started gagging whenever I saw the refreshment cart being pushed around the chemo ward, because I couldn’t stand the mere idea of the turkey sandwiches they offered. With each cycle, I developed more and more of these issues; during my final infusion, I ended up staying in the hospital for a day or two, and the smells there nearly killed me. But at the same time, I craved some things voraciously, like roasted potatoes with ketchup, and pickled beets, and especially eggs. I could not get enough eggs. I spent a lot of time watching cooking shows; even though there was a lot of food I couldn’t eat, between dietary restrictions and aversions, I could enjoy watching other people eat.
Chemo Is Degrading
After my first infusion (and the fall that landed me in the ER), I pretty much signed away my autonomy — but my dignity went out the window, too. I had very little energy and could pass out at any time, so someone had to be with me every minute of the day. This included taking a shower (which I could only do while seated on a special medical stool), getting dressed (which I could only do with a lot of assistance), and going to the bathroom. I won’t go into detail about that last one; let’s just say it was not a happy experience, and I’m sure it was no walk in the park for my caregivers.
Chemo Is (Completely) Depilatory
Yes, with most chemo treatments, you lose your hair…everywhere. The worst for me wasn’t the hair on my head (which, sadly, fell out on my 39th birthday). It was my eyelashes and my nose hair, because my eyes wouldn’t stop watering and my nose wouldn’t stop running. I also hated losing my sideburns, because then, even while wearing a hat, I looked like a total baldy. (Unlike some chemo patients, I didn’t go in for the whole wig thing, as it just never felt like “me.” I was, and remain, a hat person.) After my treatments ended, my hair didn’t start to reemerge for another month or so — though all I cared about at first was getting back my sideburns, so I didn’t look like so much of a sick person.
Chemo Is Hilarious
What can you do, once you’ve lost your hair, your appetite, your energy, and your autonomy? You embrace just how ridiculous your life has become. At least, I did. My sister stayed with me for the duration of my treatments, and after I lost my hair, she bought me a set of fake “hillbilly teeth.” The combination of my bald head, translucent skin, hollow eyes, and crooked false teeth sent us both into hysterics. We also watched a LOT of true crime, and if there’s one thing we learned from our viewing, it’s that some people are really, really stupid. And really, really stupid people attempting to commit crimes can be really, really funny, especially when you’re watching them in the wee hours of the morning while on a myriad of painkillers.
Chemo Is Empowering
It might sound cliché, but it’s true: once you’ve lived through something so devastating, everything else in life seems trivial. You realize just how strong you are, and you realize what (and who) is really important. Being confined to bed forced me to focus on myself, something I’d never really done before. And it gave me time to write, when I was feeling up to it. Before my diagnosis, I’d always put everyone and everything else before myself and my writing career — but with nowhere to go and nothing to do and a brain that was still (somehow, miraculously) functioning, I had no choice. Towards the end of each infusion cycle, I’d have a few good days, and I’d write for hours at a time. I wrote as if my life depended on it…and in a lot of ways, it did.
Chemo Is Not Forever. (Though Some Side Effects Are.)
My last day of treatment was October 4, 2010. I will never forget that day, and the moment I was wheeled out of the hospital (and away from all those smells) and filled my lungs with fresh air. But it took a while for the drugs to leave my system, and for the side effects to disappear. I got back to normal, eventually, but not everything returned as it was before. All of my hair grew back, except for my right nostril, which is now chronically runny. I still have a hard time looking at (let alone eating) turkey sandwiches. I still can’t get enough delicious, delicious eggs. And above all, I can’t — and won’t — stop putting myself and my writing first. I’ll be five years cancer-free in a few months, and while I can hate chemotherapy for a lot of reasons, I know it saved my life — and it forced me to put my life in order.
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