When Dr. Olson told me that my breast cancer had a high rate of curability with chemo, my heart dropped. I should’ve felt joy or relief or gratitude…but all I felt was dread.
“I know,” he said, “When you hear chemo, you think of sickly people with no hair.”
Exactly. Bald, gaunt people with sunken eyes and sallow skin. The word, chemo, carries an extraordinary amount of ugliness.
In its basic definition, chemotherapy is chemical therapy, as in any drug used to treat disease—like Pradaxa for the prevention of blood clots that cause strokes, or Allopurinol used to treat gout, or antibiotics used to treat an infection. These are all examples of chemotherapy, but nobody calls them that. They’re called by their individual names because chemotherapy has become synonymous with cancer treatment. When you hear the word chemo, you don’t think of Aspirin, you think of poison.
We need to change that way of thinking.
When I told friends that I’d be going for chemo, two of them referred to it as poison. I don’t blame them; that’s exactly what I thought, too, at first. I also knew that thinking of these drugs as poison wasn’t going to do me any favours, so I decided to change my perception. My response to anyone now is that chemo is the treatment that’s going to save my life.
Chemo works because it chokes out fast-growing cells like cancer cells and prevents new cancer cells from forming. But being that it can’t tell the difference between cancer cells and other fast-growing cells like the ones that line your gut, your mouth and your hair follicles, it kills them, too.
This is why chemo causes hair loss, nausea, mouth and throat discomfort, intestinal issues, changes to skin and nails, low blood count, and other side effects. If your body is a forest of all growing things, then think of chemo as the bulldozer.
But the good things will regrow, so we need to look at chemo in a more positive light because as we know, one’s outlook can make all the difference as to how one gets through life’s challenges.
In a discussion with my kids about chemo, my daughter Erin said we should call it cupcakes instead, as in, Mom’s going for cupcakes today.
I like that visual way better.
On June 14th, I received my first of four cupcakes and I’m happy (and surprised) to report that the actual process wasn’t that bad.
The room was large enough to fit 25 blue recliners and a few beds, and white walls and big windows allowed the sun in making the setting very bright and welcoming. Despite the scads of medical equipment and dozens of IV poles with bags of liquids hanging from them, there was a sense of calm. A handful of nurses buzzed about checking on patients and drip rates. A couple of volunteers were pushing a cart loaded with cookies, sandwiches and drinks. Patients and their companions were either reading or talking quietly amongst themselves.
After 15 minutes, once it was determined I wasn’t having any reaction to the Taxotere, my nurse upped the drip rate for 45 minutes until the bag was empty. The process was repeated with the second drug, Cytoxan. I was in the chair for just over two hours. I ate cookies and drank tea. Erin sat with me and we chatted about life, love, cancer and cupcakes. Afterwards, we went for pho, got some groceries, and settled in for an evening of Netflix. The headache that came in the day before (a side effect of the anti-nausea drug, Ondansetron) was still present, but all things considered, I felt pretty good.
Just like each diagnosis and each treatment plan is unique, each experience with chemotherapy will be unique, too. Some people will have all the side effects (there are many and they are not nice) and some people will get off lucky and only experience a few. The degrees of the side effects will differ, too.
The week after chemo was no joyride. The bone pain that came after the injection of Lapelga (a drug used to stimulate white blood cell production to prevent Sepsis) brought me to my knees. Thrush set in, my tongue felt like it had a thousand cuts, and the headaches were monumental, but…it could’ve been a lot worse. The anti-nausea drug did its job, the Dexamethasone prevented fluid buildup, and the pain killers knocked me out so I could finally sleep.
I’m writing this to tell you that the outlook you have on disease and treatment makes a huge difference in how your mind deals with how your body reacts.
Your body is going up against a big, bad bully. Preparing for the nastiness will help you get through what comes with that interaction: Meditate. Walk in nature. Do yoga, do Reiki, get a massage. Visit Wellspring in Edmonton for all sorts of free services, programs and support.
Calm your mind to help your body, and know that whatever comes, you have the strength to get through it.
Mind over matter. Hope over fear. Cupcakes over chemo. You can do this.
If you missed my first post on how I learned of my breast cancer, you can read it here, and my second post was about how it affected my mental health. In my next post, I’m going to tackle the psychological impact of losing your hair after chemo. That’s going to be a tough one.
I’m going to keep writing about the ugliness of cancer and the beauty found by pushing through the pain until I slay this monster. I hope you’ll stay with me.