Friday, August 21, 2015

The one where I look back on chemo

I have officially been done with chemo for an entire month (...and then some). I cannot express to you just how good it feels - and how good it feels to say that. Done. I'm done with chemo. (!!!!!) It was crazy how much better I felt within the first week - my appetite came back, my energy was up, and each day was better than the one before. By the time I was a month out my taste buds had returned from the abyss and I finally started feeling human again.

Just a few days ago I looked in the bathroom mirror before getting into the shower and thought, "holy shit, Jenn! Where did you get those bruises on your forehead!?!" But you know what? They weren't bruises at all - - THOSE SPOTS ARE MY EYEBROWS GROWING BACK!! Oh, and my eyelashes? They're coming back, too. Admittedly, it's a little itchy and a little pokey and I'm blinking in double time at everyone, but it is worth it. These are all good things. I swear to God, I will never bitch about shaving my legs and armpits ever again. The only remaining ailment as of right now is some lingering stiffness in my muscles. They are all super tight. I went from running 2-3 miles a day and playing tennis 3 times a week to absolutely no real physical activity for 5 months. I lost almost all of my flexibility. Grrr... Oh well. There could be worse things. I'm doing some basic and easy yoga poses and stretches each night before bed. Eventually I'll start walking regularly (when it isn't an oven outside) and work my way back up to running. Slow and steady is tough for me because I am impatient and I'm mad that I have to start from scratch. It's tough to remind myself that I just went through 20 weeks of routinely poisoning my body with some potent chemicals. It's tough to cut myself some slack. Definitely frustrating. But I'll get there. Eventually my irrational heart will catch up with my logical brain and I'll be fine.

So. Now that I've had some time away from chemotherapy, I can walk you guys through it with honesty and perspective.

Here we go:

Here I am. First chemo. February 17, 2015.
This is me sitting in the chemo chair for the very first time. Those are big fancy leather recliners with cup holders. You get whatever you want to drink and a warm blanket. The nurses in the infusion room are fantastic. They are smart, organized, professional, funny, caring, and attentive. I loved each and every nurse who assisted me through all of my treatment days. It seems important to show you guys that getting chemo isn't always like they portray it on TV or in the movies. I never went to the hospital or had to wear a gown. There were about 15 of these chairs in a huge room with TVs, a soda machine, and a snack basket. There were lots of windows and high ceilings. I mean, for a place where they do nothing but pump super toxic meds into your system - - it was pretty nice.

The "Red Devil"
One of four kinds of chemo I received is called Adriamycin, or "The Red Devil". It's some pretty nasty stuff. It's so nasty that my pregnant nurse was not allowed to give it to me - she had to have another nurse do that portion for her. They administer it directly (no saline mixer) over the course of a few minutes. You eat ice chips the entire time because the cold of the chips shrinks the blood vessels in your mouth, which decreases the amount of chemo flowing there, and this helps prevent mouth sores. It works - - I never had a single sore in my mouth.

I preferred popsicles over ice chips - - but that's just me. 
After my second dose of chemo, my hair started falling out. At first it was just a few strands here and there, then after a day or so it was coming out in bigger clumps, and before I knew it I couldn't even run my fingers through my hair without giant hunks coming out. It was time. Ben was a champ and shaved my head. (You can read all about that particular experience here.)

Some of the first hairs to leave my head. 
Being bald wasn't (and still isn't) so bad. But, nobody wants to be bald all by themselves. Ben already has a shaved head (who doesn't love having the same haircut as their husband?) which was nice, but then one of my brothers decided to join the 'no hair, no cares' gang. I only asked him about 5 million times if he was sure he wanted to voluntarily shave off his luscious cowboy locks, and he seemed pretty confident that this was the move he wanted to make. So, I did what any big sister would do - - I gleefully turned on the shears and shaved him bald. (...after giving him a mullet, of course.) Talk about a grand gesture of solidarity. I have good brothers.

My bald buddy, Haydon. (Our baby brother got a pass since he had prom. Nobody wants to be bald in prom pictures.)  ;o) 

Here is how my chemo regimen worked: For the first 8 weeks I did treatment every other week. On dose days I received two kinds of chemo. For the second 12 weeks I did treatment with one kind of chemo every single week, and a second kind of chemo every third week. It was exhausting. The first half was filled with nausea and being physically wiped out. I had three different kinds of anti-nausea meds (thank goodness) and a very understanding and patient work place who let me remote in and work from the comfort of my couch. Continuing to work throughout chemo was very important to me. It allowed me to get outside of my own head and worry about other stuff for a while. It helped remind me that life was still going on outside of my cancer diagnosis.

I had to go to the cancer center each week, sometimes multiple times a week, to check my blood levels. They monitored the levels of my hemoglobin, hematocrit, white blood cells, red blood cells, and neutrophils. If I started dropping too low I would get a shot in the back of my arm. This shot would stimulate my bone marrow and force it to produce the good stuff my body needed. As you might imagine, forcing your bones to produce marrow effing hurts!! Believe it or not, Claritin saved me. Because it is a histamine blocker, it significantly reduced those painful side effects. The second 10 weeks was no nausea (thank goodness) but bone and joint pain with continued fatigue. Also, by this time I was so deep into chemo treatments that it started to mess with my taste buds and fingernails. Your fingernails grows in the same way that your hair does -- so if the chemo is making your hair fall out, there is a chance your nails might fall off. Luckily for me I just had these white marks, almost like tree rings, on my nails. (Which is definitely better than having no nails.)

During this second half of chemo I got my ass handed to me. So much so I ended up in the hospital twice getting blood transfusions. At one point I was operating as if I were 3 units of blood low. For me, those blood transfusions were way worse than chemo. I have an aversion to large quantities of blood so we'll just call those two transfusion episodes "mildly stressful". Did you know that it can take almost 7 hours for a blood transfusion? Figure about an hour to match and cross your blood type. Another hour to get the blood to the hospital. An hour to drip one bag of platelets into your body. 2-2.5 hours per bag of blood (I needed 2). Then about 30 minutes to wrap it all up and get out of there. Ugh. Thank goodness for Criminal Minds marathons on TV and my Nook. But again, I had the best nurses who took such fantastic care of me. And by some crazy serendipitous luck, I had the same nurses for both transfusions. Loved them. One of those nurses just so happened to be a breast cancer survivor and she told me to take B-12 vitamins - - she said it would help boost my energy and possibly help keep my fingernails from falling off. She also mentioned rubbing coconut oil on your nails every day. I did both of those things. Who knows if that is the reason why my nails stayed put, but they did. 

Ugh. Here's where it's gonna be tough for me.

Losing the hair on my head was manageable. I really feel like I handled that pretty dang well. But, for some reason, when I lost my eyelashes and eyebrows and nose hairs - - it got tough. We are mammals. We are meant to have hair. It is absolutely amazing to me how completely different you look with no hair at all. I felt like an odd combination of Lex Luthor and a baby bird. Possibly like the little alien guy from the movie "Mac and Me". (Don't know that reference? Google it. Worth the chuckle.) I like to think that I am not a terribly vain person, but it was difficult to look at myself in the mirror and see this hairless stranger staring back. I just wanted to see my long brown hair. I wanted to see my expressive eyebrows. I wanted to see who I was before the cancer. It took me a while to realize that I am never going to see that person in the mirror. Even when my hair comes back, I will never see the person I was before the cancer. I'm just a different person and that is not a bad thing. That small realization made the biggest difference.

Some women are comfortable going out and about with no wigs and no makeup and I am so envious of their strength and courage. I am not one of those women. I was nervous and apprehensive about wearing my wig at first, but it definitely started to become a security blanket for me. Same goes for drawing on my eyebrows (Thank you Rimmel Professional Eyebrow Pencils!). Throughout the entire 20 weeks of chemo, there were only two days where I couldn't bring myself to get up, get showered, dressed, and dolled up. Just two. For me, the routine of getting up and showered and choosing an outfit and putting on makeup helped me feel like I was normal. There really is something to be said for the adage that "when you look good, you feel good"...and when you feel good, things just don't seem quite so terrible. I should tell you how helpful my 11 year old daughter was in this portion of the adventure. She did some research for me on how to draw on eyebrows. I bet that kid watched no less than 50 YouTube videos on this particular topic, and I was glad for any and all pointers. Eyebrows done right look great. Eyebrows even just a little wrong look terrifying. Her advice? Remember that eyebrows are sisters - - not twins. They don't have to match perfectly. I also learned that you can swipe a bit of baby powder along your brow bone before you start drawing your eyebrows and by some kind of wizardry, the powder helps to create a textured look and seems to help reduce smudging and/or melting. (Thanks for that tip, Aunt Sara!)

This is me. This is as real and naked and honest as I can humanly get. 

And this is me 25 minutes later. Pretty amazing what makeup and decent wig can do, eh?

Another crazy thing? One of the kinds of chemo I received, Taxol, has extracts of a yew tree. Because of this, some folks have a severe allergic reaction and can go into anaphylactic shock. So, each time you receive this treatment you get a healthy dose of Benadryl. That's right. Benadryl right through your port. Now, you should know that I can barely handle the tiny little pink pills of Benadryl without immediately taking a nap - - so when this was administered right into my bloodstream it was like a horse tranquilizer! My belly got all warm and my head got all floaty. It significantly reduced my anxiety on chemo days, that's for sure. I remember bringing a magazine to read and holding it in my lap while they were giving me my pre-meds. The nursed pushed my Benadryl and I just sat there staring at the wall...still holding my magazine. I never read the damned thing, just sat there stoned out of my gourd holding the magazine until Ben physically removed it from my hands. Derp. I guess I shouldn't complain too much. Whenever I'd get home from chemo, I'd be so spaced out in a Benadryl haze that I would just fall asleep for hours at a time. Which is better than feeling like crap. Silver lining, right?

Is it gin? Is it chemo? WHO KNOWS!! One way or the other, it is most definitely a potent cocktail. 

And now we get to the good part. After 20 weeks...13 chemo sessions...2 blood transfusions...countless blood draws...and numerous days of feeling like yuck, dipped in ick, frosted with was over. For my last day of treatment we made about 8 dozen cookies and brought them to the cancer center for the receptionists, appointment schedulers, doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. I made snazzy braided bracelets for all of the nursing staff and gave everyone hugs whether they wanted them or not.
And here I am on the last day of chemo. July 9, 2015. Yes, I am wearing yet another v-neck shirt. Made it easier for the nurses to access my port. 
It was the strangest feeling to be so dang excited to get treatment. To be overjoyed at knowing you're gonna feel pretty shitty is definitely odd - but that's how I felt. Knowing it was the very last one made it so much easier. That and the Benadryl. There were two awesome things that happened this day. The first was when my nurse said, "You are a great person. A perfect patient. You are strong and wonderful and am I so excited to never see you again." I felt the same way. Those nurses were awesome, but I am so glad I haven't seen them in a while. The second great thing was coming home to this:
Look at how happy my house was!! 

Yes. Those are puns on my front door. Because I have some of the best friends in the world. 

If you read the fine print on this poster it says, "Mother effing cancer better ask somebody." 

Those are the highlights (the low-lights?). There is still plenty to come, but knowing that I completed chemo is a huge check on the to-do list. Oh, and I got the results back from my post-chemo ultrasound, mammogram, and PET scan. The scans all showed "no discernible masses". We kicked those tumor-twins asses. It worked.

Guys, I want to share all of these sordid details with you not to freak you out or fish for sympathy. I just want  you all to see what it's like to go through this process. It is more than just a single terrifying diagnosis. It is an event that changes lives in every possible way - mentally, emotionally, and physically. The scars are visible and hidden. Please, please, please make sure you are talking to your doctor, doing self exams, and asking questions. Be informed about your family history and talk about the scary things, even if you don't want to. You know what's worse than an awkward conversation? Chemo. Trust me.

So now what. Now I take a few weeks to do nothing, then surgery and (more than likely) radiation. But it's okay. I have great doctors and great friends and great family. Of course I'm nervous/scared/anxious, but more than that I'm still just me. Albeit a me with a little less hair than usual...but still me.

The kid picked this shirt out for me. She's wonderful.