You see boys, the doctors found some bad skin inside mommy’s breast so they had to cut it out. That is why our hugs need to be so very gentle.” This was the beginning of my explanation to my two and four-year-old sons about how I, their 24 year-old mother, had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. The explanation continued, “The bad skin eats good skin, so we need to get it all out. The doctors are worried that the bad skin could go in other places in my body so they are going to give me some medicine to kill the bad skin.” My wide-eyed boys nodded as if they understood. “The medicine is going to make my hair fall out.” They looked at each other in wonder and with a little giggle, thinking of a bald mommy. “I haven’t taken the medicine yet, but I’ll tell you when I do - so you won’t be surprised.”
My first chemotherapy appointment was more than four weeks after my diagnosis in 2005. I wanted to rush in and hook myself up to the chemo right away, but I learned that everything takes far longer than you wish when it comes to cancer.
In the four weeks between diagnosis and the start of treatment, I underwent two additional surgeries, which added up to a partial mastectomy, a sentinel node biopsy; and surgical insertion of a mediport into my chest through which I’d receive my chemotherapy. After one of the surgeries, I wrote this in my journal: “Tonight I removed the bandages from yesterday’s surgery and I sat in the tub and cried a little for myself. Just a little, for the blue and green and purple and taped part of me.”
Shortly before I began chemotherapy, and to control a situation that was out of my control, I asked a friend to cut my long hair to shoulder length in preparation for losing it completely. I did not want to give cancer the privilege of dictating every aspect of transformation.
To this day I can’t see a jug of red Kool-aid without having a twinge of nausea and a few moments of recall.
My first chemotherapy drug, Adriamycin, sometimes called the “red devil,” looked just like the refreshing drink of my childhood. Flashbacks and anxiety still hit me out of the blue when common triggers present themselves; even the smell of rubbing alcohol leaves my heart racing.
After my first chemo infusion I went home and told my boys that I had taken the medicine that would cause my hair to fall out.
Two weeks after the “red devil” entered my blood stream, my scalp began to tingle and a few strands started to snap and release each time I ran my fingers through my hair. Again, to control a situation that was out of my control, I decided not to wait until the chemo made me bald.
At this point my husband was enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and so, channeling the bravery of recruits entering basic training, I borrowed a friend’s uniform and sat in my kitchen, ready for my own head to be shaved.
I had considered going to a salon for this, but chose to have my children and husband do it. Instead of being shocked or anxious upon seeing me bald for the first time, my two little boys were able to be part of the process. The transition proved to be seamless for them. They had spent time with me the night before – their tiny hands pulling the loose hairs out of my head. “Cutting Mommy’s hair,” was a wonderfully fun role-reversal for them as they would tell me to, “Be still,” just as I had done hundreds of times while cutting their hair.
During my chemotherapy and subsequent radiation therapy rounds I had to defy so many of my natural instincts. Who wants to go back to a place knowing it will leave you in fetal position for days with fatigue, nausea and bone and body aches? Knowing the drugs will seep out in your sweat and cause an unpleasant smell? Knowing that the steroids that are necessary to allow you to receive the various therapies will cause you to balloon and swell? Who would do that?
I will answer — Not unlike Soldiers who return to hellish places to perform their duty, anyone you have ever known who has received cancer treatment has been forced to develop a drive to look beyond the comforts of today with hope of a better, extended life.
Reaching for something to push me through, I told myself, “I can do six months of chemo. Each month will buy me an extra 10 years with my Family. This is totally worth it.”
This attitude got me through the intensity of the treatment, but the end of treatment marked the beginning of an altered life . . .
This week’s breast cancer awareness facts are:
Post traumatic stresses, including cancer diagnosis and treatment, can come from a variety of life events, complete with triggers and physiological responses
When an individual receives confirmation of cancer, the whole Family is diagnosed. Each Family member is impacted, whether it is acknowledged or not
Usually a diagnosis comes with few details. Use tact and patience as you reach out to patients
Some breast cancers are treated with surgery, others include chemotherapy and/or radiation. Some treatments are over after surgery and other battles continue year after year. There are also those who receive the diagnosis and choose not to fight it. Each of these choices are personal and require courage.
Under the umbrella of “breast cancer,” you’ll find a wide variety of pathology and treatment approaches. The hormones, estrogen and progesterone, affect cancers differently. “HER2” (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2) may or may not play a role in an individual’s cancer. These differences necessitate a dynamic approach to treatment. Not all cancers or treatments are the same.
People who have little control over their situation often feel helpless. Help them to act upon and recognize the control they do have.
(Editor’s note: This is part three of a series documenting a survivor’s journey.)