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Half a Year on Chemotherapy and Taking Nothing for Granted

Half a Year on Chemotherapy and Taking Nothing for Granted

Living with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
(#13 in a series)

December 1. That’s the day I had my first chemotherapy session. As I write this, I have two more rounds to go. All told, it will amount to more than half a year. That’s a long time.

This is a blog, not a book, so how should I write about a half-year of chemotherapy without sounding self-involved or getting too lengthy? Let’s go with the condensed version.

Like most cancer patients, I’ve managed to go on with my life quite nicely while in treatment, even sneaking in a few road trips. Mercifully, my multiple sclerosis has remained in full remission, an incredible stroke of good fortune, and I squeaked by with not so much as a cold or flu.

I’m not going to lie — chemotherapy is not fun. On most days, you’d hardly know that to look at me, though. I smile and laugh, work hard, and generally enjoy a life that hasn’t stopped because of cancer. I use the tools of the trade to put my best face forward — hats, scarves, a wig, makeup, smaller clothes. I use the adrenaline rush of visiting with family and friends to coax me into normalcy.

Chemotherapy comes with a long list of potential side effects and I’ve had lots of them. In a nutshell: I struggle with food and digestion… extreme fatigue caused by prolonged anemia… had to postpone some treatments due to poor blood work… chemo fog… I’m bald, lacking eyelashes and eyebrows (I refuse to draw them in)… who is that woman in the mirror?… mouth sores… swollen feet and ankles… chemo fog… nose is bleeding again… low red and white blood counts… can’t sleep… can’t stay awake… yellowing, brittle fingernails… blown veins that resulted in a chemo port being installed in my chest… chemo fog…

What is Chemo Fog?
From the American Cancer Society: “Research has shown that chemo can impact the thinking functions of the brain (known as cognitive functioning) for up to 10 years after treatment. Some of the brain’s activities that are affected are concentration, memory, comprehension (understanding), and reasoning. The changes that are found in patients are often very subtle, but the people who have these problems are very aware of the changes in their ability to think. Patients who have had chemo and have problems with thinking, memory, or concentration often call it chemo brain or chemo-fog.”

The worst symptom has been the constant tearing from my eyes. And I do mean constant. I’ve produced buckets of tears since December and the eyestrain is exhausting. It makes writing for a living quite the challenge. Did I mention chemo fog?

There’s not much privacy in the “chemo room” and you can’t help but be drawn in by the drama that surrounds you. Even though it is a mostly upbeat place, with smiling nurses and patients who refuse to give in, no one ever forgets why we are there in the first place.

I always shudder when a “newbie” sits down for the first time, eyes darting around the room to observe the nurses and the equipment and the rest of us in our various stages of health. I know they’re thinking, “what am I doing here?”

You don’t soon forget the face of the young man with advanced liver cancer who is just trying to buy a little more time, or the thirty-something woman fighting triple-negative breast cancer (with BRCA gene) that has metastasized — her two young daughters weighing heavily on her mind. And you never forget to appreciate life.

Chemotherapy is no bed of roses, but I never wanted to quit, knowing that it is the most effective treatment for triple-negative breast cancer. It’s just something I’ve had to go through, and I’ve certainly been in good company. It is not lost on me that I’ve had it a whole lot easier than many folks.

Now, with the end in sight, I can imagine feeling a bit better by July. I can imagine eating and tasting good food. It’s funny what you miss. I crave fresh, crisp green beans most of all. And popcorn. And coffee. The taste of food adds so much zest to life. It will feel so good to feel good!

Something that has given me strength since I first found that lump in October has been the doctors and nurses who have become such an important part of my life. Fighting the ‘Big C’ takes a team, and I lucked into an amazing group of medical professionals who treat my husband and me as human beings who just happen to be fighting cancer.

We have a few more treatment decisions to make, but at some point in the next few months, I will likely be told that for all modern medicine can tell, I am cancer-free. Then it will be time to recover and celebrate.

Triple-negative breast cancer has a higher rate of recurrence than other breast cancers in the first few years, but since my lymph nodes were spared, my oncologist says I’ve got a good shot at avoiding that. That’s good news, indeed. Still, I’m not going to take a single day for granted.

Living with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Series
#1 The Lump in my Breast: Meeting the Enemy
#2 Most Breast Lumps are Non-Cancerous: Would mine be?
#3 The Mammogram, the Ultrasound, and ‘the Look’
#4 The Biopsy and Breast Cancer Confirmation
#5 A New Twist: It’s Triple-Negative Breast Cancer
#6 Before the Mastectomy: Planning for the Future
#7 Mastectomy Day: What it’s like to lose a breast
#8 After the Mastectomy: Unveiling and Staging
#9 10 Odd Things to Say to Someone with Breast Cancer
#10 Cancer Battle Plan Phase 2: Chemotherapy
#11 5 Things I Love About my Very Expensive Health Insurance
#12 10 Simple Gestures of Kindness with Healing Power

Access the up-to-date Living with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer Series

 

Breast Cancer in the News
Aggressive Breast Cancer Linked to Low Levels of Vitamin D
Mom Loses Custody of Kids for Having Breast Cancer

Coming Soon: Breast Cancer Survivor Profiles
If you’re a triple-negative breast cancer survivor and you’d like to be profiled, email me at writer@webcampone.com

Take Action! Sign the petition: We can end breast cancer by 2020

Author’s Note: This is article is part of a series chronicling my first-hand patient perspective of life with Triple-Negative Breast Cancer. Without being overly self-indulgent, I hope to convey the raw emotion that comes with such a diagnosis… and the process of living with and beyond it. Entries will appear in Care2 Causes and in Care2 Healthy & Green Living. Follow on Twitter @AnnPietrangelo

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62 comments

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7:03AM PDT on Aug 30, 2011

I haven't been reading all your updates, maybe because it is still too soon. I also had triple negative breast cancer, surgery, chemo and radiation. My last radiation was in May of 2009. For a year after chemo (Dec. 08-Mar. 09), just seeing an i.v. bag hanging on a hook in a tv show was enough to trigger the gag reflex! I wrote about it in great detail as it was happening which was beneficial to those I wrote (friends and family) as well as therapeutic for me. Now, I am living my life and moving forward. Always forward.

7:28PM PDT on Aug 4, 2011

Cancer must be eradicated!

10:02AM PDT on Jun 11, 2011

Dear Donna,
Thank you for your message. I am not specifically a Christian, but I am a spiritualist & have had some overwhelming experiences. However, since my health is so rotten, I no longer have the energy to bring about all the positives that I have learned. Hopeful to get through this, at least for the next few years.
Thanks,
Samantha

1:27PM PDT on May 31, 2011

What troubles me is that Chemo has been a form of therapy that has become outdated since the 1970's. Through the compassione IND program established by the federal government in conjuction with the U. of Mississippi, patients given federally grown marijuana for cancer (in place of chemo) and AIDS (to cure wasteting disease), have had a longer life expectantcy then those given the conventtial treatment. None of the chemo patients from the controlled study in 1978 are still alive, while those who were given marijuana instead, three of them are still alive.
However, because of the current prohibitiion funded by the government (wouldn't look good if people knew you spend billions to fight something you spend millions on), medical marijuana remains a taboo subject, while the cost of chemo drives up insurance rates and hospital cost.

5:59AM PDT on May 31, 2011

Shawn and Ira, I guess I used too many "characters"! Thank you for your comments to Ann, your notes touched me so much. I will keep you both in my prayers.

5:56AM PDT on May 31, 2011

Ann…Thank you, I don't think I could have puts words to the feelings any better! I got my diagnosis in December 09, I was told it was aggressive and rare, the Bin Laden of breast cancer. I started chemo March 2010 and think I finished the end of August. I was thinking about the last year, fighting with faith, laughter and the support of friends and even people I did not know getting me through chemo then radiation. I initially wore scarves and hats with pins/flowers making sure I wore bright colors every time I went for treatments, to the doctor or out in public. Then, I looked in the mirror and decided to go bald! People still don’t recognize me without my big Texas hair! (I’ve kept it short since it grew back thicker and curlier)

I like to say there is still living even after the diagnosis! It’s not an easy journey, but it’s do-able. I sang funny, happy songs when the process of chemo started, from the i/v to the infusion. Thinking of it as “good medicine” and did better than those who looked at it like poison and were angry. Also, I made some wonderful friends in treatment and we support each other going forward. I look back over the last year and have found so many blessings in my journey, I wish you many more!

To all of you, it's ok to "show some love" to people who are doing chemo, so many stopped me with words of encouragement from just a hello and smile to conversation.

Fight like a diva...I did :-)

*Shawn and Ira...I

3:02AM PDT on May 31, 2011

THANK TYOU VERY MUCH...I LIKED YOUR ARTICLE

2:00AM PDT on May 31, 2011

Thanks really for being so brutally honest & frank. You will certainly look & feel great -this July onwards !!! God Bless ......

1:35PM PDT on May 30, 2011

You're an inspiration to many people, I wish you the best of luck.

11:20AM PDT on May 30, 2011

It is Memorial day as I read your comments and like you I am sitting here in a chemo fog. about to cry so hard that I cannot see through the thousand dollar glasses I had to buy because my eyes have been so effected. There is no cure day for me. They gave me six months to live.But that was 26 months ago and I am getting better. But not cured. No cure, I know this and yet I pray that each day there will be one. I too go into the chemo room and see the same expressions as you do. But I act the clown and kiss everyone. I have been lucky. Each time I go I have always had people with me. And there are so many that are alone. I have been on chemo for 22 months. every wed in the port and twice a day by pill. And while I know I have the fog I also have so much more love in my life than I ever knew I deserved. And by the way I am a 50 year old man that has stage 4 cancer in my colan, liver and lungs. And you would never know that to look at me. But sometimes I have to hold the building up so it wont fall. But then I always have a loved one. I must have done something right to be this loved. And here I am crying about you. I am not crying about me. I am crying for every face I have had to see get the IV of chemo given to them. I have been on it for 22 months so I am a pro. I know how to mask the signs. But you have two more cycles. and I pray to God that you beat this thing. Do it for me, will you?
I do not write as nicely as you do. a talen I never got. But you made me know you

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