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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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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