At this moment, I am sitting in a coffee shop, sipping on the BEST iced matcha latte (with cashew milk!) next to a big bright window with the view of Massachusetts Avenue. I am in Indianapolis for a pretty exciting work project. It’s strange because this time last year, I was gearing up for Treatment 1, TX1, my first chemo infusion.
After my first mastectomy, the fanfare died down assumingly because people thought the “hard part” was over. Up until then, my biggest fear was having to do chemo. So when my Oncotype score came back and my oncologist strongly recommended chemo, the depression and anxiety set in hard. We knew I was still early stage because they found no trace of cancer in my lymph nodes so it was so hard to accept that it was the genetic markers of the tumor that inherently raised my risk of recurrence, and that chemo was still the recommended treatment plan. I was devastated, but knew in my gut that it was something I had to do.
My doctor explained my chemo regimen: Four rounds of Taxotere and Cytoxan infusion via IV once every three weeks. This was the dose-dense (aka heavy-hitting) regimen that was proven best for my age and cancer characteristics. My immune system would be severely impaired and I would lose my hair by the second round, though I could do cold-capping to help save my hair. There was so many unknowns as to how my body will take to the chemo so just like the good ol’ control freak that I am, I did what I could control.
I cut my hair to a short pixie with the thought that it would help with hair loss (it didn’t).
I packed myself a chemo bag thinking “Hey, I have 4-5 hours to use to read a book and color and maybe get some work in” (yeah, right).
I chose a “chemo uniform” that I would wear at every infusion.
I downloaded a chemo-specific guided meditation to help my body relax and uptake the chemo easier.
The chemo experience itself was LONG. The first hour was used to freeze my scalp as part of the cold-capping process. After that was the Benadryl IV that gave me severe heart palpitations. Then came the taxotere then the cytoxan. I was so high from the Benadryl that I couldn’t do anything but just shut my eyes and listen to my meditation. I fell into a deeper and deeper daze as the fluids ran through my veins and into my body.
Six hours later and I made my way home. I felt ok that night and the day after. It wasn’t until the third day when I started feeling the side effects – nausea, stomach and joint pains, swollen throat, and overall haziness. It just felt like my body was in overdrive trying to combat the poison that was running rampant but just didn’t quite know how. At around one week out, the haziness was still there and my immune system was at its lowest. It’s so ironic that something that’s supposed to save my life made me look and feel like death.
I also ended up getting a pretty bad neutropenic fever that almost sent me to the ER.
You know how people always equate cancer with “the fight”, as if I were to step into the ring, put on some pink boxing gloves and throw as many punches for four rounds to see who comes out the victor? While that is all good in theory, that was far from reality. It is so mentally and emotionally taxing that no life experience will ever prepare you for “the battle”. I did the best I could to help my body heal, but it took me months to process what happened to me and recover from the trauma of it all. It tested my values, my beliefs, my relationships, my view of people and the world in general.
Getting treatment away from friends and family was probably the hardest part of it all. Mine was not the picture-perfect chemo experience with friends and family donning pink shirts, surrounded by bouquets of flowers, sporting a bald head and relentless faith. There were many times I felt intense sadness and profound disappointment. I harbored a lot of anger and bitterness that tested my core values and beliefs. The thing they don’t tell you is that cancer and accompanying treatment is like putting a big fat mirror in front of you so that you can no longer turn away from the truths you always knew but always ignored. It was a time for reflection and growth and choices and most importantly, acceptance.
I was so raw and vulnerable, stripped down of all certainty that I couldn’t help but take on a fresh perspective on my life. Why was it that people I barely knew/spoke to checked up on me regularly and sent me care packages, while those I thought were close to me were nowhere to be found? Why did I have to be the one who packed my own chemo bag and make my own ginger tea? Why was I the one researching treatments and cures and natural ways to get rid of this disease? Why did I have to go through this right after Grandma passed? This was my fight.
I had to be self-sufficient. I was forced to be brave and bold and full of conviction. I had to make choices for me. I put on those damn pink gloves and fought. Not just the obvious cancer, but also my fears of abandonment, of having questions with no good enough answers, of relinquishing control.
So here I am. Now. One year later, a new person.
I sit here, I take a deep breath. A fresh start, a new slate. Heart cracked open, spirit climbing out of the ashes. I’m a lion, I’m a phoenix. I am here and I am now. I am me. ❤