Having cancer is like serving a life sentence for a crime you didn’t commit. You know you don’t deserve it. It is all a mistake and you don’t want to be there, but you are. You fight with the belief that one day you will be paroled and walk away freely. At night you stare at the ceiling trying to keep your mind from opening doors that you pray will stay closed. You wake up hoping it was a dream, and then you gear up to start slaying the dragon again.
I’ve ignored my cyberpyramid. Partially because I physically couldn’t do it…mostly because I was depressed and simply didn’t want to do it. I’ve discovered that holding a brave front, nonstop, is not the healthiest thing to do. It takes a lot of energy to make everyone else around you feel better about what you are going through. I was draining what little strength I had and couldn’t give away any more. I was embarrassed that I was disappointing people. I had always been the problem solver and the wall that they could lean against. It was humiliating.
I was lucky that my cancer was small and a stage 0 and stage 1, with no node involvement and clear margins. My test for risk of recurrence was 18…one point outside of the 1-17 low risk category. Ain’t that a kick in the pants. I had four doses of chemotherapy as a prophylactic treatment just to make sure none of the enemy set up camp anywhere else.
The first two doses were uneventful. The third dose started to take a toll and there were a few days where I wished for the end of the day more than I looked forward to the beginning of one. I thought about the children that go through years of it and felt embarrassed that I wasn’t doing better.
The chemo took a toll on my skin. It turned brown like a coconut. I had blisters down my backside the size of pancakes. My palms looked sunburnt.
My hair, which was down to my waist, fell out and when my eyebrows did as well, I took on the appearance of Gollum from Lord of the Rings…minus the fangs and mouth foaming.
What they don’t tell you about chemotherapy is that it is designed to bring you to the brink of death. It kills the fast growing cells in your body…the bad ones…and unfortunately the good ones too. My fourth and final dose almost did me in.
I knew something had gone pear-shaped when I had to hang onto the walls to walk about three days after my treatment. I figured I could tough it out, but my mouth and throat were filled with sores and I couldn’t swallow even a sip of water. My daughter dragged me to my old nemesis, the scale, and made me stand on it. I had lost ten pounds in a handful of days.
She literally picked me up and stuffed me into the car to rush me to my doctor. Carly is a certified Crossfit trainer and an Olympic certified weight trainer, so there was no arguing with her. If she was afraid, I never saw it. When we got to the doctor the office was packed. I could barely sit up in the chair. To picture what happened next, you would need to visualize my daughter. She looks like Gidget, with a quick wide smile and a friendly open personality. Gidget calmly walked up to the counter and went postal. She banged her hands and said, “My mother is really sick. She needs help now. NOW!”
They brought out a wheelchair immediately. I remember catching a glimpse of myself in a window as they wheeled me by. I looked like one of those Mexican Day of the Dead Dolls. I was in trouble.
We sat in one of those little rooms…you know the ones I mean…where they close the door and you wait for the doctor. Up to this point, I was disgustingly healthy my entire life, but even so, I have always felt trapped in that little room.
I couldn’t sit up any longer and told my daughter I wanted to lay down on the floor. She picked me up and put me on the examining table.
The doctor walked in and his jaw dropped. They had all been used to me arriving like a tornado, joking and laughing. I couldn’t even pick up my head. He called over to the hospital and told them to get a bed ready for me immediately…no time for admitting…do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars.
They wheeled me across the skywalk and I looked out the windows at the gorgeous blue sky and I wondered for the first time since this all happened if that might be the last sky I would see. I was glad it was blue. My daughter was quiet. Her face was white.
When we got to the admitting desk they already had a bracelet for me. The nurse that wheeled me over had always been all business and wasn’t particularly friendly. She leaned down and put her arms around me and hugged me tightly. I could barely reach up to touch her hand. It was shaking. I will never forget her kindness, because I was close to losing it and I didn’t want to do that in front of my child.
And then something happened that made me reach inside and find some more strength. Call it divine intervention, or just timing. The day of my first surgery, my mastectomies, an aide named Tony walked me up. For every procedure I had after that, he was the one that walked me up. He is funny, bright and up up up. He became my touchstone in that hospital. Everyone knows Tony…walking up with him was like walking with the Mayor of Nashville.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up. It was Tony, there to wheel me up to my room, like he had so many times before. This is a huge hospital with hundreds coming and going. Timing? Maybe. Luck? Well then lucky me. I saw his big grin and I started to cry…not tears of fear…tears of relief because I knew that somehow I was going to be okay.
We insulted each other along the way, just as we had before. He brought me to my room and helped me to my bed. “You got this.” He smiled. “Yep…piece of cake.” And I knew that I did.
I settled into my hospital bed where I would remain for a week. Across the street, outside my window like a dangling carrot, stood Krispi Kreme doughnuts. The red light was on…the doughnuts were hot. No food for me until they figured out what was going on. You can taste the “iron” in irony when it is staring across the street at you and thumbing its nose.
My white blood cell count was below zero. I had very little red blood cells. In another day I would have had a heart attack. They pumped me full of bags of stuff, but I wasn’t doing much better. The two residents, whom I referred to as the Wondertwins…two Ken dolls who looked like they had just started to shave…came in and told me my oncologist had ordered a blood transfusion.
I was reluctant to get one. While they take every precaution to make sure it is clean, they cannot totally guarantee it. The protocol for dispersing blood is a little daunting…they need two nurses to confirm the serial numbers. They sit with you to make sure you don’t have a reaction. They assured me that I would notice the difference immediately.
The first pint didn’t do much and I asked them to make sure the next one was top shelf and not any of that I-40 road kill. The second one came in the middle of the night.
It was like rocket fuel. In a vampire state, I was up wandering the halls. I was reborn.
I went home a couple of days later. I was told I would feel better and the effects of the chemo would dissipate. It didn’t. I looked like I had radiation burns and my whole body began to peel. My immune system had been so seriously compromised, that the delicate reconstruction my plastic surgeon held onto for me for over seven months began to fall apart. My skin just wouldn’t heal. The tissue expanders that were put in to stretch what skin was left after surgery had been compromised and needed to be removed. Drains were put in again, leaving me like a walking science experiment. It was disheartening, but I was so tired of not feeling well that it really didn’t matter that much.
I have always tried to take care of my body…never smoked, and drink very little. The day that I found out my mammogram was bad, I had just finished a six mile trail run with my daughter. My body was ticked off at me and it retaliated by attacking itself.
When they took the left expander out, they found an infection that had gone on undetected…blimey. I was on IV antibiotics for two weeks and all kinds of bug fighting pills.
I woke up one morning and felt pretty good. I laced up my running shoes and stepped outside. I live on a large farm with a mile long road. I walked a few steps and took off running. It was glorious. I was running away from seven months of uncertainty and pain and disappointment. It was raggedy and not really pretty…but I was running.
My strength has returned. On Friday I will have surgery to remove the port in my chest that they accessed for the chemotherapy. Friday night I will have a glass of wine to toast myself. I had cancer…I don’t have it anymore. It is over and I am past it.
I’ve become an eating machine. I hope I can turn it off. My weight, which plummeted even more while I was in the hospital, has returned. Gee thanks.
I can tell you that my full body exfoliation is done, and my skin looks fabulous. In a quirky turn, any cellulite that I had on my legs is also gone, and not from losing weight. Had to be the chemo, because any chick will tell you…losing weight does not destroy all cellulite.
A genetic hiccup made my hair turn white before I was 30, and I have colored it since then. It has started to grow back…a steely grey with black strands…wonderful. Ugh. It has taken on the appearance of a chenille robe or one of those sculptured shag rugs from the 70’s…close to my head and sticking out every which way. I have Frankenstein scars where my reconstruction used to be. I will try to build me some boobs again in a few months.
For now, I am happy to be where I am. I’ve read that a lot of people say cancer makes them appreciate their life more. Though it was rough around the edges at times, I loved the life I had before my diagnosis, so for me, the experience is a little different.
I’ve decided not to be afraid of anything ever again. I’ve chosen mind…over what doesn’t matter anymore. Any dragons that step in my path will be slain. No looking back…or down. I am back out on the tightrope of my life…stepping ahead.
Two weeks ago I met my girlfriend Pat at the track. If I asked her to jump off of a bridge with me, she would already have one leg over the rail. She is that kind of friend. We ran and did a workout with weights. Neither one of us talked much while we rounded the track. She had as many tears on her face as I did. We can run again, together.
Day 339…simple victories are the sweetest.
Cynthia Neilson…the great and powerful.