Breast cancer intermission: A Smoking Ruin
Well, here I am almost three whole weeks after my sixth and final round of chemo. That day was extraordinary. I felt accomplished, and loved, and, well, triumphant.
Since then? Not so much on the triumph. I don’t feel as though I’ve kicked cancer’s ass, or won the battle much less the war. The fact is, I don’t know if the chemo worked! I won’t know until Dr Superman does the surgery next week and the pathologist gets my cells under a microscope.
Yeah, I suppose you could say I “won” for getting through all those weeks of chemo. And don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely the toughest thing I’ve ever done (and I gave birth to three children). But seriously, what do we mean when we say “got through chemo”? We mean I didn’t die from it or stop doing it. Okay, I did do that? But all I actually did was show up to my appointments and not bite or scratch the nurses who hooked up my infusions.
The truth is, in this little intermission between treatment, I feel like cancer kicked my ass. Or chemo did. I don’t feel triumphant, I feel ravaged. Whipped. Decimated. Like this:
I think I felt this most keenly on my recent vacation. Each year for the past five we’ve gone to the family beach cottage in Aptos, California. It’s on the coast about halfway between Santa Cruz and Monterey. It’s my happy place. And even though I tried to set mine and everyone else’s expectations that I wasn’t going to be 100% this year and that I may not participate in everything, I was still very disappointed in myself. At first the mega-doses of magnesium that Dr. Captain America prescribed seemed to really help. I was able to keep eating for a day or two longer after chemo than I had for the last couple of rounds. I was very tired though, and rather than playing board games the first night at the beach house I was asleep by 8 p.m. The next day Gunny took all three kids out shopping and stuff and I slept all day. All day. What a waste, right?
Dana’s mom and step-dad “MeMaw and PePaw” drove their RV from Texas and joined us for a couple days. First up we went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium which we try to visit every other year. Allison is typically a pain in the ass for this, but this year I was the pain in the ass. I’d exhausted myself walking to the aquarium so Gunny got me a wheelchair. Yes, a WHEELCHAIR. This was pretty much the low point in this whole cancer carnival. I took my hat off because it was hot and also so that people would see that I have a reason for being in a wheelchair. Cancer logic. I needn’t have bothered: being in a wheelchair affords you the power of invisibility. Seriously, no one saw me. People would stand directly between me and the exhibits.
The next day we went to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (Mecca for 1980’s vampires), and I was able to get around okay as long as I rested every once in a while. The kids went on rides and I looked forward to a boardwalk corndog. Unfortunately, by that time my appetite was gone. The next morning I was reading the final Harry Potter book and Ron wished he had a bacon sandwich. Gunny made me one and I ate the whole thing. Unfortunately, that was the last time I’d eat for a week. Wait, that’s not quite accurate: I was able to eat dill pickles. The combination of strong flavor and smooth texture was just un-barfy enough to allow me to eat one each day. Great, but half a dill pickle has four calories. Not really sustainable.
Anyway, I was a big fucking drag on the vacation and I know it’ll be better next year and this was just a temporary blip, but I felt sorry for myself and ashamed that I’d ruined it for everyone.
I think part of my problem is that it’s sunk in that although chemo was a long shitty road, this fucked-up journey is no where near over. I’ve got my first maintenance dose of Herceptin tomorrow, and a pre-op appointment with my surgeon. Then Monday an echocardiogram and Tuesday the lumpectomy. I know I should be focused on the fact that progress is being made and that it WILL be over one day. But part of me has realized it will never be over. I will never be “cured” I can only be in remission. I will never not worry that it’s going to come back and finish me. I will never get back these months. My hair is gone. I’ve gone into chemo-induced menopause and I don’t know if I’m coming back out. I’ve lost 20 pounds (okay, well that’s not so terrible). My face is fucked up. How so? My skin is just ravaged by chemo. I had pretty nice skin before. It runs in my family–the good Swiss skin–that stays moist and plump and makes strangers ask us for our ID long into our thirties and sometimes forties. I was actually carded once while buying a CD with a parental advisory sticker. I.e. they weren’t sure if I was 18 when I was 35. Anyway. Those days are over. I now have freckles and marks where I had none before. They aren’t kidding when they say chemo makes your skin react to sun differently. And I used lots of sunscreen. The texture is fucked up too. Whatever collagen or remnants of youthful springiness that my skin had is gone. When I smile there are thousands of wrinkles. My skin is pleated. This will probably be the photo that will haunt me the rest of my life, but here goes. This is what chemo did to my face:
Here’s the good news. It looks like I get to hang on to my eyebrows and eyelashes. I think if I was going to lose them they’d be gone. And I’ve discovered a couple of unexpected benefits. I used to have patches of eczema on my shins and that is completely gone. I used to pick at and gnaw on my cuticles and I have stopped for some mysterious reason. All that’s cool, but not exactly a fair trade for my face, hair, and peace of mind.
So that’s the story. I’m just starting to be able to eat again but am still feeling pretty weak. I’m trying to jump back into some normal routines but it’s slower going than I’d like and I can only hope that people will continue to be patient with me. I think my overwhelming feeling right now is anger. That I had to go through this. That my family had to go through it. That my summer was stolen from me. That I’m sort of afraid to plan for a future. That sometimes I’m so tired and worn out I don’t even care if I have a future.