Lucky me. After a diagnosis of Stage One breast cancer and a lumpectomy with clear margins and happy lymph nodes, I qualified for chemotherapy, once of the most "popular" forms of treating cancer.
Some women need only a gentle mix of chemicals – kind of like smearing bacitracin in the bloodstream. But me — because I had a relatively newly recognized and more aggressive form of cancer (Her-2 positive), I got to have the really tough stuff.
THE INFUSION CENTER
Most of the people in the chemo room (the hospital called it the infusion center) read or watched TV; some knit or chatted with their caregivers, played cards, or listened to their i-Pods, but I found all that activity repellent. I pulled on a black cotton stocking cap and a sleep mask, popped a couple of high-dosage Xanax, and went off into a fitful slumber that was interrupted only when I thought I heard a cell phone and jerked myself awake, flinging off my blankets and trying to get vertical. The nurse practitioner said that ringing in the ears in one of the possible side effects of chemo.
In case you have never seen how a chemotherapy treatment is administered, think La-Z-y-Boy with tubing. First you set yourself up in a comfy adjustable chair and an IV is inserted in a vein (mine went into a vein on the back of my hand). With some patients, the IV is inserted into a "port," which is a semi-permanent hole that they cover up with tape between treatments. Sometimes the hole is in the chest. Sometimes, as it was with my old high school boyfriend Storm (more on that later), it is in the top of the head. No matter how awful I felt when I got to the treatment center, I was grateful that I didn't have a hole in my chest. The nurse hung a bag of chemicals on a hatrack with wheels and I was good to go.
After a couple of treatments, I discovered that I really didn't need the sleep mask: I could pull the stocking cap down over my face. I wore black leggings and an old black sweater and chose a La-Z-y-Boy as far away from other people as possible. A nurse would come and insert the IV. I'd pull my hat over my eyes and let the Xanax take over. Talk about a bad attitude.
CHEMO AS A GROUP ACTIVITY
However, my long-suffering son Smith and my remarkably patient friends did their best to cheer me up. Suzanne baked cookies for everyone, my son charmed the nurses until they started to look impatient for my Xanax to take effect so they could give him their full attention, and once my best friend Ann — in a time warp to high school when she was a cheerleader — gave a baton-twirling performance. That was a big hit.
My group joked around, made friends, and fought over the free sandwiches and banana pudding that were left for me, the patient, because they knew I wasn't going to eat them. They brought books to read and they fiddled around on their cell phones. I usually had two or three people with me. My other friends started calling me to see if they could come, too.
Treating cancer became like a little party, and I started to suspect they might have been dressing me up in clown pajamas and balancing vegetables on my head while I was unconscious, but I am pretty sure they were also watching to be sure that I didn't choke on my spit or turn in my sleep and rip out the tubes in my arm.
THEN THERE'S THE HAIR THING
I went to the Bronx Botanical Gardens with two of my women friends on a breezy summer day. The grounds were exploding with color. The three of us were crossing a section of lawn toward some daffodils when I pushed my hair away from my face and some came loose.
I reached up and tugged with the other hand and came away with a fistful of hair. I stopped. "Look," I said to my friends. I opened my hand and the wind blew the hair away.
No one said anything, but we all knew about the effects of chemotherapy..
"I have to call my hairdresser," I said. "I want it off." I'm a rip-the-Band-aid-off kind of person.
We stood rooted by the daffodils. "Call her," said Leslie. "Maybe she can take you today. Do you have your cell phone?" She held hers out.
My hairdresser said that I could come right then and she would shave my head; so my good friends, my dear friends, gave up on the flowers and cut the day short.
They asked if I wanted one of them to go with me, but I didn't. I had to do this on my own. I had to be partners with cancer my own way.
Up next, CHAPTER 6: Bald is Beautiful
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