Checking In

hush-naidoo-yo01Z-9HQAw-unsplash

I had my now annual (down from weekly, monthly, every few months) check-in with my oncologist a few weeks ago. This is an appointment that always makes me nervous.

The visit basically entails getting blood work done and then talking with my oncologist about the lab results and how I’m feeling. He also does a physical exam to make sure there’s nothing weird going on with my chest or lymph nodes.

First, the really good news: I’m fine. My doctor said my labs were perfect, and in his words, I “couldn’t be doing better.”

I don’t know that that’s exactly true.

Returning to the cancer center is always a weird experience for me. I spent so much time there during treatment and in the year after. For a time, it felt comfortable, welcoming. It was one of the few places I felt like I fit in with my bald head or weird chemo curls. I knew how shitty all those people sitting in the chairs in the lobby felt–both physically and emotionally. There was this odd sense of belonging.

Now, that is gone. When I walked in there this week, I felt like an outsider with my long hair and summer-tanned skin. I looked more like a caretaker than a patient, and physically, I felt that way, too. I could certainly still empathize with those struggling through chemo and radiation, but my feelings aren’t so raw and at the surface. And instead of feeling comforted, I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I realize this is a good thing. This is me re-entering the regular world, finding some sense of my “normal” life. Moving on. Living.

But at the same time, it troubles me. When you go through something so epically traumatic as a cancer diagnosis and months of intense treatment, it leaves you feeling so off-kilter. I know I’ve talked about this a lot, but that’s because it’s important and ongoing–moving on with the rest of your life is really hard.

Going back to the cancer center is really triggering for me now. I can almost conjure the sick feeling of chemo when I’m there. Seeing the people there for treatment–with their tote bags and pillows–I get antsy. I know what they’re in for. I know what the next days and weeks hold for them.

While I was in treatment, I always thought I’d love to come back and volunteer at the cancer center. So many survivors do, and it’s really amazing to see them there when you’re going through it–they made it, and so can you, is the message they send. But I’m starting to think I will never be able to do that. I can’t imagine being back in that infusion room again–the thought of it makes my palms sweat. As much as I’d love to help others, I don’t think that’s the way for me.

Instead, I’m turning to my writing. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know I’ve been writing more about my experience for numerous publications. I’m working on a memoir, too, focusing on how hard it is to get on with your life after going through something like this. Hopefully one day I’ll actually finish it!

Until then, I’ll be here, sharing these thoughts and reminding anyone who is in a similar boat that these feelings are normal, and it’s OK to still struggle. I do, and I want to talk about it so others can feel less alone in this process.

 

Advertisements

Finding the “Cure”

SONY DSC

Yesterday I read a really interesting article in The New York Times on the conflation of the “wellness” industry with medicine. The piece talked about all the current wellness fads–everything charcoal, detoxing, supplements–and how most of them have very little impact on a person’s overall health or longevity of life.

Even more concerning–because you would think it would be obvious–these things do nothing to cure or prevent disease. Yet many people believe “wellness” products and regimens can keep them cancer-free, make their arthritis go away or miraculously reverse the effects of a host of ailments.

Scrolling my Facebook feed, I’m not surprised so many people believe this malarkey. I regularly see posts about the “lies” told by “Big Pharma,” along with posts touting the ability of everything from marijuana to essential oils to treat and cure everything from anxiety to cancer.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not totally poo-pooing alternative medicine or wellness products/practices. I’ve tried some of these things, and I think there’s merit in things outside the traditional realm of Western medicine, even if it’s just a placebo that makes me feel better mentally. And I do believe in medicinal uses for marijuana, particularly in relieving symptoms like nausea.

BUT. And this is a big but–I would never do or tout one of those wellness practices/products in place of actual medical care/medicine. Because for one thing, I am not a doctor. I have not studied or practiced medicine. Beyond personal experience and internet research, I have no knowledge of how and why certain treatments work for certain diseases.

Just thinking about breast cancer, I had no idea before being diagnosed how incredibly complex this disease is. There’s no such thing as just breast cancer–each case is different, based on a host of variables–rate of growth, hormone and protein receptors, genetic mutations. Two women with breast cancer may have completely different treatments because their cancers are different types.

Because of that, there’s no one magic bullet that cures all cancer. And to suggest that marijuana or essential oils or some yet-to-be-determined plant from a rainforest is the magical cure that everyone dreams of is at best naive, and at worst very dangerous.

Because here’s the thing–there are people who believe this stuff. They don’t do their research, and they don’t ask questions. They read something on Facebook and believe it.  And that person can be in great harm if they read that your essential oil is the only thing they need to treat their cancer.

Listen, I get it–chemo is scary, and it sucks. And sometimes it doesn’t work. But a lot of the time, it does. It did for me. And so I get a little bent out of shape when I see someone with no medical training spouting half-truths or outright lies on the internet to help sell their multi-level marketing company’s products.

It’s a slap in the face to anyone who’s undergone chemotherapy–essentially pointing out you must be an idiot to allow that “poison” into your body. And it’s discounting the years of research and work done to create these drugs and bring them to patients.

The old adage says if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. I feel like that’s more applicable than ever, and I really hope people will keep that in mind, think critically, and ask questions and demand science-based answers. And stop sharing dumb shit on the internet!

**steps off soapbox

Straight Talk

59cfb656ab749.image

Even though it’s technically still spring, it’s pretty much summer in the South. The temperatures have already hit 90 more than once, and afternoon showers mean the humidity levels stay high. Hot and muggy–that’s the forecast for the next five months.

Last summer, with my chemo curls in full effect, I struggled to keep my hair from becoming a frizzy mess atop my head. Headbands were my go-to, along with a healthy dose of texturizing cream and some hairspray.

This summer, I actually have a decent bit of length to my hair. It’s actually at or maybe even a little longer than when I got it cut before beginning chemo:

IMG_0145

The chemo cut of 2016

But while it’s longer, it’s certainly not straighter. My chemo curls are still in full effect. And to be perfectly honest, I am sick of them.

Sure, my curls are cute. And I’ve tried my best to rock them proudly. I get a lot of compliments on them. But, again, if we’re being totally honest here, I kind of hate them.

The reasoning is two-fold. For one, they’re a pain in the ass to maintain. I have to use a special shampoo and conditioner to help deflate the frizz. Blow-drying is pretty much impossible, because that just leaves me with a poofy mess. So, to wear it curly, I usually wash it on the weekend (I’m a once- or twice-a-week hair washer), apply some texturizer and let it mostly air dry. And then I usually have to pin back part of it to keep it from being huge.

The other option is to straighten it, which is even more time-consuming–it takes at least an hour to wash, blow dry and flat-iron it into submission. And even then, I never get it totally straight. Those chemo curls fight pretty hard.

The second reason I hate my curls: They’re not me. I never had curly hair. I never wanted curly hair. The only reason I have curly hair is because something terrible happened to me. And so, they’re like a constant reminder that I had cancer. That I went through chemo. That I could go through all of that again.

I’ve done the whole “having fun with different hair” thing. I wore the pixie and dyed it red. I rocked funky headbands and barrettes. And I became a curly-haired gal for months.

But I’m over it. So that’s why I decided to get a Brazilian blowout.

I got the idea from a naturally curly-haired friend at work who recently got a keratin treatment. Her curls transformed to smooth, straight locks, and I was jealous.

So, I brought it up with my stylist at my last color appointment, and she told me she could give me that same look with the Brazilian blowout technique. It’s essentially a keratin treatment that relaxes the hair and reduces frizz. And the best part? It can last up to 12 weeks. Hells yeah.

Last week, I gave it a try. The process was pretty simple. My stylist first washed my hair with a clarifying shampoo to remove any buildup. Then she applied the solution and blow-dried my hair, using a round brush to straighten as she went. Then she used a flat iron to finish, leaving it bone-straight.

And then she washed it again. Weird, I know, but that’s part of the process. After washing and conditioning, she repeated the blow-drying process. Only this time, my hair was dry and straight in what seemed like a matter of minutes. She then flat-ironed it just a bit for extra smoothing, but honestly, that wasn’t totally necessary. Y’all, my hair is SO straight–even in the back, which is a really hard place for me to totally straighten.

IMG_1003

Back view

IMG_1001

The day I got it done

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I went three days of sleeping on it, walking around in the rain and humidity, and it stayed pretty straight. By the third day, I decided to test out the washing and styling process.

I did purchase the Brazilian Blowout shampoo and conditioner from my salon, but I don’t know for certain that it makes a ton of difference.

After washing it, I noticed my wet hair was slightly wavy on the ends, but nothing like the ringlets that normally form after wetting it. I combed it out and did my usual blow dry straightening with a round brush. I noticed immediately that it was far less poofy as I dried it, and it was straightening much faster and easier. Once I’d blow dried the hair (in sections–I use clips to hold the upper layers to get the hair underneath), I went over it with my flat iron. This also was much easier and it seemed to get much straighter than usual.

Here’s how it looked after I finished styling it myself:

IMG_1020

Still straight!

I didn’t get it quite as straight as my stylist, but pretty darn close. Each day since I’ve had to straighten it just a touch in the morning after showering (I haven’t washed it again, but it still gets a little damp in the shower). And I just took a walk outside in the super-thick humidity, and it has taken on an ever-so-slight wave, but for the most part, it’s still straight.

Y’all, this is a revelation. This is about more than just my hair. It’s like I got a piece of my old self back–I feel like me again. And with all the changes I’ve experienced in the past two years, that is a very welcome feeling.

 

Yes, I’m Writing About My Hair Again

032817-hair-masks-lead

I feel like I talk about my hair too much (I definitely think about it too much), but as a cancer patient/survivor, hair is a really important topic. It gives you something a little healthier to obsess about than fear of recurrence/metastasis–it’s far more fun to research hairstyles on the internet than to constantly consult Dr. Google with symptoms.

This past week, I had a particularly exciting hair development. I went to see my stylist for a routine color appointment. I also wanted her to trim my ends and take some of the bulk out of my hair with thinning shears (I have really thick hair). This was all pretty much my normal hair maintenance routine before chemo.

After doing all that, she asked if I wanted her to straighten my hair. I hesitated–I’d tried this myself at home a few weeks ago and wasn’t crazy about the results–but decided to go for it since her skills are far superior to mine.

Boy, was I glad I made that decision!

Holy moley, y’all! I almost skipped out of the salon. This was the first time I looked and felt like my old self in almost a year-and-a-half. I was practically giddy in the car as I drove back to work. And the pleasantly surprised gasps and compliments my coworkers showered me with once I returned from my lunchtime appointment only further buoyed my spirits.

Of course, I don’t have the skills or patience to maintain or replicate this look at home. A few days after the blowout, I attempted to create the look again myself. I got it sort of straight, but not nearly as nice as my stylist did. But just knowing it’s possible feels sort of magical–it’s almost as though I got a piece of myself back.

I started thinking about my cancer journey through my hair. I feel like I’ve come sort of full-circle. Here’s what I mean:

This was me pre-chemo. It’s hard to believe my hair is almost as long as it was when I cut it just before I started chemo.

And, chemo time. The shot on the left was the day I had my husband buzz my hair off after I started getting bald spots from the clumps falling out. That was my patchy Britney Spears circa 2007 look. On the right is the only photo I ever took and saved of myself completely bald. I know a lot of women who fully embraced their baldness and have lots of gorgeous photos of themselves sans hair. I just never got to that point. I hated it, and when I looked at myself with no hair it just made me feel even more like a sick person.

The shot on the left is from mid-December 2016, about two-and-a-half months after my last chemo treatment. I was also about two-and-a-half weeks post-mastectomy there. I drug myself out of the house for my work holiday party that day because they were presenting me with the Employee of the Year Award. I remember sitting at a table, and a coworker introduced herself to me–she totally didn’t recognize me with no hair.

The shot on the right is about a month later, after I dyed my hair red.

These photos were taken in February and March of last year. March was six months post-chemo. I actually really liked this stage of regrowth. My hair was long enough to style a little, and I thought I looked cooler than I actually was with my pixie cut. Plus, the chemo curls hadn’t come in so much yet, so my hair wasn’t all over the place.

Hello, chemo curls! These photos were from May and August of last year. As my hair got longer and curlier, it got harder and harder to style. I had no clue what to do with it. So I started wearing headbands. They were the only way I could keep my hair relatively tame and in some sort of style. I also fell in love with Not Your Mother’s Beach Babe Texturizing Cream, a product I still use to this day to help keep my curls under control.

IMG_0057

When I’m wearing my hair curly, which is most of the time, I have to do a little work to keep from looking like Bob Ross’ blonde little sister. Though it’s expensive, Deva Curl No-Poo shampoo and One Condition Decadence are awesome. My hair is noticeably softer and less frizzy when I use these products. I also like their Set It Free moisture-lock finishing spray. A few spritzes of this give my hair a little hold without making it stiff.

Another thing I can’t live without these days is bobby pins. When I’m wearing it curly, my routine is to wash it, work in a little of the texturizing cream and pin back pieces on either side so that they lie flat. Then I let it air dry. Or like today, I’ll pull some hair back off my face and pin it back in the center of my head.

One more thing to note: Getting haircuts is a crucial part of growing your hair out. When you go from having nothing, it seems counterproductive to cut what little bit you have. But it is so necessary! I never thought about it until I went through it, but while your hair grows at the same rate on your head, different placement makes it look longer in spots. In other words, if you don’t trim the back you will have a mullet. Nobody wants a mullet (sorry, Mike Gundy). Seeing that precious hair you’ve only just gotten back falling onto the floor with every snip is hard, but it’s worth it.

I remember being fresh off chemo with my peach fuzz head, barely able to imagine no longer being able to see my gleaming white scalp. But here I am. And if you’re going through this and feeling like you’ll never get there, trust, you will, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Year of Growth

0555bbe9368a05bff51437bdc1ff702e_XL

The other day I logged into Facebook and was greeted with a blast from the past via their “On This Day” feature. It was a photo from last January’s Las Vegas Market, my first work trip since my cancer diagnosis.

That trip felt a bit like a coming out party. I’d been off the road for nearly six months, and I was completely changed, inside and out.

Particularly out. At that point, my hair was just growing back in, and I’d decided to dye it red for a change of pace. I had a funky new pair of glasses, and I was trying to figure out how to feel comfortable in my skin again after the world-rocking experience of cancer, chemotherapy and mastectomy.

Looking at that photo, I couldn’t help thinking how here a year later, I once again look completely different. I did a side-by-side comparison for you–these photos were taken almost exactly a year apart, to the day.

IMG_0093

2017 vs. 2018

I can’t help noticing more about the photo on the left than just my hair. There’s a sadness in my eyes in that first shot, and a feeling of trepidation. I look like I want to smile, but just can’t quite bring myself to do it. I’m still too tired, still too fearful, still too worn to even fake joy.

And here I am today on the right. There’s a smirk, but not a full smile. I’m not quite there yet. My hair is wild, curly and blonde. The latter feels like the me I was before all this, but those wild curls seem to represent how I feel about my life now. One of my favorite sayings is: “You can’t control everything–your hair was put on your head to remind you of that.” Ain’t it the truth?!

I have a new appreciation for relinquishing control. Or accepting that I cannot control everything, and that’s OK. Are there days that living that truth is hard? Hell yes. But it’s an important lesson to learn, and even though I hate the way I was taught it, I’m glad for the knowledge nonetheless.

This last year has been one of growth for me on so many fronts. From my hair to my health to my emotional well-being, I’m in a better place than I was in January 2017. And while I still have plenty of growing to do (particularly on that hair front!), I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished thus far. Growth is hard, but growth is so good.

 

Awkward Conversations

One of the things people never really warn you about with a cancer diagnosis are the awkward conversations.

There’s the unpleasant business of telling your family, friends and co-workers. There are the “how are you feeling” questions that during chemo you want to answer, “like a steaming pile of shit just flattened by a tank.” But you don’t because you’re Southern and too polite for your own good. There are the conversations with your oncologist about how menopause is affecting your sex life. SO much awkward.

And the thing is, they don’t end with the conclusion of treatment.

This week, I went to a conference for work. I saw lots of people from the industry I cover who’ve seen me go from a long-haired blonde to a pixie-cut redhead to the blonde, curly mop I’m sporting now.

Because I never made any sort of public announcement about my cancer (because that would have been super-awkward), most of them have no idea what I’ve been through or why my hair has changed so drastically.

One sweet gal remarked how much she loved seeing all the hairstyle changes over the past year. She was genuinely complimenting me, so I just smiled. But inside? So awkward.

Another time, a colleague from a previous job who now works for one of the furniture companies I write about remarked on my short, curly hair. “Is it naturally curly?” She asked, having always known me to have straight hair. “No,” I responded. Later I laughed, realizing she probably thought I’d cut my hair off and permed what was left. She probably thought I’d lost my mind!

I could’ve just told these people the truth. I didn’t cut my hair; it fell out. And when it finally grew back, it was curly. Because of chemo. Because I had cancer.

But like I’ve said before, that’s a giant turd to drop on someone. It stops the conversation. It changes the tone. It makes people feel…awkward.

Just like I’ve learned to talk around my dead mom when new people ask about my family, I’m learning to talk around my cancer. Not out of shame or anything like that, but just to make things easier. When things have been so hard, a little ease is worth any internal awkwardness I may feel.

Thankful

Today is Thanksgiving. I love this day for so many reasons. It’s a time to be with loved ones without all the pressure of gifts and such. It’s a time to eat lots of delicious food. And it’s a time to look at your life and count your blessings.

I’m feeling especially grateful this year. A serious health crisis really puts things into perspective, and this last year I’ve learned to appreciate what really matters–good health, the love of family and friends, a place to call home, a job that allows you to pursue your passion.

This time last year, I was in a very different place. I was facing terrifying surgery, and I was trying to find my footing after chemotherapy. I didn’t know what the future held, but I was very afraid it wouldn’t be good.

This is me today. I’m healthy. My hair is growing like crazy. My chemo port is gone–only that scar below my collar bone remains. I’ve lost body parts and gained a bunch of scars. But I’m here. And I’m well.

And most importantly, I’m grateful. To God, who most assuredly saw me through this. To my family, who stayed at my side, picked up the pieces and held me up when I started to fall. To my friends, who love and support me like family. To my doctors, nurses and modern medicine, for saving my life. To complete strangers who’ve touched my life in ways I never expected.

Instead of feeling fear and dread, I’m filled with hope and joy this holiday season. I still don’t know what the future holds, but for now it seems bright, and I am thankful.

One Year Later

img_0176

It’s hard for me to believe this, but today marks one year since I last had chemo.

I know that’s kind of a weird anniversary to mark, but it signaled the end of the hardest part of my treatment, and a turning point in my treatment plan.

I was originally scheduled to receive four rounds of two drugs, Adriamycin (doxorubicin) and Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide), followed by 12 rounds of Taxol. The AC regimen was tough. But I made it through.

Taxol was supposed to be a walk in the park compared to the cocktail of these two powerful drugs (Adriamycin is nicknamed “The Red Devil” both for its crimson hue and how it makes you feel). But I ended up being the special case that can’t tolerate the medication, and I became very ill. After two terrifying, uncomfortable weeks of fevers, headaches and MRIs, my still-depleted white blood cell count made it clear that the chemo was behind all my troubles.

At that point, my doctor decided to discontinue chemo and proceed with surgery because he feared continuing with the drug would damage my bone marrow. So, I missed the last 11 doses of Taxol. While I sometimes wonder if that will come back to haunt me in the future, I can’t say I was too upset about getting an early reprieve from chemo.

So, how am I today, one year after completing that part of treatment? Pretty good, all things considered.

Physically, I feel great. It’s funny because most of the actual feeling bad from having cancer came from the treatment, not the disease itself. Once I finished treatment, most of that unpleasantness (fever, headache, nausea, fatigue) went away. I’m still dealing with the side effects of menopause–which technically started with chemo and kicked into high gear after my oophorectomy–but that stuff is pretty manageable.

My hair is still a work in progress. A year ago I was completely bald, save about half a dozen little whispies that never fell out (my brave soldiers!). This was my hair about a week ago:

IMG_2448

As you can see, it’s still pretty curly. Although, I think the curl is starting to phase out a bit (the hair coming in at the roots seems straighter). I actually even had a real haircut last week, as the back was getting a bit long and unruly (I basically had a curly mullet).

I also lost a toenail due to chemo (a lovely side effect of Taxol), and that has almost completely grown back in.

Chemo can also cause lingering cognitive issues (chemo brain). While I certainly have my moments of fogginess, I’m not sure they can be chalked up to chemo.

Last week at my checkup, my blood work showed my white blood cell count slightly down. My oncologist said this was normal in someone who’s had chemo, though, so I guess the lingering effects of the drug can still mess with my immunity, too.

So, where am I with treatment now? I am essentially done, save the adjuvant therapy I’ll be on for the next decade. That’s a pill I take every day called Tamoxifen. Since my cancer is estrogen-receptive (estrogen basically feeds it), Tamoxifen works to block estrogen from feeding cells and causing them to become cancerous. Some people have a lot of difficulty with this drug, but thankfully I’ve handled it pretty well thus far.

At this point, I’m mostly just dealing with all the emotional aftermath and figuring out how to move forward in my life. That’s getting better every day, too, and I’ve learned some new coping mechanisms to help me along the way.

Cancer treatment is a long process. I don’t think I fully understood that even at this point a year ago. But standing here now, I’m thankful to have come as far as I have in this past year.