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:
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.
So, since my preventative oophorectomy back in May, I’ve been in full-on menopause. This is a super-fun condition to be in during August in the South.
I’ve actually been in a menopausal state for more than a year now, since chemo sent me into a chemically-induced menopause last year. But with that, I didn’t really get the full symptoms that I’m experiencing now–hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, weight gain.
Physical symptoms aside, being menopausal at 38 is a peculiar thing. While the rest of my peer group is still far from this stage of life (some are even still having children), I’m swapping complaints and cooling strategies with women 15 years my senior.
It’s sort of like having breast cancer (or cancer in general) at a young age. It feels very lonely because most of your friends have no idea what it’s like or what you’re going through. And if they can relate, it’s likely because one of their parents has dealt with the disease.
Looking around the cancer center, I’m usually one of the youngest people in the waiting room. And a lot of the older patients look at me either with bewilderment or pity. I often see eyes quickly dart from my face to my wrist–seeing my patient bracelet confirming, yes, I have cancer, too.
I think this is one of the hardest things that no one talks about when it comes to being a young survivor–the sense of loneliness and feeling sort of out of place in your own life. As much as my friends and loved ones are here for me, they really don’t know how this all feels, physically or emotionally. I’m still me, but I’m very different now and my view of the world has changed dramatically.
I think that’s why so many of us manage to find each other online, and why groups like the Young Survival Coalition are so important. Sometimes it’s just nice to commiserate with someone who completely understands. I have found some of that in this last year, but I’m still looking for my “tribe,” as the kids say these days.
In the meantime, I’ll be over here sweating it out, anxiously awaiting fall.
In what has started to feel like a regular occurrence for me, I’m preparing for another surgery this week.
This time, I’m going under the knife for an oophorectomy, which sounds completely made-up but is the medical term for removing the ovaries. My fallopian tubes will be removed, as well.
Because of my BRCA2-positive status, I am at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. And ovarian cancers often spread and even sometimes start in the tubes. So, they all have to go.
The procedure will be done laparoscopically, which I’m told makes it much easier. My OB/GYN, who will perform the surgery, assures me it’s a very standard procedure.
I have mixed emotions about it. On the one hand, I’m just ready to get it over with. I’m ready to have one less body part to worry about possibly sprouting cancer.
On the other hand, I’m completely freaked out. Not really about the procedure itself, but more of the what-ifs. My greatest fear is waking up to somber faces telling me they found something abnormal. A tumor. Weird cells. More cancer.
I’m also feeling a bit sad about what this procedure means for me. I was done having children, but once this operation is finished, there is no possible way I could ever change my mind on that. There’s a finality to it that hurts a bit.
On top of that, my doctor warned me that I will pretty much go into menopause immediately after the surgery. I’ve been in a chemo-induced sort-of menopause for months now, so I’m hoping the side effects won’t be too bad. Mentally, this is another one I’m having a bit of a hard time with because I shouldn’t have to be dealing with this now. I’m too young. It’s too soon.
Last night I had two dreams about the surgery. There was the standard stress dream of not being in the right place, not being able to dial the numbers to call and let them know, etc. Then I dreamed that I was going in not to just have my ovaries removed, but to have gender reassignment surgery to transition me to becoming a man. I’d already had my breasts shaped into the most incredible set of pecs I’ve ever seen, and I was sporting a short brown hairdo. Hoo-boy, chew on that one, Mr. Freud.
While I have no control over the completely bananas world of my dreaming subconscious, I’m trying to keep the pity parties to a minimum. Yes, all of this is incredibly crappy and unfair. But, I’m also really lucky. I have the chance to possibly prevent another bout of cancer, to possibly save my life. For that, I am truly thankful.