Reflections on the last day of chemo.

In many ways, I wondered if this day would come, particularly after my friend Jordan died of complications from his chemo regimen in August. (Another friend lost his fight against ALS after only 8 months.) Today I go for my last Taxol treatment. The last of the chemotherapy, I hope. I didn’t sleep much last night and was up at 5:30 for good.

I’m very excited about this day! Ever since I felt the lump in March, I have looked forward to the day when chemotherapy would be in the rearview mirror.

Chemo visits indignities on you that you never expect. For me, it took away a lot of my independence, because on many days I have been too weak to trust myself behind the wheel of a car. I often needed encouragement to eat and someone to cook it for me. (My son, fortunately, is a creative cook. He has been my rock and my best friend through this.) Many foods have fallen by the wayside because either I can’t taste them or they taste horrible to me. I have not been one of the unlucky ones who throw everything up, but maybe that’s because I’ve avoided food so much.

In spite of the side effects and poor appetite, my weight has only gone down about 10 lbs. during treatment because of the steroids I have to take on or before infusion days. Forget what you see in the movies about people becoming gaunt during chemo. Yes, I’ve lost weight, but the steroids make sure you don’t lose too much (or have anaphylaxis from Taxol). My blood sugar has been all over the map. I had exercised my way out of pre-diabetes before cancer. I have to believe that when I can stop taking the steroids, and get back to my daily miles on the path, the blood sugar will return to normal.

My face and neck are puffy. My ankles swell. I have neuropathy in my feet and hands, meaning that typing is a little dicey some days, and I trip a lot. I have to be very careful on stairs. And my stomach…well, I hope things go back to normal after the chemo leaves my body. That part has been without a doubt the worst of it. It means I have to be hypervigilant about how my tummy feels.

The least bothersome thing has been the hair loss. I really don’t care about it. Do I want to be bald forever? No. But I have had fun with hats, and I have a wig I can wear in professional situations. The wig is just hot. Sweating under a wig feels gross. I do sometimes look longingly at the bottle of shampoo and conditioner that have languished in my shower since the end of May, when I finally had Sean shave off the rapidly exiting hair off my noggin. (When you look in the drain and it looks like it’s full of wet rats, it’s time to shave it off.) Soon enough, my thick locks will be back, and I will be able to enjoy that lovely scent and feel of my hair products.

Soon enough, too, the other side effects will abate. And then some may never go away, like the neuropathy. Like most things with cancer, your mileage may vary. Everyone’s experience is different, but I’m praying for a full recovery.

I’ve met some amazing people on this journey. The nurses at the James Stockman Cancer Institute in Frederick, MD, are angels. They have been my companions and friends during treatment, since I can’t bring anyone with me. They have answered all my questions, asked how I’m feeling, talked with me about my kids and pets, and have set me at ease. I truly love them.

The doctors have been caring and compassionate. They listen! The medical assistants and administrative folks and even the guys who screen you for Covid at the front door have been steady and loving toward me. They know that anyone walking in those doors is afraid – at least at first – and doesn’t want to be there. So they make it gentle and friendly and so nice.

My demeanor went from anxious to calm in short order. I mean it! I have been remarkably calm through chemo. And my body has tolerated it fairly well. Yes, there are side effects, and I had to take 8 weeks off while having the big guns (Adriamycin and Cytoxan), but then I was able to work after that. I find myself wanting to greet new cancer patients on their first day and tell them it’s going to be alright. I’ve met a few other patients and they have been amazing. As I was leaving the center one day, I heard another patient say, “That lady is really nice!” It made my week. (There have been plenty of times in my life that I was too shy, too preoccupied, or just feeling too grouchy to interact with others. Now I welcome those interactions.)

I have found equanimity with cancer, something I thought that I couldn’t do. Cancer, it turns out, is just a bump in the road for me. I will survive this. I have found an inner strength I thought I had lost. I know that I still have to face surgery and radiation. I will still have infusions of Herceptin and Perjeta until August 2021 to suppress those pesky HER-2/neu proteins that told my cancer cells to reproduce in an uncontrolled way (grade 3, most aggressive type). I will have follow-ups and MRIs and CT scans. In some ways, I’ll always have cancer lurking just out of sight. A recurrence of stage III cancer is almost always stage IV. But that’s a maybe and an if and in no way part of my reality. If I go through life being afraid, I’ll never enjoy it (to paraphrase Lindsey Vonn).

And I fully intend to enjoy my life, however many days I have of it. I have a great job and a wonderful side hustle. I am writing some things again. I’m talking with friends more (via chat, Zoom, or phone). And I’m smelling all the roses. By my side through it all, I have had my son, my dog Adele, and my kitties Annabel and Lola. They have all brought me comfort and laughter and joy. I do not lie in bed feeling sorry for myself. I have it so good in my life.

And I’m talking to God again. After nearly 12 years of being confused and angry and bitter over the loss of my daughter (who was 90 days sober and claimed that God was with her in the alley when she got mugged, which is the only reason she survived being beaten with a bottle), I am on speaking terms with my Maker again. My son giggles at my Plastic Jesus (crucifix on the bedroom wall) but he knows it’s bringing me comfort. I didn’t start talking to God until well into my cancer journey. I resisted. But suddenly I feel in step with Him again. I won’t be ashamed of that. I feel His comfort and I feel He is making me whole again.

Love you all. Peace, Jude

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