Battling Breast Cancer – From Fear to Courage: Radiation

I was so tired of being in treatment, but radiation was next. I had been slashed and poisoned, and now it was time to burn.

I received two key recommendations. The first was from my friend, Linda, who suggested I work with Dr. Yi Ping Hu, a licensed acupuncturist in Bethesda, Maryland. She has many cancer patients and treats the immune system. The second came from my chiropractor, Dr. Six, who recommended I take holy basil supplements during radiation.

Before starting the next phase, I took a mini-break. I celebrated the end of chemo with my sister, Cheryl, and our niece, Emily, from New York. We hiked Sugarloaf Mountain in Dickerson, Maryland. I had no doubt that I could hang on the hike, and my anemia didn’t pose a problem. We had fun!

Dr. Hu examined me the following week and said I had some weakness, but was remarkably strong for having just finished chemo. She wanted me to have acupuncture twice a week before starting radiation. She also gave me Chinese herbs to drink twice a day. I held my nose when I drank the nasty-tasting mushroom brew. Dr. Hu’s treatment was supposed to strengthen my immune system —  the body’s natural defense to disease.

My radiation oncologist proposed the radiation treatment field and explained I’d have a higher risk of lymphedema from radiation in certain areas of my chest.  Because of that risk, I told her I didn’t want radiation in those areas.  I didn’t want to risk my tennis game, you know. The doctor outlined the areas I consented to with tattoos.

Radiation was the treatment with the least apparent side effects. I was zapped five times a week for eight weeks. Each treatment took about 10 minutes. The doctor prescribed a cream to soothe my skin in case of burns. The health care provider’s literature on radiation warned about fatigue.

Here’s what happened (and didn’t happen):  I was never fatigued and, in fact, started playing league tennis again. My skin was deeply tanned in the radiation field, but didn’t burn, so I never filled the skin cream prescription. Over time, though, I realized the pain and tightness I felt somewhere between my right armpit and back ribs was caused by scar tissue from radiation. I massaged the area to break down the scar tissue; and I used yoga and other exercises to keep my right arm flexible. To this day, the area can feel tight and painful.

After radiation ended, Dr. Hu scaled back my acupuncture treatments to once a week for six months. After that, I went to acupuncture every other week. I also continued to take the Chinese herbs twice a day.

My surgeon made an awesome observation. When she examined me, she said my breast didn’t feel like it had been treated with radiation. I asked, “What should it have felt like?” She told me a radiated breast would would usually feel kind of hard and tough. To the contrary, mine is quite soft and pliable.

Could it be that acupuncture, yoga, and the supplements helped?

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Next:  Battling Breast Cancer – From Fear to Courage: How I Am Today


Refuge

I found an ad in the newspaper for a yoga class for breast cancer survivors. It was what I’d been looking for — a specialized class for the lymphedema risk and other issues caused by cancer treatment. At Circle Yoga in Washington, D.C., I found my support group.

Two instructors, Jill and Karen, alternated teaching Yoga for Breast Cancer. I was the last to join the class and started between surgery and chemo. The other women were way ahead of me in treatment. All were mothers of young children, and between 38 and 41 years old. Jill and Karen began each class with a thoughtful meditation. They allowed us to take a moment to say what was on our minds. They asked what we needed from the yoga practice. And what we needed to let go, if only for a little while.

At one class, I shared that, to friends, family, and co-workers, I appeared strong, independent and capable. But, I was starting to have meltdowns. I was tired. I was tired of focusing on that outward appearance. I knew I needed a break of some sort, but didn’t know who to ask or what I needed. I just wanted a break. The other women said they hit that wall, too — around the sixth chemo session.

Circle Yoga was my refuge. This yoga class was as important to me as any medical appointment. I relaxed and let the meditation transport me. I was with other survivors getting my warrior poses on. Jill and Karen continued the class faithfully each week, even when I was the only student left.

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4 Acts of Kindness

I wasn’t prepared for the physical pain of losing my hair. My scalp felt like it was being stabbed by thousands of tiny needles. On my way home from work, I stopped by the shop in Wheaton, Maryland, where I’d bought my wig. My head was on fire. I was crying when I went in and asked a woman there for help. I didn’t know what she could do for me. She knew. She took me to a sink and gently washed my head. It was soothing, both physically and emotionally. A lot of my hair was washed off and went down the drain. My head looked patchy, but I felt relief.


The remaining hair still hurt my head. I asked my sister, Cheryl, for help because I couldn’t deal with it. She came over and carefully washed my head. She brought an old pair of pantyhose to catch the hair that came out in the kitchen sink. Most of the hair vacated my scalp, except for one little patch in the back. The process and pain of losing my hair was almost over. She made me laugh when she looked at me and recited, “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?” Only my sister….

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A close friend, Donna, and her husband, Nilante, came over to visit. I took off my little bandana scarf to show them my head. When Nilante saw that last stubborn patch of hair, he said, “Oh no, that’s got to go.” He came back the next day and gently and expertly shaved it off.  I was so grateful for that simple act. The transition was over and my head was no longer crazy-patchy. I was transformed.

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I told Donna it was too hot to wear the wig, and I didn’t know what else to do. She and Nilante had an African seamstress make five colorful scarves and they showed me how to tie them. I experimented with different looks. The scarves made me a stylish survivor.

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Battling Breast Cancer – From Fear to Courage: Chemotherapy

Chemo made me feel like I was in a sci-fi horror film, like “The Fly” (starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis). Like Goldblum’s character, as he transformed into an insect, I was fascinated by every change in my body. My main focus, though, was to do the following very well:  eat, sleep, and poop. These things were essential for my body to be as strong as possible during this treatment.

I had chemo infusion treatments on my Fridays off from work. After every treatment, I went to my acupuncture appointment with Larry Godwin, L.Ac., in Alexandria, VA. His treatments provided immune system support and helped me avoid nausea. I didn’t know what to expect from chemo, other than the hair loss.

I felt woozy after the first infusion. My body erupted in sweat every night, and my boyfriend said he could have fried an egg on my body. My brother, David, explained that every cell in my body was reacting to the chemo and screaming, “WTF!”  The first physical change I noticed was my tongue. It was purplish like a Chow Chow dog, but mottled. My hair was thinner.

After the second infusion, my period stopped… forever, as it turned out. A large patch of hair at my forehead disappeared. I started wearing scarves.

As time went on, the palms of my hands became blotchy and dirty-looking. My fingernails and toenails had dark stripes. My cuticles and nail beds thickened, but I didn’t lose any nails. I lost all – and I do mean all – of my body hair, even my eyelashes. It was weird to see the little holes where my eyelashes had been. I couldn’t breathe as deeply as I could before the treatment. And, to my dismay, I couldn’t even pee straight. It trickled out in a crooked stream and dribbled down my thigh.

I paid attention every day to how well I was eating, sleeping, and pooping.

Eating: I bought higher quality food and water and cooked most of my meals. My appetite was very good and my weight stabilized. The oncologist told me to avoid raw foods during chemo because of my immune system and low white blood cell count.

Sleeping: I aimed for seven hours, but I was always so hot and often had insomnia. (I wouldn’t take any sleeping pills because I was already taking enough drugs between chemo, anti-nausea medication, and the shots I had to give myself to boost my white cell count.)

Pooping: All was well in the poop department, except for a brief bout with hemorrhoids.

When the chemo drug regimen changed for the second half of the treatment, my knees started hurting. I was limping and it was painful to walk, especially up and down stairs. On my boyfriend’s recommendation, I mixed a supplement called bromelain powder with water. It seemed to help because I stopped limping within a few hours. Even though the pain ended, I had to work through joint stiffness in my knees and hips for about six months after chemo.

Now here’s where I think my new diet and the initial acupuncture helped: I didn’t gain weight, get mouth sores, heartburn, “chemo brain,” nausea, constipation, diarrhea, or fatigue. That was significant because I could eat without any problems, work every day, go to the gym a few times a week, and play tennis once a week. According to lab tests, I was very anemic; but, I felt physically weak only about once every two weeks.

Throughout chemo, I kept my focus simple: eat, sleep, and poop.

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The Sister’s Perspective – Next Stop: Chemo!

Kim’s breast cancer journey continued with chemotherapy treatments.  I had committed to accompany her to the clinic so she didn’t have to face it alone or make arrangements for someone else to go with her each time.  I’d heard stories; we’ve all heard stories. However, when faced with cancer, you can follow the script or you can make your own story. Kim was making her unique story.

For my part, instead of doom and gloom, I chose fun and games to keep our minds positive and to provoke laughter when I could.  There’s little for either patient or companion to do during the treatment.  I had anticipated a long stretch of near-fatal boredom.  Other than that, neither of us had any idea what the process would be like.  How would we pass the time?  As readers, Kim and I always carry something to read in case we have to stand in line or languish in a waiting room.

This occasion was shared, not solitary, so instead of books, I thought of taking puzzles and games as well as magazines to entertain us.  My favorite was a book of visual puzzles, Double Vision: Addictive Photo Puzzles that Challenge Your Attention to Detail, by Megan McFarland. The objective is to look at two photos that appear to be identical, but have a number of subtle differences for the viewer to discover.  You can choose from several levels of difficulty and complexity.  Each puzzle tells you how many differences there are.  Your task is to discover the most differences in the shortest period of time.  After several rounds of competitive play, we moved on to talking and laughing; gradually, Kim wound down and said she needed a nap.  I watched her sleep and wondered how she was doing.

Later, starving, we looked for a restaurant.  The clinic staff had told us we could bring food the next time.  No need to tell us twice! In fact, we became almost festive about the prospect of eating and packed a picnic basket every time with foods from Kim’s blood type diet. Fun, games, and food — who knew?

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Battling Breast Cancer – From Fear to Courage: Preparing for Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy fits the adage, “The treatment is worse than the disease.”

I researched my chemo drug regimen of adriamycin, cytotoxin, and taxol in Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book. I never knew so much could be written about the breast. The book is encyclopedic.

Adriamycin, in particular, was scary.  It can cause heart problems and a blood disorder leading to leukemia. (If you recall, Robin Roberts wound up with a blood disorder a few years after she finished her breast cancer treatment; and she ended up having a bone marrow transplant and chemo again. I’m not certain, but it may have been a latent side effect of her first chemo treatment.)

The possibility of “chemo brain” terrified me.  My livelihood depends on my brain power, and I did not want “decreased cognitive function,” as Dr. Susan Love described it. Chemo brain could be a temporary or long-term condition.

I was also concerned that chemo could stress my heart and liver. My chiropractor, Dr. Six, recommended CoQ10 (ubiquinol form) for heart health and milk thistle for liver health. As for my “chemo brain” concerns, I simply prayed and hoped my plan to fortify my body would work.

My surgeon assured me I would lose my hair. Many Black women have an attachment to long hair, and I had loved mine: thick, easy to style, naturally black, and never-been-dyed. My sister, Cheryl, often described my hair as being “strong as cast iron,” yet it was about to become a casualty to chemo. I prepared myself.

My last chemical “touchup” to straighten my new hair growth was in mid-January, before I was diagnosed. Instead of getting the “touchup,” I had my hair styled in  “goddess braids” instead —  thick cornrows with extensions — so I could grow out my natural hair. After six weeks, the virgin hair had grown long enough for “The Big Chop”  — my way of transitioning from having tresses to being bald. I was contemplative about the coming transformation and preparing myself to let go.

In late April, I drove to a barber shop and took the braids out in the parking lot. On my way in, I threw the hair extensions in a garbage can. I told the barber I was doing “The Big Chop” in preparation for chemo. He didn’t seem to care about the reason. He ruthlessly mowed my hair down to a tiny afro, collected my money, swept up my locks, and pitched them in the trash.

It was the first time I’d seen the shape of my head unframed by thick, long-ish hair. It was the first time I’d felt my natural texture since I was 14. I also discovered I have my father’s receding hairline. Hmm…I didn’t see that coming!

Considering all the things about cancer and chemo that could go from bad to worse, having a bald head was an increasingly superficial concern.

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The Sister’s Perspective: Cushioning the Blow

I don’t remember what I said when my sister, Kim, first told me of her breast cancer diagnosis.  For sure, I knew there was nothing I could do to fix her.  Certainly, I had no original thoughts about her crisis.  So, I listened to her strategy for beating cancer by taking charge of her own health and learning as much as she could about the disease and its triggers for her body.  This was her search and vanquish mission.  Kim’s doctors were merely staff.

Maintaining a positive attitude, along with being proactive, was the approach my sister chose; and a supporter could do no less.  So, what can you do for someone who appears to have it all together?  My first inspiration came shortly after Kim’s surgery.  She needed to cushion and protect the area just under the incisions below her armpit.  I went home thinking about a way to make her more comfortable and less afraid of disturbing the drainage tube and triggering  lymphedema.

After a bit of internet research, I found that what she needed was a pillow shaped like a half moon. Good start, but who wants to carry a pillow everywhere all day long?  So, I added a shoulder strap exactly like one on a shoulder bag.  We’re close to the same height, so I measured the strap length and size of the pillow on myself and drew a pattern.  The rest was easy—picking pretty, cheerful fabric, pinning, cutting and sewing.

By day two of her recovery from surgery, I delivered the zingy pink and green pillow to Kim.  No one has a bigger grin than Kim when she’s surprised or delighted with something.  The pillow was a huge success!

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