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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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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