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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