How I spent my summer vacation
Part three in a series on life after a breast cancer diagnosis at age 31.
On June 3 I began three months and six days (but who’s counting?) of chemotherapy, to take place every other week until Sept. 9. I began with four rounds of Adriamycin and Cytoxan, and I’m almost finished with four rounds of Taxol.
My breast cancer tumor is the most common variety: ER+ (estrogen receptor positive), PR+ (progesterone receptor positive), and HER2-. HER2 is short for “human epidermal growth factor receptor 2.” (Huh?)
Tumors are mysterious, complicated things. My receptor results indicated my tumor is fed by the hormones progesterone and estrogen. (So now I could kick myself for 12 years of birth control pills, even though there’s no way to know for certain that factored in.)
Had my tumor been HER2+ I would have required a fourth type of chemotherapy that may have taken a year to complete. There is a less common type of breast cancer called triple negative in which the tumor is fed by none of these three markers and can be more difficult to treat.
Cancer cells divide much more rapidly than most other cells in the human body. Chemotherapy targets cancer by destroying all rapidly dividing cells, but there’s no way for it to know which of those cells are cancer and which are normal cells, like those of the hair follicles, finger- and toenails, mouth and digestive tract, and bone marrow.
At each chemo appointment, I’d walk into the infusion center, briefly meet with my oncologist, find an empty seat, and the routine would begin. Nurses would draw blood from the port in my chest, send it to the lab to make sure the previous chemo hadn’t obliterated my blood cell counts too badly, and the IV bag with its large yellow sticker that screamed “CAUTION: CHEMOTHERAPY” in large letters would be hung on the cart, my IV line hooked up, steroid and anti-nausea pills downed, and some of the strongest medicine in existence would flow into my veins.
At this writing, I’m almost done with chemo. I finished infusion number 7 of 8 on Wednesday. I’m bald, I’m tired, my appetite’s weird, I’ve had a nagging cough for two months, and my nails have red spots under them. But I can’t feel my tumor anymore! It’s as though it never existed.
I’m looking forward to the side effects fading, letting my body heal before my double mastectomy scheduled for the week after my wedding in October and, yes, getting my hair back.
Every other week, I had a little chemo routine of my own. I’d make a sign marking which round of the eight I was completing. My cancer buddy father, who had endured worse chemo than mine, drove me to and from and sat with me at every two- to three-hour appointment. He’d take the photo and I’d — you guessed it — post it on Facebook.
At one point back in July, I had a vanity crisis. I was reluctant to post my photo because I felt there was no longer anything conventionally beautiful about me. My chemo snapshots were far from the glam selfies of the younger generation. I was bald, pale, overweight, had puffy eyes with dark circles under them, and hadn’t worn makeup since my 32nd birthday a month earlier. Sure, I had the excuse to top all excuses — cancer — but did I really want the world to keep seeing me like this?
In my late teens and early to mid-20s, I had stumbled out of the cringeworthy middle school years and into looks I liked. I had a nice shape, healthy weight, thick and shiny hair, and a pretty face. I was never completely confident — there’s always someone better looking — but when I looked in the mirror or at photos of myself I was, for the most part, pleased.
But — and this is why Facebook detractors don’t ring true to me — the nearly 100 encouraging, complimentary comments on that photo I almost didn’t show the world reminded me that there are many ways to be beautiful, and they don’t all require surface crap like fitting into a size 2 or having nice hair or wearing the perfect shade of lipstick and lining your eyes just right.
When you have cancer, being beautiful means being alive. It means feeling normal some days. It means enduring chemo infusions with a smile for everyone who’s worried about you. It means strengthening relationships with friends, loved ones, former classmates, and with co-workers who give of their time and finances to make you food, send you gifts, and hold fundraisers. Beauty now is the smile and warm feeling I get when someone sends me a message asking how I’m doing or offering to help with something.
Beauty is a freely given hug and smile from my niece, Molly, who is 2 and innocent and has no idea what cancer is or that her auntie is even sick.
What’s beautiful is when the voice that says, “It might be too late; the cancer could come back and you could be dead by 35 or 40,” is so strongly drowned out by the louder voice that says, “You have the tools you need and you are absolutely going to beat this.”
Someday very soon my hair will grow back and I’ll find my pre-30s weight, and maybe I’ll even be bothered to wear makeup again. Most important, I’ll be cancer-free, hopefully for decades to come.
And those pictures, all seven of them so far? I’m flashing a bright smile. Some might even call it beautiful.
Next month: The calm before the mastectomy storm.