It was a few weeks ago on a sunny April morning, five days after my 14th cycle of chemo, I woke up, got ready for work, and then crawled straight back in between my crumpled sheets. I told my husband I was done. I couldn’t go through it again. There was absolutely no way I was going to go through the last two rounds of Adriamycin and Cytoxan. Mentally, emotionally and physically, I was finished.
The cumulative effects of five different cancer drugs over the last four months finally caught up. This “warrior mode” could go to hell. I was done. Leave me alone.
I had been tired before, but not like this. My oncology team in Boston warned me about fatigue. What they didn’t tell me is no matter how much rest I got, I wouldn’t be able to shake it off. Chemo has it’s own schedule. The first few days after an infusion I’d be riding high on steroids, sleepless and sweaty, constantly guzzling water (which tastes like crap) so my bladder and liver wouldn’t get angry. But by Day 5, I would crash so hard even speaking a full sentence would drain me.
My body felt bloated, toxic and not my own. Every single one of my mucous membranes burned. I couldn’t walk a flight of stairs without stopping to catch my breath. And, then there was the Chinese buffet of well-known side effects: hair loss, nails coming off the nail bed, chemo brain, neuropathy, mouth sores. If you’ve read about it, I had it.
That morning, I wanted to be left alone. I didn’t want to talk about how I was feeling. I didn’t want to reassure others that I was feeling fine. I wasn’t fine. I felt exhausted. I felt sorry for myself. I felt the very opposite of fine. When I was first diagnosed, I had adamantly decided that I was going to be gracious about chemo. I was going to be resilient and strong – roll with the punches until I get to the other side. I was going to rise from the ashes like a phoenix reborn from a drug-fueled fire.
Friends and family came to chemo with me each week – we laughed, even danced as I was hooked up to an IV. Each week I would make a mental note, checking another infusion visit off the list. I was getting closer. This nasty, unforgiving phase of treatment was almost over. But as I hid under the covers that April morning, I didn’t care. My attitude wasn’t going to cure my cancer. If I survive this, I’ll only be surviving for now, I thought. There are no guarantees that this cancer won’t come back. I could do everything right, and it might not matter.
My husband saw right through me. I have two school-aged sons; I’m only 44. If I want to improve my odds of surviving, I couldn’t be done with chemo. Maybe that morning, I just needed a day to say I was done. Maybe I needed to gain back the control I lost after my diagnosis. Maybe I realized, finally, I don’t have to be a warrior in battle. I only have to be a woman with a horrible disease who needs treatment. Maybe, for the first time I can remember, I needed to give myself a break.
Someone I love was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She has a very good prognosis, but she will need chemo. Coinciden- tally, only a few weeks ago, she came with me to an infusion ap- pointment in Boston, and as she sat with me, she saw first-hand how uneventful the process really is. Still, I can sense her fear, her anxiety and her despair that comes with having a cancer diagnosis permanently on her back.
I assured her that this—the beginning—is the darkest time. Once treatments start, it’s another step forward. Chemo is not pretty, but it’s doable. Now is not the time to be stoic, and suggested she ask for the anti-anxiety meds. Other drugs will be prescribed and used to ward o side-effects. I reassured her she will not get sick. If I can get through 16 rounds, anyone can. Especially her.
“Get the drugs,” I told her, “Get ALL the drugs.” Our survival rates depend on it.