I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2008. For Breast Cancer Awareness month, I am continuing to share parts of my online journal that kept my friends and family updated throughout my treatment. For my final post, I am sharing all things chemotherapy. I started chemo just a couple months after my double mastectomy. It was definitely the hardest part of treatment for me, both physically and emotionally. It wasn’t until I lost my hair that I truly felt like a cancer patient. What shows on the outside can have a huge effect on how we feel on the inside.
There was a short period after my mastectomy when I thought I would not have to go through chemotherapy. But in the end, because of my age and my Oncotype test being high (determines level of risk of recurrence), I decided to go through with chemo to make sure I did every possible thing I could to kill any cancer cells left in my body.
Dec 4, 2008 – This morning we had our appointment with the oncologist and my first chemo treatment has been set for Tuesday, December 16th. With 4 cycles, once every 3 weeks, this puts my last treatment on February 17th. It actually doesn’t seem that far away, so I will be counting down the days.
Some other things we learned today:
-The chemo meds I will be taking are Taxotere and Cytoxan, or TC.
– Chemo treatment is a series of events, starting with bloodwork a few days prior. The day before my treatment, I start taking steroid pills, which helps to prevent side effects such as nauseousness and any sort of allergic reaction to the chemo meds. The pills continue the day of treatment, as well as the day after. Chemo will be at 9am on Tuesday and will last until lunchtime. The day after chemo I get a shot that boosts my white blood cell count, so I shouldn’t be any more prone to germs than anyone else.
-The pattern supposedly is that 2-5 days after treatment, I will feel my worst and my white blood cell count will be at its lowest. Then I will slowly start to recover, and by the 3rd week, right before the next treatment, I will feel pretty much back to normal.
-I will start to lose my hair sometime around day 15-17 after my first treatment. This means I will still have hair on Christmas, whew. Hair doesn’t usually start growing back until 2 months after the last treatment (this was new to me), but my hair grows fast and is thick, so I’m hoping for some head coverage sooner than that.
-The steroids I have to take will make it hard for me to sleep, which may be a good thing right before the holidays with so much stuff to do! Otherwise, there’s always Ambien!
Dec 15, 2008 – Tomorrow is D-day. 9am is my first chemo treatment. So far I’m feeling okay. The nerves haven’t really kicked in yet. Tonight I take my first dose of a steroid called Decadron. It is an anti-nausea/anti-allergy med and supposedly will make it hard for me to sleep the next few nights.
Dec 16, 2008 (1st chemo infusion) – Well today went off without a hitch…well besides blowing out two veins at first. But the actual infusions went very smoothly. We got started around 10 and were out by 12:30. The first drug, Taxotere, was done slowly this time just to watch out for an allergic reaction, but I had no problems. It left a bad taste in my mouth, but nothing a popsicle or hard candy couldn’t mask. The second drug, Cytoxan was quick…just 30 minutes. The weird side effect was that it made my sinuses tingle and caused me to sneeze. The nurse said I may get a sinus headache from it, but so far so good. The whole ordeal went much smoother than I anticipated.
I slept surprisingly well last night. I am starting to drink more water (my body is in shock because as some of you know, I’m horrible at drinking water) so that kept waking me up. The nurse said that tonight I probably won’t be able to sleep since they gave me even more steroids today. Wonderful.
Dec 20, 2008 – The chemo drugs are pumping through my veins attacking any cancer cell that is floating around and, let me tell you, I feel it. I really can’t complain too much because, although I am having some side effects, in the grand scheme of things, they are pretty mild.
I think a standard way of counting chemo days is how many days out from treatment you are. So with treatment day being day #1, today was day #5 for me. Yesterday, day #4, so far has been the worst for me, physically and emotionally. I was wallowing in self-pity yesterday 🙁 but was also feeling very run down and tired. On day #2 I received a shot called Neulasta that boosts my white blood count. The side effect of that is bone pain, similar to aches from the flu. Well yesterday I felt that on top of the fatigue. The other mild side effect is dry/sore mouth. So far no blisters that have prevented me from eating all the delicious foods being brought by friends, but it’s still annoying, nonetheless. And finally I’ve had some mild queasiness. It usually hits at night….like right now for instance…but I’ve been taking medicine at night for it and it helps.
Today I feel much better than yesterday. Maybe it’s because I’m being more proactive about the side effects. The bone pain, for example, hasn’t bothered me too much today because I’ve been staying on top of taking Tylenol. So I guess that’s the key in the future…don’t wait for the side effects to hit, just beat them to the punch.
Dec 29, 2008 – What a crummy weekend. Saturday I came down with a fever, aches and chills. So I guess sometime during all the holiday madness, or maybe at the gym on Friday, I caught something and came down with an infection. I had to have the on-call doctor paged around midnight on Saturday then Jaime had to go to a 24-hour pharmacy to pick up some antibiotics for me. So Saturday I was down for the count and most of Sunday. Luckily the fever broke on Sunday so it definitely helped.
Then to top everything off, my hair is starting to shed. I knew this was coming and I’ve tried to mentally prepare myself, but I don’t think anything can truly prepare me for it. I expected to wake up this morning with tons of hair on my pillow, but nothing. Yet, when I brush my hair, about 20 strands come out at a time. Maybe my thick hair will take a bit longer to shed and I’ll be able to go without shaving for a while. Who knows…my wig is at the store waiting for me.
Jan 1, 2009 – Well Friends, it’s official…I now have a buzz cut. I have actually been surprisingly okay about it. I have seen so many women without hair since my diagnosis, that I am *almost* use to it. But also, the last few days of cleaning up hair everywhere got real annoying and I feel kind of relieved that it’s gone. Last night I decided to wash it and it ended up being a matted mess by the time I went to bed. So Jaime charged up the electric razor and practiced his buzz cut skills on me. I think he was more nervous than I was! And poor Joshua (my son was 5 at the time) isn’t ready to look at me yet. 🙁 Jaime took the kids out so I could “mourn” but I’ve just been walking around with nothing on my head and I feel a bit liberated.
In other news, my fever from this past weekend was caused by an infection in my breasts. So I am now on IV antibiotics (the strong stuff) every day until at least Friday to clear it up. Tuesday was my first infusion and I ended up getting an allergic reaction…puffy face, puffy, tingly lips and red, itchy skin. So yesterday they administered Benedryl via IV first and I did much better. Plus I took a nice little snooze during the 1.5 hour infusion! So I am off today to Fairfax Hospital for another dose, then back to the oncologist tomorrow to see if I need any through the weekend. Great way to start out the new year, huh?
Jan 4, 2009 – Well I HOPE today was my last IV antibiotic treatment. The infection is clearing up and I will have my plastic surgeon take a look at it tomorrow. It’s been a tiring week having to go to Fairfax every day from Tuesday-Sunday and sit in the infusion room for 2 hours. However, it has forced me to get out of the house with my new “hairdo” and get comfortable with being in public. I’ve been wearing a baseball hat and haven’t felt too conscious about it. However, it’s awfully cold without hair! I wear my hoodies up even when I’m around the house b/c it’s so cold.
For today I will leave you all with this hair poem that made me smile despite losing my hair. It gives the whole ordeal a bit of light-heartedness:
There once was a woman who woke up one morning,
looked in the mirror,
and noticed she had only three hairs on her head.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘I think I’ll braid my hair today.’
So she did and she had a wonderful day.
The next day she woke up,
looked in the mirror
and saw that she had only two hairs on her head.
‘H-M-M,’ she said,
‘I think I’ll part my hair down the middle today.’
So she did and she had a grand day.
The next day she woke up,
looked in the mirror and noticed
that she had only one hair on her head.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘today I’m going
to wear my hair in a pony tail.’
So she did, and she had a fun, fun day.
The next day she woke up,
looked in the mirror and noticed
that there wasn’t a single hair on her head.
‘YEAH!’ she exclaimed.
‘I don’t have to fix my hair today!’
Jan 6, 2009 – Chemo treatment #2 was today and all went smoothly. They even found a vein the first time around, whew. I’m expecting side effects to start tomorrow and I hear the fatigue could be worse this time around. Lovely. I feel like since I’ve gotten over the hurdle of losing my hair, I should be able to handle anything else thrown at me, right?
I’m still on antibiotics for my infection, but no longer IV, so at least I don’t have to venture out every day. I hope that clears up soon so I don’t have to worry about it anymore.
Jan 18, 2009 – I haven’t posted in a while because I didn’t want to speak too soon, but things have been good here. The last few days my immune system has been weak, so I’ve been trying to avoid germs and pray that I don’t get an infection again, and so far so good. This weekend would have been the same time I got the infection last time around, so I’ve been holding my breath. But I made it through the weekend without any body aches or fever. I have been sneezing a lot, but I don’t know if it’s a cold or maybe my nose hairs are thinning out (yes, even the nose hairs supposedly go). Like I said, I don’t want to speak too soon, but honestly, this second cycle was much better than the first. My mouth didn’t get as raw this time. Day 3 and 4 (Thurs and Fri after treatment) were still the worst as far as fatigue….Friday I didn’t want to get up off the couch! But no nauseousness this time around at all, and the bone pain from the Neulasta shot didn’t hit as hard either.
On the hair front…still in a funk over that, but I’m managing. I still have tons of stubble on my head and I swear it looks like it’s growing. I don’t know if more will fall out in a few days or not. I still have my arm hairs (drats), eyebrows and eyelashes as well. I shaved my legs about 3 or 4 weeks ago and that has not grown back (yay!) except for a few stubbles around my ankles. I’ve been wearing my wig out in public for the most part, so I’m getting used to it. Honestly, that has been more for warmth than anything!
Jan 28, 2009 – Yesterday was chemo treatment #3. Not much to report since everything went smoothly as it has the past 2 times. Right now I’m still feeling fine with my regular energy level. I expect to start feeling tired tomorrow. My oncologist said that the fatigue tends to be cummulative with each treatment, but all other side effects should be similar each time. So we’ll see.
One more to go everyone!!!
Feb 3, 2009 – Just a quick update…day 8 after treatment and I’m starting to feel normal again. Energy levels are back and nauseousness is subsiding. My taste buds were a little raw this time around again and are taking a bit longer to return to normal, but nothing I can’t deal with. Last treatment I drank a milkshake during one of the drug infusions and my taste buds remained normal, so I tried that again this time but I guess it didn’t work. I’ll still try it again for #4…I mean, it is a milkshake…nothing wrong with at least trying! 😉
I think this is the home stretch everyone!!
Feb 17, 2009 – Chemotherapy is officially OVER!
Notes from my 12-year Survivor Self: At the time, chemotherapy was the worst part of treatment, hands down. But now that I am 12 years out, it really does seem like just a blip in my life. For me, losing hair sucked, there’s no other way to put it. Wearing a wig made me feel very conspicuous, like everyone could tell I had on a wig. And that made me feel even worse because I think the main reason I wore a wig was for everyone else, so they didn’t feel uncomfortable. Looking back, that seems silly, but as I mentioned in the beginning, what we reflect on the outside sometimes has a lot to do with how we feel on the inside.
To anyone about to go through this, my advice is to take care of yourself, be proactive about any side effects, and don’t be afraid to ask for help or call your doctor it you aren’t feeling well. Whatever the side effect may be, I found that my oncologist had an arsenal of things she could prescribe or suggestions of things I could do to minimize what I was feeling.
Please reach out if you need someone to talk to. Both Deena and I have life experiences we can share and we hope that no one feels alone while going through something like this.
To wrap up my Breast Cancer Awareness posts, I’ll leave you with a few hair growth progression photos:
Take care and stay healthy!