Hairy Christmas

Two days before my second round of chemo I noticed what I had dreaded the absolute most since I found out I had stage three breast cancer about three months ago—that my hair was falling out with a little more intensity than usual. I was more upset about losing my hair that losing my boobs. I was more upset about losing my hair than how lousy chemo makes me feel. Losing my hair, I felt, was the ultimate slap in the face by cancer. After it takes everything—it comes back to take just a little bit more. The volume of hair I was losing at that point was a very minor increase and if you had not been the person resting underneath that hair for twenty-eight years you probably would not have even noticed. But I did. I held the strands in my hand and had a conversation with my hair. No seriously, I did. I told my hair how incredibly uncool it was being for falling out and to just stop. It didn’t listen.

The next day there was more hair. A few strands on my pillow. No!!! This isn’t happening! I really figured I would be part of the one percent—the upper echelon of cancer patients if you will—that didn’t lose their hair. Honestly, with my kind of treatment it is probably less than one percent of people who keep their hair. But regardless, I was hopeful. My mom already had a hair appointment scheduled for her that day randomly and she asked me if I would like to accompany her. She planted the seed in my head and let me mull it over for a while. I just sat there on the couch assessing my follicle situation. I didn’t know what to do. A part of me was just over it. My hair was very long at that point; it reached the middle of my back. And of course the other part of me wanted to hold onto my hair forever and fight cancer tooth and nail. Never give in.

I cut about a foot of hair off that day. I sat in the chair and didn’t shed a tear while my hairdresser put my hair in a ponytail and chopped the whole thing off. My mom was crying but I told her it was just hair! No big deal! My new haircut fell a little below my chin and looked pretty cute (if I do say so myself). Maybe this was as far as I would need to go? I think the reason I was not traumatized by this initial hair-chopping experience was because I realized I had no choice in the matter. It is not like your traditional let’s-chop-off-all-my-hair post-mortem moments when you regret your decision. For me, I didn’t have a choice, so I embraced my new haircut. But that, unfortunately, was not the final one.

By the next weekend my hair was falling out in clumps. I was literally filling up wastebaskets with the fist-fulls of hair I was pulling off my head. Hair was everywhere and yes, it was pretty gross. If I touched my head, hair would fall out. If I brushed up against something, hair would fall out. If I just sat there completely still minding my own business, hair would fall out. And then it started to hurt, which was the real breaking point. It felt as if thousands of tiny, sharp needles were poking into my scalp. It hurt so badly. Finally, three nights ago I was in so much pain from my hair that I called my mom while she was at work and told her I was going to take scissors to it. I was holding my hair up to a pair of scissors like a hostage. One wrong move and she gets it. I was having an emotional breakdown looking at myself in the mirror where a bald spot was starting to form on the very front of my hairline and the pain of the prickles was all just too much. My mom came home and told me to wait until the next day when we could get my hairdresser to do it. I told her I couldn’t wait. It hurt too badly. GET IT OFF ME! So my mom took the scissors and cut some more off so I couldn’t feel it poking into my neck. There was some relief there but not enough. It still hurt.

The following day I went to see my hairdresser, Debbie. She let me come in after the salon was closed so I wouldn’t have to basically shave my head in front of strangers. I was very grateful for that. I felt so sick on the ride there (I was still very nauseated from the chemo) that I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to actually sit in the chair long enough for her to cut my hair. Upon arrival, I immediately rushed to the bathroom of the salon worried I was going to throw up right then and there. I composed myself, stepped outside of the bathroom, and informed her that my hair situation was borderline appalling. I had a hat on so no one could see the state of my hair but the bald spot had gotten worse. It was forming into a large strip going down the middle of my head where my part generally rests. I looked like a possessed clown that no one wants at her birthday party and I was over it. So we all sadly acknowledged the fact that it was time to cut my hair off and I sat down in the chair.

Debbie started cutting off my remaining hair section by section. I was looking in the mirror while she did it. When I realized that I did not recognize the person staring back at me I lost it. I started crying. I could not compose myself. I was so angry that I looked this way. I was so angry that this was happening. For the first time in a long time I was feeling utterly sorry for myself and the whole scene was pretty pathetic. I just sat there in the chair, basically bald, weeping and shaking and pissed off. I finally pulled myself together and she continued. When it was all said and done I had about a half an inch of hair left on my head interspersed with patches of baldness. My worst nightmare realized, basically. My mom and Debbie insisted that I looked cute. I allowed myself to entertain the thought. I mean, how else am I going to get through this? I quickly put my hat back on.

Unfortunately the pain and the prickly feeling are still there. Last night I tried to cut off even more hair but it doesn’t seem to help. It is so painful to sleep that I really can’t sleep. Resting my head on my pillow is excruciating.

No one really wants to lose all her hair days before Christmas. The one positive aspect to all this is that I take zero time getting ready in the morning. Not that I really have anywhere to go. BUT if I did, I would be out the door in no time at all. I also look pretty badass. If anyone tries to mess with me I will just take off my hat and that will be the end of that. I should probably just roam the streets of my hometown with my scary looking head showing and cut down on crime rates. It is a weird juxtaposition however, because when I do have my hat on I look like a synchronized swimmer, but when I take my hat off I look like a cold-blooded killer.

So that is it, people. My hair is gone. I am down to the brass tacks and things can surely only look up from here. I asked my mom earlier this week if this part of my journey is as bad as it is going to get. We both agreed that most likely, it is. So this is good news! I am looking straight ahead. I am focusing on the finish line. I am buying cute hats. I am purchasing a purple wig (I told my mom it is an absolute must). And I am shopping in the scarf section of Macy’s. I asked my sister if the scarf industry only manufactures ugly scarves—like if it is some sort of regulatory requirement or something. Why are they all so hideous? I will keep looking.

I hope each one of you has a very happy holiday. I hope you all celebrate a little more than normal this year to make up for my largely non-celebratory year. I am so sick from the chemo most of the time that I don’t have many opportunities to celebrate. So get out there and get all Christmas-crazy for me and send me some pictures. I would really appreciate it. As for me, I will celebrate the best I can. I am going to bake Christmas cookies, hang out with my family (having my niece and nephew around makes anything better), and enjoy the parts of the holiday that I can. Next Christmas I will have hair. Next Christmas I won’t have cancer. Next Christmas I am going to celebrate so hard it will scare some of you. Happy Christmas!

Chemo Clouds

On the morning of my first chemo session I was unpredictably calm. I mean, I am never calm, so for me to pick the first day of chemo to try that trait on for size was rather strange to me. The port was in (gross), and I was ready to face chemo head-on. It was scheduled for 10 a.m. and my mom, sister, and I showed up right on time. I packed a little bag with some magazines, my iPad, and snacks. You know, the essentials. I often wondered how I would react on the first day. I was pretty sure I would absolutely lose it and my mom would have to pull out a tranquilizer and then physically drag me into the office, but I was cool as a cucumber. Instead of dragging my feet, I actually sped my way from the parking lot into the Cancer Center. I figured I have to do this, and the sooner I get in there, the sooner I get out. I am one smart cookie.

Upon arrival, one of the oncology nurses led me back to the chemo room and told me I could select a seat. (As a side note, I have found that oncology nurses are the best people on the planet. It just has to be said.) I was the youngest person in the room by at least a decade, probably more. Without even a slight hesitation I chose a seat near a friendly looking lady. From the outside looking in, I looked like a pro. There were no indications that this was my first chemo session. The nurse wasted no time by taking my vitals and preparing my drugs. She popped a needle into my port (which surprisingly did not hurt at all) and gave me some anti-nausea medicine that may as well have been water because it didn’t help me one lick—we will get to that later. Then my oncologist came in the chemo room to speak with me, as I am sure he does with all first-timers, and told me he was glad I chose to get a port (anything for you, buddy). Relatively soon after that it was time.

The nurse brought out two tubes of red liquid. There it was…the “Red Devil.” That is what this particular chemo drug is referred to in the inner circle. How incredibly terrible is that?!!! The red devil just sounds, well, devilish. I didn’t blink. I sat there like a champion just chatting with my mom and sister like we were at the spa but instead of getting a seaweed wrap I was having chemicals pumped into my veins. Not a problem. The nurse told me that the entire session would take about two hours. I had been prepared for four, which is how long my friend who underwent this same chemo, took. The nurse told me that I get a smaller dose because I am smaller. How delightful!

By 12:30 I was home and by 1:30 I was hugging the toilet. The nurse said I would feel the effects of chemo a day or two later. WOW. SHE WAS JUST SO TERRIBLY WRONG. I was shaking. I felt hot. Then I felt cold. Sweat was pouring down all over my body. I would get shivers and then I would have to throw up. I couldn’t move. I literally could not move an inch. I was just too nauseated. If I moved a muscle it would send me into another dimension, so I just lay on the bathroom floor with my blanket and pillow and waited for the next round of heaving to commence. It is the absolute worst I have ever felt in my entire life. I knew chemo was going to be bad. I just didn’t know it was going to be this bad. That same terrible feeling continued for about 48 hours. There were moments when I was sure I was going to die. I couldn’t believe it. I really felt as though I was going to need to be hospitalized. I couldn’t eat anything and the Cancer Center was concerned I needed to get back there for some fluids because I was getting so dehydrated, but the thought of moving and getting back to the hospital was pretty much out of the question.

There was this brief moment the next day where I had a glimpse of what not feeling like absolute hell feels like. I will never forget that feeling as long as I live. It was like the clouds lifted and I was ok for a few precious minutes. I looked up to the heavens like God and I were having a full-on moment and just sobbed tears in utter jubilation that I felt decent. I realize that this may sound dramatic. Well, that is because it was. It was real dramatic. Things got intensely real. And I was feeling every inch of my body and the pain it was in. When I felt a brief sense of relief it was the most indescribable feeling. And then, as quickly as it came, it disappeared again.

I was able to get up and be semi-normal by Saturday for two hours. So, after four days of being completely flat-lined I had two hours where I felt kind of ok. By Sunday I had another two hours, and by Monday I had about four hours. Tuesday was when I finally felt like I could rejoin society—a full week after my first round of chemo. I realize that this may scare any readers that are preparing for chemo. However, I feel as though if I portrayed my experience as anything less than what it really was I would be in the wrong. But, I do have advice! Phenergan. Take one the moment you leave the oncologist’s office and for the following day as well. If you are asleep you can’t tell how bad you feel. That is going to be my approach from here on out.

My appetite has finally come back but it is a strange one. Two of my favorite things—chocolate and coffee—make me gag, and I can’t even say the word “eggs” out loud. Even typing it is a problem. If my mom is making coffee in the house I have to hide under the covers in my bedroom with the door shut and just pray it ends. The aroma is just too much for me to handle. Coffee used to be my best friend, and I feel awful about this strain on our relationship, but for now we are on a break. There may be a happy ending, but it is way too soon to tell. Chocolate, another good friend of mine, just tastes weird. I know chemo changes your taste buds, but I thought it was a little soon for that. Regardless, I don’t like chocolate now.

So, what do I eat these days? Bean burritos from a fine establishment called Taco Bell and spaghetti. Ohhhh yeahhhh. I am one classy lady. These are currently the only items that sound good to me. I know what you are thinking. You are thinking these are the only things that ever sound good to you, aren’t you? Admit it. I realize these food choices are random, but so am I, so it works. I actually tried a little soup today and I was able to stomach it, but I have largely been eating spaghetti and getting to know the workers at Taco Bell (who are super nice by the way). They are really at the core of my social circle right now. But my favorite thing, my new obsession, is the love affair I am shamelessly embracing with Coke (the soft drink, not the drug…yet). It is the only thing that seems to work at settling my stomach and boy is it good. I have been in the dark my entire life drinking its super lame sister, Diet Coke. My life has changed, my priorities have shifted, Coke is delicious and the perfect start to my day. I realize I am supposed to be eating wholesome, nourishing foods, but you can judge me only after you have had chemo and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, so just take my word for it—I am doing the best that I can.

It has been a week and a day since my first chemo treatment and I feel ok. I keep wondering why I am so tired, why I get headaches, why I feel very cloudy and then I remind myself, oh, right, I had chemo. I am very fatigued most of the time and that makes me a little sad but I have a whole new appreciation for feeling just ok. Feeling ok is the best feeling in the world. I love feeling ok. One thing that has me semi-concerned is the cloudiness I cannot seem to shake. I have heard of it referred to as “chemo brain,” and unfortunately, for me, it is real. It is just this constant feeling of being a little off. A little fuzzy. Like I shouldn’t be allowed to operate heavy machinery or something. I am just stuck in this chemo cloud. It is a very odd feeling. I was reading an article today about how chemo brain becomes permanent in some people and that just is not going to fly with me. You can take my boobs, you can take my hair (But I still got it!! Woo!), but you cannot take my brain. It is just not an option. So I am doing a lot of brain puzzles to give my brain a little workout. Hey, I read it works! I am getting pretty good at Jeopardy as well. I may try and go on the show after all this cancer stuff is behind me. If physics is a category I would probably just quietly put my buzzer down and walk off stage, but otherwise I think I could do well.

I am taking my ok feeling and appreciating each day. I try very hard not to think about my next dose of chemo. For me, it just isn’t happening. Yes, denial, at times, is a good thing. I watch a lot of movies, do a lot of sleeping, take a lot of baths, and engage in an abnormal amount of Facebook stalking (I know what all of you are up to). I am appreciating mindless novels, moisturizing several times a day, reading the news with more intensity, developing informed views on presidential candidates, considering taking an improv class (who knows, it could be my true calling), and eagerly anticipating my visitors that are coming to see me this weekend. Two of my best girlfriends from college and my aunt and uncle are visiting to cheer me up. Good times will be had! Cancer will be thrown on the backburner where it belongs. Oh, and my favorite item IN LIFE is going to be purchased today—a Christmas tree. What else does a girl need?