In April 2001, I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. I was a news anchor for WESH-TV, and there was no way I’d be able to hide the soon-to-be bald head, freakishly pale skin, and weight loss of chemotherapy…. or the repeated multiple days I’d miss from work. I also didn’t want to push my autobiography on the 6 pm news. So to share may story and try to dispel rumors and fear, I wrote this diary. These days it would be called a blog. I was ahead of my time. 🙂 I am republishing them, mostly unedited, in hopes of inspiring and informing a new decade of cancer patients and their families. Here’s August.
Time Flies When You’re Poisoning Your Body to Get Well
August 3, 2001
I can hardly believe it’s time again to write in this journal.I swear the weeks in between chemo treatments fly by at double-speed. The weeks of chemo treatments last a looooooong time. Not fair. I had a harder time bouncing back from last week’s treatment. I had been told by several people that the drugs have a cumulative effect. That means this treatment was tougher than the last one, and the next one… well, I’m not ready to start thinking about that yet. This time, it was harder to get back into my groove. I am still feeling some fatigue, and it’s nearly two weeks later. I tried to run an easy, slow three miles with Kelly over the weekend, and could hardly do it. There was a lot of walking and a lot of frustration on my part. People can say, “Yeah, but at least you’re out there. Other people wouldn’t be.” But the truth is, that’s no comfort. When you work really hard at something, like being a strong athlete, it’s infuriating to lose so much. I know the strength and endurance will come back, but it won’t be easy, and it won’t be soon. So there.
On a more positive note, it’s hard to believe, but it’s been almost four months since I was originally diagnosed with breast cancer. Theoretically, I’m almost halfway through the treatment. I’m really learning how to maneuver my way through these chemo cycles.
These days, since I feel good, I’m jamming my schedule with lunches and dinners with friends, running errands, and getting back to a daily running-cycling-swimming-weight lifting schedule. I’ll stay really busy seeing or talking to everyone, because when I go in for treatment, it all comes to a screeching halt. You know about the nausea. The fatigue is just as bad. I tell people, it’s not a matter of hitting the snooze button on the clock radio. It’s a matter of not being able to lift your arm to shut off the alarm. Wait a minute, this was supposed to be my more positive note. How about this. I have received the most wonderful letters and emails and gifts from friends I know and some I don’t. A couple of my favorites are a white teddy bear that has made every trip to the hospital with me, a Tigger shirt that says “Courage” on the front and from my friend, Mike, at Disney, an entry into the 2002 Disney Marathon. THAT is looking to the future. This weekend will be a gloriously normal (yet jam-packed) one. I’m having lunch with another young woman who’s fighting a different kind of cancer. I’m sure we’ll compare notes and be wickedly graphic about what we’re having to go through. (Can’t wait!) I’ll go cheer on our Orlando Miracle, too, on Sunday. I’m a BIG fan. The folks at the Miracle head office know that, too. They gave me a WNBA basketball, signed by the whole team. Kelly (my boyfriend) loves it the most because since it’s a women’s ball, it’s smaller, and he can palm it. I laugh because he walks around the house carrying a pink ball in his hand. Have I mentioned how I found my cancer doctor? He’s been my marathon running partner for more than a year now. We ran the Hartford Marathon last October. That’s the one with which I qualified to run the Boston Marathon. What a relief when you already know and like the doctor who’ll play a big role in your life before you even know him. And, unfortunately for Dr. Dave, not only do I have his cell phone number, I know where he lives! 🙂 Feeling good…back on Neupogen (spelled correctly for the first time, thanks, Dr. Dave)…eating salad…life is good. This week.
Yet Another Side Effect or Two
August 10, 2001
It’s T-minus one weekend (hopefully) for my final adriamycin-cytoxan dose. It’s hard to believe that’s true. It seems like the four treatments were just looming ahead of me. Now, I’m about to embark into all new territory. More on the Taxatere phase of the chemo coming up soon. If I hadn’t had lymph nodes involved in the cancer, I’d be almost done with the chemotherapy part of treatment. Dang the luck. Speaking of lymph nodes, I thought I’d tell you about one of the conditions that can happen when they’re removed. It’s called lymphedema, and right now, that’s what I worry about the most. What happens is the lymph system can’t move the lymph fluid because of scarring from surgery. Your arm can swell up slightly or to huge proportions. It doesn’t happen to everyone. In fact, studies show it only happens to a small percentage of women. But for the rest of my life, I, and many other women, have to be careful. We have to avoid cuts, scrapes, or infection on the surgery arm. We aren’t even supposed to have our cuticles cut. And there are those who believe lifting heavy weights repeatedly may bring it on. It’s a lifestyle change I have to consciously think about now, but I suppose it’ll eventually become second nature.
I have worked swimming back in to my routine now, too. It’s weird, because I still don’t have full range of motion. My left shoulder starts to throb after about 400-meters. I think it’s just atrophy of the muscle. My doctor told me not to favor or baby the surgery side or this could happen. That proved to be easier said than done, though. Now, I’m paying for it. I never have been able to take the easy road! Someone asked me this week how to talk to their friend who is newly-diagnosed with cancer. It’s an interesting question. The pat answer is that it’s different for everyone. That’s the truth, though. As for me, all I ask is open and honest dialogue. If you’re worried, say it. If you have questions, ask them.
The worst thing, as far as I’m concerned, would be to not say anything because you’re worried about saying the wrong thing. Someone could easily take that the wrong way. Being diagnosed with cancer makes a lot of people feel isolated enough. The last thing they need is people avoiding eye contact or worse, avoiding them. I feel fantastic this week. I’ve been able to run or cycle every day. I even took my bike out on the West Orange Trail! We went for 11 easy miles, and I felt great. Of course, the joke of it is, if I get my chemo Monday, I’m back to square one. I’m starting to hate square one. Let’s hope the last time I visit square one is Monday! Cross your fingers.
More Anticipointment….. And Cats
August 17, 2001
So, here I am. You know what that means: My white blood cell count was too low again, and my chemo — my very last yucky chemo — was delayed. My counts were the lowest they’ve been, which was a big surprise to Dr. Dave and me. We’d hoped with the timing of my Neupogen shots this time, I’d be ready to go. I probably should have figured it wouldn’t work. I’ve been pretty fatigued the last few days. I just want to nap (that’s actually not all that unusual). Not only do these delays mean the end of the treatment is further off, it sends my life right now into turmoil. I had cleared my whole schedule out for the week, in anticipation of feeling terrible. But next week, I’d planned business as usual.
I’d like to push chemo back just a few days, but I’m going to Atlanta on Saturday to visit a Canine Companions for Independence puppy that was named after me. It’s a trip that’s been planned for months. So what about on Monday? Well, I’m scheduled to be on a media panel on minority journalists for the National Association of Black Journalists next Wednesday. If I have chemo Monday, I won’t feel well enough to face 1,000 people (and think coherently) until Thursday. So, I scheduled chemo for Sunday. But on Sunday, I’m supposed to help the Track Shack Foundation kick off its Grand Prix race series, so now I have to figure out if that’s possible. There’s been no such thing as making plans for the last few months, that’s for sure. Meanwhile, other parts of my life are going forward. We added another cat to the menagerie. Louie is a brown tabby who came to us from the Orlando Humane Society. He’s 2 years old and incredibly sweet. That makes four cats.
Lots of folks have asked about Spalding, my orange tabby who has cat leukemia. He’s doing great, but my 14-year-old cat, Reebok, isn’t doing so well. He’s quite the sad sack, but he’s hanging in there. You know it’s bad when his vet says, “I can’t believe that cat is still alive!” Not exactly the way you want to impress the vet. Thursday, I ran six miles of hills in Winter Park (they do exist, really!). It was quite an achievement, because it was the first time I’d been able to complete a training session like the ones I did before the cancer treatment started. It was a very good day. But of course, I’ll soon be back to square one. And we’ve already gone over how I feel about square one. And here’s another cruel trick. My hair is starting to grow back. Dr. Dave says that’s normal, after the third or fourth treatment, and he matter-of-factly says it’ll fall out again with the next treatment, whenever that is. I can’t wait for my hair to grow back. I’ve always taken it for granted. I’ll never complain about a bad hair day again. There’ll be no such thing. Anyway, here I am in another holding pattern, heading into another last couple of days in the countdown, wondering if all systems will be go. I kind of feel like the shuttle, rolling back out to the launch pad. Well, last week, Discovery did finally lift off on its second try.
I’ll take that as a good sign.
Puking… Me AND Louie the Cat
August 24, 2001
I got an ugly reminder that all this chemotherapy is cumulative… I guess the fourth treatment (yea! I’m done with Adriamycin-Cytoxan!), is the one to which everything accumulates. I have spent the last four days in what I have dubbed the Bermuda Triangle of my house. I have crawled like a subterranean creature from my bedroom… to the couch to watch endless Food TV… to the guest room, where the new cat, Louie, kept me company. It’s not so much that the drug reaction is worse; it’s just that it lasts longer.
I couldn’t stomach much food for several days. Finally, a brown sugar cinnamon Pop Tart started me on my road to recovery. Four days after the last treatment, I’m having dizzy spells and shortness of breath, but the nausea is finally receding. The only factor that made this last treatment tolerable was that it was the last treatment — for now. Last weekend started out great. My friend, Mike, and I flew to Atlanta to visit Chioji, a Canine Companions for Independence puppy named after me. He’s 4 months old, and bound to be the cutest and smartest service dog on the planet. The nice volunteers in Atlanta put on a picnic, and we got to meet lots of other dogs in training to help the disabled. We flew back to Orlando and got in around midnight. The next morning, Sunday, I chose to forego the Celebration of Running 5K, even though I’d already registered. I hate that, but I figured I shouldn’t be too dehydrated. In hindsight, that was probably a pretty good call. In the old days, I’m sure I would have made the opposite decision and run, and regretted it while I suffered even more during chemo. Thank goodness it’s not the old days. As usual, I stayed in the hospital for about 24 hours, then came home to recover. At least I had the slight distraction of trying to acclimatize a new cat to the home. Louie is sweet, and Spalding (my orange Tabby) is jealous. We just started introducing them to each other. Today’s episode ended with Spalding chasing Louie back into the guest room, and Louie frantically spewing stress-induced projectile cat barf all over my boyfriend Kelly’s editing system and the window sill. We’re just hoping that doesn’t develop into a learned response for Louie — kind of like when the character of Kyle sees Wendy Testaburger, in “South Park.” You can probably deduce, it’s definitely time for me to return to work. I now get a three-week reprieve until the Taxotere treatments start. I’m not sure if it’s dependent upon white blood cell counts (let’s hope not). I’ll ask Dr. Dave and get back to you. I do know this: The worst of the chemotherapy is over. I survived, and I’m ready to move onward and forward.
After all, Louie won’t be in the guest room much longer.
End of the Red Kool Aid and Onto the Next Round of Drugs
August 31, 2001
As usual, recovery from the chemo came exponentially. Every day, I felt and feel measurably better than I did the day before. I am back to a regular working and workout schedule. The nice thing is, now that there’s no more Adriamycin-Cytoxan, improvement in my health and wellness really are improvements. With the Adriamycin-Cytoxan treatment, you get back to feeling fine just in time to get knocked back down. I have a couple of hair revelations to share with you this week. First, the irony of leg hair. Although the hair on my head fell out, I still have to shave my legs every couple of days. What’s up with that? And remember a few weeks ago I said my hair on my head is growing back in? Well, something I hadn’t thought of in the last four months is white hair — and in just the places where they were back in April, white hairs have reappeared. Just a couple of those funny little things that make you go “hmmm.” The next phase of my treatment is Taxotere. I’ll get a lower dose of this Taxane drug once a week for 12 weeks. I now am an expert at chemo math, and here’s what I’ve figured: If I am delayed for my first Taxotere treatment because of low white cells (which I figure will happen), I will still have 14 days of wiggle room before Christmas. That means my lazy white blood cells can only delay my new chemo treatments 14 days, otherwise my chemo will run into Christmas. The more the nurses tell me about side effects of Taxotere, the more my spirits are lifted, though. I should only suffer fatigue, and maybe some joint pain. That is supposed to be manageable, with Advil and Glucosamine. There’s also the possibility of mouth sores (which I haven’t had) and tingling in the hands and feet, too. No nausea, though. That’s a big bonus. I’m back on Neupogen shots, too. You know what that means. Houston’s Pine Room Salad and Sushi Hatsu spicy tuna in a bowl, here I come. Maybe I’ll just eat my way through the holiday weekend. Eating to put back on the weight lost during the chemo fast is actually kind of fun. The bad thing about the chemo fast is that everything I ate that made me sick then has been permanently crossed off my menu. No more whole-wheat pasta, and the very thought of smoothies or Popsicles makes me have to clench my teeth. Ugh. A lot of women have told me it’s a lot like morning sickness when you’re pregnant. All in all, it’s been a good week. I’m still am building back to normal, but I do it with a lighter heart, knowing I won’t return to the Adriamycin-Cytoxan abyss in a week. Plus, I got to meet some of the Apopka All Stars and their coaches this week. They’re the ones who won the U.S. Little League championship. They have made just about everybody feel pretty good.