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. On to July, 2001
Setbacks and a Reality Check
July 6, 2001
OK, so as careful as I was with the disinfectant wipes and avoiding my sneezing, coughing friends, I got a cold. The chemo has zapped my immune system, and I was vulnerable to picking up just about anything — and I have. Of course, as it is with most things, the anticipation and dread of getting sick was worse than the actual event. I got antibiotics and am starting to sound less like Elmer Fudd every day. I am also back on the Neupagen shots, the bone marrow activator that counteracts the drop in white blood cells. You know what that means — white blood cell counts go up, I get to eat sushi and salad. I get to do that for two days. I get the shots for eight days. Now, the shots are done, and the raw vegetables and sushi are gone for a couple of weeks. After the next chemo treatment, I’ll get shots, sushi, and salad for another couple of days. I’m getting used to the cyclical nature of this treatment. You might have read the beautiful column that Mike Thomas wrote about me in the Orlando Sentinel Tuesday. It should be inspirational for any woman who’s going through this. It was about having the strength and the power and the sense of humor to get past cancer. Similar stories could have been written about a dozen women I’ve met since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Powerful stuff. And having Mike Thomas write a column about me? Its just another example of cancer creating a climate in which really cool things materialize. (You can read Mike’s column on the Orlando Sentinel’s Web site.) Another cool thing that’s happening: my little brother’s coming to visit this weekend, no family, no kids, just him. (My “little” brother is 6 foot 3 inches tall and more than 200 pounds.) That’s never happened before, and I’m looking forward to just hanging out with him. What occupies my mind pretty much all of the time is getting better, getting healed, living my life. So when I looked at the obituary page Thursday, a cold wind blew down my neck. Maybe you saw that WMFE TV’s Wendy McCabe died this week. She was only 43 years old, and had breast cancer. I knew her. I’d met her a while ago, in television circles. Then, about three weeks ago, I met her again in my doctor’s office. She was getting chemo, and I was getting a shot for something. We chatted for a while. She told me she was all excited about a trip she was going to take to Europe. She was trying to work it into her chemo schedule; because there was no way she was going to miss that trip. And then, she died. I don’t know if she made it to Europe. You know, death isn’t an option I’ve considered for myself, and I’m reasonably sure Wendy McCabe didn’t either. It was a sobering, scary reminder of what I and so many other women (and some men) are dealing with here.
Remember Wendy (McCabe) and her family in your prayers.
July 13, 2001
Foiled again. I was supposed to be getting my third chemo treatment Friday, but my white blood cell count was too low again. Now, the treatment has been pushed back to next Tuesday. I am disappointed. Every time this happens, it pushes the end of the chemo back further into December… I want to be done before Christmas!
Other than that, it’s been a wonderfully normal week.
I only had one doctor’s appointment and it was with my allergist. I’ve been cramming as much good living as I can into the last few days — seeing friends, running errands, and getting back into a training routine. I got into the pool to swim for the first time since before the Boston Marathon. It was tough. I hadn’t realized how much range of motion I’d lost, after the two surgeries (and not swimming for two months!). My shoulder on the surgery side hurt for two days.
Last week, I ran the Watermelon 5K in Winter Park. I apparently forgot to write about it (several people reminded me). I ran at a slow pace, but it was a lot of fun. Folks who run at a more casual pace chat and tell jokes during the race. It made for a great distraction during the 90-degree, 100-percent humidity day. I’ll do more races. Even though I’m not near the front of the pack any more, I am still able to maintain that part of my normal regimen. That’s important.
My brother came to visit from Rockville, Md, last weekend. We had a really great time. We saw movies, went to Orlando Miracle games, and just hung out together. It was a nice, low-key time. It was also the first time my brother has ever come down without his family. He and my sister-in-law have five beautiful children. I think he needed reassurance that I’m not, well, sickly. He must have been convinced, because before he left, he was talking about bringing the kids back next time.
As for me, I’m anticipating the bottom of the cycle that is my life these days. The chemo, whenever it happens, will leave me sick to my stomach, and the other drugs will leave me spacier and unable to sleep very well. Then, day by day, I’ll feel better until I’m once again cramming as many good things as I can into my days before the next treatment.
The good news is that every cycle brings me closer to the end. Already, it’s two months down, four to go.
Delays, Anticipation, Appreciation
July 20, 2001
Well, now I have two strikes. Not only did my white blood cell count not come up by Tuesday, it actually went down! We’re not sure why that happened; maybe it was because of the two-week cold I just shook. In any case, it could be a blessing in disguise. Although it’s going to delay the end of my chemo treatments, it does mean I’ll have a good weekend. That’s important, because I’m flying to Chicago to spend a long weekend with my college roommates. We used to get together every year, but have missed a few. I figure this weekend, we can spend all the money we saved by not getting together those years. 🙂 Flying is a little scary for me. I know I’m especially susceptible to germs. I’ll sit next to a window, but if a sick person sits next to me, I’ll have to be moved. Plus, the air is recirculated in planes, so it could potentially be germy, too. I’ll travel with a supply of anti-bacterial wipes. During this bonus week of feeling good, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking (insert joke about seeing steam coming out of my ears here). One message I’ve heard repeatedly from cancer survivors is that, although you’re never glad you got cancer, it does teach you important life lessons. For instance, things get put into perspective. Suddenly, the driver who spaced out in the turn lane in front of you and caused you to miss a green light doesn’t induce rage. And having dinner with friends you haven’t seen in a while becomes the most important engagement in your week. When you’re forced to face your own mortality, your priorities fall into place. At least they have for me. It’s clarity about what’s really important (and what’s not). I have a cocoon of supportive and loving friends around me (and the prayers and well wishes of thousands of people I’ve not even met yet.). Of course, I knew that was important before I got sick, but it’s illustrated in Technicolor for me now, every day. In times of crisis, your true friends really step up to the plate. No one has done that more than my boyfriend, Kelly. He’ll be embarrassed to read this, but I have to say, he’s been incredible. He has been with me almost every doctor’s appointment, hospital visit, and sick day in front of the TV. We joke that he’s the “gatekeeper,” who decides who does and doesn’t get through on the phone when I’m feeling terrible. He even drove around town to get me yellow rice when it was the only thing I felt like eating after my first chemo treatment. (For the second one, he already had it in the house. Of course, it’s all I wanted!) He’s been terrific (but I’m still not going to unload the dishwasher. Not my job.) The new d-day (C-day) is Monday. If you know any white blood cell cheers, now is the time to do them for me!
A Reprieve, Then a Return to the Pit of Despair
July 27, 2001
I didn’t have cancer this weekend. I also wasn’t in the midst of chemotherapy. In fact, I was 21-years-old again, but with a higher credit card limit. I went to Chicago for three days to hang out with my college roommates, Diana, Barb, and Julie. We gather every couple of years for fun weekends like this one. It was two days of eating, gossiping, seeing chick movies, playing tourist and shopping. (Someone explain to me why we went all the way to Chicago to buy clothes from the Gap and Banana Republic???!!) It was a fantastic respite from cancer, since no one there (except Diana, Barb, and Julie) knew about it. So, when someone in a store asks, “How are you,” they don’t mean, “How are you, because I know you’re in chemotherapy and you are fighting breast cancer, how are you handling it?” They mean, “How are you, and how much are you plannning to spend in our store, restaurant or gift shop today?” For folks who are waging this same battle, I highly recommend a few days away. There’s also nothing like old friends. They know just the right things to say and when to say them. (and when not to!) You know… friends whose moms even remember what you like to eat, and send them along! (Thanks for the pralines, Donna). I was rejuvenated, and my soul was refreshed! Just in time to come back for Monster Number 3. My white blood cell antibodies were 1.7, good enough for the chemo. I checked in to the hospital Monday morning. It’s now getting to the point when even the thought of the hospital or the treatment makes my stomach curdle. I got treatment Monday and stayed until Tuesday afternoon. This time, the reaction was worse than the second treatment, but better than the first (of course, having my entire body turned inside out might be better than the first one). I tried to go back to work on Wednesday, but one step into the heat and humidity sent me scrambling back inside. I worked half a day on Thursday. I’m just not bouncing back as quickly this time. I’d been told that would happen, since the drugs build up in your system. Great. It’s going to take every ounce of strength I have to force myself in for treatment number four. At least it’s the last of the Adriamycin-Cytoxan phase. That can’t be over soon enough. I still haven’t been able to eat much. I think an english muffin and a half bowl of oatmeal are what’s been powering me through the last four days. It’s ironic that nausea (and worse) are what I have to face these days. Nausea has always been the sickness I dread the most. Even recovery from surgeries was easier to handle than this. The upside is, every day I feel measurably better than I did the day before. Friday, I’ll work a full day. And Saturday, I’ll head downtown for an art exhibit. And next week will bring days of feeling great and eating fattening stuff to counteract this week. I hope they’re waiting at Krispy Kreme.