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 September.
The No Hair and Now
September 7, 2001
What a bummer. I’m pretty disappointed this week.
Of course, the source of my disappointment, as it is so often during this chemo, is my hair. Again. Remember I said it was starting to grow back? It’s about half an inch long and longer in some areas. I did more chemo math and figured if it was still in and growing 16 days after the last chemo (that’s when it started falling out after the first chemo), then maybe I’d be the exception and not lose it again. Well, I’m not the exception. It’s started to fall out again, just like Dr. Dave said it would. (I hate it when he’s right about things I want him to be wrong about.) I don’t know why I find this so disappointing, when I had been prepared all along to be without hair on my head for six months. I think this is just getting old. It’s sort of the feeling you get at about mile 18 of a marathon. The last thing you want to do is run more, but you’re closer to the finish than you are to the start, so you plod on. I suppose that’s what I’ll do. Plod on. While I’m plodding, I am still having fun. We went to Jacksonville on Sunday, to see our old friends in Matchbox Twenty and Seven Mary Three. They are Orlando bands who’ve gone big. Rock stars. It’s always nice to see nice people succeed like they are doing. I’m also building back my endurance. I got on the bike on the West Orange Trail (I love that place) for a couple of long rides, and I ran another six-miler. I’m definitely feeling stronger and making progress there. I did get some troubling news from Dr. Dave Thursday. It seems that Taxotere has another side effect — making your eyes tear. It somehow scars the tear duct. To treat the side effect of the drug (here we go again), a doctor can put a stent into the tear duct. It supposedly is painless, but it doesn’t sound like much fun at all. I guess if that’s what I need to keep working, I’ll do it. But yuck! I’ll know more about that by next week. On Tuesday, I went to Mayor Glenda Hood’s Diverse Discussions in Orlando. We got to hear from one of the most amazing and resilient women I’ve ever heard. Laura Baugh is a professional golfer who has survived physical abuse and alcoholism, nearly dying twice. She shared her battles and victories with us, and really had a message that hit home. Sometimes I feel that people who go through cancer and chemo and all the terrible things that go with them suffer the most and win the biggest battles. Laura showed me that isn’t true at all. She fought and is winning just as big a battle for her life as I am for mine. It’s all in perspective, isn’t it?
I’m scheduled to launch into Phase Two on Monday, but I don’t hold out much hope. We’re all pretty familiar with the bad behavior of my white blood cells. I am more than ready to start this all, so I can be done. Even if I do have to have things stuck in my eyes.
9/11 and Perspective
September 14, 2001
Where do I start this week? What’s happened in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania has turned everyone’s world upside down. I think all of us are going through cycles of grief and anger and confusion and back to sorrow. I don’t feel it’s a time to talk about how I’m doing, but more a time to talk about what’s happened and how we feel and how we can help. Where were you when it happened? I was at the gym, watching the first tower burn and smoke on the big screen television. Then, as we watched in disbelief, the second plane hit and we all realized this was no accident. By the time the buildings started to fall, so had the tears. It was all so surreal. When the shock wore off, we started to call our friends and family, to make sure they were OK, only to be foiled by cell phones that wouldn’t work and overloaded circuits. All the people I love, including my uncle who is a United flight attendant, are OK. What a huge relief. But it makes me feel a little guilty, too. Because that’s not the story for so many people. Have you been able to turn off the television in the last few days? I haven’t. I watch before I get to work. I watch all day long at work, talk about it on the newscasts and then watch more when I get home. There is so much sadness and devastation, and I’m exhausted and burned out, but I can’t turn away. The stories from the survivors and the stories from families waiting for their loved ones bring tears to my eyes over and over, but I can’t turn away. I know what I’m waiting for. I’m waiting for stories about people I hope will be pulled from the rubble and for stories about the despicable people who did this getting arrested and brought to justice. I’m also waiting for stories about blood banks with long lines and heroic rescue workers toiling for hours on end, tirelessly, and strangers who are reaching out to strangers. There are plenty of those stories. Thank God. How am I doing? I’m fine. My first chemo of the second cycle got canceled. No surprise. But this week, all I can think of is the thousands of people who showed up for work at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or who got on four planes Tuesday morning. They don’t get a chance to go through treatment and live the rest of their lives. For me, it’s a time to say prayers — for the victims and their families and for us all.
Starting the Clinical Trial and a Nice Surprise
September 21, 2001
The shock of last week’s terrorist attacks began wearing off late last week — for me, it turned into a dull kind of heartache. I don’t know about you, but I felt depressed and lethargic and it had nothing to do with chemotherapy. It came from days of being so sad and overwhelmed and just being bombarded with information and bad news. Now, though, more than a week later, after grieving and praying and saying thanks for what we do have, it’s time to move ahead with our lives, don’t you think? The most incredible day of my week this week was Monday. I began the second phase of my chemotherapy — Taxotere. It’s given in an IV, just like the Adriamycin-Cytoxan. It goes in my port, which is a catheter under the skin of my shoulder. The nurses put the IV needle there and give me drugs. It doesn’t hurt, but it does give me the heebie-jeebies. After all the needles I’ve been stuck with in recent months, I still can’t watch. Ugh. Anyway, I kept waiting and waiting to feel nauseated during and after the treatment, but it never happened. I felt a little sick to my stomach sitting in the chemo room and walking to my car, but the nurses (and I, finally) say it must have been psychosomatic. I went home and laid down, in anticipation of getting sick there, too, but nada. I worked a full day Monday. Ran on Tuesday. Worked on Tuesday. Swam on Wednesday. Worked on Wednesday, and so on, and so on. Things are looking up for the fall. Here’s a frustration for you, though: I got delayed last week, because my white blood cell count was too low — We thought!! Turns out, I could have begun Taxotere last week after all. The clinical trial has a lower white blood cell standard for me to meet every week. Still, if my chemo math adds up correctly, I will be done with treatment before Christmas. What I’ve learned throughout this cancer treatment is that nothing ever turns out to be as simple as it sounds at first. Taxotere isn’t just Taxotere. I also have to take steroids, to counteract potentially serious allergic reactions. That, of course, makes it hard for me to fall asleep. Dr. Dave says that another possible side effect from the steroids is “weight redistribution,” which immediately made me shout out, “What the heck does that mean?” He means bloating, basically, of the face and abdomen. But, lucky me, with weekly Taxotere, I’m dropping my steroid doses back. No chipmunk cheeks for me, hopefully, this time around. Also, I may have to take steroid eye drops to control scarring of the tear ducts that could cause permanent tearing. And the stent procedure still looms in my future in the next couple of weeks. More to come on that. There’s always something. Have you ever been in a chemo room? If not, then let me assure you, it’s totally different than what you probably think. I never really got to sit in one to get treatment, since I was in the hospital for Adriamycin-Cytaxan. But Monday, there I was there for 90-minutes. It’s a bright room with magazines and windows and the nicest, funniest nurses you’ve ever met. I sat in an easy chair, within easy reach of Tootsie Rolls and Werthers and the remote control to the television nearby. (“Little House on the Prairie” was the crowd’s choice that day). I had my book club book, but I ended up chatting the morning away with two women who were also getting chemo — one for melanoma and one for pancreatic cancer. We shared stories and gave each other encouragement and promised to meet again next week. That will be a date.
More Chemo (ho hum!) and the Upside to Being Bald
September 28, 2001
Two down, 10 to go; this Taxotere is a piece of cake compared to the Adriamycin-Cytoxan. I know I keep saying that, but it’s such a nice surprise that it really is what it was described to be. I’d gotten to the point that even if Dr. Dave, or the nurses, said something wasn’t so bad, I still expected something bad to happen. I know that the drug builds up in your bloodstream, so I’ll be tired and maybe achy by the end of October. But for now, I feel great. I’m actually able to build up some endurance in my running, cycling and swimming. My speed is coming back, and I can go longer. 🙂 The chemo experience this week was even less exciting than the one last week. The one thing that did bring a smile to my face was my white blood cell count: 7.8. Can you believe it? I had to resist the urge to go straight to get sushi. I was in the doctor’s office for about two hours this time, then went home. I left myself a couple of hours to lie down before I went to work, but I just lay there awake. It was the steroids. I take steroids the day before to minimize the chance of allergic reaction. Of course, I forgot, for the second week, to take the full dose the day before. Mental block, I think. I don’t really like to take the steroids. I’ve decided to take a more conservative approach to the whole eye-tear duct procedure. Rather than just have the stents put in, I’m going to have a doctor closely monitor me. At the first sign of any scarring of the tear ducts, then we’ll take action. It’s a hard decision, because although 70-percent of people who take weekly Taxotere get the scarring, sometimes permanently, that still means 30 percent do not. Plus, the discovery of this side effect is so new, there’s no data on whether the procedure even works. So, do I get the procedure just for insurance? I’ll try to put it off as long as possible. Last weekend, I took full advantage of not having my regular hair. I have hosted the Hope and Help Center’s Headdress Ball for years. It’s a really outrageous event, and I always try to outdo myself with wacky hairstyles. I went as a platinum blond a couple of years ago. Well, this year, my friend Michael made me a wild, blond mohawk with little shiny jewels in it. We shaved my head smooth, and there I was in all my mohawk glory. What I told everybody was that all I could do is work with what I had (or didn’t have)!
The funny thing is, last year, I had considered shaving my head and going bald for shock value. It shows you that you have to be careful what you wish for! I’ve been wishing for my hair to come back, and guess what? It’s starting to grow back! I don’t want to get too hopeful, but it’s definitely growing back fast after we shaved it on Saturday. It’s not that fine peach fuzz either. This is G.I. Jane (which is what I’m going to a masquerade ball as, by the way. Why not?) Maybe I’ll have to shave it down again to be G.I. Jane. I’m not sure I’ll have the desire to do that, but we’ll see. So let me share this with you, since several people have asked, over the months, how to talk to their loved ones who’ve been diagnosed with cancer. This weekend, I had two people come up to me and say, “My mom/dad/relative had cancer too. He/she died.” Period. Then they waited to see what my response would be. This has happened a few times in the last few months. I am sympathetic, and I understand that people are looking for a connection. But, speaking only for myself, comments like that do not make me better. What am I supposed to say to that? I also know, from talking to lots of cancer survivors, that conversations like the ones I had are common. The last thing I want to be reminded of right now, as I get better, is that death is still a possibility. Because as far as I’m concerned, it is not an option. Not for a long, long time.