Monthly Archives: February 2013

The side effect checklist

It’s been three days since chemotherapy, and my nurse called this morning to ask how I was feeling. I told her I was feeling alright, and she congratulated me, saying that today and tomorrow would probably be my worst days and that I’d be on the upswing soon. Really? I feel like I really dodged a bullet here. I’ve been going over my giant list of potential side effects and considering myself incredibly lucky that I seem to have avoided the worst of them.

Before I started chemotherapy, I was massively frustrated that no one could offer me a really detailed description of what it was like. So here’s my summary: It wasn’t as awful as the movies made me believe it would be, but it has been difficult and challenging and sickening in ways I didn’t expect. In the end, I decided to put together this little list of how chemo’s made me feel so far. I may not be out of the woods yet, but I’ve packed up my tent and I’m fighting my way through the leaves and rocks and trying to avoid the bears while I get back to normal.

Let me begin by saying that everyone is different and everyone’s body reacts differently, so just because this is my path, doesn’t mean it’ll be anyone else’s – and it might not even be mine on round 2, either.

[x] Fatigue

This is the big one. Last night I went to bed at 10pm, then woke up this morning at 10am to attend class via Skype. Despite 12 hours of sleep, I felt like I’d just eaten a giant plate of week-old sushi covered in mayonnaise left out in the sun, then ran an IronMan and gotten hit by an 18-wheeler right before I crossed the finish line. Since all I have to do to Skype-attend class is lay in my bed, I decided to call in anyway – but my computer had other plans, and my internet connection cut out after an hour. My professor decided to give me the rest of the afternoon off. I immediately fell back asleep until 3:30pm, when I finally dragged myself downstairs to eat some macaroni and cheese, then I fell back asleep on the chaise lounge until I just woke up to write this blog entry. I’m not going to lie, though, I could go back to sleep right now.

[x] Gagginess

I don’t want to say nausea because I really haven’t experienced much, if any, nausea. The combination of my medications – Kytril, Zofran and Compazine – have successfully kept any nausea at bay, which is amazing, because it’s truly the side effect I was most concerned about. I do, however, feel sort of oddly gaggy. Like, a picture of some food won’t really make me feel nauseated, but it’ll just…gross me out. I feel like I’ve gone back in time to 1992 when I was four years old and all I liked was cupcakes, macaroni and cheese, French fries, rice and plain chicken. I was scrolling through my TV options during the 20 minutes I was awake in between my naps and passed an episode of “Man vs. Food” and honestly had to just turn the TV off.

[x] Taste alteration

Things just taste a little off in my mouth right now. I don’t care, though, because my mom bought me Limeaid and it tastes amazing and I love it. When I was a kid I used to eat lemons the way other kids would eat orange slices during AYSO soccer halftime, so I’m glad that acidity still tastes awesome to me. I mean, would it really be the worst thing in the world if I didn’t want any chocolate for a few months? I’m sure my thighs wouldn’t mind.

[x] Bowel issues

I’m not getting into this, but yeah. If you ever need chemotherapy, just understand that nothing going on in your digestive tract will make sense for several days.

[x] Aches and pains

My wonderful oncologist agrees with me that chemotherapy can S a D and that I shouldn’t have to miss any important things in my life because of this little boob-shaped road block, so she gave me the go-ahead to attend my gorgeous and wonderful friend Jasmine’s wedding in St. Louis on March 9. However, this meant that I needed to get a little shot of a medicine called Neulasta that’ll ensure my white blood cell counts stay high enough for me to eat at a giant buffet kids are sneezing on and dance with a ton of people until midnight without getting a deadly infection. Neulasta has a little side effect, though: pain. That’s it. Just pain. Bone pain, muscle pain, aches, pains, all different kinds of discomfort. The reason for this is a “bone marrow flare,” when the meds cause your white blood cell counts to explode and put pressure on the insides of your bones until you get a full-body migraine. However, someone accidentally discovered that you can skip this unpleasant reaction if you take Claritin – just typical, OTC Claritin. I did, and my aches have been relatively minor so far. Fingers crossed.

[x] Hair

It’s still here. I’ve started compulsively tugging at it, but it’s staying put so far. My oncologist says it’ll probably begin to fall out between March 10 and March 15. I just want it to hang on until the wedding, because I’m concerned about my wig’s ability to stay put during my ah-mah-zing dance moves.

Chemo 101: Intro to Infusions

Welcome to this week’s freshman level class in handling three popular chemotherapy drugs: Taxotere, Carboplatin and Herceptin. Today, we’ll be discussing infusion times, side effects, Michelle’s emotional state and the massive number of snacks she brought to the appointment. Pay attention, because there will be a quiz. On the snacks. I take cheese and crackers seriously.

I barely slept last night thanks to a combination of steroids, eating everything in the house (thanks to said steroids), and anxiety, and I woke up this morning feeling sick to my stomach at my impending day. I am happy, however, to report that the loss of my chemotherapy virginity was totally and completely uneventful. My medical team is amazing, because I don’t feel even the least bit under the weather…for now. The side effects usually strike on days 2, 3 and 4, and generally include nausea, fatigue, stomach upset and taste changes. It’s anybody’s guess how many of those I’ll get, how severe they’ll be, or if I’ll get some super weird side effect no one’s ever heard of, but if how I feel now is any indication, I think I’m going to be okay.

So let me back up and start at the beginning. I started off the day with some eggs, a muffin, a banana, two dexamethasone pills, an Ativan and an hour in Los Angeles traffic trying to get to USC. I wasn’t stressed, because Ativan truly does what it says on the box. I was still relaxed even as the nurse let me pick out my recliner, applied a tourniquet to my elbow and punctured one of the veins on the side of my forearm. She really kind of dissed my veins, which no one’s ever done before, and scolded me a bit for opting not to get the PortaCath (which I forwent after the double mastectomy and egg retrieval surgery proved to be enough anesthesia for me). Considering that I only have the one arm now that Lefty’s off-limits with a compromised lymph system, she’s probably right that I should spare my veins – even if I refuse to believe they’re as horrible as she says, because seriously, I’m offended on my veins’ behalves – so I guess we’re revisiting the option of the PortaCath.

Despite the nurse’s irrational hatred for my veins, she was able to place the IV with just one poke, and the set-up was actually quite comfortable for me. The morning started off with my pre-med combination – Benadryl, IV Pepcid and an anti-nausea medication called Kytril – which took about half an hour to infuse.

Then, two other nurses came over to begin administering the actual chemotherapy. First off, did you know that chemotherapy was actually discovered accidentally during World War I, when soldiers exposed to mustard gas suffered serious damage to their bone marrow? Modern chemotherapy was literally inspired by poisonous military weaponry, when some doctors realized that specific doses of the gas targeted fast-growing cells while leaving normal cells untouched. When they didn’t, you know, kill people. So, yeah, I was super excited about getting this stuff injected directly into my bloodstream, especially when the nurses donned full-body suits and latex gloves before so much as handling the baggies.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover, however, that the infusions were completely painless. There was no tingling or burning, no nausea and no discomfort throughout the entire six-hour ordeal, including the IV set-up – not with the Taxotere (which took an hour and a half to infuse), not with the Carboplatin (an hour) and not with the Herceptin (two hours). I didn’t really mind the whole afternoon at all, actually. I spent some of it listening to Pandora on my phone, reading a new book and chatting with my parents, before I turned on the TV and realized that there was actually a Law & Order: SVU marathon on. Seriously? SERIOUSLY? I must have a guardian angel over at the USA Network.

It’s been about three hours since I left the infusion suite, and I’m still feeling more or less normal. So far, the worst side effect I’m experiencing is a little bit of facial flushing. I know the other shoe will drop, but for now, I’m going to stuff my face with the cupcakes my mom and dad picked up for me to celebrate my first day of chemo. CUPCAKEEESSSSSS.

Okay, POP QUIZ TIME. What, you thought I was kidding?

1. What’s the scariest part of chemotherapy?

A) Its historical relationship with deadly military gasses

B) Having to wait to find out which side effects you’re going to get

C) Needing to take steroids, and then needing to eat EVERYTHING IN SIGHT (MORE CUPCAKEEESSSSS)

D) All of the above

2. What’s the best part of chemotherapy?

A) Snacks!

B) Law & Order: SVU marathons

C) Not changing out of my jammies all day long

D) All of the above

Hint: The answer is DD, because this blog is about boobies.

Merry chemo eve!

Want to see a picture of my future family?

Future Mes

The fertility doc handed me this little keepsake at my follow-up visit today, and I’m tempted to ask if he has any wallet-sized prints. I mean, these are my kids, after all.

There they are, all 15 of my little frozen eggs. It’s so strange to see how perfectly round and plump they are (except for that adorably dented one in the corner), so weird to think that each and every one of us started out with one of those single cells. Looking at them, I’m reminded yet again of what a strange miracle the body is – and I can’t help but be so grateful for mine, even though it went a little haywire for a second there.

I had the best weekend. A couple of my amazingly wonderful high school friends were back in town for the weekend, so we ate tacos (not burritos – are you surprised?), gossiped, walked around Old Town and enjoyed some espresso while petting my friend Harry’s tiny golden dachshund, Mr. Bates. I wish that I could shave Mr. Bates and make a wig out of his perfect fur to replace my soon-to-be-erstwhile hair, but alas. Synthetic wigs it is. Shaving dachshunds is probably some kind of animal cruelty, and Mr. Bates has been through enough, as I think I put him down for about 25 seconds all day on Saturday.

Yesterday my bestest best friend in the whole entire world, Katie Bo, came down to LA to visit me. We had a stunningly normal Sunday strolling along Third Street Promenade and relaxing in the sand by the Santa Monica Pier, drinking a couple of beers and eating popcorn shrimp and loaded fries and, obviously, Mexican food. (I have to get it all in now because tomorrow, my taste buds will be obliterated by chemotherapy.) We looked like lesbian lovers taking a romantic walk on the beach thanks to our matching pixie cuts, but it’s honestly difficult to overstate how little vanity I have left after all that I’ve been through, so I don’t care.

I’ve got about 14 hours left before the doctors start pumping my body full of toxic chemicals, but I’m oddly relaxed. Maybe it’s because I have 40+ Ativan pills in a nice little orange cylinder ready for consumption whenever the anxiety gets to be too much, or maybe it’s because I’m going to have a burrito for dinner (again), or maybe it’s because I just believe that everything is going to be alright and that my doctors are going to take care of me and make me healthy and whole again when all of this is over. I don’t know. And really, isn’t that the genesis of fear? I just don’t know.

Will I coast by with just minor aches and pains? Or will I fall victim to the bone marrow flares many patients have described as worse than childbirth – a metric I can’t even understand since the only thing I’ve given birth to is 15 eggs plucked from my overstimulated ovaries, but a metric that terrifies me nonetheless? Will I be fine, with barely any nausea to speak of, as many people on my regimen seem to be? Or will I be sick to my stomach for days, clutching a metal bowl to vomit into in between episodes of Law & Order: SVU? Also, how is even possible that there are SVU episodes I haven’t seen yet? They’re like starfish limbs; every time I watch one, a new one regenerates in its place. And most importantly, of course, is the real question on everyone’s mind: Will this cure me?

Here’s another question that’s bugging me – why is no one at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center bald? I swear, I go to that hospital at least 4 times a week, and I never see anyone who has lost their hair. It’s a cancer center. Everyone there has cancer, but they all look ready to shoot a Pantene commercial! I’ve decided that this is an encouraging sign that my wigs will look extremely realistic and other new cancer patients will be jealous of my photoshoot-ready locks.

Anyway, I’ve found one way of looking at the situation that never fails to cheer me up, and that’s this. By this time tomorrow, I’ll have one chemo session under my belt, and only five more to go ’til healthy, happy freedom.

Wigs ‘n’ things

Cancer has taught me a lot about myself, including this: Veganism isn’t for me.

I wasn’t allowed to eat dairy while I was on a special antibiotic following my egg retrieval procedure, and it was surprisingly difficult. Did you know that basically everything awesome has dairy in it? I even like to put dairy where it doesn’t belong in order to make mediocre things into fantastic things (Philadelphia rolls, anyone?). Fortunately, I took my last dose of doxycycline yesterday, and so far today I’ve had a smoothie, some Greek yogurt, some kale dip and some gorgonzola cheese crumbles that I literally ate out of the tub with a spoon. Sorry I’m not sorry.

In spite of my dairy binge, I was finally able to button my pants today! I’ve been loafing around in sweats and yoga pants since Monday to accomodate my post-egg retrieval bloat, which had me feeling like I would need to make a trip to A Pea in the Pod any day now even though I didn’t go through with the whole impregnation part of the IVF cycle. It’s been four days now and I’d say I’m about 85% of the way back to feeling normal, which puts me right on track with all the fertility preservation/egg donor blogs I obsessively perused when I was preparing for this.

In fact, I was feeling good enough on Wednesday to go wig shopping – a red letter day in Cancerland!

I’ve been both awaiting and dreading this day since my diagnosis. I was feeling apprehensive, but my friend Jasmine quickly quelled my fears. “Wearing other people’s hair is awesome,” she told me. “I’m wearing someone else’s hair on top of my hair right now!”

I’ve always felt that wig shopping could go one of two ways. Option A: fun day of dress-up, or Option B: traumatizing dress rehearsal for impending hideousness. In the end, it fell somewhere on the continuum – not quite a carefree day of trying on cool costumes, but also not a miserable, pitiful excuse for trying to hide an obvious deformity like being a bald girl in her mid-20s.

The woman running the shop was fantastic. She confided that she wears a wig every single day, just for convenience, which gave me some confidence that maybe it won’t be super duper obvious that I’m actually bald underneath my hairpiece. She also didn’t react at all when I told her about my diagnosis, which was refreshing, except to offer to shave my head for me. This being Hollywood, this woman’s business is probably 50% cancer patients and 50% drag queens, so I guess she’s used to everything.

I had a good time trying on a variety of wigs in all kinds of lengths and colors, but I ended up selecting a medium-length, brunette number that looks almost identical to my real hair. I opted for it in two styles, too – a straight one that looks like my hair after I torture it with a flatiron, and a wavy one that looks just like my natural style. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I was most comfortable looking in the mirror and seeing my face surrounded by the same long brown hair I’ve always had instead of a giant blonde bouffant or some red hair poking out from underneath a baseball cap or something.

At the wig shop I was also introduced to, and subsequently decided to purchase after about .5 seconds, a magnificent invention called “bangs on a headband.” Basically, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a soft, comfy headband with faux bangs attached. You can wear it underneath a beanie or a hat in order to make yourself look slightly less like a hairless alien, without the heat and discomfort wigs can sometimes cause when worn frequently. Perfect for wanting something to throw on that will keep people from staring at you at the grocery store (or in my case, Mexican restaurant), but won’t require any styling or upkeep. Bonus, it’ll also help camouflage how weird I’ll look if my eyebrows fall out.

I’m surprised by how pretty and normal I feel in my wigs. I can pull them back into buns and ponytails, dress them up with clips and headbands and basically treat them like my own hair. Plus, I can do a better job styling them because I can do braids and updos on a styrofoam head instead of having to crane my neck awkwardly to look in the mirror like I do when I inevitably mess up a French braid attempt on my own locks. You’ll see them on this blog eventually, when I’m ready to let them make their debut. For now, I’m still enjoying my pixie cut.

Too bad said pixie cut has an expiration date, because my oncologist and I finally set a schedule for my chemotherapy. It will begin on Tuesday, February 26, so mark your calendars! I may be nauseated on the day of or day after the infusion, but the meds should help prevent that. Then, in terms of aches and fatigue, I should feel worst on days 3-6, then steadily improve until day 21, when we’ll repeat the whole awesome cycle. Gordie’s returning to LA on day 4, so he may be here for a few days while I’m feeling crappy, but hopefully he won’t just be my caretaker – I have plenty of fun things planned for us.

Today I met some of the nurses at the infusion center and picked up my pre-med prescriptions, so I guess this is actually happening. The whole thing kind of reminds me of the time my friend Hayley forced me to ride the Tower of Terror at Disneyland. Time to just close my eyes, put on my safety gear/harnesses (which, in this case, are more mental than physical – although I guess the 5,000 drugs they’re prepping for me right now at CVS are kind of physical), try not to let a bunch of brave little kids show me up, and see if I can’t enjoy myself a little bit, one way or another.

Look for my new reality show, “15 Eggs and Counting,” on TLC

Just in case you’ve been on pins and needles wondering, let me say this first: I’m happy to report that yesterday’s egg retrieval procedure was a breeze, and I’m home resting comfortably now! I have a little bit of cramping and discomfort and my abdomen is swollen like I’m 3 months pregnant, but all of that should go away within the week.

You’d think that having undergone an 8-hour marathon surgery that removed some of my body parts, required that I be catheterized and ventilated with a breathing tube, and kept me in the hospital for three days, I’d be pretty relaxed about a 20-minute aspiration procedure performed under light sedation, but the mind has an amazing capacity to make absolutely no sense at all out of circumstances.

I was fairly relaxed in the waiting room, and even held it together as I was changing into the gown and hospital socks, but I was shaking and trembling by the time I was asked to lie on the surgical table. Part of my anxiety was due to the fact that there was a woman in the recovery room when I walked into the procedure area, who seemed upset and rated her pain an “8” on the universal hospital pain scale from “don’t know why I’m here” to “imminent death.” She also seemed like she was having a difficult time talking, which scared me pretty badly.

One amazing thing about the medical profession is that it considers even totally reasonable anxiety about a needle going into your ladybits to be more anxiety than you need to experience, so I was given sedation almost immediately. The anesthesiologist was a talkative, funny young guy who walked me through everything he was doing, and even gave me a little bit of numbing medication before he inserted my IV. I was blown away by this little courtesy because this was about my 5,000th IV in the last two months, and most of the time they just ram it in there, sometimes taking several minutes to get it done right.

Once the IV was in, the anesthesiologist picked up a little vial of clear medication and asked, “How often do you drink?”

“Like, alcohol?” I clarified. “I dunno, maybe a glass of wine a week these days. I mean, this isn’t college anymore.”

He laughed, hooked the vial to my IV and said, “You’re about to get hammered like it’s freshman year.”

Within 30 seconds, I was absolutely drunk. The anesthesiologist told me that it’s a drug called Versed, a potent type of hypnotic agent that’s often used to help patients relax before more powerful surgical anesthetics are used. At that point, I felt like I didn’t even need the second anesthetic. I was basically in a dream, feeling like I was falling asleep while getting the best backrub ever in a hot tub full of rosewater and love.

“They should sell this on the street,” I said, because I had absolutely no sense of decorum or appropriateness or any kind of mental filter once this drug was in my system.

Versed also causes amnesia, so I don’t remember much after that little quip. The fertility doctor came in and asked me to put my legs into the stirrups. I remember greeting him with the stupidest smile on my face. The anesthesiologist hooked me up to another syringe, this one full of a milky liquid called propofol.

“Bye-bye,” I said, like a giant idiot, because I was high as hell.

The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the recovery room. It was like waking up from a particularly deep nap – I felt groggy and a little sick, but I emerged from the mental fog quickly. It was nothing like my mastectomy, where I spent the five or six hours following the procedure drifting in and out of consciousness, waking up only to eat a little bit jello and then retch it back up 15 minutes later. With half an hour, I felt completely fine except for a little bit of crampiness, like a bad period.

The doctor came in while I was in recovery to let me know that they had gotten 15 healthy eggs, which means that even if I wind up totally infertile at the end of this whole ordeal, I can still get all Duggar family up in this bitch (“this bitch” being my womb) if I so choose.

The nurse came by, gave me some water and disconnected my IV, then told me I was cleared to go home. As I was changing back into my clothes (I’m really fashionable, so to this appointment I wore fuzzy Ugg boots, a fraternity t-shirt of dubious origin and a pair of pajama pants with lambs on them that say “It’s sheepy time”), I noticed that the woman who had been in the recovery room when I arrived was still there. I also realized that the “difficulty talking” that had frightened me earlier was actually because she was Russian and had an accent, and I felt like a moron.

“Good luck,” she said. “I hope you have a successful pregnancy!”

I had actually forgotten that most of the other people in the clinic were they because they were actively trying to conceive, not because they needed to freeze some eggs in order to keep them from getting poisoned to death by drugs with nicknames like “The Red Devil.” I didn’t want to correct her, so I just smiled and said, “You too.” After all, I hope I have a successful pregnancy, too – one day, a long time from now.

Update on Operation Oocytes

The fertility clinic has a sign in the entrance that politely asks patients to make childcare arrangements before their appointments. “The sight of children can be upsetting to those who are having difficulty conceiving,” it says diplomatically.

“Hey mom,” I stage-whispered one day in the waiting room. “Don’t you think it’s kinda rude that you brought your child to the fertility clinic?”

It’s always a bit awkward when I’m chillin’ in there with my mom and dad. Just about everyone else is there with a partner, and I’m just sitting there next to my parents, looking like a high schooler with ADHD on my iPhone, ignoring my mom’s endless requests to play Scramble with Friends. It doesn’t help that although I’m 25, I look like I’m 15. Everybody else probably thinks my sick parents are there to farm me out and collect $4,000 for each of my healthy little eggs. Joke’s on them, though, because I’m actually the sickest one there!

The egg freezing process is just half of an IVF cycle, which is comforting because it’s a well-established medical protocol that millions of women undergo each year. With the whole cancer thing on my mind, I had kind of assumed that this egg freezing side project would be a walk in the park. And it is. If that walk is at 3am, and that park is full of armed, deranged hobos.

First, you are given $3,000 worth of purified hormones, giant needles and mixing instructions and somehow trusted not to accidentally murder yourself with these tools, despite your total lack of medical experience. The stimulation lasts for 8 to 10 days, and involves 3 or 4 visits to the fertility clinic. Each visit involves a transvaginal ultrasound, and these become increasingly uncomfortable as your ovaries continue to swell. You also get a series of blood draws to monitor your estrogen levels. So, for the folks keeping score at home, that means that every single day of the stimulation cycle you’re getting between 1 and 3 needle sticks. Awesome, right? Where do I sign up?

Second, once your ovaries have been tricked into maturing literally ten to twenty times as many eggs as they would normally produce, you return to the clinic to be sedated. A massive needle is inserted through the vaginal wall and into the ovaries, and the oocytes are then aspirated and cryopreserved. You wake up, crampy and bloated, and hope that somehow your body recovers from the giant hormone bomb that you just set off inside of it.

I thought that the worst part about egg freezing would be stabbing myself with the needle, but actually, that’s been a piece of cake. The first night I did it, I was sitting in the lotus position on my bedroom floor. I’d put on a Bon Iver playlist to try to center myself and remain calm. “Holocene” was playing. Once I’d mixed the solution, I swapped the mixing needle for the injection needle, swabbed an area of my belly and picked out a freckle to be my bull’s-eye.

I stood there staring at it, sweating and trembling, for a good thirty seconds while Bon Iver crooned on, oblivious. I must have looked like an idiot. I was pinching up as much abdominal fat as I could muster, holding a needle poised over it like I was about to stab the life out of it. Finally, I squeezed my eyes shut and plunged the needle toward my flesh.

I missed. I didn’t feel anything. I must have missed!

How did I miss?

I opened my eyes, looked down and saw that actually, the needle was projecting out of my abdomen like a grotesque birthday candle. The whole thing was so painless, I literally thought I’d managed not to touch myself at all. Emboldened by this, thinking I was out of the woods, I confidently pressed down on the plunger and emptied the solution into my flesh.

Sweet Jesus, it was like injecting the contents of a cauldron of boiling lava and acid into my stomach.

I did that every day for eight days.

Around day three, I started to feel a bit bloated and uncomfortable. By day five, I was waddling around trying to keep any of internal organs from touching my obscenely swollen ovaries, which I by then estimated were taking up approximately 80% of the real estate in my lower abdomen. Today is day nine, and I feel like I am nine months pregnant and about to give birth at any minute to a sick egg-baby with eggs for hands, eggs for feet and eggs for a face. GET THESE THINGS OUTTA ME, DOC!

Tonight, I’ll trigger the final maturation process with one more shot. I’ll probably be massively uncomfortable on Sunday, but on Monday morning, all my little future-babies will be frozen, slumbering indefinitely in their little storage tanks, waiting for the day when I’m cancer-free and ready to start my family.

The hair thing

Alright, you knew it was coming: I have to talk about my hair.

Objectively, the hair thing just seems so…trivial. I mean, if a genie came up to you and said, “[Your name,] I’m going to let you live a long, healthy life – provided that you go six months completely and utterly hairless. If you refuse, there’s a 30% chance you’ll die.” You’d obviously take the half a year of baldness, right? I mean, I totally would. Wouldn’t I?

Also, what kind of asshole genie would ask that?

But subjectively, when B-Day (that’s Baldness Day) starts to sneak up on you, it becomes this big, distracting deal. I was tired of dealing with the stress of that when I really needed to be focusing on the fact that while yes, chemotherapy will make me look temporarily like an alien, it’ll also be saving my life. So I made a decision that I was going to take charge of the hair situation. And then I hemmed and hawed about it for a while.

As a woman with cancer, there’s just no getting around the hair thing. As a guy, maybe you can pull it off. Maybe you joined the Marines or you’re taking control of your premature balding. But as a woman, owning the baldness thing takes a whole lot of swag – swag, I am sorry to say, I don’t possess. I dress more or less like a 20-something Liz Lemon (blazers and cardigans FOR DAYSSSS), and the most adventuresome hairstyle I ever had was the full, blunt bangs my mom cut me with manicure scissors when I was 4. I’ve spent all of my teen and young adult years with hair cascading in waves down to at least my shoulders, in varying shades of blonde and brown. I barely even ever wore it in a ponytail. And I’m supposed to jump from that to bald?

Nuh uh, my friends. I need a transitional phase. I need something to help me adjust.

See, when you don’t have any hair, all that’s left is your face. You can’t curl your hair nicely and hope it’ll distract from the zit on your chin. You can’t sweep your bangs down over your eyes to hide the fact that you haven’t tweezed your eyebrows in weeks. Without hair, your face is the main attraction. You’re a walking marquee sign proclaiming the latest features: CHECK OUT MY NOSE. DO I HAVE ANY PIMPLES? I MIGHT KINDA HAVE A UNIBROW. I DIDN’T PUT ON EYELINER TODAY!

I happen to be of the opinion that cancer has taken enough from me, especially when it comes to my femininity. It took my breasts (although my plastic surgeon gave me better ones to replace them, if I’m being honest). It may take my fertility (although the fertility doc says we’ll be getting 12-15 eggies in the freezer by Monday). So if it’s going to take my hair, it’s going to do it on my terms.

I’ve been determined to go ahead with this pre-chemo cut since my diagnosis because it’s basically my hair’s way of saying, “You can’t fire me, I quit!” But I have to admit that the whole ordeal was a lot less frightening because my bold, beautiful friend Katie Bo went before me. Without telling me, she cut her own long, dark, voluminous hair into a pixie and donated the rest to a cancer charity. (I’m secretly hoping I’ll get the resulting wig because her hair is far more beautiful than mine ever was.) Anyway, because she looked so chic, stylish and feminine in her pixie, I was excited instead of filled with dread when I walked into the salon.

I told my hairdresser the situation and warned her that I might burst into tears at any moment during the cut. “I promise it’s not because you’re doing a bad job,” I added.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m going to make you adorable.”

How’d she do?

BeforeAfter

Truthfully, the experience was far less traumatic than I was expecting it to be. There were no tears, but plenty of laughter. And because it was a laid-back Friday afternoon in the salon, lots of the hairdressers came over to play with my newly shorn locks, apply product and show me all kinds of styles. I briefly sported a fauxhawk, which actually looked cute, if I do say so myself, and may be recreated on a day when I’m feeling particularly bold.

I thought I’d leave the salon in tears, hating my pixie cut. Instead, I honestly love it. It’s a pity that it’ll all fall out by mid-March.

In sickness and in health

That’s what they ask you to promise, in marriage – to stand by one another, in sickness and in health. I’ve heard those vows over and over again, in movies and TV, and in life, especially now that so many of my friends are starting to say their “I do”s. Even so, I don’t think the enormity of that promise hit me until suddenly, I was in sickness.

I’m not married, but I am happily in love with my boyfriend, Gordie, who gets mentioned on this blog from time to time.

Gordie is a private man, and he’s asked me to largely keep our relationship off this blog. I’ve done my best to abide by his wishes, but on Valentine’s Day, I just can’t help myself. He has been my rock through all of this, never wavering for one second in his desire to stand by my side no matter what. When he came to visit after my surgery, he helped me get in and out of the shower, shampooing my hair with that rough, I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing rhythm that guys sometimes have when they’re trying to be gentle but get the damn job done. He politely avoided remarking that I had more armpit hair than him, and wasn’t even mad when I woke him up at 3am to scratch my back somewhere I couldn’t reach…every single night. He didn’t flinch at the sight of my post-surgery body, and assured me over and over again that while he had found my original configuration beautiful, he was sure the new parts would look just as nice. He let me cry, made me laugh, told me to snap out of it when I started to swirl into The Dark Place and kept me busy enough that I didn’t have time to watch even one episode of Law & Order: SVU.

He didn’t even run straight for the fire escape when I asked him to come with me to the fertility doctor. He sat calmly in the doctor’s office with me and took in a bunch of diagrams of vaginas and sperm like an adult. Which, really, is more than I can say for myself. I still laugh at the absurdity of it every time I pinch up a section of thigh fat and inject it with follicle stimulating hormone purified from human urine. By the way, my ovaries feel like two pineapples that took a wrong turn at the Dole factory and ended up lost in my abdominal cavity, but more on that tomorrow.

Sitting across the table from Gordie the other week at a local restaurant, drinking my first beer since surgery and discussing which oncologist would be least likely to let me die on their watch, I looked into his calm, brown eyes and thought about how lucky I am to have someone I love with me through this ordeal.

I have a lot of people to thank for that, if I’m being honest. Yes, I want to thank myself for spotting him across the office all that time ago and letting him call me Melissa for a while because I just thought he was cute and wanted him to like me. I’d also like to thank Jaeger and Red Bull for coming together and creating the concoction that facilitated our first kiss, standing in the rain outside of McFadden’s at 2 in the morning at the Haymarket T stop after a fantastic first date and drinks. I’d like to thank him for putting up with me every single day, still taking me out on dates and always calling when he says he will. I want to thank American Airlines and JetBlue and US Airways, who have shuttled us to one another’s apartments over and over and over again after I left for graduate school and who now, while I’m stuck 3,000 miles away in treatment, continue to milk us out of every penny we’ve got.

But most of all, I want to thank my parents, who have provided a shining example of love, kindness and devotion for all 25 years of my life.

Was this post totally cheesy? Maybe. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that it’s Valentine’s Day, or that I have 10 times the normal concentration of estrogen floating around in my system so I spent half of my day crying at dog food commercials. Who knows? So happy Valentine’s Day to all of you!

Except for you, cancer. F–k you.

Being alive kicks ass

I went for a long walk today, and even tried a light jog. It was slow, it was embarrassing, I looked like a fool because I wasn’t wearing any of the right equipment, but I DON’T CARE. I am constantly amazed at the mood-lifting power of a little exercise and a little sunshine. Thank you, Lord, for giving Southern California 330 days of beautiful weather a year. And also for inventing iced tea. Amen.

The body is an amazing thing, and I think even more so in the wake of a cancer diagnosis. Here’s this earthly vessel, this flesh and blood that I only get one of, this little 5’2″, 100 pound sack of meat and offal, that one moment tried to kill me and the next spent four weeks miraculously healing me from a traumatic surgical wound.

Of their own volition, my cells saw the holes in my sides where the drains had been, the pokes in my hand and arm where the IVs went, and patched them up, little by little rebuilding what had been destroyed.

One month before my diagnosis, this body carried me to a 1 hour, 51 minute finish in my first ever half-marathon, a time that shattered my goal of two hours and exceeded my wildest expectations of what I was capable of achieving. From August to December, I had the incredible privilege to be a member of Richmond’s X-Team, a group of incredible individuals who wake up each morning at 6am to dedicate an hour of their day to working out in the grass and dew. I was diagnosed on a Friday; the Wednesday before, I ran 17 miles, prepping for my first full marathon. All that time, all those hours I was building muscle, eating kale, doing push-ups, running laps, my body was simultaneously improving and dismantling itself on a cellular level. What a paradox this life can be.

It’s such a cliche to say that having a brush with death will change your outlook, but I’ve found that it’s a cliche for a good reason. I’m not saying I treasure every single second of life, because sometimes, I’m still pissed off about the DVR not recording this week’s episode of Girls or opening the fridge and being out of Greek yogurt. But overall, being alive rules. It just rules, you guys. Basically, my post-cancer plan is this:

Step 1: Live.

Step 2: ???

Step 3: Never die.

I’ve been staring at this post for a while, feeling like it’s not quite up to snuff. I was staring at my computer and my notepad for a while this morning, trying to come up with something awesome to say, and failing over and over again. (I think I did okay in the end, though, right guys? Guys?) Frustrated, I went back to just Googling medicines that I have to take, which is something I do with alarming frequency. I’m on something called Tamoxifen, which is part of my fertility drug regimen and will also be a part of my post-chemotherapy five-year hormone therapy. I’m not joking, one of Tamoxifen’s side effects is “reduced cognitive function.”

Are you kidding? “Reduced cognitive function” is like a get-out-of-jail-free card. Assuming my cognitive function doesn’t become so reduced that I endanger myself by, say, injecting myself with vodka seltzer instead of my fertility drug cocktail, no one can get mad at me for being an idiot for the next five years!

So if you thought this post sucked, blame the drugs, because they’re literally making me dumber.

Bills, bills, bills (and etc.)

First of all, this post has a soundtrack. Enjoy:

Okay, so bills.

In case you didn’t know, getting sick in America is expensive. The bills are starting to roll in, and I’m starting to realize why medical expenses are the leading cause of bankruptcy in this country.

When I passed out in the MRI prep room a thousand years ago (read: last month), an ambulance had to come and pick me up to drive me literally across a parking lot to the trauma bay of the main hospital. I just got the bill for that. It was $1,360.

My ambulance ride cost me roughly $700 per minute. Good God, at least they could have taken me in a limo! I should have been poppin’ Cristal in a hot tub in the back of the thing for that price.

There are bills for emergency services, surgical fees, pathology reports, prescription medications ranging from fertility drugs to anti-anxiety pills to opiate painkillers, consultations and other medical miscellany, already totaling into the tens of thousands of dollars. Fortunately, insurance covers most of that. I almost feel bad for my insurance company. I can see the insurance agent taking a look at my file back in 2006 or so, when my parents got this insurance and had me, a penniless student, added onto their plan. An 18-year-old girl with no family history of anything as mild as plantar warts, let alone heart disease or cancer? He probably thought to himself, wielding his rubber stamp above my paperwork. She doesn’t smoke, barely drinks and exercises every day? Approved! 

Sorry, insurance agent buddy. I didn’t see it coming, either.

I know that this going to sound odd, but it is unbelievably lucky that cancer caught me at exactly the time in my life that it did. My treatments will conclude in July or August, but I won’t get kicked off of my parents’ insurance plan until October, when I turn 26. Thanks to my incredible family and some recent policy changes in the government (thank you, President Obama, you saved my ass), I won’t be saddled with thousands of dollars in medical bills at a time when I’m just starting out in life and barely able to scrape together the funds to support my sushi addiction, and I won’t become uninsurable for the rest of my life thanks to my recently checkered medical history. I had to quit my part-time job, but I’ve been able to stay in school, and I’m still on track to graduate in May and start working by the end of the summer, just like all my classmates.

Many, many moons ago (read: last month), my surgeon said to me: “You’re going to have a really, really shitty six months. But that’s it. After that, you’ll be done, and you can move on with your life, and if we do our jobs right and you’re in the 90 percent of patients that we think you’re in, you’ll never have to think of this again.”

I laughed, and he added, “Seriously though, those six months are going to be shitty.”

One month down, five to go.

And while it’s been punctuated by shitty moments – an eight-hour permanently body-deforming surgery there, some hormone-induced sobbing at CBS Sunday Morning here – I have to say that I think he exaggerated. Most of the time, I still worry about all the same dumb stuff I worried about before. I’m still happy when I get to sit at the coffee shop, drinking a cappuccino and eating a scone. I still love Netflix and relaxing with a good book and working on my school projects with my friends. The motivational speaker Tony Robbins said recently that everything that happens in our lives is colored by our own personalities – that angry people will find a way to be angry, sad people will find a way to be sad, and happy people will find a way to be happy, no matter what.

All I know is, sitting here with some tea and a chocolate chip muffin, I like to think I’m a happy person.