Category Archives: Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy #6: The Doppler Effect

It’s taken me a few days to get this post up, and I apologize for that. There are a few reasons:

First, I’ve just felt like complete and utter crap, which of course is par for the chemotherapy course but doesn’t make it any less miserable.

Second, I’ve been sorting through a lot of emotions and coming to terms with what being done with chemotherapy means for me, both good and bad.

Third, I saw 6 Fast 6 Furious which is the first movie I’ve seen in theatres in FOREVERRRRR and it’s totally insane, so yeah, that’s been taking up a lot of mental real estate. Do you know how weird it is to get in a car and drive along at a totally normal speed slash not go up into any cargo airplanes or drift around anything or flip your vehicle over a bridge after you leave a Fast and Furious movie? Super weird, guys. Super weird.

But back to the first and second points, which are probably more salient to this blog. (Maybe? Would you guys object if I turned this into a 6 Fast 6 Furious fan page?)

The thing I keep coming back to is time. It just…passed. And events happened. And now I’m here. I know, I know, time heals all wounds – how many times did I roll my eyes over that phrase when my middle school boyfriend broke up with me and my mom tried to comfort me? But now it’s the thought I can’t get out of my head, because for so long I thought this day would never come and that I’d be stuck in the chemo vortex forever and ever, and now here I am, on the other side of it. Healed. Sort of.

I remember back in December when I was first diagnosed, and in January when I went for my first set of scans and IV pokes and other medical BS, and how the doctors kept reminding me that it was going to be a shitty six months, but that was all – six months, and I’d be able to start getting back to normal. Six months felt impossibly long to me then. I mean, to be honest with you, I’m not an especially patient person – if a date is further away than the release of the last movie trailer I saw, it’s probably too far away for me to be even vaguely aware of its existence or anything I need to do to prepare for it. But now I feel like those six months have gone by in the blink of an eye. Is it June already? How?!

It reminds me of all the other important things in my life that blew by before I had time to register they were even approaching, like college graduation and my entire adolescence (why was I never cool like today’s tweens? They make it look so awesome and trendy but I ruined it by being a big nerd the whole time!). There’s actually a term for it, or rather, a term that due to my faulty knowledge of physics and English-major propensity for metaphor I’m going to appropriate for it – the doppler effect – the way a car’s engine gets louder and louder as it approaches and then zooms by in one moment of fantastic sound and fury and then fades into the distance while you’re left on the side of the road like, WTF was that thing? Basically, my whole life – and not least of all this cancer experience – has been the doppler effect.

I can’t believe that I’m finished with chemotherapy. In one week I’ll move to New York. In ten days I’ll start my new job. On July 6 I’ll watch my beautiful friend Caroline marry the love of her life. In early August Gordie and I will go for a summer beach vacation. I see all of these things coming, like the doppler effect car engine, but I know that no matter how hard I try to stretch out all of these moments they’ll blast by me fast enough to give me whiplash.

Let me clarify, though, that although I’ve finished with the whole pump-your-veins-full-of-poison thing, I’m not done with cancer treatment. Cancer cells can go haywire in a variety of patterns, and I was fortunate that mine decided to go berserk in as many ways as possible – meaning we can throw the kitchen sink at me and keep on treatin’ me for years to come. I’ll have twelve months of Herceptin infusions, which are given intravenously and require me to sit in a hospital but don’t cause hair loss, sickness or any of the other chemo nastiness. (So whatever, sign me up – a couple of hours every three weeks dedicated to reading Us Magazine in what’s basically a budget pedicure chair? I’m there.) After that, I have five years of Tamoxifen, an estrogen blocker that’ll keep me in the early menopause I’ve been enjoying so thoroughly these past few months.

Knowing that I’ll be actively “fighting” cancer for at least five more years saves me, I think, from a bit of the emotional distress that typically accompanies the end of chemotherapy treatment. I don’t feel unprotected – rather, I feel as though I have an army of some of the world’s best doctors and drugs at my back. And don’t fret, readers! I still have so much to say about life post-chemo, post-boobs and post-hair (and I guess pre-hair, now, since I expect to get it back eventually), this blog ain’t going anywhere.

If there is anyone out there reading this blog who is just starting their own awkward and crappy journey with cancer, I hope I’ve made it clear that my main point about chemotherapy is this: WAIT, IT’S OVER ALREADY? I THOUGHT WE JUST STARTED??

If that doesn’t give you some hope about getting through treatment, then you need to buy some Ben & Jerry’s stat. ‘Cause Ben & Jerry’s is always my plan B.

I’m going to have to work on that patience thing, though, because there are so many other things to wait for now. Like my hair, which won’t start growing back for another month or two, and won’t be acceptable to take out in public until sometime around my birthday in October. And my boobs, which will be officially replaced with gummy bear implants near Christmastime. (MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ME, AM I RIGHT?) Not to mention 7 Fast 7 Furious. Hurry up, 2014!

Chemotherapy #5: The Musical Slash Educational Film from 1954

I’m back in California as of yesterday around 8pm, but I’m still on East Coast time. As a result, I woke up stupid early this morning and made a playlist for today’s chemotherapy session. I wish I could embed it, but Spotify won’t let me. If you’d like to listen, click here:

CHEMOTHERAPY: THE MUSICAL

It’s a weird, chill, eclectic collection of tunes including Rihanna and Of Monsters and Men and Lymbyc System and tons of other stuff. I’m usually on a ton of drugs during chemotherapy, so…it kind of sounds like music you’d listen to while you’re on drugs.

I cannot believe this is my second-to-last chemotherapy. Someone told me very early on in my treatment that actually, the hardest day for a cancer patient is the final day of chemotherapy, and I’m finally starting to understand what he meant. I mean, this is what people talking about when they talk about “fighting” cancer – sitting in this chair and getting up to pee every fifteen seconds from the constant saline drip, talking to my mom, dickin’ around on the instanetz. But the fight ends, and although the bell will ring, cancer will lie down and the referee will declare me the victor, I’ll leave the ring alone, unprotected and vulnerable. At least I’ve got one more treatment before I have to really start considering that.

After I left New York last Thursday, I hopped on a train to Boston to visit Gordie for the weekend.

By the way, this has nothing to do with anything, but I love trains. Every time one comes by, I have to stop and stare for several minutes, mesmerized by the rhythmic thumping of the wheels over the track’s joints and the blur of ridged containers flying by at a speed that seems impossible for the train’s lumbering weight. It’s like watching an elephant win the 100-meter dash. It’s like a steam-age fractal, a repeating series of shapes and colors, a weird, quaint piece of moving art that harkens back to a time I never knew. I want to grab a hitch and bindle and leap up on one of the ladders and ride away on track ballast, wood and steel to the 1840s. But if I did, I’d be dead, because I think chemotherapy/mastectomies were pretty primitive back then. They probably would have covered me with leeches and called it a day.

Gordie and I had a fantastic time – walking along the esplanade, visiting an outdoor beer garden, meeting up with some of my grad school friends who are interviewing at agencies in Boston, strolling through the public gardens, watching movies, grilling burgers and just enjoying young adult life (something I was isolated from for so long that I cherish it now more than ever before).

Gordie plays in an adult soccer league, so I went with him on Saturday morning to see them compete. While they were warming up, I left to grab an iced coffee before the match started and found myself walking through the middle of one of those Susan G. Komen Walk for the Cure things. It was so weird – all these women in pink shirts and matching fanny-packs, with pithy signs about boobs and womanhood, and me, the very person they’re walking for, wandering through their midst while they march on unaware. It just goes to show that Plato was right: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle. And if their wig is realistic enough, you may never know what it is.

Back to chemo. I find that people often want to ask questions about my condition and my treatment, but they worry that it’ll somehow be offensive. I totally get that concern, but also, I absolutely love answering questions and it’s not offensive to me in the least. It makes me feel useful, like God was like, “Hmmm, I need someone to explain cancer to a smallish group of twentysometimes scattered across California and various mid-size cities on the east coast. I’m gonna use this petite brunette girl! She can tell everyone what it’s like! Michelle, your mission, should you chose to accept it (LOL I’m God just kidding you don’t get a choice), is to become Grand Cancer Ambassador.”

So let me answer a few of the Frequently Asked Questions I get about chemotherapy, in the form of a script for a 1950s educational film.

“CANCER AND YOU (AND ME, WAIT, WHO’S NARRATING THIS AGAIN?): WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW BUT MIGHT BE AFRAID TO ASK”

ME: Hello, I’m Michelle, and you may recognize me from such blogs as I’m 25 and My Boobs are Trying to Kill Me, the Tumblr that I occasionally binge-update and a Livejournal from 2001. Today, we’re here to talk about chemotherapy!

TIMMY, our pupil: What’s chemotherapy?

ME: Well, Timmy, it’s the worst thing on Earth. It’s basically like the devil pissed into an old Mountain Dew bottle on a long car ride when one of those signs that says “NEXT REST STATION 55 MILES” popped up and he couldn’t hold it any longer, and then he forgot about the bottle for like two months while the car was parked in a very hot parking lot (this is Hell, after all), and then eventually he was like, hey I can sell this!, and he gave it to some doctors, and then they stab you with a needle and inject the months-old satanic urine in your bloodstream.

TIMMY: Is that true?

ME: Yes. That’s exactly how chemo drugs are made.

TIMMY: Why does your hair fall out?

ME: The thing that makes cancer so dangerous is that cancer cells aren’t very different from other cells in your body, they just grow more quickly. The trick to “curing” cancer is to find a drug that targets cancer cells while doing minimal damage to normal, healthy cells (damaging your regular cells would, of course, paradoxically give you MORE cancer and/or kill you). So far, most chemotherapy drugs just target cells that are growing fast, like cancer cells. Other cells grow fast, too, though – like hair. Which is why hair falls out. Nails can also become discolored, raised or fall off, your reproductive system shuts down, your immune system is highly suppressed and you can get sores in your mouth and throat – other places where cells grow quickly.

TIMMY: That sounds like it sucks a big one!

ME: It does, Timmy, it does.

TIMMY: But are you able to do normal stuff?

ME: Mostly, yeah, but that’s because my oncologist is awesome and I absolutely refuse to lie down and take it from some dumb drugs. I feel like I got run over by a steamroller carrying the e. coli virus for the first ten days, and for the second ten days I feel mostly normal, except that I get winded halfway up the stairs. I generally try to cram everything fun and cool into those last ten days between treatments, which leads to some very action-packed weeks punctuated by weeks where I literally go days without changing out of my pajamas. The same pajamas. Yeah, I’m disgusting, whatever, I know it, and I have cancer.

TIMMY: Gee golly whillikers, that sure is gross!

ME: Haters gonna hate, Tim.

TIMMY: Are you allowed to travel?

ME: Yeah. I just got back from a three-city tour of the East Coast. And I’m in the midst planning a cross-country road trip. More on that in an upcoming post.

TIMMY: Are you allowed to drink?

ME: This is a 1950s educational film, you’re in like the fourth grade.

TIMMY: Yeah, but you’re writing this script, so the drinking age can be anything you want.

ME: I don’t think I want it to be 9.

TIMMY: Anyway, just answer the question. Are you allowed to go out for a brewski?

ME: Totally. I’m not supposed to get, like, freshman year hammered, but I can totally have a beer or two at the bar. Or, during one of my Pajamas Weeks, you’re totally welcome to come over with wine. We’ll drink it in front of Law & Order: SVU while I try not to barf into a metal bowl. And that actually sounds strangely reminiscent of the aftermath of a night of being freshman year hammered.

FIN.

Feel free to ask more questions in the comments, if you have some. Nothing’s off limits and I’ll answer as honestly as I can.

Over the hill: Chemo #4

I’m now 4/6 (that’s 2/3, for you math whizzes out there) of the way done with chemotherapy!

Y’all know the drill by now, so instead of blathering on about my uncontrollable drooling, nausea and food aversions (why do all of these have to do with my mouth?), I’m going to talk about something a little more fun: the upsides!

It may seem odd to say, but there are certainly some upsides to the whole chemotherapy process. I already documented all the perks of going bald in an earlier post, but there are even more things I can find to be thankful for when I really search for them, not just the ability to take a shower 5 minutes before I need to leave the house. (But let’s not lie, that ish the JAM. I can’t believe men have been getting away with that forever.)

For example, I have never had better skin in my life. I haven’t been able to figure out the exact reason for this, but it seems to be a well-documented side effect amongst young cancer survivors – acne is banished FOREVER. Normally I’d hate to admit this anywhere, but we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well, internet slash blog followers, so I guess I’ll just go ahead and tell you that I used to have some pretty intense zit biz going on up in this face. Back in middle school, I not only had braces, frizzy hair (R.I.P., hair) and absolutely no sense of style behind oversized summer camp t-shirts, I also had a nice smattering of red pimples across my forehead and cheeks. Since then, the whole deal has calmed down, but like most other twentysomethings I would still find myself with a blemish here and there, and usually only at the most inopportune times. But no more, my friends!

Thanks to chemotherapy, I now have the complexion of a marble bust. If this were the 19th century, crows would alight upon my bald, ivory scalp and quoth, “Nevermore!” I get compliments on my glowing skin virtually every day, so now my secret is out. I wasn’t born with it, it’s carboplatin, taxotere and herceptin. I wouldn’t really recommend that regimen for any but the most severe cases of lingering adult acne, however.

My parents are gonna straight up die of happiness when they read this since I’m generally being super grumpy at them most of the time, but another perk of cancer is the ability to spend more time with my family. My mom, dad and brother all live out here in Los Angeles and I’ve spent the last seven years on the East Coast gettin’ schooled and/or paid, so it has been nice to come home for a bit – even if it wasn’t under the best of circumstances. Just chillin’ with my mom and dad in the chemo ward for like six or seven hours at a time is the kind of personalized one-on-one time you don’t even realize you miss when you’re all grown up and away. I bet I haven’t had this much attention since my little brother was born.

Honestly, my parents and I have had our fair share of squabbles since I was forced to move back home – and I think that’d be pretty standard for any 25-year-old ripped from a life of independence and thrust into a world of needles, drugs, fear and confusion, all while having her parents burst into her room every ten seconds to check on her like it’s ninth grade again – but I’m still incredibly thankful that they’re here for me. I can’t imagine doing this without having my mom and dad handy to shove water in my face three times an hour even when I’m not thirsty, or listen to me bitch about everything, or not rip my head off when I’m a super-rude chemo brat. Love you, mom and dad (and Ryan!). Can someone check and make sure my mom didn’t pass out from joy?

I also completely forgot to mention two other Important Moments in Hairlessness that occurred while I was in Richmond, but that deserve some time in the spotlight on this blog.

IMiH #1: The career fair at school was understandably stressful for all of us, so some of the recruiters and school officials were kind enough to get a few masseuses to come out and give us backrubs to help us calm down. I literally thought I had died and gone to heaven – you can ask Gordie; backrubs are my absolute favorite thing on earth. So without a moment’s hesitation I leapt up onto this lady’s chair, so, so, so ready to get my rub down. And then she started with neck. And then I remembered I was wearing a wig.

At first I was all blissed out on the idea of a backrub so like, whatever. This can’t be the weirdest thing this lady has ever seen, right? But then I start feeling her fingers going sort of under the wig and touching all of my bald, stubbly bits, and I can feel the hesitation in her hands, you know? It’s like her hands are saying, “WTF IS GOING ON HERE? THIS GIRL HAS NO HAIR?”

And I’m sitting there panicking like, Do I tell her it’s a wig? It’s too late now. She’s just going to wonder. Obviously it’s a wig. I can’t explain why I’m wearing a wig without playing the cancer card, and I don’t even KNOW this woman, so like, why should I give her my medical history? But is this weird? IT’S SO WEIRD I’VE WAITED TOO LONG OH GOD SHE THINKS I’M A FREAK!

I almost ruined my whole massage by panicking like that, but thankfully it’s a massage, so it literally can’t be ruined because it’s the best thing in the world.

IMiH #2: One of the recruiters who came to the career fair was wearing a hat with some fake hair attached to it, which was pretty cool since it’s always fun to see anyone – student, recruiter, professor, whoever – let loose a little bit. I had seen him walking around a bit and didn’t realize the hair was fake since I hadn’t looked closely, but then he walked right by me and sort of tipped his hat to me and of course THE HAIR CAME WITH IT and it was hilarious.

So then I’m feeling disarmed and sharing a chuckle with this guy over his shaved head so I’m like, “Hey, me too!” And then I LIFTED UP MY WIG SO HE COULD SEE THAT I WAS BALD UNDERNEATH.

Instantly his expression changed to one of total confusion. And who can blame him? I’m sure he was like, “WTF IS GOING ON HERE? THIS GIRL HAS NO HAIR?” He probably had to get a drink with the masseuse later to talk it out and figure out what was going on. I’m sorry, dude. If you’re reading this, you actually handled it super well, and I’m sorry I gave you absolutely zero explanation as to my hairlessness. Your fake hair rocked, and I’m pretty sure you gave me a thumbs up once you processed the fact that I was actually lifting up a wig, so that makes you a totally awesome guy.

All in all, each go ’round of this chemo business gets easier. I find that with every treatment, my drugs get adjusted more perfectly, I recover more quickly and I experience fewer side effects, so if you’re on this blog because you’re going through or are going to go through chemotherapy, I really hope that give you some hope and make it easier for you. I feel like I just got started, and OH SNAP! I’m 4/6 of the way done.

In case you forgot, that’s 2/3 for all you math whizzes out there.

Chemotherapy #3, Brought to You in GIFs

GIFs* are little moving image clips from TV shows, movies, video games and so on. They’re awesome. Strap on your safety suit and get prepared for the most visual chemotherapy ride I’ve ever taken you on!

*Some of these are just JPEGs. They don’t move. I am sorry. This isn’t Harry Potter.

SO! First I woke up at 7 in the morning to beat the traffic and get to the day hospital on time. I needed blood drawn, I had a clinic with the oncologist and then there’s the whole 7-hour infusion thing, so it was going to be a long day. I was all like:

But then my mom was like, “Hey, do you want some scrambled eggs and a bagel and some fresh fruit?” And I was like:

And then she was like, “We’re gonna be late!” And I was like:

So eventually we get in the car with our coffees, and I get to pick the music, so it was all like:

The valet parking guy was all:

Yes, they valet park your car at the cancer center. It’s like a bald people country club. It’s the little things.

Then it was time to draw blood out of my very sore port for the first time, so my face was like:

But during the actual port access I was more like:

So basically, the same thing. I should be a psychic.

Luckily, once the port is accessed, it stays that way all day, so only one needle stick today! When the nurse told me that, I was all:

We had our meeting with the oncologist. We asked a million stupid questions, and the oncologist couldn’t stop our torrent of bro-science and poorly Googled “facts”, so she was basically like:

She has a lot of patience with us. It’s internet pseudoscience she hates. She was like:

But because our questions are hilarious even when they’re straight up irrational, at the end of it we’re all laughing and she’s like:

And then she’s like, “Seriously, stay off the internet or else.”

Then we got the drugs going, and the drugs were all like:

Luckily, I got my pre-meds, so I was all like:

But then I had to pee, and it was like:

Because clinic and blood draw took a while, we didn’t get to the infusion room in time to order lunch (which they do stupid early, at like 10am), so I was feeling like:

I never did get a meal to eat so I pretty much just did this the whole time:

And then I did this:

And this:

I wish. More like this for the ENTIRE TIME:

With a touch of this:

But then way more of this:

And then I got to go home! After being inside hooked up to tubes ALL DAY I felt so FREEEEEE that the car ride was like:

By the way, after today’s relatively pain-free, quicker-than-usual, piece-of-cake infusion, my port and I are all like:

As for the rest of the week, it’s gonna be like:

Just kidding y’all, more like:

But I’m done with three of ’em now, which means I’m halfway there! If you think I didn’t search for a fantastic Bon Jovi “Livin’ on a Prayer” GIF to round this post out, then you severely underestimated me. Alas, I couldn’t find a good one. So you’ll just have to imagine me singing it, which I have done far too many times at far too many karaoke bars after far too many shots served in test tube equipment.

The hidden perks of baldness

Premature baldness runs in my family.

My grandfather hasn’t had a strand of hair on his head since probably his 35th birthday, and my dad wasn’t far behind. When I was in third grade, I drew a picture of my father with hair shaped sort of like a fleur-de-lis, with three distinct lobes representing his rapidly receding hairline. (Soon after, all trace of any kind of hairline disappeared entirely, replaced by a shiny, smooth dome that looks strangely handsome on him, like a younger, even more badass Bruce Willis.) Even my younger brother, whose determined locks are still hanging on for now, is constantly stressed he’ll be the next Hairless Heir to the family name.

But the joke’s on him, because I have usurped the throne.

I am now, without question, the baldest one in the family. When selecting emojis to represent myself in text message vignettes, I am now forced to pick the old, bald man over the brunette in pink in order to remain most truthful to my current appearance. I’m not entirely hairless; I look a bit like a featherless baby bird, with weird fuzz sticking up in odd places, barely clinging on to my Casper-white skull. But being bald, or nearly so, isn’t all bad! In fact, I’ve found a number of silver linings to my new condition.

1. My shower time has been reduced by 75%.

I used to spend at least, at least, 30 minutes in the shower each morning, shampooing my hair twice and standing under the faucet singing horribly off-tune country music into the hairbrush while I waited for the conditioner to work its magic. These days, I’m stumped as to what to do with myself after about a minute and thirty seconds. Before I went bald, I never realized how much of my shower time was devoted solely to hair. If I wasn’t washing the hair on my head, I was shaving the hair on my legs or plucking the hair in my eyebrows. Since I no longer have to do any of those things, I can now devote a far larger portion of my shower time to torturing everyone with my singing voice. You’re all welcome.

2. I’m reducing noise pollution.

I literally don’t know where my blowdryer is.

3. I can pack far more lightly.

Time to pack for a trip? Hold up, just let me allot a good square foot of space and at least seven pounds of my luggage quota to my blowdryer, flat iron, round brush, curling iron, hairspray, headbands, ponytail holders, comb and shine serum. No longer, my friends! I can now pack two extra pairs of shoes, a whole ‘nother pair of jeans, a special dress and yet another sweater just in case there’s some weird chill on our tropical vacay in the space that I used to dedicate solely to hair products. In fact, packing for St. Louis, I found myself with UNUSED SPACE in my luggage for the first time in my memory. (I wasn’t bald yet, but my pixie didn’t require as much attention as my old, cascading locks did.) So this is what it’s like when Gordie packs to come visit me.

4. I look like a diva.

There’s something about a wig that’s just so much more polished and voluminous and shiny than my real hair. The curls always stay put, bobby pins don’t get lost in the Bermuda Triangle between my left ear, the nape of my neck and the crown of my head, and it feels amazing to stand in front of the mirror and go from Wallace Shawn to Beyonce in two seconds flat.

5. Beanies are cozy.

Beanies just feel good on my head, y’all. It’s like letting your scalp sit in front of the fireplace with some hot cocoa and a warm blankie. By the way, you know when you go to the hairdresser and she washes your hair and spends like, way, way too short of a time scratching your scalp with her fingernails and it feels like you’ve died and gone to heaven? Every time someone touches my head, it feels like that now. It’s ecstasy. I would honestly consider re-shaving my head just to enjoy more headrubs. I am like the second, weirdly talkative dog my parents didn’t ask for, just wandering around hoping someone is going to start touching my head.

So do I recommend shaving your head? Yes. 10/10, would shave again. In a weird way, I’m incredibly thankful for the experience. I have an entirely new level of empathy for people who are visibly different now, people who suffer from disabilities or deformities or just oddities that attract attention wherever they go. I understand what it’s like to go somewhere and get stares, to wear your condition on your sleeve (or your head) and be forced to acknowledge that you can no longer hide from what’s clear to strangers and loved ones alike. The experience of being a Cancer Patient – or any other kind of visible Patient – is different for everyone, I’m sure; but as far as I’m concerned, I hope it’s made me a better person.

But for all of the wisdom, and two-minute showers, and time I’ve spent looking in the bathroom mirror pretending I’m RuPaul, I’m still looking forward to getting my real hair back.

I’m sure my blowdryer is around here somewhere.

How My Second Chemotherapy Treatment Went, or: A Chronological Recording of the Events of 3/19/2013

7:30 am. Is that my alarm going off? It can’t be. I haven’t set an alarm for weeks. My average rising time went from 5am (when I was marathon training) to 10:30am (when I was being all cancery and stuff). 7:30am is literally the butt crack of dawn to me now. I’m going back to sleep.

8:15am, five snooze buttons later. FINE I’LL GET UP, I’m starving anyway. Thanks, steroids.

8:18am. Yes, I will eat this banana and this oatmeal and this brown sugar out of the package with a spoon and this maple syrup I dipped my finger in and this sugar free muffin and this pear and that glass of cranberry juice. Thank you.

9:15am. Roll up to USC Norris like a boss in my buzz cut, which is becoming patchier by the second, and beanie. Wonder why I’m the only one here without hair. Am in the wrong place? This is a cancer center, right? YOU PEOPLE SHOULD HAVE LESS HAIR! I don’t understand!

9:30am. Needle Stick #1 of the day – a blood draw. NBD. Because of that one time I passed out while having an IV placed, everyone is super paranoid about puncturing me. USC is kind enough to use the needles made for premature infants. I am not complaining.

10:30am. My red and white blood cell counts show that my body is an animal and my innards are not lying down and taking this chemo thing without a fight. In fact, my neutrophils – the white blood cells most likely to get obliterated by chemo – are actually a bit high. Thanks, Neulasta! My red blood cell counts are mediocre, and I’ve chosen to blame my bad running on this. I decide not to ask the nurse if these particular red blood cells would affect my athletic performance, on the chance that she’ll say, “No, your fitness should be fine!” and then I’ll have to admit that I just suck because I took three months off.

10:48am. A new nurse comes in to place my IV. Like last cycle’s nurse, she complains about my veins. I didn’t bother to get the port yet, but she’s starting to convince me. After at least two minutes with the tourniquet on, I wonder if I’m here for chemotherapy or an impromptu amputation. Finally, she finds a vein, and kindly tells me that her professional recommendation is that I suck it up and get the PortaCath. “You could go, like, tomorrow,” she says, not joking.

11am. Pre-medication begins with Kyrtil, Benadryl, Ativan and Pepcid. I bury myself in three pre-warmed hospital blankets and throw on some Pandora jams. Almost immediately I fall asleep.

11:30am. Taxotere drip begins. It is thoroughly uneventful. I read for a bit, break out my computer, eat a giant tupperware of fresh berries my mom was kind enough to pack and chat with my parents about a bunch of random things. Then I pass out again.

12:45pm. The Carboplatin drip begins. At first, nothing changes. About half an hour into it, however, my hand begins to feel as though it is on fire. The area around my IV is stinging, and shooting pains are flying up and down my wrist and palm, not unlike cramps. I hold off for a few minutes, thinking they’ll pass, but they only get worse. I quickly ring my button and the nurse comes running in, asking what’s wrong. When I tell her, she says that the drugs can sometimes irritate the lining of the veins, which is probably the source of my pain. She lowers the flow rate and gives me a warm compress to help dilate my lame little venous system. The pain takes at least two hours to fade completely. I’m beginning to agree with these nurses – my veins suck, give me the port.

1:40pm. My awesome brother shows up. We take some glamour shots all over my chemo equipment, but they’re on his phone, so alas, I cannot share them with you just yet. Thanks for coming and hanging out, Ry – made my day.

2:30pm. The final drip: Herceptin! When I’m not getting up to pee every 10 seconds because I have just been pumped with 4 massive bags of saline and poisonous drugs, I’m sitting on my computer praying that my battery doesn’t die before I finish the next article on Gawker. Priorities.

4pm. FINISHED!

6pm. My parents and I head home and order Mexican food. Obviously. And then we settle in for a night of terrible reality TV, as is de rigueur in our household. Word to the wise: I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news because I love trashy TV as much as the next girl, but NBC’s Splash was every bit as inane and bizarre as it looked. I don’t know why I felt compelled to watch it; every time the promo would come on, I was reminded of Jack Donaghy pitching such 30 Rock classics as MILF Island and Celebrity Homonym.

On the chemo front, that makes 2 down, and 4 to go. Here’s to hoping the side effects are as tolerable this time as they were last time. So far, so good, as I can safely say that the worst thing I’ve experienced tonight is my second-hand embarrassment at watching D-list celebrities try to conquer the high dive.

Releasing

My oncologist called me the other day to check in and make sure I was feeling alright as we begin the countdown to my next chemotherapy treatment, which will be on Tuesday.

“I’m doing well,” I said, “except that my hair is rapidly falling out. I mean, like, rapidly.

“Yeah, it’s about that time,” she said. “Generally, about two weeks after the first treatment, the hair starts releasing.”

“Releasing” is the medical term for the way the poor, sad little strands come out when their little follicle homes are obliterated by the chemo drugs. It seems, to me, to be the most accurate term possible for the process. In many ways, this whole cancer experience has been about releasing. Releasing control. Releasing expectations. Releasing vanity. Releasing fear.

Due to the speed with which my hair began abandoning my scalp, I decided to come up with a measurement unit for it. So far, I’d say I’ve lost at least 2.5 cats of hair, a “cat” being defined as the amount of hair one can brush from a domestic feline in a one-hour period. If you have ever owned a cat, you know that this is an enormous amount of hair, yet my bald spots were still easily covered by my remaining tresses up until Friday night (more on that shortly). Nevertheless, I started wearing my caps anyway, in order to: a) prevent uncontrollable shedding all over everyone and everything I love, and b) get used to people staring at me as I meander around in 85 degree SoCal heat in a ski beanie.

Now, the shedding is moot: I am bald.

Or, more accurately, I am buzzed – shaved down with an electric clipper and a 3-guard like a fresh-faced army recruit.

For one thing, I got tired of waking up to a pillow so covered in hair it looked like I’d grabbed someone’s shedding collie in August and rubbed him on it. For another, watching yourself go bald is emotionally trying, even when you’re expecting it. Plus, the “releasing” process is actually sort of painful – my scalp was sore and sensitive, like I’d had my hair pulled back too tight or parted in an unnatural way and secured it that way with tons of hairspray and bobby pins for two to three weeks.

I’d heard enough horror stories about cancer patients weeping quietly as, resigned to their fates, they shaved their own heads, alone, in front of the bathroom mirror. That wasn’t going to be me. I wanted a party, because why shave your head if you’re going to be just as miserable doing it as you’d be sitting in front of the Oprah Winfrey Network pulling it out by the fistful? I called up my brother, who has sported varying degrees of buzz cuts over the years, and asked if he’d shave me down. “I’d be honored,” he said.

We invited some friends, bought a bottle of wine and some beer, and set out a chair in his living room. I felt strange – like Old Yeller being taken out back – yet strangely excited about my fate. I wasn’t scared, because Gordie surprise-shaved his head in support, and that made me: a) cry and b) get psyched up to join him. Could I have found a better man? I literally, honestly do not think I could have. I only wish he were here so that we could rub our buzz cuts together and give each other static shocks.

After we’d gotten my area set up, we poured some drinks, put on a great party playlist and my friend Pat, who has the most experience with the buzzer, had the honor of sending my tresses to hair heaven. The whole deal took 10 silly, adrenalin-pumping minutes. I honestly think my brother may have a calling in starting a business that throws big parties to shave cancer patients’ heads, because this is the way it should be. I’m so glad that I can look back on this memory as a fantastic night with friends instead of something sad, lonely and upsetting. I mean, if you’re going to shave your head, the only way to do it is with a glass of vino in hand, tons of friends surrounding you and 2Chainz on in the background.

Honestly, it’s a relief to have the whole thing over with. This is probably the most universally dreaded side effect of them all, and here I am, living through it. Kinda makes me feel a bit invincible. In fact, I’m so alright with my new look that we took it out for a test run by heading over to my brother’s friend’s apartment for more drinks, some Cards Against Humanity and a great night out.

You want to see a picture of me rockin’ the G.I. Jane? Well, I did say that this experience has been about releasing vanity…

Bald!

Interestingly, today was supposed to be the day of my first marathon. March 16, 2013 – the Rock ‘n’ Roll USA Marathon in Washington, DC. I couldn’t run it, obviously – I can barely run a 5K these days – but I ended up testing a different kind of endurance. The endurance of self-acceptance, of identity, of friendship. And I absolutely cannot stop rubbing my head.

I’m shedding

It’s happening.

Bye, hair. :(

I was sitting at my favorite coffee shop, drinking an iced latte and reading a great book my friend Forrest sent me, when I felt an itch on the back of my scalp and reached back to satisfy it. When I pulled my hand away, at least 50 short brown hairs came with it. They fluttered down over my shoulders and down my cardigan like so much confetti.

“Oh, shit,” I said aloud, causing a couple of other patrons to turn my direction.

I couldn’t help myself: I reached back and pulled out another handful. And another. It was coming in huge clumps. I’ve brushed long-haired cats that shed less than this. No matter where I tugged, I could painlessly pull out massive tufts of hair and hold them in my palm, staring down at the fearsome chemotherapy side effect I’ve dreaded since my diagnosis. There it was, my feminine comfort blanket, the hair I’ve spent so many hours blow-drying, curling, coloring, forcing into updos I found on Pinterest that never turned out like the pictures. Just laying on the floor of a coffee shop. I’m sorry, Zeli’s. I know your janitorial staff is going to be baffled by this tonight.

I immediately texted Katie Bo to let her know that It Was Happening.

Me: I feel sorry for the next person who sits in this chair. It looks like I invited my personal hair stylist in here to give me a trim while I sipped on this coffee.

KB: Don’t worry, it’ll probably be a hippy. Hippies are cool with hair.

Me: What do I do? Should I shave it? Help. HELP.

KB: The scab theory. Go home, watch some TV and pull on it compulsively. Or stay there and hand it to passersby.

Me: Maybe they’ll just assume I have a very sheddy invisible dog.

KB: Go up to the cashier and ask for a bowl of water for him.

KB: Go up to the counter and be like, “Excuse me, do you mind if I have a bowl of water for my dog Bertrando? He’s getting parched in the California heat and he’s starting to molt.”

Me: Then I’ll pull out a tuft of my hair and hand it to him as payment.

KB: “You operate on the barter system, right? I trust these strands will be enough.”

KB: Then start singing Les Miz.

Me: Honestly I don’t see a flaw in this plan.

Reeling from the realization that I was actually going to lose my hair (denial is a powerful emotion), I wandered across the street and into a TJ Maxx to see if I could find any cheap skullcaps to cover up my brand-new deformity. Unfortunately, this being winterless California, they had nothing but trendy fedoras and big, Kentucky Derby wide-brimmed sunhats. C’mon, guys! Some of us still need knit beanies even in the off-season. I am not Bruno Mars, so a fedora was out of the question, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t entertain the possibility of sporting nothing but genteel, floppy Southern hats throughout this whole ordeal, going everywhere in a dress, speaking like Paula Deen and carrying a mint julep everywhere I go. But alas. All I really wanted was a cozy cap.

Truth be told, my hair and I have always had a tumultuous relationship. When I was about 14, the whole thing exploded into a thick mass of curls so extreme, I was once featured in a before-and-after ad for the hair salon I went to. A hairdresser who blow-dried my locks straight said to me, sweat dripping down her face, “I don’t want to see you again until your wedding!” I hated my curls, and it took me years to figure out how to style them in a way that didn’t look like I’d dropped a toaster in the bath.

Whatever unknown forces caused my ‘fro, they calmed down when I was about 18. My hair settled into manageable waves that I started dying blonder and blonder until one day I looked in the mirror and realized I’d somehow gone Gwen Stefani platinum. I felt unique and sexy that way, so kept it blonde through most of college, before dying it back to brown just before graduation. And that’s how it stayed for the last few years – long, brown, often curled, sometimes straight, but always there for me, ready for a quick twirl to alleviate boredom or an alluring toss to attract the attention of some cute guy.

We may have had our differences, hair, but I never wanted us to part this way. I’ll miss you.

Side effects, continued

Captain’s log, day 7 post chemotherapy: Eyelashes and eyebrows have begun to fall out and land directly in my eyeballs. This is frustrating. I woke up this morning with a fine dust of eyebrow hairs covering my face. I’m not angry, as I have eyebrows to spare. Hair on my head continues to hold strong. I suspect this will not last much longer. Gordie is here, and we have plans to buy a clipper, apply the 1-guard and shave me down Sinead O’Connor-style at the first sign of thinning.

Cannot stop salivating. Suspect this may be due to a special chemotherapy toothpaste I had to get that’s supposed to prevent mouth sores. It’s for “dry mouth,” which I don’t have. In fact, I now have “excessively wet mouth.” Frequently find myself drooling all over chin and cheek.

In addition to my saliva production being in overdrive, I cannot taste anything. Literally, all food tastes like plain oatmeal. My lips and tongue feel weird, like they’re coated in wax. Or they have a chemical burn. Which I guess they kind of do.

Have had a nonstop bloody nose since Wednesday of last week. It comes and goes randomly, meaning that Gordie and I will sometimes be standing at the cash register at Food+Labs in Silver Lake, about to eat a delicious arugula and prosciutto salad (that tastes like plain oatmeal to me), when the girl behind the counter suddenly gets a very alarmed look in her eyes and I realize, by the coppery taste in my mouth, that I’m leaking blood down the side of my face.  Yeah, no chocolate, no salt, no burritos, but blood? Can still taste that one. Hooray.

Also have developed an awesome, hive-like rash on my chest and neck. It’s especially cool because it coincides with a massive heatwave, so it’s 80+ degrees out but I’m stuck in scarves and high-necked shirts, lest I risk exposing my weird, pimpled bosom to the world. Oncologist says that this is from the steroids, which, like the kind favored by A-Rod and Lance Armstrong, can cause everything from weight gain to mania to acne. Fortunately, my vanity has left the building.

With this recent rash (ha) of beautiful weather, I’ve been reflecting a lot on what it really means to be alive. Because the truth is that, even dealing with all of this misery, when your mortality suddenly sneaks up behind you, covers your eyes and shouts, “Gotcha! Forgot I was here, didn’t ya?,” it’s not the big things you’ll be thinking about. it’s small stuff, like how much I love the way the sun feels on my skin or how great a cold glass of lemonade tastes on a warm morning (before it tasted like plain oatmeal, I mean).

I’m reminded of a beautiful quote from the poet John Keats:

“How astonishingly (here I must premise that illness, as far as I can judge in so short a time, has relieved my mind of a load of deceptive thoughts and images, and makes me perceive things in a truer light), – how astonishingly does the chance of leaving the world impress a sense of its natural beauties upon us! I think of green fields; I muse with the greatest affection on every flower I have known from my infancy – their shapes and colours are as new to me as if I had just created them with a superhuman fancy. It is because they are connected with the most thoughtless and the happiest moments of our lives. I have seen foreign flowers in hothouses, of the most beautiful nature, but I do not care a straw for them. The simple flowers of our Spring are what I want to see again.”

Fortunately, there are worse places to be ill than Southern California – Gordie and I are hitting up the beach today. It’s not like a little chemotherapy is gonna keep me from enjoying my life. And besides, I’ve gotta get all the use I can out of this hair while I’ve still got it.

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.