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.

A toast to vein champagne

After the Great Vein Explosion of 2013, from which I still have a weird bruise/rash on my hand where the IV was inserted, I finally opted to have a PortaCath…inserted? Placed? I prefer installed, since it’s a titanium implant with a self-sealing rubber lumen and a long tube that goes into the jugular vein, and all of those words make me feel like the Terminator. I am now half girl, half robot, all lean, mean chemo machine.

The procedure is performed under something called “conscious sedation,” which is a bizarre oxymoron to me. I mean, when somebody is inserting tubing into a vein in my neck as thick as my pinky finger, I don’t want to be any kind of conscious at all. Fortunately, what they should really call it is “extremely happy adult naptime,” because I was far, far more sedated than I was conscious. Heavy on the sedation, light on the consciousness, just how I like it when I’m getting cut open with a scalpel.

I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything past midnight on the night before the operation, which of course means that at exactly 12:01am my mouth became the Sahara Desert and I was struck with an absolutely insatiable craving for potato chips. I tossed and turned in bed for a long time, trying not to focus on thirst and hunger and therefore focusing on absolutely nothing but thirst and hunger for at least two hours. I eventually drifted off to sleep, and woke up to the completely unfamiliar sound of the alarm I never, ever set anymore because I had to get to USC by 7:30am for my pre-procedure blood tests and other prep.

Somehow, when I sleep until 11am, I never wake up hungry. But when my alarm starts blaring at 6:45 in the morning, I wake up absolutely dying, dying for a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit from McDonald’s. I KNOW IT’S BAD FOR ME. But have you ever eaten one? It’s like the perfect lovechild of all the world’s best breakfast foods in one greasy, fatty disgusting sandwich. It’s also something that I associate with treating myself, since I only ever let myself have one when something horrible is happening, like I have a killer hangover or I have to go the airport at the crack of dawn. Whatever, I don’t have to explain myself to you, internet! If you don’t like the sausage, egg and cheese biscuit from McDonald’s, you’re un-American and the terrorists win.

As I was getting my blood drawn and my vitals checked in the prep room, having neither eaten nor hydrated since 7pm the night before, the nurse asked me if I was currently experiencing any pain.

“Does hunger count?” I asked. “I’m ravenous.”

Also, am I going to be out of here in time to get McDonald’s breakfast? I added in my head.

As I was lusting after my disgusting fantasy biscuit, the nurse set up my IV and it dawned on me that this the last IV I’ll be getting for quite some time. This new device does everything – it can be used to draw blood, administer chemotherapy, inject contrast for CT scans, MRIs and MUGAs and just about anything else you can think of. It can remain implanted for as long as I need it, requires no maintenance except for a monthly saline and heparin flush and means I’ll never have to deal with a blown out vein again. And best of all, no more tourniquets. I hate the way it feels as my arm goes numb and the nurse starts slapping me to try to find a vein. Never again!

Once everything was good to go, the doctor came in, obtained my consent for the procedure and let me play with the different Portacaths they had available. I actually ended up with a model known as a PowerPort, which is a deep, beautiful purple and shaped like a heart. Sadly, it is hidden underneath my skin, so no one will know that it totally matches this J. Crew sweater that I love.

I shifted myself over to a shockingly comfortable surgical table, and then the nurse asked me – I swear I’m not making this up – “Are you ready to take a magic carpet ride?” I answered with a whole-hearted affirmative and she pumped me full of my favorite drug in the world, Versed. In fact, I learned today that Versed is often referred to as “vein champagne,” a nickname I find to be unbelievably apt because it does make me feel like it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m looking fantastic in my glittery dress and the handsomest guy in the room is about to kiss me at midnight for good luck. Modern medicine is amazing.

Thanks to the drugs, the rest of the procedure plays back in my memory like a time lapse.

The first frame is the injection of the local anesthetic. I remember it stinging a bit, but I didn’t care. I was far away in another world, high out of my mind on happy juice.

Next frame. The nurse is asking me how I’m doing. It takes a massive amount of effort to bring her face into focus. “I’m dreaming about the Lion King,” I slur. I really was.

Next frame. My dream shifts. I’m in a forest somewhere. Wait, maybe a cave. There’s some tugging and pressure near my neck. I hear the doctor’s voices but I feel like they’re on a TV someone left on in the background.

Next frame. The doctor is sewing me up. I’m not sure how I know, but I know. She says, “We’re just about done!” I literally do not believe her, because it feels like I’ve been in the room for thirty seconds, tops. In reality, it took about half an hour.

Next frame. I’m being wheeled into the recovery room. The drugs are starting to wear off, but I’m sleepy. The nurse turns the lights off and lets me nap.

When I wake up for good, I discover my new hardware is pretty subtle. Take a look:

PowerPort

The top incision, near my neck, is where the catheter is inserted. The longer incision is where the pocket was created for the PowerPort, which is the roundish button below it. There’s a thin tube connecting the two and arching down into my jugular vein, where it stops just inside the entrance to my heart. The little red prick in the center of the port is where the nurse accessed it with a special needle to ensure that it was placed correctly, which it was.

All in all, the procedure was a piece of cake. Truthfully, the worst part about it was that we didn’t finish it in time for me to get that sausage, egg and cheese biscuit before McDonald’s stopped serving breakfast. Dammit.

Clarity

I think getting cancer is a lot like getting glasses.

Stay with me here.

When I was in the fifth grade, I started having some difficulty seeing the whiteboard in class. But I was like eleven years old, and I didn’t know a thing about anything, and I just thought that was kind of normal, to be sort of semi-blind and wander around through a world of blurry shapes and impressions without having any real idea what’s going on. Eventually, an adult realized that I couldn’t see jack, and the next thing I knew I was picking out a pair of frames in an optometrist’s office somewhere. I’m pretty sure I picked a pair that was pink, or had ponies on them, or something. I don’t really remember. But what I do remember is the clarity.

I walked out of that office – and I was just standing in a gross parking lot somewhere, it’s not like I was in the rainforest – but I looked up at this tree and it had leaves! And the grass, it had blades! What had been to me for months, maybe years, just an expanse of green shapelessness was now nature in all of its intricate and awe-inspiring detail, with little ladybugs and caterpillars that I could see.

Cancer gives me the same sort of clarity. Before cancer, my life was mostly an aimless walk, bogged down by worries about the stupidest things you can imagine, stupid even by twentysomething standards. And then somebody was like, “Hey, did you know you might be dying?” And I was like, “You mean, in the metaphysical way that we’re all dying?” And she was like, “No, I mean like you might actively be dying, right now, like a lot faster than you should be.” And I was like, “No, I did not know that, or even suspect it, and wow, that is not cool.”

It was just like that moment in the doctor’s office when they put the glasses on my face for the first time. Everything important snapped into focus, and I didn’t have to strain anymore to see the writing on the metaphorical whiteboard of life. It was very clear. Be happy. Be kind to one another. Don’t be an idiot who counts the calories in a box of See’s Candies. It’s See’s Candies, it has one million calories, and who cares? Eat the hell out of those raspberry truffles! (In moderation, obviously.) What’s more, I felt the same awe at the beauty of life after my diagnosis as I did after my glasses fitting. The same intense sense of wonder at the beautiful intricacy of everything, even a leaf, with its spindly veins and crisp green edges.

I don’t want people to think that cancer has given me some sort of higher level of transcendence, because it hasn’t. I still get mad when cute clothes look bad on me in the dressing room. I still spend my time worrying about stupid things like if I will EVER stop getting zits on my left cheek, and whose fault was it really that that one roommate and I didn’t get along? (Hers.) Basically, my life is like an episode of Girls, but with 100% more cancer.

But what cancer has given me, if not the ability to rise completely above worry, is the ability to let those worries slide. It has given me a feeling of deep appreciation for everything in life, even the bad things. I pretty much go through my days now like a B-list celebrity who gets nominated for an Academy Award they can never win because they’re up against Daniel Day Lewis or Stephen Spielberg or something: “It’s an honor just to be nominated. I’m just happy to be here.”

I am so happy to be here.

10 percent

Being born and living life is really awesome, but there’s this one pesky little thing about it that I’m kind of shocked that in however many thousands of years of scientific progress we haven’t figured out how to fix, and that’s the fact that you have to die at the end of it.

It’s not that I’m scared to die. No, wait, yes it is.

I don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about my odds of survival, and truth be told, they’re pretty good – if anything that forces you to calculate your odds of survival can be considered good. According to both my real doctors and my frenemy Dr. Google, my chances of surviving at least five years (and hopefully much longer) are about 90 percent. Which is great, but which also means that despite all of this horrible, miserable medical junk I’m subjecting myself to, there’s still this nagging 10 percent chance that I’m gonna die.

Ten percent isn’t really that much. I’m kind of a clumsy idiot so really there’s probably a 10 percent chance that I’m gonna die just trying not to trip over my own shoelaces on a bridge or something on any given day. But still, 10 percent is like, not ideal. Ideal would be zero percent. A zero percent chance of dying, ever.

It’s honestly really terrifying not knowing what happens after you die. Because that’s what scares me, really, is the unknown. Suffering will end, sadness will pass, but death is…permanent. And it could be anything. For example, I have this very irrational fear that when you die, actually, your consciousness doesn’t cease, and you remain totally aware of everything that’s happening to you as they close the coffin lid and you go insane from boredom in an immobile body trapped six feet under forever and ever. I know that’s completely insane, and if you’re a doctor, please feel free to explain to me why, so I can stop worrying about it. But my point is like, there’s no way to know.

Maybe Heaven is real and when I die God’s gonna be up there looking like The Dude (which is how I’ve always pictured Him, like a big, laid-back guy in a sweater and moccasins who hates The Eagles) and he’s gonna be like, “Hey, buddy! We’ve got your room ready over here, it’s right next to your grandparents and Princess Diana, and they are all like, super excited to hang out with you. Also, we serve wine. Red or white?” Or maybe the Hindus have it right, and as I take my last breaths, I’m suddenly going to blink back into existence as a majestic bird of prey floating high above cold Alaskan waters. Or maybe it’s just nothingness. Maybe it’s just peace, and love, and contentment for all eternity.

Most of the time, I take my 90 percent odds and I just feel grateful for them. I know I’m in a small minority of incredibly lucky cancer patients who, at least for the time being, can not just hope but can expect to recover someday. But sometimes, I can’t shake the fear that I’m going to wind up in that 10 percent, and sometimes it gets to me to the point that I cry and worry and feel that I might get gypped out of the best years of my life. Once, in one of the latter moods, I cried to Gordie – the most logical and measured of all logical and measured people, ever – that I was sinking into a vicious cycle of terror.

“Babe,” he said, calm as ever, “if there were a 90 percent chance of rain tomorrow, would you bring an umbrella?”

Ninety percent is a pretty good bet, but if there’s one thing I’ve taken away from this experience, it’s this: Nothing in life is certain, ever.  No matter how low or high the odds, anything is possible. Existence is basically a cosmic trip to Las Vegas where in between enjoying yourself at the pool and the dance club you bet your soul on stuff like driving on the freeway, eating red meat and SCUBA diving, and eventually the house always wins but that doesn’t mean you can’t have the best bachelorette party ever while you’re there. So screw statistics. Obliterate odds. Just live today. But don’t forget your umbrella.

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.

Matters of the heart

Before I can have Tuesday’s drug cocktail, I had to get a heart scan to measure the functionality of my third-most vital organ. (The first two being my brain and my stomach, since I need my stomach to eat burritos.) This is an important part of the process, because when it comes to treating something like cancer, nothing is benign – and my chemotherapy regimen has a nasty little habit of occasionally causing heart damage. Since I plan on hanging onto this heart for another 70 years or so, it’s important that we keep tabs on how it’s handling everything.

I had a choice between a MUGA scan and an echocardiogram. The MUGA involves an intravenous radioactive injection that’s traced throughout the body using a big scanning device, while the echocardiogram is a simple ultrasound. I opted for the echo – no needles, no radioactivity, just a few minutes with a painless ultrasound wand, right? No. Wrong.

This is the second time ultrasounds have tricked me, the first being my unpleasant surprise transvaginal procedure at the fertility doc, and I’m officially OVER IT. Next time, I’m getting the MUGA.

First, the procedure takes a full hour. That’s an hour of laying on your side while an ultrasound tech jabs you in the boobs, all the while leaning their full weight onto you and rolling what feels like a dirty softball up and down your ribcage. It was extremely uncomfortable, to the point of outright pain at times.

Think we’re done there? Of course not! Since I have big ol’ fake boobies, it was tough for the tech to get a good angle to see my heart wall and measure the functionality of my cardiac muscle. In order to get a clearer picture, we needed to repeat the echo using a contrast dye. A nurse came in, fitted me with yet another IV and injected a weird, bubbly liquid into my arm. My heart lit up like a fireworks display, and I was jabbed with the giant ultrasound wand yet again – this time up under my sternum. Good times, y’all, good times.

The tech apologized profusely (and noted that my discomfort was probably because I’m so thin – I’ll take compliments wherever I can get ’em, folks!), but the funniest part to me was that she really went out of her way to try to keep my breasts covered while she was jamming this wand in between every single one of my ribs. I’m so incredibly over people seeing my boobs, it’s hard to believe. I barely even think of my body as something private anymore. It’s not mine; it belongs to the doctors. I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by other cancer survivors, and it’s probably the experience I relate to the most. I feel like a medical specimen – but even so, there’s something that fascinates me about seeing into all the hidden areas of my body, getting to see my uterus and my heart and my lymph nodes lit up on scanning machines all the time.

My mom and I often joke about my ability to detach from even the most unpleasant medical procedures and look at the proceedings with awe and curiosity. I’ve always had this weird fascination with medicine. It started when I was a kid, and we had this big red book full of medical information that my mom would bust out whenever my brother and I had a fever or a sore throat. There was no Internet (I know, there was a time before the Internet? And I was alive for it? WTF), so the Big Red Book was all we had, and I think I read it cover to cover.

When I was an adolescent, when I wasn’t watching Degrassi: The Next Generation, I’d be sitting enraptured by disgusting shows on Discovery Health like Trauma: Life in the ER. I was amazed at the punishment the human body could take. I was fascinated that from a single cell, we could become organisms full of functional organs and beating hearts and inflating lungs. When my dad’s gallbladder was removed, he asked the surgeon to take pictures for me, which was weirdly sweet of him. Not only did I receive a full set of bizarre images of my dad’s innards, I even got a little bottle full of his gallbladder stones. Sick, right? I KNOW, you guys, I know – but isn’t it amazing, the way we work? What a precarious balance this life is. Any number of things can go wrong at any second – every moment of it is precious. And yet, I still spent seven hours yesterday mainlining episodes of House of Cards of Netflix. I regret nothing.

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.

It’s not ping-pong, but…

Yesterday, I did something I haven’t done in a while: I went running.

It was slow, painful going, and I looked like a mangy stray dog with my hair half-fallen out, but I loved every second of it. (And there were a lot of seconds – I’ve fallen far from my 5K PR. Very far.)

But the nice thing about running, of course, is that going slow is just fine. It’s not rugby – no one’s going to knock your teeth out if you can’t make to some arbitrary landmark in time. I love running because it has virtually no barrier to entry. No need to have any kind of hand-eye coordination or the ability to catch a ball coming rapidly at your face, both skills I lack. Got some feet and leg muscles that work, at least a little? You can be a runner!

That’s part of the reason I’m so honored that my amazing classmates at the Brandcenter decided to run the famous Monument Avenue 10K in my honor this April. A 10K is no joke, and for many of us advertising kids, the most exercise we get on a regular basis is riding our hipster bikes, crumpling up pieces of paper with terrible ideas on them and elbowing our way up to the bar to order another Hopslam. Although I wish I could run it myself, it means the world to know that my friends will be out there panting and pushing to get to the finish line for me.

But the Monument 10K has another awesome feature, and that is that it is part of the VCU Massey Cancer Center’s HDL Challenge. While I was sitting in the chemo chair, eating burritos and watching Law & Order, my insanely talented friends were putting together this incredible fundraising video:

Our goal was to raise $5,000, and we achieved it in a single day. But you can never raise too much money for cancer research, so if you’d still like to donate, you can do so here.

I’m unbelievably proud to call these writers, artists, filmmakers and creators my friends and colleagues. I love you guys, and good luck in the race! I’ll be cheering for you!

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.