The evening after my first chemo treatment for Triple Negative Breast Cancer, my friend, confidante and cohort in crime Sherri asked me what I wanted for dinner that night. I told her I was craving a light and lemony pasta dish from the cookbook Simple by Diana Henry. Earlier in my diagnosis, my friend Bridget had introduced me to a Facebook group that chooses a cookbook each month and everyone cooks from it. Bridget also gave me the March cookbook Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard. I loved the concept and bought the April selection Simple.
Sherri – a trained chef – agreed to feed my craving and whip up Diana Henry’s Orzo with Lemon & Parsley to accompany roasted chicken and asparagus for all of us plus one guest. I was trying to make myself useful in my small kitchen and showed Sherri a trick that I have always used to cut up herbs … put them in a glass and snip them with scissors. This was a job I gave my son when he was still in a high chair … a plastic cup, clean kiddie scissors and a few sprigs of parsley to chop.
Sherri cut her bunch of parsley the correct way … with a chef’s knife. I was sure my scissor method was faster, but much to my surprise, her efficiency beat me to a pulp. She had her parsley chopped and her cutting board cleaned while I was still talking about the joys of snipping your parsley.
I pouted. And whined “But … I have cancer.”
“You did not just pull the cancer card, did you?!” Sherri laughed.
Realizing that this might actually get me somewhere, I slowly said “Maybe …”
And thus was born the “But I have cancer” routine!
Maybe you should have water … “But I have cancer and I want coffee.”
Maybe you should go for a walk … “But I have cancer and I’m too tired.”
Maybe you should take a sleeping pill (was she tired of me?) … “But the steroids are making me crazy hungry and I have cancer.”
I indulged my steroid-induced cravings with a bag of regular chips and onion chip dip. Then tea. Then fruit. Then I wanted to bake Banana Bread.
Steroids are a necessary – though not without controversy – part of the chemotherapy regimen. Steroids help reduce inflammation and the response from your immune system, while boosting your appetite. They also work with the anti-nausea medications to quell the queasiness. I was dead set against steroids,
but I am only on them after my AC Cocktail. Correction: I am getting steroids infused with my twelve doses of Taxol. Boo.
I had a vision of cancer patients losing far too much weight – deathly skinny like my Dad – but I found out that these days they counter nausea, vomiting and lack of appetite with steroids. And now everyone gains weight! What?! I can’t even lose weight with cancer? Fuck …
My appetite was good. Too good. I wasn’t yet nauseous or fatigued. I was feeling no pain … except under my arm.
I have something called cording in my arm that is a result of the sentinel node biopsy. Axillary Web Syndrome is ropelike cording on the inner arm. I can see and feel mine. Luckily, my cording is minor and does not limit my arm movement, as it can be tight and painful – like you have tight cords in your arm – for some. I have returned to 99% motion and use of my right arm. I was a good girl and listened to Dr. X! I moved my arm around after surgery and started the 6-week exercises at week two. He was impressed with my range of motion after surgery … but really I was just trying to show him a bellydancing move … I have not had much discomfort but something didn’t feel right that night, so I reached up to feel the “cords”.
I felt two swollen lymph nodes.
Cause for some alarm. I didn’t want to bother my Oncology Nurse, so Sherri made the call to report me (and my nodes). I was finally losing steam.
I admitted that I was exhausted, but completely wired from the steroids. I still wanted to bake, go for a walk or climb the CN Tower. She steered me to the bathroom and convinced me to take a sleeping pill to bring myself down. While waiting for that little blue pill – Zopiclone! – to take effect, I wanted more food.
Chocolate chip granola bars! Perfect!
I sat in my lovely long chair – feet up – and … fell asleep with the granola bar in my mouth.
Sherri gently woke me so I wouldn’t choke. I chewed. And fell asleep with my mouth open. I have no recollection of been shuffled off to bed … I brushed my teeth, rinsed my mouth, splashed my face and climbed into bed, already fast asleep!
I am completely indebted to the friends who get me through this. I don’t know how anyone does this alone … have to stop writing for a moment to shed some tears. I am not sure I would make it alone … What if I did fall asleep with that granola in my mouth?
*** Taking a break for one of those ugly cries. Not sure if it’s self-pity, fear, relief, feeling humbled, inspired or all of the above. But I need a good cry today ***
Sherri slept on my couch that night, and the dogs woke her with their usual routine of circling the room, shaking and jingling their tags. Once they knew she was awake, the moved in for kisses, sniffs & snorts. I woke up around the same time. We didn’t rush the morning. Coffee. Breakfast. I was still feeling quite good, despite the chemo.
Finally ready to start the day, I hopped into the shower … and noticed that my breast was bright red. This can’t be good. I showered and waited 15 minutes to check again. Nope. Bright red.
I told Sherri and we argued about the next step … we may as well get married.
I wanted to see Dr. X – any excuse! I was already planning the wig and wardrobe! Today I would be the long-haired honey brown and blonde in cute sportswear.
Sherri insisted on the Emergency Room.
I grumbled, “But I am the one with cancer!”
She won. I realized that with popping nodes and a piping red hot boob, I needed emerg.
I have the “I have cancer” card that allows me to be triaged quickly behind life threatening emergencies. Because if I get an infection, it can be life-threatening in a matter of hours …
We arrived and took a number. I waited. Impatiently. With a mask on. Because I have cancer.
Once triaged, we were ushered right in. To wait.
Wait. See nurse. Wait. See doctor. Really in the whole scheme of things it wasn’t long. People wait hours just to be triaged.
When Dr. P comes in, t’s taking too long to tell him the story and get to the point …
So I had to strip for another doctor … just to get him to stop talking and look at my breasts! He wasn’t taking me seriously enough – I thought – so I peeled off my tshirt and bra and that stopped him in his tracks. He said “Ok … there is something definitely going on here …”
He ordered an Ultrasound to compare to my CT Scan … blood work … and IV antibiotics.
My Emerg nurse wasn’t impressed with my cancer. But Amber* warmed up to my craziness!
“You two are nuts!” she told me and Sherri.
Turns out Amber worked with the home care nurse who was supposed to give me my Neulasta (white blood cell booster) injection. I asked her to do the injection and show me, as I am going to self-administer.
Sherri ran over to the Oncology Pharmacy to pick up a second $3000 Neulasta injection, since mine was at home in my fridge.
I have a PICC line, the nurse doing the bloodwork had to wait for the very busy – but very efficient – Amber. I am not made queasy by any medical procedure – thanks to my Emergency Room volunteer training – so I watch everything they do. Amber, my Emerg nurse, told me not to look.
“Does it bother you?” I asked.
“Ha!” she laughed. “If it did, I am in the wrong business … No, I need you to move your head so the blood will flow.”
Oh. Ok. I looked away. Didn’t watch her verify the PICC was serile and clear (wipe, saline, draw blood and push it back) then draw the blood. More saline in and I am closed up. They need more samples but want it from my hand.
“We need more blood, but they want you in Ultrasound.”
I am held and walked over to Ultrasound where they get a fresh image of my right breast.
I’m quite exhausted at this point – and a little light-headed from lack of food – so I sink down to the floor to sit. One lady is hogging the two seats with her bags and has her head buried in her iPhone while waiting for her Mother. I just didn’t have the strength or desire to say “Excuse me. Could I sit down?”
I don’t look sick. But I am.
The good news is that the post-op fluid sac is smaller, so I did not have to have it drained. The blood work looked good but the Doctor was concerned with the bright red breast so he put me on IV antibiotics, sent me home with a prescription for more, and told me to come back to Emerg the next day for more.
Dr. P told me what hours he is working so I could come in to see him … It worked! Another doctor to flirt with!
Day 2 – I awoke before the dogs and didn’t know if I could get out of bed. The birds were chirping outside and my tummy was thundering inside. I lay in bed trying to find the energy to get up and take my antibiotics and anti-nausea drugs on an empty stomach.
When I finally did manage to get up, I found the fatigue overwhelming. My arm hurt from the PICC line. My head hurt from the chemical trails in my body. My stomach lurched at each movement. And I could barely crawl.
The good news is that my breast is almost normal colour!
Wendy – another close friend – took me back to Emerg on Thursday to have more IV ABX administered and have my breast rechecked. It was smooth sailing in and leaving! Just had to wait for the cute, young doctor.
That evening, I decided last minute to grocery shop. With all four days taken up with full-time hospital trips, I have nothing for Easter.
And I flip the coin over from the fun “But I have cancer” to the more serious side.
Everyone has a story. Everyone has a life. Everyone has a battle that you may know nothing about. I was – for the first time – feeling my limitations as a cancer patient. I couldn’t walk as fast as people wanted me to. I couldn’t get around their carts. I couldn’t reach for heavy items. I didn’t want to bother my friends who were busy with their own busy weekend preparations.
And I felt like an idiot playing the cancer card the day before.
I am not the kind of person who would truly take advantage of the system … but I do have a crazy sense of humour that allows me to poke fun at life.
But suddenly it wasn’t funny any longer.
The night of my needle biopsy, I also went shopping. Still bleeding, aching and sore … I grabbed the grocery cart and hung on tightly as I pushed it from one end of the store to the other, grabbing a few things.
The store had a few shelves of Easter chocolate packed closely so I had to let go of my cart to walk through the aisle to select some candy for my son. When I turned around, a lady was unloading her baskets into my cart.
My face must have given away my surprise and she said “This your cart?”
I smiled brightly and said “Yes!”
“There is nothing in it” she replied angrily.
I was quite taken aback but calmly responded,“There are two items in the top.”
She shrugged and removed her basket, but not before she could hurl some nastiness at me … “What? You can’t walk five feet with the cart? Lazy?”
Well … if you know me … you know I don’t back down from assholes.
“You f*@%!$# bitch! Who the FUCK are you to tell me where to park my cart?! Are you fucking kidding me??”
She took offense to my swearing and tried to bully me into submission. I stepped closer.
We parted ways … angrily.
I fumed. I shopped. I got in line to pay. She got in line two aisles down. I packed up my goods and moved in line behind her …
And gave her a piece of my mind. Shouting! She said she was going to call security while she was still berating me for not walking with my cart. The cashier – a teen male – didn’t make a sound. People were staring.
Finally, I said, rather calmly “It’s not all about you, Sweetheart. I couldn’t push the cart because I had some surgery today.”
“Awww. You poor thing.” She quipped back.
The fury on my face said it all. Bitch you are DONE.
And she backed down. She muttered, “I’m sorry you had surgery today.”
And I won’t tell you what I went through my head … but it wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was horrible. But I didn’t say it out loud. Except on my face. This was no ordinary resting bitch face …
The point is … anyone can need some patience. There, but for the grace of God, go I. We rush around madly and singlemindedly. We get impatient and rude. I’ve done it. However I like to think I grew up years ago, and I do my best to reach out to someone in need. I will help an elderly man grab his runaway coins. I will help a new Mom by holding the door. I will help a little girl by staying with her while we call security to find her Mom, because how could you not? I will get up to offer my seat to a refugee, because I can. I will stop and chat with a lonely neighbour, even though I am late. Because I want to do unto others.
Slow down. You may not have any idea what if feels like to say “I have cancer” – and I truly hope you never do – I took one for the team, but you can empathize with anyone who is not feeling 100% healthy in body or mind.
It’s a scary and lonely place to be.
P.S. I did not go after the bitchy shopper … It really did happen! I just let the karma fantasies roll around in my head. And did the best I could to let it go, rather than ruminate over the event. Writing it has helped me let it go!