Sometimes, I’ll be going about my daily business and then all of a sudden it hits me: I was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and survived 8 rounds of chemotherapy. From diagnosis to treatment, everything was such a whirlwind. When all the dust finally settled, I was left thinking… did all of that really just happen? How am I still here?
Chemo Crash Course: Chemo stops all quickly dividing cells in your body (because cancer cells divide quickly). Unfortunately your hair and nails are also quickly dividing cells (because they are constantly growing) which is why your hair falls out and your nails get real weird (more on that in a future post). But chemo doesn’t just destroy your vanity, it messes with your mind and body in all sorts of ways. This was my experience:
Chemo was my biggest fear. A lifetime of movies and TV shows had prepared me for the absolute worst. All I could envision was being bed-bound, throwing up, helpless, and bald. And yes, I did tick off those boxes on some days, but to be perfectly honest, most days I coped really well (all things considered). Don’t get me wrong, it was no walk in the park by any means, but it was significantly more manageable than I expected. I still lived a “normal” life. I went for daily walks, tried to keep up with my yoga practice, went grocery shopping, cooked, cleaned, etc.
It all started on August 17th, 2018: My first round of chemo. My port was freshly placed only 3 days prior and it was still swollen and bruised. My doctors told me the port would be ready to use as soon as it was placed, but what they didn’t tell me was how uncomfortable and stressful it would be to have a nurse poking and prodding at it when it’s still healing. It definitely made an already stressful situation a lot more stressful (and even made the nurse close the curtain so that other patients didn’t have to witness my mini meltdown). When it was all done, I felt surprisingly ok. We even went for tacos directly afterwards and then had a Sex and the City marathon (although I don’t know if you can call it a marathon if you fall asleep after two episodes). Is there anything Sex and the City can’t fix? The answer is no.
The first 4 rounds of chemo that I had (Adriamycin and Cyclophosphamide) is lovingly referred to as “The Red Devil” because it’s a red fluid that the nurse “pushes” into you from a large syringe. It also temporarily makes your pee red which is just one of many lovely side effects (including hair loss, low immune system, nausea, fatigue, diarrhea/constipation, and mouth sores). Luckily, I managed to not get bad nausea. My crowning achievement throughout chemo was only throwing up 2 times (once because of anxiety, and once because I had been exposed to too many fumes while staining some furniture… a casual activity for a cancer patient).
The cherry on top of all of this chemo business was the nightly injections I needed to get in my stomach to help boost my immune system. Carlos had to give me these injections because there was no way I would be able to give them to myself. These “Grastofil” injections make your bone marrow produce more white blood cells, which boosts your immune system. This is important because not only do they prevent you from getting sick easily, but they also ensure your immune system is well enough to withstand the next round of chemo. In total I needed (I believe) 42 Grastofil injections. Each injection caused my bones to ache, specifically my lower back and ribs (a slight preview of the real bone pain that would come with the last 4 rounds of chemo).
I also had to get monthly “Lupron” injections in my bum to keep my body in chemical menopause. Lupron puts your ovaries to sleep and therefore protects your eggs from the toxic effects of chemo. This helped preserve my fertility for the future (something I’ll also probably talk about in a future post). Even though I’m done chemo, I’m still receiving these injections to prevent estrogen from feeding any possible cancer cells. The side effects include hot flashes and a risk of osteoporosis. Ladies, I know periods suck… but let me tell you, menopause is worse.
After chemo round 4, I needed a blood transfusion because my red blood cells were way too low and I was anemic. I never really realized that cancer patients were an entire group of people that sometimes need blood transfusions until I was a cancer patient that needed a blood transfusion. (Please donate blood if you can! It’s a small thing that can make a big difference). I was so nervous to get a transfusion, but afterwards I could literally see the colour return to my face and I suddenly had so much energy. It was like I literally had life injected back into my veins.
The last 4 rounds of chemo that I had was called Paclitaxel, AKA Taxol (no “cute” name for this one). Along with Taxol, I also received my targeted therapy drugs (Herceptin and Perjeta) which I’m still receiving now every 3 weeks (thankfully, they have little to no side effects). Taxol, on the other hand, has all the same side effects as “The Red Devil” but with the addition of hard core bone pain and numbness in hands and feet. The bone pain felt like I was being stabbed in my knees, ankles, and hips. The first day that I experienced it was the worst. I could hardly walk without my knees feeling like they were about to buckle in. I still sometimes have “flare ups” of this bone pain even months after I’ve finished. Apparently this is normal and it will eventually fade away. Anytime I have a flare up I’m like, “Wow Really? Rude”. It’s like a little evil reminder of the pain I’ve already suffered. I also experienced the numbness in my hands and feet during chemo. It actually became too much and they had to reduce the strength of my last two rounds of chemo in order to protect my nerves. I still have slight numbness in my finger and toes, but apparently that’s normal and it takes a while for your body to recover (but it can be permanent for some people).
I also experienced “chemo brain”, which is a brain fog that affects your cognitive functioning (memory, attention, etc.). I’m currently trying to see how long I can keep blaming things on “chemo brain”, will report back.
Luckily I never had an allergic reaction to the chemo. To prepare for a possible allergic reaction they give you a benadryl drip before each infusion (which makes you super sleepy). They also have to give the chemo as slowly as possible when you’re first receiving it in case your body has a negative reaction. If you don’t have a bad reaction, they speed up the time it takes to give it to you so that it gets faster and faster every round. This makes for very long days in the chemo chair (7 hours or more).
I still can’t believe I survived all of this. But I think, like a lot of difficult things in life, you just get through it. One way or another. One day at a time. Then, when it’s all passed, you look back and you can’t believe the mountain you’ve climbed. Although I still have many more mountains to climb, this one has been by far the biggest and has left me feeling so much stronger than I ever thought possible.