Thursday, October 18, 2012

Day 847: 2 Years Post-Chemo

Two years ago, I did my last chemo treatment.


The end of chemo is a milestone that cannot be underestimated. For someone like me, who had such an absurd and difficult bout of suffering with chemo, the thought of doing it again is terrifying. The thought of that last day, that last treatment, was one of the only things that kept me going as my body experienced new and bizarre side effects and made me feel alien to myself. I had to continue to tell myself that mid-October would come, and I would be DONE. I had to tell myself that that would be it, that I would not have to do this again, no matter how unlikely that might have seemed at the time due to the aggressive nature of my specific disease.

Here's the thing. For many cancers, there are a variety of treatments, even if the dreaded recurrence happens. With breast cancer of all kinds, a stage IV diagnosis means a few things. One, it means about a 15% chance of surviving 5 years. Two, it means that for the rest of the time that you live--your entire life--you will be on chemo. For TNBC, it means that the rest of your life will be spent doing chemotherapy regimens that were really developed for other types of breast cancer, and that your chances for that five years are essentially zero; though that reality might be changing. But the bottom line is that Stage IV breast cancer means chemo forever.

Think about that. This fact is simply not true for many other cancers. There are women--the real warriors, a word I don't like to use when talking about breast cancer--who live with chemo for years and years. Many of the side effects for chemo for advanced breast cancer might not be readily apparent; women might hang onto their hair, for example, but their bodies take one hell of a beating.

I don't know how they do it. I have nothing but admiration and respect for people who do this, and I don't say that with any kind of pity or paternalism.

I can say that I don't know how they do it, but that is kind of a lie. I know that they do it with resignation and hope, two things that we think are mutually exclusive but are actually very closely linked. And moreover, I DO know WHY they do it.

You do these things, because no one knows what else to do for you. You do these things because your desire to live is stronger than your desire to feel what "normal" people consider to be "healthy." You change your definitions, your mindset, and your day to day reality and you put up with things that would bring other people to their knees. You do this because you don't have a whole hell of a lot of options.

Cancer is hard. No one feels the same after a cancer diagnosis. Surgery is rough, painful, disfiguring. Radiation is no walk in the park. Maintenance medications can make you feel like a zombie. But in my heart, I find it hard to relate to people who have had cancer and didn't have to go through chemo. I envy those with chemo regimens that are on the "lighter" side, and those who didn't have a tough time with it. It's stupid, and it's irrational, but it's real--these feelings are real. I know the fears that all cancer survivors experience, I appreciate their perspective, and I have more in common with them on this one subject, this one way of walking through the world, than I do with most other people I know. I can see the look in their eyes and glimpse with them that vision of the future they aren't sure they are going to have, even one year later, just as I can see it in my own eyes that are reflected back into the camera lens almost exactly a year after chemo right here:

But my experience with cancer was so linked to my experience with chemo that I cannot separate the two. Chemo took my hair; it made me sick in ways that I didn't know were possible when cancer never made me feel sick at all. Chemo threw me into menopause, made me weak, made me lose weight. Chemo put me into the hospital with a temporary heart condition. Chemo made it impossible for me to sweat, sleep, or cry. Chemo gave me hemorrhoids, bone pain, stomach pains so intense I could barely walk. Chemo made it obvious that I had cancer; it brought me closer to death than cancer ever had. I dreaded each treatment, and yet felt absolutely devastated when I was sent home at my sixth treatment because my numbers were too low. Chemo taught me, or rather reminded me, that not everything in life is a question of mind over matter. Sometimes, matter matters. All your mind can do is force you to keep going, to hand your arm over, to stubbornly do things as you did them before, to walk around bald and glare at those who might shun you or pity you or even compliment you.

Chemo taught me to wait, to wish for time to speed up even as I clung to every day with an intense fear that I would not have many others to cling to; chemo gave me a goal, which was to make it until October 13, which turned into October 18 due to the WBC issue. I still had months of treatment left after chemo, but I was hardly even concerned with that, as I felt I had jumped the biggest hurdle.

My chemo nurse told me on that last day: You did it. This is never easy. This is very, very hard for everyone. I can tell you that after years of doing this, this regimen did things to you that I have never seen before, and I know how much you wanted to quit. But you did it. It was a lot of suffering for a short period of time so that you can live a lot longer. I don't think you will have to do this again. Go have some champagne. Visit me sometime. And...good luck.

Amen, sister.

Here's to hoping that October 18 will always mean the same thing to me: the last day I poisoned myself with toxic chemotherapy. I don't ever want it to mean the last time, as in the time before this one. Chemo for stage one cancer lasted for four months. Chemo for stage four cancer would last for forever. So, I celebrate this anniversary just two days after I celebrate my wedding anniversary, and I can tell myself, my husband, and my family this:

I am hoping for many more years to see how we've all grown and changed. I tried my best to have the chance to define what kind of forever I would get to celebrate. Let's hang on to what we've got.


  1. October 18 is my husband's birthday, so I will now forever remember that it is also your last chemo day... I am raising a glass (of coffee. It is only 10 am) to you for a long, cancer-free life, Katy.

  2. Thanks girl! And Happy Birthday to your other (obviously not better, how would that be possible?) half.