Here’s an update for you: I’m working on changing the subject of this blog to focus on my efforts at cutting out plastic and going zero waste.
When I started this blog in 2020, I was facing a new breast cancer diagnosis in the middle of a global pandemic. Now, two and a half years later, the world is moving on from paying attention to COVID-19, and I am long done with treatment for breast cancer. Going zero waste and cutting out plastic have been a quiet ambition of mine.
Why? Because I can’t stand the thought of my plastic water bottles, straws and other trashing making its way down rivers and into oceans and forming country-sized mounds or getting into the mouths of whales and turtles, killing them.
I hate that something like a bottle of water takes 20 minutes to consume but lasts forever in the ocean or a landfill.
I’ve started cutting out plastic in some ways, but there’s much more I can do.
I think having the accountability of writing about my experience weekly might help push me in the right direction. And bonus — I get a new subject to write about. It’s a win-win for everyone.
My loosely formed plan is to come up with some sort of weekly or monthly challenge for myself and then write about it at least once a week here.
Whether you followed me to learn about breast cancer or you know me in real life, I hope you’ll stay tuned and follow me in a new endeavor.
I froze when I recognized the voice on the phone line.
“This is Dr. Gallimore,” she said. “I’m calling with the results of your MRI.”
I am two years out from a diagnosis of stage 2, triple negative breast cancer. After being diagnosed in March 2020, I underwent a lumpectomy, about six months of chemotherapy and then radiation treatment.
Thanks to all that, the cancer is gone.
Many breast cancer survivors are put on hormone therapies longterm but triple negative breast cancer does not have hormone receptors, so those drugs aren’t helpful for me.
All that’s left for me, medically speaking, are these frequent tests and scans to make sure the cancer is staying gone.
I have blood work done every few months when I see my oncologist. I have a mammogram and a breast MRI once a year.
I had undergone the MRI recently and my new doctor was calling with results.
In an instant after hearing her voice, my mind combed through the tangle of possible bad news she could be calling to tell me.
The cancer is back.
It’s in both breasts now.
Worse, it’s spread to my bones, my brain, lungs.
“Everything looks good,” she said instead. Her words brought me back to reality.
“Oh. Good,” I said, finally breathing.
If you’ve ever wondered what life is like after cancer treatment, this is one aspect of what it’s like.
I am doing well.
The neuropathy that I felt in the bottoms of my feet has gone. My hair is growing back, although slower than I’d like. It’s short and curly and I still don’t know quite what to do with it.
The exhaustion from radiation treatment is gone. So is the soreness that plagued my legs in the days after treatment.
I generally don’t think about cancer. I don’t worry much about it returning. Even the tests and scans have become routine to me.
And then, like when the doctor called, I do. I’m reminded of how quickly my life could change in an instant with the delivery of bad news.
Cancer also comes up sometimes when I’m thinking about my career and life goals, however simple they may be.
I’d like to run the Charleston Distance Run.
One day I want to write a novel or a memoir.
I want to adopt a dog.
I want to travel the world.
When my dreams are too far into the future or they rely too much on physical health, cancer is always the caveat. It’s always the wildcard that could throw everything off in an instant.
If the cancer doesn’t return this year, I’d like to run the Distance Run.
If I live long enough, I’d like to write a novel or a memoir.
If I’m healthy, I’d like to adopt a dog.
But I realize that it’s not just those of us who have had cancer — all of us live with the if questions about life. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. There are a million ways I could die before the cancer ever has a chance to come back.
My hair has grown back enough to cover my head, so I’ve stopped wearing wigs, even to work. To be honest, I was getting tired of wearing them anyway. The one I was wearing was starting to look raggedy and it wasn’t very natural on me, plus it made my head itch.
One thing the wig was good for was keeping my head warm. December is a rough time to have next to zero hair. This winter I should invest in warm hats.
People have mostly been supportive, telling me I have a good head shape for short hair. So that’s something. There are a lot of people at work who may not even know I had cancer. Many started working there after I was already working from home during treatment. I get the feeling maybe they just think I have a new haircut.
I have, unfortunately, been mistaken for a man a couple times. The latest incidence of this was at a store after work last night. As I waited for the clerk to ring up my cat food and eggnog, he said, “How you doing, bub?”
It was kind of funny. Earlier this week, a man asking for change outside a drugstore called me sir. I gave him a dollar anyway. You just have to laugh about it.
Losing my hair was one of the most traumatic and jarring parts about cancer treatment. Sometimes I run across videos on the internet of women shaving off their hair for the hell of it, and it sends me back to that moment: me in my hairdresser’s chair wearing my mask and a “Keep up the fight” t-shirt, my mom watching from beside me. It’s not just the moment of cutting it off, it’s the dramatic change in your appearance that can be traumatic.
Earlier this week, I dreamt I had my long hair back again. I ran my fingers through the stands and knew that I was dreaming. I woke up with hot tears on my face and the realization that I was more emotionally attached to my hair than I knew.
But the good news is there are advantages to having hair this short. The biggest is that it takes me no time at all to get ready in the morning. I haven’t had to use a blowdryer since May.
And my hair is growing back more and more each day. Everyone around me says they see it getting thicker and longer each time they see me. I’ve been taking a hair, skin and nails vitamin to help it along. I can’t say for sure if it’s helping or not.
It will be awkward for a while, I’m sure. Anyone who’s every grown out their hair after it was short can tell you that. But I’m glad to have gotten to this point and excited to watch it grow.
A little more than two months after the end of my chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer, this week I’ve started to run again. I had tried earlier, only to stop because my legs and body were still so sore, a lingering effect from treatments.
Fortunately, the soreness is starting to fade. Even the neuropathy has lessened. So I put on my old running shoes and some layers to protect me from the cold and hit the pavement.
I got a little more than 2 miles in on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. I walked frequently, but I expected that. I’m really slow, but to be honest I’ve always been slow. I’m really out of shape after not running basically all year.
It’s been nice to get back to running and a sense of normalcy in my life. I had so missed running. Now I just need new running shoes and cold weather gear. I have about as much hair as someone with a buzzcut, so my head gets cold out there.
I’m looking forward to running races in 2021. The prospect of a COVID-19 vaccine being approved soon has me so hopeful.
When the Charleston Distance Run was canceled this year because of COVID-19, they deferred my registration to next year, so I’m all signed up to run 15 miles through Charleston this Labor Day weekend. I hope that enough people will be vaccinated by then and cases will have dropped enough that races will go on. It would be nice to celebrate the end of cancer treatment with a race in a fun city. We’ll see.
After my last column was published in the Gazette-Mail last Sunday, I got several emails this week from readers congratulating me on the end of cancer treatment. I will miss writing the column. It was always so nice hearing from readers. But I’m also glad to move on from being known as the woman with cancer in the paper.
Hopefully I’ll have more exciting things to write about here.
As I left the CAMC Cancer Center early Monday morning, I snapped a picture of the parking lot and sky outside. I wanted to remember how I felt walking out those doors after my last radiation treatment.
I carried with me a sheet of paper from the Radiation Oncology staff certifying that I had finished my prescribed course of treatment with “courage, determination and good nature.”
This is the last cancer column you’ll read from me. I am officially done with breast cancer treatment. Even now after 28 rounds, my skin hasn’t had too bad a reaction to radiation. It’s red and itches like crazy, but there are no blisters. I’ve been treating it with a mixture of hydrocortisone cream and Aquaphor. I continue to feel tired, as I expected to.
From diagnosis to surgery to chemotherapy and radiation, these past eight months have been a fight. A global pandemic has only made it more difficult. In some ways, I’m not the person I was before March. I don’t look or feel like her. I’ve still got a ways to go until I’m completely recovered. I’ll always be onguard for signs the cancer has returned.
But I realize how lucky I am to get this far. Hang around a cancer center for too long and you’ll hear stories of people who are not as fortunate as I have been. I think about them often.If there’s one thing this year has taught me, it’s that I can’t take my life and health for granted. I’m grateful that I caught the tumor in my breast when I did. I’m grateful for the doctors and nurses who treated me. And for the family members and friends who have supported me.
Throughout treatment, writing this column has been an outlet for me. It’s been a way for me to process what I’m going through. At times I’ve felt like my readers have humored me by continuing to follow along. It’s not always been exciting, and I appreciate everyone who has trekked with me over these weeks.
Thank you to everyone who has reached out after reading with words of encouragement. You have certainly made this time in my life a little bit easier.
I hope my story is a reminder to you not to skip out on those doctor’s visits and cancer screenings. I hope it teaches you the importance of knowing your body. At 35, I didn’t even have regular mammograms before I was diagnosed. Had I not noticed the lump myself, I could not have had the mammogram and biopsy that ultimately confirmed my cancer. My cancer fight could have faced an entirely different outcome had I been diagnosed later.
If you’re caring for someone with cancer, I hope these glimpses into my life have helped you understand more about what your loved one is going through. If, God forbid, you ever get cancer or face another life-threatening illness, I hope reading this has helped you believe that if I can get through treatment, you can too.
I’d like to thank the Gazette-Mail for giving me the opportunity to write about my experience here. Despite the circumstances, it’s been a great feeling having my byline back in the newspaper each week. I had missed it so much.
I hope you’ll continue to follow my writing on my blog and that one day I have another chance to write for you, next time about something other than cancer.
In the movies and comic books, radiation gives mortal men superpowers. Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider and became Spiderman. Gamma Radiation made Bruce Banner into The Hulk.
I am nearly to the end of my 28 radiation treatments, and so far all it’s given me is red, irritated skin and the ability to nap before bed and still sleep soundly through the night.
This week, for the first time since radiation started, I’ve started to feel the side effects. I was expecting this. My doctor told me I wouldn’t feel anything for the first couple of weeks, and that I would feel it more toward the end of my treatment.
Right on schedule, my skin has become red, not quite like a sunburn. But this is breast cancer treatment, and I’ve never felt a sunburn on this part of my body. (If you’re taking notes for you or someone you love, Aquaphor works wonders).
My skin’s reaction is actually pretty good to others. Honestly, it doesn’t hurt that much. Radiation can cause anything from red skin to flaking and even blistering.
I’ve also noticed I’m more tired than usual. A couple of times I’ve gotten home from work and fallen asleep on the couch not long after. I usually wake up from the nap and go right to bed.
The doctor compared radiation treatment to spending a day out in the sun. In both situations, radiation (from the sun or a machine in the Cancer Center) makes you tired and your skin burns.
I’ve also been nauseous at times this week. My doctor told me that can be an indirect side effect of the treatment.
Overall, though, I have much preferred radiation treatment to chemotherapy. It’s been a breeze compared to the nausea, sleepless nights and other side effects that chemotherapy brought with it. Everyone is different, though. I’ve heard from people who have said that radiation was much worse for them than chemotherapy.
I expect the sunburn feeling and the exhaustion to intensify this week as treatment continues. As I write this, I have three radiation treatments left to go before cancer treatment is officially done.
The hardest part of radiation has been getting up early and being there five days a week. Even that isn’t so bad. I’ve found that living in Charleston, just across the river from the CAMC Cancer Center, has made my experience easier than most. Cancer patients drive from other counties to get here. My 10-minute drive is a piece of cake.
I figure there may be a few of you who stumbled onto this blog because you’re going through your own cancer treatment. Maybe you have questions about what it’s like.
With that in mind, here’s what radiation has been like for me so far.
I’m about to be done with my 28 radiation treatments. I go every weekday to the CAMC Cancer Center for treatment. Luckily, the treatments are relatively quick.
My treatments are usually scheduled for early in the day — around 7 a.m., so that I can go before work. The cancer center let me tell them what time of day I prefer, although not all appointments are that early.
When I arrive, I scan a registration card to let them know I’m there. Usually within a couple minutes, they call me back to get changed into a hospital gown. There’s a men’s dressing room and a women’s dressing room.
Patients put their clothing and belongings in a locker. Another minute or so and I get called back for the actual treatment.
Since my cancer was in my breast, I lie face up on a bench on the radiation machine (it has a more formal name, but that’s what it is). My arms are over my head with my hands gripping handles.
The therapists adjust my body to a precise position.
The room is kind of cold, but the therapists put a warmed blanket over my arms.
The most uncomfortable aspect of this type of treatment is exposing myself to strangers, but even that you can get used to. Laying on a machine with my chest exposed was awkward for the first day or two. By a few treatments in, I was chatting with the therapists about the weather and weekend plans. Everyone at my cancer center has been extremely kind and respectful.
The therapists leave the room, and a big thick wall closes in the doorway.
It’s hard to describe the treatments themselves. I can’t see much but the ceiling, a monitor and the machinery moving around me, buzzing and making other noises. I don’t feel the radiation or anything at all during the treatment itself. It’s over within 10 minutes or so.
Only recently have I actually felt the side effects of radiation. My skin is red, despite the layers of Aquaphor and lotion I’ve been putting on it every night. It hurts, much like a sunburn would.
And I’m exhausted. I sometimes take naps before bed. Occasionally I’ve been nauseated to the point of throwing up. That wasn’t one of the side effects my doctor mentioned, but I’m sure it’s from the radiation.
But luckily this will all be over soon. Monday is my last treatment.
With cancer treatment, there’s always a new side effect to discover. This week, it was my eyes. I got an eye exam for the first time since I was diagnosed with breast cancer back in March. I’ve always been nearsighted, but now, nearly two months after finishing chemotherapy, my vision is worse. I needed a stronger prescription. If this means anything to you (it didn’t to me until I Googled “how to read a glasses prescription”), my right eye went from -1.25 at my appointment last year to -1.75 this week. My left eye went from -1.00 last year to -2.00 this time. The change was significant enough that my eye doctor and the woman at the counter in his office made remarks about it. Otherwise, my eyes are perfectly healthy, the doctor said. I was at first concerned that vision change might be a temporary side effect of the cancer drugs. Some of the chemotherapy fact sheets list blurred vision as a possible side effect of Taxol. The last thing I’d want to do is invest in new eyeglasses and contact lenses and then find out later that my eyesight change is a temporary side effect. The day after my eye exam, I called my eye doctor’s office back and asked a medical technician about it. He assured me that my eyesight may improve a little eventually but it’s likely permanent. Apparently, chemotherapy changes the eyes. (Incidentally, so does being pregnant or having diabetes). I checked with the ladies in the Facebook group for breast cancer patients — some of them said they had experienced vision changes after chemotherapy, too. One woman advised me not to bother with an eye exam until my treatment is over. A change in my eyeglasses prescription is a small thing, to be sure. But it’s also another reminder of how much chemotherapy affects the body. When I started chemotherapy treatment back in May, I never would have guessed eyesight would be an issue. It’s always something. I had hoped that once it was over, life and my body would go back to the way it was before treatment. But I’m not there yet. I’m still finding out about all the ways it has affected me. On another note, something that chemotherapy took from me is slowly making its comeback: my eyebrows and my hair. I never knew I would miss my eyebrows so much until they were mostly gone. Now that they’re growing back, I look like more of a human. As for my hair, it’s still peach fuzz, but everyday there’s more of it. It’s fine and soft and there’s not enough of it yet for me to stop wearing wigs. But soon there will be. I’m looking forward to that.
I wrote recently about getting back into running for the first time since I was diagnosed with cancer in March. To be honest, I have not been keeping up with it regularly.
I have more than one excuse.
One is that radiation starts early on weekdays, and I don’t want to get up before then to run. Then when I get home from work in the afternoons, it’s really easy to talk myself out of going.
But the main reason is that I usually don’t feel like it. My legs don’t feel like it. They’re still sore. It’s not all the time, but it’s enough to defer me from running. No one told me this would be a lingering side effect of chemotherapy, but I’m convinced it is.
I sometimes forget about being sore. My legs don’t hurt when I’m sitting still or lying down. Then I start to move and my legs just hurt. They’re stiff. To see me stand up and try to walk, you might think I’m much older than I am. That’s usually when I’m reminded that I’m very much still getting over chemotherapy treatments.
Despite using the ice gloves and mittens some, I did develop some neuropathy from chemotherapy, too. (That’s not to say cryotherapy didn’t help. I bet it would have worked better had I been able to keep them on the entire time. The cold was too much for me.) I feel a numbness in the bottoms of my feet. It makes running a bit uncomfortable.
A friend of mine who’s been through cancer treatment told me that I will eventually feel like myself, but it might be a few years, not months.
I tell you this because a few cancer survivors and caretakers have reached and told me they read my column. If they were to measure their recovery or that of a loved one by what I’m writing about, I’d hate for them to think I’m back to running full speed without any issues a month after chemo. I’m not. My mind wants to. I miss seeing Charleston from the 35th street bridge as I’m running across it.
And I haven’t given up on running. I have hopes that I’ll eventually get back to full speed. I know I will. To be honest, I was never that fast a runner anyway.
In other news, as of this week my radiation treatments are halfway through. Because they’re five days a week, they really have flown by. As I wrote last time, I still haven’t noticed any reaction to the treatments.
I should be finished with them — and cancer treatment altogether– in a little more than two weeks. Can’t wait until I can officially call myself cancer a survivor rather than a patient.
Lying in the hospital bed before I was taken back to surgery, I had the briefest of second thoughts about removing the port that had been implanted below my collar bone since just before treatment started. The port is what the oncology nurses used to administer chemotherapy and draw blood for tests. Before my cancer treatment started, I was given a choice: my veins or a port. The nurses could put an IV in my veins each time they administered chemo, or the surgeon could implant the chemo port into a vein in my chest and have chemo administered through it. I chose the port. Now, more than a month after chemotherapy ended, I was finally going to be rid of it. I’ve noticed that toward the end of cancer treatment, if it’s going well, there are several milestones. That day I had reached another one.
And while I had been happy about having the port removed, I started to get nervous. What if the cancer comes back? What if I have it removed only to find another tumor somewhere? I keep hearing (mostly from fellow patients) that triple negative breast cancer is aggressive. Part of me is scared that I’ll have to have another port, and go through more chemotherapy. I can’t remember exactly what the surgeon said when I told him about my doubts. At a previous appointment, when I said the word “recurrence,” he smacked my hand. Even if, down the road, the cancer returns, it’s good to have the foreign object out of my body for now, he told me. I woke up after a quick outpatient surgery that day with no port. A bandage covered the making of what will soon be a scar on the left side of my chest. Goodbye and good riddance. … My radiation treatments are going OK so far. I haven’t noticed any skin reaction or exhaustion, which are the two things I was told to expect. Any tiredness I do feel I attribute to getting up earlier than usual. My treatments have me up and at the Cancer Center an hour before work starts. I can’t complain about that; I asked them for early time slots. Treatments are five days a week. The process starts with changing into a hospital gown. Then I’m taken back to a room with a linear accelerator — the machine that delivers the radiation. The worst part may be lying on an uncomfortable bench with my arms above my head while the machinery swirls around me, occasionally beeping. It may also be the country music the therapists play. The treatments themselves are quick. I’m usually done in time to go get coffee on my way to work.