Column: Starting to feel it

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.


Column: Not so easy on the eyes

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.


Column: About the running

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.


Column: Good riddance, chemo port

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.

Column: My first COVID-19 test

I was scrolling through Facebook on a Friday morning when I saw it. A restaurant where I had recently picked up takeout announced that one of their workers had tested positive for COVID-19.
And as coincidence would have it, that person had last worked at the restaurant the same night I got dinner there.
Still, I wasn’t too concerned. I had worn a mask. The restaurant employees were also wearing them. Plus, I was inside the restaurant only three or four minutes at the most. I also had no symptoms of the coronavirus.
But as an employee of the local health department, I have been encouraging people to get tested for the virus, and my coworkers were holding a free drive-up testing event that same day. Possible interaction with someone who has the disease felt like the perfect excuse and opportunity to experience first hand what it’s like to have a COVID-19 test. I decided to go to Shawnee Sports Complex.
The line that day was mercifully short. While filling out a little paperwork, I chatted with some of my coworkers I hadn’t seen in a while. One of them gave me my flu shot. Then it was time to pull the car up to another station for the COVID-19 test.
I’d heard a lot of descriptions of COVID tests. By now you’ve probably either seen one done — Governor Jim Justice recently had one live during his media briefing — or you’ve had one yourself.
One of my favorite descriptions came from WCHS reporter Bob Aaron, who did a story about one of the health department’s drive-up testing events. I believe he called it “up your nose with a rubber hose uncomfortable.” Fortunately for all of us, though, the test involves a small swab up your nose, not a rubber hose. Bob was right about it being uncomfortable, though.
When the man who did mine left it in for a few seconds, my eyes watered. He warned that he was going to twist the swab and that my eyes would water again. They did. Then the test was over.
My official review of getting a COVID-19 test — it wasn’t that bad.
Honestly, after five months of chemotherapy that requires regular blood tests, any medical tests with no needles or blood is fine by me. Even getting my flu shot was a welcome change of pace.
Two days later on Sunday evening, I checked the website they gave me for results and got the answer I had expected — “SARS–CoV2 not detected.” I didn’t have COVID-19.
Even when it’s expected, hearing that you don’t have a contagious disease is always welcome news.


Column: Celebrating the end of chemotherapy

My last day of chemotherapy was a celebration. At some cancer centers, a patient finishing either chemotherapy or radiation therapy rings a bell during a ceremony that signifies the end of their treatment. I’d seen videos of patients ringing the bell while cheering hospital staff look on. There are no bell-ringing ceremonies at the CAMC Cancer Center. I asked one of the nurses once and was told that’s because not all patients make it to the end of their treatment to ring the bell.
I’ve thought about that a lot these past few days.
I knew not to expect a bell ceremony, so I brought a party with me to my appointment Friday morning. Well, more specifically, I brought cupcakes. It was my very small way of thanking the oncology nurses for all the care they’d given me during my treatment.
Doctors diagnose and make decisions about treatment plans, but a good nurse can make the difference between a good day and a bad day of treatment. They’re the ones who drew blood for my labs each week and hooked me up to the chemotherapy drugs. They answered my questions and brought me a warm blanket and an occasional snack to keep me comfortable. Admittedly, 9:30 a.m. is kind of early for a dessert, but they still seemed to enjoy them.
My treatment that Friday morning went smoothly.

Two of my coworkers showed up at the Cancer Center after my treatment to surprise me with posters, balloons and roses. They had conspired with my mother, who came in from Ashland, Kentucky every week to take me to treatment. When I texted my mom that I was done with treatment, she stalled to give them enough time to get from the health department downtown to the Cancer Center in Kanawha City.
I stood outside waiting for maybe 20 minutes, rather annoyed that she wasn’t there yet, even though I had told her when I’d be done. Before too long, there came Julie and Kandy in their face masks holding big blue signs that read “We love Lorithebrave,” (a reference to a social media name for myself) a bunch of helium balloons and a vase of white, purple and pink roses.

It was such a sweet surprise. Because I’m working from home, I hadn’t seen them in person in a while. It was so good to visit with them.
My last surprise of the day was from a good friend who after work brought over a cheesecake with a picture on it of late actress Rue McClanahan, who played Blanche Devereaux on “The Golden Girls.”

The Golden Girls helped me get through chemotherapy treatment. Many nights I’d fallen asleep on my couch watching and laughing at the antics of Rose, Blanche, Dorothy and Sophia. I’d seen many of the episodes already but I rewatched the entire series. The cake also had an altered version of one of Devereaux’s famous lines from the show, “Eat dirt and die, chemo.” My friend also brought over a 6-pack of one of my favorite beers. I had abstained from any alcohol since chemo started because I read it can interfere with the drugs and cause their side effects to be worse.
My day was full of celebrations because there was so much to celebrate. I had finally made it through five months –16 rounds — of chemotherapy. I was one big step closer to being done with cancer treatment, to calling myself a survivor rather than a patient.
Chemotherapy took my hair, my energy and many nights my sleep. It made me anemic. Some days, early on in treatment, I felt so bad I cried. Other days just moving from my bedroom to the couch to work was an accomplishment.
I thought this day would never come, and now it finally had.

Column: Immunity and weekend plans


Note: I’ve decided to start posting my column here after it’s been published in the paper. This one ran Sunday, Sept. 20.

The nurse read my labs, furrowed his eyebrows and looked back at me.
“Your immune system is down this week,” he said. “It’s not a problem, it’s just at the lowest it’s been during your treatment.”
I was at the CAMC Cancer Center that morning for my penultimate chemotherapy treatment. I was so close to being done that I could practically feel the hair regrowing on my bald head. Up until that point, we’d been talking about our plans for the weekend. My friend and I were planning to go to a farm in Putnam County and take photos in a field of sunflowers.
This immune system stuff wasn’t really surprising news. If you know anything at all about chemotherapy, it’s that it weakens your immune system. Infections and viruses like the flu can be more serious in cancer patients, so even those who aren’t going through chemotherapy during a global pandemic are told to avoid sick people and take precautions. But it was news. While my red blood cells had been done previously, before then, none of my previous weekly lab tests had revealed any issues with my immune system.
You might think having a weakened immune system in the middle of a pandemic would scare me, but it didn’t. The thing about the novel coronavirus pandemic is that it’s already causing me to do everything I can do to avoid catching a disease I’m not immune to. When I’m not holed up in my apartment (I am most of the time), I’m wearing a mask, avoiding crowds, staying at least six feet away from other people and washing my hands frequently. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught me well what to do when your immunity is down.

Me in the canoe at Beech Fork

So I didn’t change my weekend plans, though the rain on Sunday altered them a little. My friend and I decided to go to Beech Fork State Park in Barboursville Saturday. We paid $1.50 to feed the carp and then rented a canoe. It was a nice afternoon with plenty of social distance. It was so good to feel well and to be out doing something different for the first time in a while. The sunflower field closed because of rain on Sunday, so we didn’t get to go.
Speaking of things closing, did I mention I’m almost done with chemotherapy? As I’m writing this, I’m three days away from going in for my last treatment. If you’re reading this on Sunday, I’m already done.
This chemotherapy drug, Taxol, has been mild on me compared to the previous regime of Adriamycin and Cytoxan. The worst part for me was anemia, and that seems to have gotten better on its own. Many patients get neuropathy from Taxol. My fingertips have started to feel kind of funny in the last couple of weeks, which makes me think it might be the start of neuropathy, but it’s not been bad.
Despite the mild side effects, I’m ecstatic to have this part of cancer treatment behind me. All week I’ve been thinking of how to celebrate after work on Friday. I’m looking forward to growing out my hair and eventually getting back to running.
This won’t be the end of cancer treatment; I’ll have radiation next. Stay tuned to hear how I deal with the burns and exhaustion I’ve heard are so common with that form of treatment.
On another note, thank you to everyone who has donated to my online fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. It means a lot to me to be able to help raise money that benefits cancer research and supports programs for other patients.

Column: Covid and other cancer patients

I don’t have much to report about my own cancer treatment this week. I’m laser focused on the last of my chemotherapy treatments, which should be this week.
But seeing as how my column is about having cancer during the pandemic, I thought I’d take the opportunity to tell you about how COVID-19 has affected cancer patients in general. Michelle Chappell and Juliana Frederick of the American Cancer Society were nice enough to let me pick their brains on the topic.
According to a survey conducted this spring by the American Cancer Society, the most commonly reported impact to cancer patients and survivors was a delay in health care.
The organization surveyed 1,200 cancer patients and survivors. It found that 79 percent of those in active cancer treatment and 78 percent of those not in active treatment experienced delays in their health care because of COVID-19.
Missing health care appointments can mean that doctors don’t find cancer recurrences as quickly as they would otherwise.
“Cancer care includes a range of services, including consultation with providers to plan and administer care for their cancer, anti-cancer therapies and surgery, imaging to determine if their cancer has grown or returned, and other health care directly related to their cancer,” Frederick said. “Checkups and screenings are an important part of cancer survivor follow-up care and delaying or missing these could delay the detection of a recurrence of their cancer.”
One fifth of the cancer patients and survivors who were surveyed said they were concerned that their cancer was growing or that it had returned because of delays in getting health care.
Seventeen percent of those who were surveyed reported a delay in their cancer treatment such as chemotherapy, hormone therapy or radiation. Luckily for me I didn’t share that experience with them.
The number of certain types of cancer screenings also decreased during COVID-19, which could prevent doctors from finding and treating cancer when it’s at an early stage. Between January and April of this year, the number of screenings for colon cancer given nationally was down 90 percent compared to 2019, Chappell told me. She said we won’t know how much impact that will have for two years because of a lag in cancer statistics. Colorectal cancer is one of the four most common cancers in West Virginia, along with breast cancer in women, prostate cancer in men and lung cancer.
COVID-19 has also had a direct impact on fundraising efforts by the American Cancer Society. You’re probably familiar with Relay for Life, the organization’s signature fundraising event. The Charleston Relay for Life event is typically held each year in May or June.
This year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonprofit agency had to cancel in-person Relay for Life events across the country. As I’ve written, cancer patients, like others with underlying health issues, are particularly at risk for complications from COVID-19, so it makes sense that the ACS wouldn’t want to host these events that might put the people they help at risk. So the fundraisers have been moved online for this year. I’ve signed up to help raise money for the organization. Donors can contribute through October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
The nonprofit organization supports cancer research and also offers patient services through a 24-hour cancer information hotline for patients and caregivers. In cities with large cancer treatment centers, it offers patients a place to stay with its Hope Lodges. The organization also has lobbyists who advocate for cancer prevention and access to care at the state and federal levels.
You can help me reach my goal of $2,500 by donating here: http://main.acsevents.org/goto/loriakersey

How to tell if you’re cancer free

My chemotherapy treatments are winding down in a few weeks. By the time you read this on Sunday, I’ll have just two more to go. And you might be wondering, like I was, 1) how my health care providers will know for sure that I’m cancer free after treatment is over, and, 2) how will they know if it returns in the future?
I’d heard of PET scans, which can be used to detect some cancers. I had assumed that at some point during cancer treatment I’d have to have a PET scan to determine if the treatment is working or if there are other affected parts of my body.
It turns out, those scans are not recommended for breast cancer patients who are at stage 2, my doctor told me. For some other types and stages of cancer, they might be.
When my tumor was removed during my lumpectomy back in March, the surgeon told me there were clear margins around the tumor and that the cancer was detected in only one of my lymph nodes. The former, as I understand it, means that the surgeon removed all of the cancer. The latter means that the cancer likely had not yet spread to other parts of my body. Those things together, as I understand it, mean I’m cancer free until proven otherwise. In my estimation, the 16 rounds of chemotherapy followed by however many rounds of radiation that my oncologist prescribed are not to kill any existing cancer in my body, but a measure to make sure no more of it grows.
After treatment, I’ll rely on regular self examinations and yearly mammograms to detect any recurrence of breast cancer I may have.
I’ve heard other breast cancer patients talk about the anxiety that comes with life after treatment. Some of them live in fear of their cancer returning. Mammogram days are scary. Aches and pains that might be ordinary for other people make them worry the cancer has returned or metastasized to other parts of the body. I’m not usually someone who worries a lot, but I can certainly understand their anxiety. Once cancer has happened to you once, what’s to stop it from happening again? Like anything else, that’s something I’ll have to take one day at a time.

I’m looking forward to meeting with the doctor who will do my radiation treatment soon and hearing how that will go. I know only a little about radiation from what I’ve heard from other breast cancer patients and survivors. Some of them say it makes them fatigued. One woman I know said she slept for 12 hours a day during radiation. Others report that it burned their skin. Still, I’m assuming that part of treatment will be easier than chemotherapy. I guess we’ll see when the time comes.

On another note, as much as I had panicked at the thought of having a blood transfusion to treat anemia, I still haven’t needed one. My body seems to be healing that on its own. At my last treatment, my hemoglobin had gone up to 8.7. It’s still not great but it doesn’t warrant having to get blood. I’m always very relieved when the nurses tell me that.

Column: Longing for normal life

Last weekend, as I drove the winding roads home to Charleston, I had a moment or two when I felt almost normal. My energy was still up from the steroid they’d given to me during chemotherapy treatment the day before. I turned up the car speakers and sang along to my favorite Josh Ritter song. A slight breeze tousled the hair on my dark brown, curly wig as I walked from my car to my apartment building.
But just like always, reality crashed in when I got inside and took off my wig for the night, remembering that chemotherapy took my hair.
In the past few days, it’s really hit me how much I miss my normal life, the pre-cancer treatment me.
I miss being able to have a glass of beer with dinner. I miss being able to pull my thick brown hair back into a ponytail. I miss running on Kanawha Boulevard early on summer mornings. I miss being able to stand up without getting light headed. I miss my chemotherapy-free Friday mornings. I miss going to work.
Maybe you’re not going through breast cancer treatment (I really hope you’re not), but I’d venture to guess you miss your normal life, too. This pandemic has me wishing for a different type of normalcy than just pre-cancer days.
I miss the inside of a crowded restaurant with no masks and no anxiety. I miss visits with my family members with no thought or concern about whether they wore their face covering. I miss waking up and not wondering what number the COVID-19 death toll has reached, or what scary new pandemic story the New York Times has just published. I miss not having to worry if the next person I talk to will give me a potentially deadly disease.
But for all the ways that cancer treatment has upended my life, it is for the greater good of rooting out the disease that would have killed me otherwise. The same is true for all the precautions we’re taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Ultimately, I have to believe that I’ll make it through cancer treatment to the other side just like the world will make it through to the end of COVID-19.
I’m guessing that I’ll be through with cancer treatment long before the world COVID-19 is done with the world. By the time this column is published on Sunday, I’ll have three more rounds of chemotherapy treatment to go. Then comes radiation therapy.
During my last treatment, I gave up wearing the cold therapy gloves and slippers that could help prevent neuropathy. I had some work I needed to do while I was there. It’s impossible to write a press release with your hands stuck in big, icy mittens. Most of the time when I use the gloves, my hands can’t stand the cold for very long anyway.
Maybe it’s all in my head but in the days since that last treatment, I’ve felt the occasional stabbing pain in my hands. It seems to hit and then go away quickly. Could that have been the start of neuropathy? Maybe.
But overall so far I seem to be tolerating the Taxol chemotherapy a lot better than I did Adriamycin and Cytoxan. The best part is that Taxol hasn’t made me nauseated.
During my last treatment, my hemoglobin was up to 8, so again, I didn’t need a blood transfusion. My nurse remarked that 8 was low, but I told him it’s an improvement for me.
It’s even getting easier to exercise without getting winded.