Every year boyfriend Manny dresses up as “Manny Clause.”
This year was no different. Friday was chemo round four (of six). He showed up early wearing his big red Santa suit and decorated the room for me and my fellow chemo buddies. I was expecting him to walk in the room and say something slightly sac-chemo-religious like, “Welp, I see you were all on the naughty list this year!” but instead he played it safe and brought candy and Del Taco— which, by the way, if you have cancer and constipation, try a side of DT’s refried beans with a sprinkle of onions on top— works wonders every time!
While receiving seven bags of drugs through the robot port installed in your chest gives you a fairly comfortable high for a good two days, it eventually wears off. And then chemo quickly becomes no walk in the park. It’s been tricky and tough navigating the effects because they’ve been different with every round. (Each round consists of a chemo session and three weeks recovery.) The first three days of round one I was convinced I was a walking enigma and was immune to chemo. But alas, it hit me. Still though, I was only really sick for about a week and then off scot-free (other than the whole hair loss debacle). During round two I caught a couple colds on top of the chemo so I was sick the entire three weeks. Round three was half and half. I was on antibiotics the first 10 days because my cold wasn’t letting up (thanks low immune system!), but after the antibiotics kicked in I was back to feeling good physically.
Emotionally it was a different story though.
It started with the double-edged sword of the Internet. It’s a place you can look up the stats on your favorite Victoria’s Secret models and a place you can dig too deep into cancer blogs and scare yourself shitless. I’ve been doing a lot of both.
Around the same time that Kendall Jenner walked in her second VS fashion show, Tara Causgrove, a beautiful redhead one year younger than me lost her battle with breast cancer. I found her on GoFundMe and saw that she was diagnosed exactly a month after me. I read her story and thought she seemed like a cool girl. I did a little investigative web stalking, found her Facebook page so we could face this battle as Internet friends together and as I arrived on her wall I find I’m too late. “RIP Tara!”— someone had just posted that she’d died an hour before. This beautiful, interesting, and inspiring girl— dead! She had just found out she had cancer. She had just received her Master’s degree in June. Two years ago she went on a mission trip. She was a good person! She had two brothers, a boyfriend, tons of friends, and loving parents. I didn’t even know her and it put me in a dark spot.
Then I found more cancer blogs to read. There’s quite a lot of “brave” cancer fighters whose “positive cancer diagnosis” has spread. I looked up mastectomy hashtags on Instagram. My feed, which once used to be Kardashian’s and fashion bloggers with their fancy expensive designer clothes has turned into a gallery of breast surgery scars, and of my “pink sisters” asking advice about symptoms and certain drugs. It’s a weird online world out there, and one you have to make sure you don’t fall too deep into. It’s one thing to be knowledgable about your disease and diagnosis, and it’s another to start comparing yours to theirs and wondering if there is a ticking time clock inside you. It messes with your head.
This last week before chemo four, my physical state was good. It was Manny’s 30th birthday and I celebrated with the best of them. We even had a bonfire and I let everyone wear all my wigs and now my wigs are all in desperate need of a shower (which, how do you shower wigs???). It was worth it though, except I’m now convinced I have cancer in my lungs because I breathed in too much smoke. I’ve officially made it to hypochondriac status.
This whole cancer thing is hard on your relationships though. Manny Clause is perfect. I mean, who shows up to the hospital early dressed as Santa to decorate your chemo room? However, one of the symptoms of chemo is depression. Cancer patients mourn the loss of their old lives. We wonder if our partners are here to stay or if they are feeling stuck. We’re moody. Yet, we get mad when they are moody because we’re the ones with cancer, right?
I used to be the girlfriend who was like “Let’s go to Italy!” and a week later we’d be drinking champagne on a boat to Capri… the next day on a Vespa in Rome. Now, instead of watching Pipeline from the Quiksilver house on the North Shore we’re watching Dateline on the couch— Every. Single. Night. We’re falling asleep to Keith Morrison’s silky voice narrating murder mysteries. And then I’m tossing and turning all night because I have hot flashes. As in menopausal hot flashes. At 33. Our baby dreams are out the window. And as much as he says he loves me and says he’s here to stay forever, I’m just constantly wondering, But is he stuck??? He can’t leave me now because I have cancer and in the court of public opinion that is social suicide.
But no! I know deep down he doesn’t care about any of that! Just like I said in my last blog, he loves me for me. He didn’t love me for my long red hair. The thing about him is he also loves my new platinum blonde hair… and my new black Pulp Fiction Uma Thurman bob too!
While I’m relearning to live my life, he’s having to learn how to navigate turning off my new cancer reactor switch before I overload. He recently told me, “The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, we make the grass greener under our own feet.” And that is so so so true. I have to make the best of what is happening right now.
I just have to get my confidence back first. And until I do, I’m not being positive, and I’m not being “brave.”
And that’s the funny thing. On the Internet I’m bombarded with messages of how brave I am. But it’s not really me being brave at all. I literally have no other choice. What am I supposed to do, just die? All I’m doing is waking up in the morning (or these days, afternoon, if we’re being honest) just like I’ve always done.
My mom spent the night at my house the night before this last chemo and on our way to Baskin Robbins (sue me) she looked outside the window at a pile of bushes and said, “I don’t think I could spend the night out there if I had to!” Sure it’s kinda cold (it’s 61 degrees Fahrenheit in Long Beach, but at least it’s not -61!) and in reality, she totally could sleep out there in those perfectly manicured bushes she was eyeing. I mean she’s not going to, she’s of course gonna share my bed with me and rub my bald head through my hot flashes but, if there was really no other option, she would find a way to brave the bushes even though right now, she thinks she couldn’t. And that’s like cancer and being “brave.” We read these blogs, and we think the people facing the sicknesses we never imagined could happen to us are so brave, but they are just doing what they have to do. They are just waking up.
But they aren’t giving up. And they are trying. And as I’m sitting here writing, I’m realizing that maybe that’s the bravery. Not laying down to die. Trying to remain positive. Trying to work out the kinks and the depression and the loss of appetite and the bone pain. It’s not laying in bed all day, but it’s putting on some mascara on the eyelashes you have left and putting on that black, blonde, or purple wig. It’s trying to live somewhat of a normal life, it’s occasionally breathing in too much bonfire smoke, and it’s being like Tara Causgrove and making jokes when you are in the ICU because the cancer has suddenly gone to your brain. That is the brave part. That is the hero.
My chemo nurse is named Cindy. She’s little and feisty and hilarious. She is constantly yelling at me to stand up straight and not walk hunched over when I’m dragging my chemo pole to the bathroom. She doesn’t want us chemo patients to get special attention. She tells it like it is. She wants us to keep living our lives. But she realizes that life is short. She ended our last chemo session with this one small piece of advice: “Don’t waste your time doing what you don’t want to be doing. If you want to do a puzzle at night instead of housecleaning, go for it. Do a puzzle instead of housecleaning.”
Do what you really want to do. We can all be brave in that sense. Housecleaning can wait.
As seen on Keep-a-breast.org