Today is World Cancer Day. In accordance with that I wanted to write an article about cancer and my own experience with the disease. According to the American Cancer Society, half of all men and one-third of all women in the US will develop cancer during their lifetimes. While this is a frightening statistic, being diagnosed with cancer is no longer a death sentence. With good treatment and support you can overcome the diagnosis and live a long and prosperous life. As a two and a half year cancer survivor I can personally attest to this fact. Everyone’s experience with cancer is different but I’ll prepare you for some of what you or a loved one will experience.
First off I cannot stress enough that if you see or feel anything in your body abnormal, go get it checked out. I was experiencing pain in my right breast for months before I felt a lump. Maybe if I had gone when I first experienced the pain I wouldn’t have had to go through as much treatment, but hindsight is always 20/20. Regardless when I started to notice a lump forming I went to the doctor to get it checked out. Not every lump is cancer so don’t be scared. Some lumps are benign. Doctors can’t explain why they form, they just do.
What will the exam entail? Well for breast cancer you first get your routine breast exam with your OB/GYN which will entail them performing the same motions you do in your self exam every month. (Side note: Do your self exams ladies! This is how I caught mine). If something doesn’t feel right during the exam your doctor will refer you to have a mammogram. For those who have never had one this will mean having your breast pressed between two plastic plates which will x-ray inside your boob. If something shows up abnormal, they will refer you to have a biopsy.
Here on out everything is the same for all forms of cancer. For the biopsy they will go in and extract a piece of the tissue and examine it. If the tissue tests positive for cancer this is when you will be notified. The first reaction will be shock, denial, anger and sorrow. They will have a grief counselor there who will try to console you as they explain to you the treatment options that you have. Depending on how advanced your cancer is depends on how aggressive the treatment will be. Before you get to treatment phase, you will have to face another long series and battery of tests.
You will have to have a MRI. This will examine the entire body on the inside looking for any other possible tumors. The MRI machine is narrow almost claustrophobic and you will have to stay still for hours..it is excruciating. They did find a second spot on my right breast though that they marked that hadn’t shown up on the mammogram (turned out to be nothing).
You will have CT/Pet Scan. It’s almost identical to what the MRI does, but it’s open ended and the images are clearer. You will first have to drink two bottles of barium so they can examine your digestive tract. Barium taste disgusting but you have to keep it down. The exam doesn’t take very long but again you need to stay still.
You will have lots and lots of blood tests. You will lose count of how much blood they draw. They will test you for every form of illness they can along with check your red and white blood cell count prior to starting chemotherapy.
Chemotherapy- everyone’s experience is slightly different with chemo, but there are some things that are pretty common for everyone. First off chemo sessions are 4 1/2 hours long. During that time they will inject with you different types of chemo drugs, all of which have different and varying side effects. The cocktail of drugs include anti nausea medicine which for me only helped a little, saline to keep you hydrated and the actual chemo drugs. One drug makes your nose stuffy, one makes you pee red and one just makes you feel really sick to your stomach. I had a port in my chest for the drugs to be injected into which had a weird reaction of allowing me to smell and taste the drugs as they were started (they all smelled and tasted disgusting). ). Before each chemo session they will run a blood test to be sure your white blood cell count is high enough to begin the next session. By now because the chemo makes the body heal
slow you will be covered in bruises from all the spots where blood has been drawn.
Chemotherapy side effects- yes you will lose your hair. Sorry but that is unavoidable. There are some experimental things being tested to combat it but nothing has been approved as of yet so you will just have to live with losing your hair. I was fortunate to hang onto a few lashes and my eyebrows (most aren’t this lucky) but all the rest of my body hair fell out or stopped growing. The experience is very traumatic as your hair falls out in clumps. I ended up shaving my head of the last of the hair.
Nausea and fatigue. The anti-nausea medicine they give you to take everyday between chemo sessions didn’t really help me. I always felt sick to my stomach. The fatigue was unbearable. No matter how much I slept I was always tired. I went from working out 5 days a week to barely being able to get through an eight hour day before collapsing in exhaustion when I got home every evening.
Vomiting and diarrhea- Some will be fortunate not to have the side effect but I wasn’t so lucky and experienced both throughout my entire chemo treatment. Nothing I ate or drank stayed down which made it hard to even want to eat but you have to eat to stay strong enough to continue chemo. It tends to make the fatigue a lot worse so I had to keep water with me at all times.
Chemo induced peripheral neuropathy- again not everyone will have this and some will have it worse than me. I only had it in my fingertips. The numbness doesn’t allow you to feel hot or cold sensations and made it hard for me to button or zip clothes since I had no sense of touch. One of the chemo drugs also makes your nails turn black- I kept a fresh manicure and pedicure during my treatment period-it helped me to feel girlie and covered up this side effect.
Taste changes may occur-most say it is a metallic taste-for me it was saltwater. Meaning everything whether savory or sweet had a disgusting saltwater taste to it. This of course would make me even more sick to my stomach.
The day after chemotherapy you will a Neaulasta or similar drug injection. The drug is to help the body regenerate white blood cells that the chemotherapy is killing off. It helps your body continue to fight infections and stay strong enough to endure the chemo drugs. The side effect is that it causes severe pain in the bones and joints. The pain in my back was so severe I couldn’t sit up for long and it made it impossible to sleep at night. No amount of pain killers would help me.
After four grueling rounds of chemotherapy, I had a lumpectomy. Now some may do this in reverse order but mine was done this way so they could reduce the size of the lump before removal. Before surgery though I had to have a test to detect where the veins in my breast fed into the lymph nodes in my right arm pit. This required being injected with a radioactive dye that burns like having your breast set on fire. I remember sobbing uncontrollably as a nurse held my hand.
The day after they trace the track you are then sent to have markers installed that will guide the doctor to exactly where the lump in in the body. The markers are actual needles that stick into the lump in your body out to the surface of your skin.
Surgery- surgery is the easiest part because it requires so little of you and doesn’t take that long to recover. They will remove the lump and 2-3 lymph nodes. While you are still under they will test the lymph nodes for cancer to see if the cancer is spreading. If it test positive they will remove all of the lymph nodes in your armpit. Fortunately for me mine tested negative and they were able to wake me. Because of the heavy dose of anesthesia given to keep me under that long I woke up nauseous and dizzy and ended up vomiting on my way home.
The lump and surrounding tissue is sent off to be tested. After a week you will come back to the doctor to be told if you are cancer free or if you will need to continue with chemotherapy. I was fortunate to be cancer free so did not have to have anymore chemo, but I did have to have radiation therapy.
Radiation Therapy-getting the now cancer free section of your body bombarded with radiation waves to eradicate any remaining cancer cells. It’s similar to an x-ray. Before this happens though they will cover your body in small black tattoos so they can align your body just right in the radiation machine each time. This takes about five minutes and you will begin radiation a few days after. Radiation therapy is quick-from start to finish it takes about three minutes. I scheduled mine before work each morning. Number of radiation therapy sessions will vary depending on the size and aggressiveness of the original tumor. Because mine had been large and fast growing I had to endure 32 rounds of radiation which at five days a week was just over six weeks. You strip down the part of the body that is to be radiated. You will then be guided into a room behind a six foot metal door with a large machine in the center that looks like an x-ray machine. Using the tattoos they will line you up under the machine, leave the room, then zap you with the laser. You won’t feel a thing. They will come back in turn the machine to another angle and zap your body a second time. After that the session is done.
Radiation side effects- depending on the part of the body you may experience some fatigue but this isn’t common. The main thing is your skin will darken and it will burn easily. My skin also burst open in a few spots leaving me in terrible pain. This is common in large breast women. You will have to stay out the sun and keep your body covered when you are out. This is about the worst that radiation does while you are going through treatment. Once a week you will have x-rays done and meet with your radiation doctor where you will discuss your progress.
After all of treatment is complete your body will take a long time to recover. Hair will grow back within months of completing chemotherapy. The fatigue will take about a year to pass. Radiation causes an electric shock side effect that can last for up to three years- this is where the radiated body part will suddenly feel as though it is being electrocuted for up to 30 seconds. It can strike at anytime and without warning. The only thing that can be offered is pain medication but nothing can actually make it stop. The severity and frequency is worse in the beginning but it does start to fade away over time.
Getting through all of it- Meditation and prayer helps a lot. I prayed to God everyday. I felt a closer connection to my higher power, maybe because I felt I needed that belief in my life more.
Family and friends- I had the most amazing support team around me. Co-workers at my job gave up their sick leave so I didn’t have to use up all my vacation time to get through treatment. Family cooked and brought me meals and meal replacement drinks. My roommate would help me get in bed every night or sit up to take medicine. I had many friends and neighbors who would just call or come by and check on me everyday.
Work- Folks thought I was crazy to continue to work while I was going through treatment, but honestly it is the best thing. Working gives you something else to focus on while your body is being subjected to the complete hell that is treatment. Yes I would have to take breaks sometimes to go be sick and my lunch hour consisted of me taking naps, but the hours spent working and focused on my job helped me to push through and gave me something other than what I was enduring to focus on and do. My co-workers were very understanding and great. I will always appreciate them for that.
All in all having cancer sucks, but I learned a lot about myself and the people around me. I learned I have some good friends and loved ones. I learned I have an inner strength I never knew I had. I learned I was braver and tougher and more kick ass then I ever imagined. I pray I never have to go through it again but I am glad for the lessons I learned. So please know you or your loved one will get through this tough time. On the other side you will be a stronger, tougher, braver, more honest, loving, spiritual person than you’ve ever been before. Have faith, be strong and fight on! You will win!!