When I was first diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer at fifty, my friend Erica told me, “We are all going to die. No one knows how, but we do. We are not going to get hit by a bus. Our bus is here. Death is in our driveway. ” Erica, a woman who is the poster child for cancer in our community has fought her cancer publicly, with Facebook posts of her bucket list, a column in the local paper documenting her journey, and photographs of her livin’ la Vida Loca while receiving chemotherapy and radiation. Her courage and gregarious nature make for a great role model, but I’m a private person and face my infusions like an undercover agent surreptitiously slipping in to get the job done. At this time I was reading a book by Bernie Siegel, Love, Medicine, and Miracles in which he makes the case for mind over matter. Dr. Siegel, like many people who don’t have cancer, believes staying positive is the key to getting healthy. When I told Erica this, she shot back, “Positivity does not cure stage four cancer. ” I love her for saying this. What a relief! “Cancer is not personal, it’s just doing what it does.”
As I sat in the reclining chair at my oncologist's office getting my first chemotherapy infusion, a text message popped up on my screen. It was from an acquaintance that knew about my diagnosis. Was he wishing me well? No. He provided a link to a video featuring alternative health and natural cancer experts presenting important information about healing and preventing cancer through diet and other alternative therapies. “And let’s face it, chemotherapy toxicity may be worse than cancer itself. Food for thought,” my friend added. Perfect timing.
After my first line of treatment, seven cycles of chemotherapy, a regimen consisting of carboplatin and taxol my results showed I was platinum resistant. I’ve moved on to alternative therapies and told myself I can survive a long time as long as the drugs can keep the cancer stable. While this makes my loved ones cheer with hope, I roll my eyes. But I face it like a soldier in combat.
Today I enter Sloan Kettering like the trooper I’ve become. The IV bag hangs on the pole, the drip chamber opens, and the pre-meds trickle into my bloodstream. I am powerless for hours as volumes drip, drip, drip. It makes me cringe when a friend tells me to thank the chemotherapy, to imagine it as healing light. People call me a warrior or brave; I want them to see me sitting in this La-Z-Boy. I don’t think there is anything brave about showing up for chemotherapy treatment.
Chemo is a drag, let's face it. But there is so much beauty to live for and I will do whatever I can to extend my life.
Drowsiness first, lack of coordination will come next. The premeds started to kick in. My words jumble and unconscious thoughts rise to the surface. This is the fun part. It lasts for all of two minutes. My eyes shut and an illusion emerges. A miniature version of myself is sucked up through the IV then deposited into my bloodstream. En route to the tumor, I dodge the cancer cells that have metastasized. I’ll come back for them later. Mini-me holds an assault rifle targeting the tumors. I tell the healthy cells to stand back so I can take fire.
The cancer cells and the healthy ones look identical, but the cancer ones move around like they have to visit every part of my body. Once I’ve got one in my sight I shoot and they dissipate like an exploding star. One, two, three. I get four at once sometimes I imagine. As I maneuver up from the abdomen, circumventing the liver and lungs on my way to the chest and neck, all without GPS, I suss out the cells. It’s hard to identify which side of the war they are on. I just have to open fire, casualties unknown.
In six hours the war is over, but some of the casualties will die slowly while others make it to medevac and prepare to get out of the field quickly. The army will once again multiply. Exhausted, my back slides down the perineum wall. I put down my gun. The sweat lingers on my brow. Looking down, I see the blood on my clothes and rips in my shirt that must have happened when I tripped over organs. I’ll be back in three weeks with another infusion of chemical warfare and hopefully enough will to subdue the enemy.
I am very grateful that I feel healthy and active when I am granted my chemo holidays. They are necessary for my body and mind to restore. Chemo is a drag, let's face it. But there is so much beauty to live for and I will do whatever I can to extend my life. I wouldn’t trade the lessons I’ve learned from being diagnosed with this illness. Cancer has taught me that I no longer need to fix things, things just are and life is what it will be. Cancer has helped me release my grip on problems that no longer serve me. When I found out I had cancer I decided to get on with living, and this is what keeps me going throughout my battle; take every day as it comes.
Photo courtesy of author.