The Girlfriend’s Guide to Breast Cancer, Chapter 1: The Moral Is…
Girlfriends and Boyfriends, Let’s talk about breasts!
Bosoms, boobs, breasts, chest. We all have them…in one form or another. For some, they are nothing more than a body appendage we were born with. While for others, they are a vital part of our femininity or masculinity, an identifying factor of our emotional identity and sexuality. And still for some, they serve the most primal purpose of all…that of feeding our children. Or, really, could be all of the above!
Yet for 1 in 8 women and 1 in 800 men, our breasts are also ticking timebombs – and I was one of them…one of you.
In my early 30s, without notice or warning or even so much as a minor gut feeling, I found myself in the throes of advanced and clinically aggressive breast cancer. BOOM! It hit me like a freight train that didn’t even try to slow down at the station. I quickly found myself fighting for survival while also trying to navigate through my new daily reality of lab work, infusions, needles, nurses, big words, bigger decisions. Wash, rinse, repeat.
In my case, the cancer didn’t hurt. I found it strange to be so close to death but feel no pain. I actually didn’t feel a thing. But going through the chemo, the surgeries, the radiation and the countless scans and procedures, presented other challenges. So in the spirit of sharing and caring, here are a few insights and thought-starters…from your girlfriend, who’s been there.
Insight #1: Girlfriend, a bad-hair day is better than a no-hair day!
For some women, thinking about losing their hair is even worse than losing their breasts. I get it. On top of feeling sick from the cancer drugs, your hair starts to abandon you as well. When chunks of my hair started to find their way onto the floor and the kitchen table, I shaved my head in the garage. It was both tragically sad and empowering all at once. But I felt strong…like GI Jane. It was an act I did FOR myself and not TO myself. It was something that I did to prepare myself for war!
Not everyone loses their hair from chemo. However, if you need to, picking a wig can be a delicate matter. You may want to choose a wig or a fall that resembles your natural hair color and style. Or you may want to just go bananas and try out fun options and colors.
In my case, I had one great quality wig and then six or seven more just for fun. Each had her own name and persona, and I felt like I could escape into a new realm based on the wig I was wearing that day and the story I wanted to live in at that moment.
My wigs ranged from long and dark (“Erica”) to short platinum blonde (“Francesca”) to strawberry pixie (“Jane”) to a black severe bob (think “Mia” from Pulp Fiction) and everything in between. There was a “Samantha,” a “Carrie,” a “Charlotte” and a “Miranda. Yes, my Sex And the City friends, you read that right! With so few decisions we cancer patients have, choosing my wig each day gave me back a sliver of my own liberty and independence.
Francesca was the sophisticated wig who joined me in the city for dinners with friends. She liked fine food and dirty martinis. She looked like a wig and therefore required a lot of confidence to pull off. Francesca was saved for the good nights when I had strength. I felt most like myself in Erica, but since I really didn’t feel much like myself most of the time, she made limited appearances. Erica was really just reserved for special occasions or dates with my husband. Mia came out when I was feeling extra sassy and often had a dark, morbid sense of humor. But in the moments when energy escaped me and I was in recovery mode, a soft cashmere hat was my go-to. When I felt up to it, the wigs were an escape…chance to be creative and have a little fun when my body and mind and spirit aligned.
The Moral Is: Fake hair, don’t care! Just make sure it’s on straight.
Insight #2: Girlfriend, having chemo does not mean that you will be hugging your toilet!
Vomiting sucks! After one outrageously indulgent night of college partying during my freshman year, which almost landed me in the emergency room and the university’s security office (not in that order), I decided that I would NEVER vomit again. My brain was seared with the debaucherous memories from that humiliating night, and I was determined to keep my word.
So, you can imagine the horror racing through my mind when I realized that I would likely experience severe nausea and vomiting from the dose-dense chemotherapy drugs I would be taking. I discussed my concerns (more like nightmare scenarios) with my oncologist, my nurses, the finance lady, the front desk secretaries, and the parking attendant. Anyone and everyone who encountered me at NYU knew my irrational fears about vomiting and kindly humored me by hearing me out each and every time I started to rant.
Luckily my oncologist took me seriously and prescribed anti-nausea medications before and after each chemotherapy infusion. My neurosis aside, apparently most cancer patients get these medications to minimize side effects. I was nothing special. But I am very happy to report that, to my great relief and even greater relief of my friends and family, I did not feel nauseous or vomit even once during my four months of chemotherapy. Not even once!
The Moral Is: A puke bucket also doubles nicely as a fruit bowl.
Insight #3: Girlfriend, breast cancer isn’t funny, but laughter is the BEST medicine!
I discovered that having a sense of humor about life’s challenges is an effective coping technique.
As my cancer treatment progressed, I found humor in morbid things and moments that could seem macabre or dark to others. Like that time a teenage kid asked me in Costco about “the weird pipe” attached to my arm (my PICC line). Without missing a beat, I looked him, dead in the face, and sternly replied. “It’s for chemotherapy. I have CANCER.” His mother looked at me like I just shattered his innocence, and dragged him away without another word spoken. “Well, shithead,” I thought to myself, “…next time think twice about what you ask a stranger.” I was howling inside. So satisfied with my quick reaction. Probably not appropriate.
Or the time that I reached out to mindlessly touch the needle of the infusion syringe – only to meet the earth-shattering screams from my oncology nurse, Peggy. “DONNNNN’T touch thaaaaat!” She yelled so loud that other nurses burst into my room and the friends sitting next to me looked as if they had been shot out of a cannon. When we all caught our breath, Peggy explained that the chemotherapy drugs were so toxic that one drop would literally slough the skin and flesh from my finger. Yes, she used the word “slough.” What in the mighty hell!?! “So, you’re pumping me with this poison for hours each time, but if I touch it for even one second, my flesh will melt away,” I asked Peggy in all sincerity. “Exactly!” was her response. After one beat of dead silence, the entire room erupted in laughter and disbelief. This time we howled out loud and while there was nothing funny about the situation, the absurdity of the moment was absolutely hilarious. Again, not appropriate.
Or the one time my very handsome, very successful friend, Steve, surprised me with a visit to the hospital room during an infusion. He grabbed the bedpan sitting next to me and looked at it quizzically. The room fell silent and all my girlfriends held their breath. Then he slowly looked up at me and I wanted to die from embarrassment when his gaze met mine. Because this was my college friend Steve who knew me when I was in my prime, in my glory…my friend Steve who I had shared years of laughs and crazy good times with…now looking at me, bald and sick, in the chemo ward, and holding my bedpan! The moment of tension was suddenly broken when he blurted out, “Hey, can I wear this thing as a sombrero?” Oh, we roared with laughter so loudly that I forgot my own situation for a minute and instinctively shushed everyone in the room, “Hey guys,” I said, “…we need to be a little quieter, there are sick people in here.” And then reality set back in. Still, not exactly appropriate behavior.
The Moral Is: Laugh often, hard and loud, especially when it’s most inappropriate!
Insight #4: Girlfriend, go to sleep with your make-up on, if you need to!
Rest is your friend when you are sick. When you are going through any part of cancer treatment, rest is your best friend, your boyfriend, your sister, your mother, your emotional support animal and everything in between.
I am not a natural “rest-er.” Resting is actually exhausting for me. I’m the person who prefers to have too much to do than not enough…to be traipsing through an exciting new city rather than sitting on a beach. The state of relaxation is a foreign concept for me, and always has been. I was brought up to think that “I’ll rest when I die, but today, there is much to be done.” So my house is always organized, the laundry is always done, there are no dishes in the sink overnight. Make-up is off before bed, teeth are brushed, counters are clean and the plants are watered. I like to go to bed exhausted and feeling that I have accomplished many things.
During my cancer treatment, I was sometimes forced into a state of rest. I remember fighting a copious amount of Benadryl to stay awake so that I wouldn’t miss any part of a juicy story that my girlfriends were sharing. I recall being so hazy from the drugs that I couldn’t walk a straight line while out for a walk. Or too tired to eat my mom’s famous potato dumplings.
I remember when my two best friends from Virginia drove up to spend a little time with me that I passed out in the bed after we went shopping. And when I tried to get up to take off my wig and make-up, they wouldn’t let me. They sat with me in bed and gave me permission to just…fall…asleep. It was the first time in all my adult years that I did not wash my face before bed. And THAT, I realized, was absolutely OK! The sun still rose…the world kept turning, and it was ok to just let go.
Gradually, I have learned that replenishment comes through rest, quiet and calmness. Stillness is sometimes necessary and waking up refreshed is a gift. That in order to be your strongest self, you need to be well-rested and well-watered (more than your plants), mind, body and soul.
The Moral Is: If the cancer tries to bury you, let it know that you’re a seed.
Thanks for reading, Girlfriend, and please share with your other girlfriends and boyfriends too!
And if you want to pen insights from your own cancer journey, click HERE. We’d love to hear from you!
Until next time,