Drugs, Hugs and Losing My Jugs: A Breast Cancer Journal - June 8, 2015 - Lucky
Editor’s note: This post contains a graphic post-op photo.
This morning Jules and I were on the train on our way to physical therapy. She asked how I was doing and out of the corner of my eye I saw the woman across from us staring at me.
“Meh. I’m OK,” I told her. “My hair is starting to fall out.”
“It looks like you still have a lot,” Jules said.
“Watch this,” I said. I pinched the back of my head and removed my hand. Between my thumb and index finger were about a dozen small hairs. I smiled with perverse pride.
“Whoa!” Jules replied.
“I didn’t even pull that shit,” I gloated. “I barely touched it,” I explained, touching her hair to show her how little pressure I’d applied to my own hair.
“That’s wild!” she said, shaking her head.
“Yes,” I agreed, letting the tiny hairs fall to the floor and glancing at the woman out of the corner of my eyes. She wasn’t as horrified as I’d hoped she would be and this disappointed me.
We arrived at physical therapy and as Jules got comfortable in the waiting room with her phone and another episode of “Mad Men,” I went into the doctor’s office.
“How are you doing today?” she asked.
“My hair’s falling out,” I said. “It’s fucking bananas.”
“I know,” she said, having ample experience with cancer patients.
“Like, look at this.” I did my trick for her and shoved my fingers full of hair in her face.
“Wild,” she agreed.
“My armpit hair is probably going to fall off on you as you’re massaging me today,” I said, because as she massages she gets into my lymph nodes. “Apologies in advance.”
“I’m used to it,” she replied, completely unfazed.
After physical therapy I headed to the infusion center on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Today was Shawna’s last chemo infusion and she invited me to celebrate. I entered her room, where her mom, dad and husband were already quietly assembled. I felt honored to be her only friend there.
Chemo is deeply personal, I’ve learned. If one is fortunate enough to be treated in a facility with private infusion rooms, then visitors are limited simply due to the size of the room. At my hospital, the rooms really only have enough space for two people besides the person getting treated. But I only bring Kyle with me because I don’t want anyone else there; it’s too overwhelming.
I don’t want to entertain or answer questions. I want to get my meds and pass the fuck out while my veins feed on very expensive drugs. So it’s kind of a big deal that Shawna invited me to her chemo session, especially since it was her last session ever.
And what did I do to show her how grateful I was?
I entered her room and one of the first things I did, in response to her husband complimenting my new buzz haircut, was say, “Watch this!” and pull out a chunk of hair, proudly displaying it like I was from the circus. And then I threw it on the floor and made an awkward joke about leaving my DNA in the room. What the fuck is the matter with me?
“No!” Shawna exclaimed. “Don’t pull it out!!”
I am both in awe of what my body is doing right now and also incredibly anxious. I am eking out what little time is left with my hair.
In the shower this morning, I didn’t touch it. I barely let the water hit it. This is the second day I haven’t washed it. I probably will not wash it again between now and when I am bald. This evening, I gingerly washed my face, barely touching my eyebrows and eyelashes. When I rinsed, I saw dark hairs in the sink. I looked in the mirror and all around my hairline the hair had rubbed off. Rubbed off.
I barely touch it and it just plink! falls away.
I swear I feel each follicle falling out of my scalp — a weird prickling sensation at intermittent points throughout the day. When I look in the mirror I see tiny fly aways all over my head — spots where the offending hairs are just hanging there waiting for a breeze, or Penelope’s hand, or me to do my dumbass trick so they may be released.
I am like the wool rug in our living room that I can’t sit on in my black Lululemon pants.
Or that dog our neighbor has that gets blonde hairs all over the black carpet in our communal elevator.
I’m the pink angora sweater I had in middle school that rubbed off on every other piece of clothing in my closet.
My tiny black hairs are absolutely everywhere right now.
“I think I told you, but I felt a big sense of relief when I finally lost all my hair. Like, ‘OK, it’s gone now… And now it will eventually come back.’ The anticipation for me was very difficult,” Shawna said, leaning back in her chair as the nurse fiddled with her IV and started the chemo.
“Here we go! Last one,” he said.
Shawna smiled. “Last one,” she repeated.
For the next three hours we sat. Shawna slept. Her mom and dad came and went. Her husband and I made out. Just kidding. That would be totally fucked up. We talked about cancer, which was way less exciting, but a topic I never get bored of.
“I’m glad you found each other,” he said. “You’re a good influence on her.”
I thought about my weird hair trick and my dirty, dirty sailor mouth and wondered how he could possibly think this. I felt proud, though, since there’s so little I feel that I’m “good at” right now.
I believe Shawna has been a better friend to me, listening to my constant text bitching about how exhausted I am from chemo and patiently teaching me how to make homemade baby food.
Hearing her husband’s perspective made me feel competent and good about myself in a way I haven’t felt since my mastectomy, when I emerged from surgery believing that if I could cut off my boobs I could conquer the world.
Then I peed the bed and felt far less confident.
Around 2:30 p.m. the IV machine (that’s definitely its technical name) beeped, signaling to the nurses that Shawna’s veins had drank everything except the dregs of the IV bag. After months of grueling chemo, she was fucking finished.
We cheered. We cried. The nurses entered the room with bubbles. I wished I’d brought a bottle of champagne. Or my marijuana chocolate. Something to celebrate this grand occasion.
Shawna’s mom presented Shawna and me with bouquets of flowers and again I was touched to be part of this immensely private, pivotal moment in my new friend’s life.
Cancer sucks. Several times each day I think, “I cannot believe this is happening.” Night is the most difficult; I lie in bed feeling emotionally crippled by the intensity of my angst and sorrow.
It’s been over two months since my diagnosis and I am still grappling with my new reality. But then there are times, like today, when I feel grateful because were it not for cancer, I wouldn’t have met Shawna.
It is a bizarre juxtaposition to be losing chunks of my hair while also feeling like I am so very lucky.
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All photos courtesy of Jessica Sliwerski