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Into the Unknown

On March 17, 2015, I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. Initially it was thought that I would need only a lumpectomy and radiation, but the biopsy changed everything.

The pathology report said that the tumor was HER2-positive and estrogen/progesterone positive. The HER2 protein makes the cancer more aggressive, so I would need, in addition to surgery and radiation, eighteen weeks of standard chemotherapy, a year of two other infused drugs and a hormone-blocking oral drug.

Still, the cancer was stage 1a with a decent prognosis, according to my oncologist, who said, “The good news here is that we have treatments for every part of your cancer. You are lucky.”

I didn’t feel lucky—just terrified. I was sixty years old, with a twenty-four-year-old daughter. I hadn’t even retired yet. I kept thinking, Why do I have to be the one in eight who gets breast cancer?

During my tour of the infusion suite prior to starting treatment, I met Amy, the infusion nurse, who said, “The first chemo will be the hardest, longest one.”

She reminded me that the protocol for my particular cancer was six cycles of two chemo drugs, plus the two other drugs to fight the HER2+ protein.

“Remember, triple-positive breast cancer is highly treatable,” she continued. “This chemo will likely kill all the cancer cells and prevent a recurrence.”

“Why is the first chemo so bad?” I asked.

“There’s always a chance of an allergic reaction or irritation at the site,” she replied. “Although the chest port makes it much less likely to happen than if we used a vein in your arm. You’ll be so glad you got the port.”

I wondered how having a foreign body surgically implanted under the skin near my left clavicle could possibly be a good thing.

Can I trust her? I wondered, studying Amy. She looked so perky in her lavender scrubs with her hair pulled back with a colorful band and her bright pink Crocs over tie-dyed socks. She might be too young, too optimistic, to be believed. But I already felt a tentative bond with her, sensing that she could feel my uneasiness.

The following week my sister, Peggy, and I arrived at the cancer center fifteen minutes early for my first infusion. We carried a cooler of snacks; a bag holding my slippers, books and magazines; my iPad; and extra socks, just in case. Sitting in the waiting room, I wondered if the other patients could hear my heart pounding or see my hands shaking as they lay in my lap.

I looked for Amy, but my nurse for the day was Daniel—male, smooth-cheeked, even younger than her. I had hoped the nurse would be a kindly older woman, someone with decades of experience, wearing sensible white nurses’ shoes. Daniel wore light gray scrubs that revealed a much-tattooed right arm. On his feet were fancy running shoes.

Why does he need to run? I immediately thought.

Daniel led us to our designated treatment area. “Make yourself comfortable,” he said, motioning to the comfy, padded chemo chair. Peggy took the other armchair, and our gear went into a nearby cubby.

I had been told to wear a button-up shirt or a top with a wide neck opening, so that the port could be easily accessed. While waiting for Daniel to return, I undid the top two buttons of my polo and stowed my shoes neatly under the chair. Peggy and I made small talk, but her facial expression told me that she felt as nervous as I did.

Soon Daniel returned, carrying a tiny paper cup that held Benadryl and ibuprofen.

“What are those for?” I inquired.

“To prevent allergic reactions and cut down on inflammation,” Daniel replied cheerily. “Would you like a warm blanket for your lap? People sometimes feel cold when the drugs enter their bloodstream.”

A warm blanket, I thought. Is this a spa? On the other hand, what’s wrong with being pampered? This must be one of those wonderful perks the breast-cancer mentor referred to when she said cancer had turned out to be an unanticipated gift in her life. I could feel my heart rate slowing as I started to believe that Daniel knew what he was doing.

That was the start of a long day in the chemo chair. During the first treatment, the drugs are dripped into the port very slowly, since most people have never experienced anything so poisonous before. As the first drug started dripping, I waited for something bad to happen, but soon I felt drowsy, and as if I didn’t really care.

After an initial burst of conversation, my sister and I fell mostly silent, she reading The New York Review of Books and I listening to music on my iPad while my mind drifted. I tried to do as my friend Kate (herself a breast-cancer survivor) had advised and imagine the chemo drugs gobbling up the cancer cells, but it took too much effort.

I have five more treatments to trick my mind into that scenario, I reassured myself.

Strange how something that starts out feeling so dreadful and abnormal can settle into being just another routine. Ten years earlier, I had witnessed this process during my mother’s chemo. I recalled the nausea pills she always kept in her pocket, the shriveling of her body, the brightness fading from her eyes.

Will I gradually become smaller and less vivid too? I wondered.

This question persisted in the weeks to come. A few days after each treatment, I’d feel completely depleted, empty of emotion and sensation. All I could do was lie on the sofa and stare at the ceiling.

Thankfully, I did not shrink or shrivel, but I did lose my hair and that extra twenty-five pounds I’d gained over the previous decade. Everything I ate or drank tasted awful, even water. My face grew wrinkles on top of wrinkles, and my fingertips and toes lost all feeling.

But over the course of the chemo, I felt a subtle shift in attitude. My throat no longer grew a lump as I drove up to the cancer center. At home I spent fewer days feeling unsure whether I was alive.

And I actually started to look forward to the infusion days. I had my favorite chair, my favorite nurse, my favorites among the other bald patients whose treatment days matched mine. When, as sometimes happened, the ambulance staff suddenly appeared with a gurney to remove a patient who’d had a bad reaction or abruptly felt too ill to continue, I no longer felt my own heart start to race.

It isn’t me, I reassured myself. I’m still lying here on this recliner, covered by the heated blanket, listening to the volunteer violinist playing classical music as she walks among us.

Hineni: I’m still here.

Kathy Miller is an educator/counselor who lives with her husband and two black cats in upstate New York. She started writing poetry as a teenager and returned to creative writing with her retirement in 2018. She has focused primarily on creative nonfiction, although she dabbles in poetry and fiction. Her work has appeared in The New York Times’ “Tiny Love Stories” (online), Persimmon Tree, Writer’s Club, The Ponder Review, Jewish Women of Words, Planet Scum and Stone Canoe. In 2022 she received a Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts residency. She has been in remission from cancer for eight years. In 2022 she relived her cancer treatment when her daughter was treated for Ewing’s sarcoma, requiring two surgeries and fourteen rounds of chemo over ten months.

Comments

7 thoughts on “Into the Unknown”

  1. Kathy,

    I am so happy to see your writing. You share such a difficult experience so sensitively. It reflects how you moved through this difficult time with both courage and uncertainty.

    Karen

  2. Beautifully stated Kathy with clarity and humor, just as though we were walking the canal and sharing as we have many times.

  3. Kathy this is so comforting to read your personal story for those of us who, thank goodness, have not had to face the terrifying diagnosis and treatment that you, and now your amazing daughter, have had to face. I am so glad you have writing to be such a wonderful therapeutic experience for yourself and a gift to the rest of us!! Stay well !

  4. Ronna Edelstein

    Your personal story emphasizes the resilience of people. May you, your daughter, and entire family be well. And may you always value the healing power of language—of finding the best words to share your thoughts and experiences.

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