Note: This is part 3 of a 5-part series of journal excerpts written when I was diagnosed with breast cancer 15 years ago. Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.
Monday, Oct. 23
I now have a port in my chest. It’s a small catheter that’s connected to an artery and it’s used to take blood and inject chemo so my veins won’t get scarred and overburdened.
I got my first chemo treatment Tuesday. The infusion center was unexpectedly nice, with muted colors and comfortable chairs, each with its own TV and VCR. You can bring your own videos to watch. My husband and I sat and made a list of movies people probably don’t bring, like Terms of Endearment and Love Story.
When he and I first got there, I went to the bathroom and cried for a few minutes because I was so scared. After that, I reclined in one of the mauve chairs and the nurse “accessed” my port. That’s what they call it, since “access” sounds so much better than other verbs like “stab” or “puncture.”
A long tube ran from a bottle of bright medicine into my chest. That was the Adriamycin. I wish I hadn’t read about how potent and scalding it is. It makes me think that a little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but a lot of knowledge is even worse.
The chemo took an hour, and it didn’t hurt. But it was creepy to think of those powerful drugs being unloosed in my body. I felt as if a bomb had been injected into my body and I was waiting for it to explode. After we got home, I lay on the couch for the rest of the day. When I began to get nauseated, I took a drug called Compazine, which has a list of side effects longer than War and Peace.
For the next two days, I took more Compazine and slept and slept. Every time I woke up and saw my son, he’d say, “Have you vomited yet, Mom?” He always looked disappointed when I said no.
Sunday, November 5
I got tired of waiting for my hair to fall out, so I decided to get it over with. My sister, Ellen, who’s visiting from Israel, and my husband and I drove to the wig store. JoAnn, the woman who helped me pick out my wig a few weeks ago, was there. She reached out and grabbed my hand and said, “Are you all right with this, hon?”
I said I was as all right as I was ever going to be, and JoAnn brought out the electric clippers to give me a crew cut. Ellen and my husband stood beside me and watched my hair fall to the floor. It felt odd to be almost bald and my head looked so much smaller without hair on it.
“You have nice ears,” Ellen said. She was looking at the floor when she said that.
Tuesday, Nov. 21
Before I go out in public, I slather on makeup and check myself again and again in the mirror. I want so much to look good. I want other people to think I look good. And, I notice, they’re relieved that I look good. We’re all happier.
But then I come home and eventually I take off layer after layer for the night. I see who I really am, what I really look like.
I’m completely bald now, and my scalp is as white as Cream of Wheat. Then, from the neck down, I have a body I don’t know. There’s my port, a small, round lump on the upper right side of my chest, with a tube that rises from it, beneath the skin. There are my new saline breasts, firm and round and foreign.
I look at myself. I make myself stare for a few minutes. I’m trying to get used to the new way I look and feel. I keep thinking that maybe, if I do this often enough, I’ll be more comfortable with this new self, this new head and body. So far, it hasn’t worked. I’m still surprised by the image that stares back at me.
“Your essence is still the same,” my husband says.
My essence. I wonder what my essence is, exactly. I don’t recognize my body or my head. So much about me has changed. All I know is, it’s barely me any longer.
Wednesday, Dec. 27
I don’t like anything. I feel angry about everything. I hate being bald. I hate my wig. I hate my new “breasts.” I also hate being sick and weak and feeble.
Merry Fucking Christmas.
Our son came into our room after a bad dream last night and afterward, I lay in bed and thought how cancer has invaded every part of our family, every relationship. It’s changed everything between my husband and me, the kids and me, the three of them without me. It’s poisonous stuff.
My white counts were still low last week, but Dr. B OK’d my last chemo treatment. During it, I got that familiar, hollow feeling in my head, something that feels like a sinus headache, except more noxious.
Finally, the drugs were out of the bottle and into my system. My husband and I sat and waited. Every time we’d been to the chemo center before, we’d heard the little parties they give people after their last treatment. And now it was my turn.
“I’m not moving till I’ve had my party,” I told my husband. “I want a damned party. I’ve earned it.”
A minute or two later, several nurses came in with noisemakers and bubbles and confetti. I got confetti in my wig and on my clothes, then I got up and hugged the nurses and technicians. I was so glad to get that party, finally, but all I wanted to do was leave forever.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read Part 4 and Part 5 of this series.
Read one of my favorite posts about who needs small talk?
It’s all so raw and real and true, Ruth. It’s so painful for me to read but I am riveted.
Very hard to read, but so glad you are sharing it.
I have a lump in my throat and a compressed feeling in my chest reading your words. Raw, real, scary and oh so powerful.
What they said: This is so real and raw I find it very hard to read. Sometimes I have to skip over stuff — the bits about your son, for instance, too close to home.
The crazy thing is: We all know you’re still alive, kicking, and as funny as you ever were. So it’s a testament to your writing that we’re all struggling with these posts.
As women and mothers and wives this journal is obviously hitting a nerve with your readers. Bravo for having the courage to share it.
It is odd that we all know the ending turned out well. But it makes me think of so many friends who have been through the same — and worse — experiences. It’s an incredibly tough time. You want to scream, “Enough with the character-building experiences!”
It sounds so strange, sitting in a pleasant room while pints of seriously poisonous stuff drips into you. I imagine your diary entries must’ve been much longer, but you’ve picked out the most salient, agonizing and ironic bits. Yes, it’s hard to read, but, more than anything, it’s riveting.
Terrifying, heart wrenching and as all your writing, real. Thanks for sharing this series, Ruth.
Awww … I had to laugh when your son asked if you’d vomited yet. Such a little boy thing to ask!
This is awesome that you are sharing this way. I was so happy you demanded your party ….
Ruth, you are an amazing writer and person. I admire your courage so much. My husband would scowl at me for getting mushy here, because during his cancer years, he hated for anyone to treat him “like a sage.” He would say you did what you had to do. I know that’s true, but it still takes a lot of strength. And I’m very glad you’re here.
Second and third everyone’s comments above – thank you so much for sharing all of these diaries with us. It’s crazy for me to relive these moments as someone who’s only helped others through their chemo, baldness, recovery, etc. – even though we haven’t met (yet), I feel like I was there with you.
Those I know battling cancer so appreciate hearing the real, unvarnished truth from those who’ve “been there.” I will be sharing this privately with many friends who are not quite ready to be public with their health issues. Thanks for your gutsy honesty, Ruth!
I feel as if I’m finally starting to understand–to really understand–what this is like. It’s like being there without actually being there. I think I will be a better friend to friends who have cancer now that I’ve read this.
I’m so sorry you had to go through all of this Ruth. It sounds heart and gut wrenching.
You did deserve a party! What a toughly humorous ending to such a harrowing tale.