Leslie Tourish, LPC
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If fashion designers actually designed for people going through cancer treatment, the look every season would be cotton, baggy and comfortable. We don’t want buttons or zippers because that’s just too much trouble – give us elastic waistbands and cotton t-shirts that can be slipped on over the head. And sandals are the best footwear since shoelaces are such a hassle. Or at least that’s how it been at my house for the past four months as I’ve entered the next phase of my cancer treatment. But during the holidays I decided I’d dig through my work clothes and make more of an effort to be a bit tailored and colorful. I’d closed my therapy practice in September with plans to reopen again in February, so this part of my closet had been virtually untouched for months. Pulling out a jazzy shirt in a shimmery, silvery-blue, I noticed something gold wound into the material. I pulled it out and found one long-blonde hair glittering in the morning light. It was one of my hairs from when I had hair, and running my hand over the soft fuzz of my bald head my first thought was, “Chemo.”
Chemotherapy for me has been such a different journey than all three of my surgeries combined. Surgery is more acute; it’s a distinct bell-curve of beginning, middle and end within about a month’s time of healing. With chemo, the chronic, continuing effects of the drugs linger for weeks as they course through your system with the single purpose of killing fast-growing cells. Hair and digestive-track cells are fast-growing, and that’s why your hair falls out, you can become nauseated and you may get mouth sores. These poor fast-replicating normal cells are just the innocent bystanders in the path of the chemotherapy drugs. Fortunately, once treatments are completed your body is able to repair itself back to a normal state. Which translate to you get to grow hair and food tastes normal again.
For me personally, chemotherapy has been the most difficult and challenging experience since I’ve waged my war on breast cancer. No treatment is ever quite the same. You and your oncologist have to work very closely together to make sure the doses are at the highest tolerable level with symptom management cresting at just their curative peak before and during the long-lasting effects of the chemo drugs. It’s a delicate dance between science and your body’s biology, because everybody’s ability to tolerate the drugs is different.
I haven’t taken biology classes since Carter was president, but in these past four months I’ve read about how normal cells and cancer cells operate. Normal cells are programmed to have a lifespan that at the end of it, they die and are replaced with more normal cells. Cancer cells are glitches in the system because they’re programmed to be immortal – they never die, but just continue to grow and muscle between all the normal cells. Cancer cells need nutrients and oxygen in order to survive, thus they thrive on tiny blood vessels. Via the blood vessels the malignant cells are able to course the body, depositing themselves onto new sites in a process called micrometastases and form secondary tumors. The purpose of chemotherapy is put a brake on these bad boys forever.
At my most recent treatment, my oncologist nurse/angel, Alisa Slevin, R.N., was administering my three chemo drugs, Taxotere, Adriamycin and Cytoxan via the portacathe that had been surgerically implanted in my upper-right chest. She was telling me that each drug has its own task, to destroy the cancer cell during one of its three stages of cell division. And by giving me six treatments, this increases the odds that the drugs will destroy any remaining cancer cells no matter where they are in their cell division cycle. All of this has a bit of Las-Vegas-playing-the-odds feel to it, but statistically more women and men are surviving breast cancer precisely because of such treatments. And yes, men can get breast cancer, such as actor Richard Roundtree. Approximately 1,500 men in American are diagnosed with breast cancer a year.
So in one week I hope to be facing my sixth, and final, chemotherapy treatment, and endure (hopefully) my last episode of feeling like an army of horses have stomped all over me. But even when I’m feeling like the hooves are pounding my liver into pâté, I visualize the hurt the chemo may be putting on a cancer cell lurking somewhere in my body, and knowing, in the end, it will have been worth it.