Pigtales is a glimpse at the going-ons that take place (mostly) outside of the P&Q kitchen. Kiddo stuffs, things I love, general musings and other tales from my life as a momma, wife and semi-professional goofball. This particular post is about my personal experience with breast cancer treatment. For more about my initial diagnosis, see this post.
I’ll jump right in with the disclaimer that this post isn’t going to start out pretty, and it likely won’t wrap up pretty, either. It’s not intended to solicit pity or, conversely, to suggest that what I’ve been through on this journey is any worse than (and in reality, I’m sure it’s far from) what others have faced in their experiences with chemotherapy or cancer or any other hardship.
I realize that, for many people in this world, this cancer — which I am fighting, voluntarily, with Western Medicine and first world technology and a shitload of health insurance — should not even qualify as a hardship.
But — and I say this with an acute sense of Privileged Guilt — it is the hardest shit I’ve ever faced. More physically and emotionally draining than I could have anticipated, particularly in light of the many anecdotes I heard from my doctors and nurses and fellow survivors about “working through chemo.” Or working out (!?) through chemo. Or birthing babies (!?!?) through chemo. The healthcare industry sells chemo as something that “has come a long way,” with many patients these days experiencing almost “flu-like” side effects. So when chemo turned me inside out, I felt weak and inferior. Like I was failing this massive test of fortitude, and it ruined me.
I don’t write this with the intent to scare, or to dissuade anyone from pursuing similar treatment.
I’m sharing this so that, if you’re out there feeling the same way, you know you’re not alone.
My prescribed chemotherapy regimen (of TCHP, or Taxotere, Carboplatin, Herceptin and Perjeta) consisted of an infusion every three weeks for six cycles, or rounds. My first round went something like this: after two days of feeling relatively normal and energized (which I now recognize as the pre- and post-chemo steroid regimen doing its thing), I woke up sick to my stomach and stayed that way for almost five days. My appetite was non-existent. The idea of drinking even small sips of water seemed impossible. I constantly felt something I can only describe as a “fullness” in my esophagus, willing me not to let foods pass into my body. At the same time, with my stomach was so emptied, my profile showed a deep, cavernous dip under my ribcage. Where my pleasant little pooch of a tummy once lay was now a sunken shell, sharing both the glamour and appearance of a drained swimming pool. My face was gaunt. It was a challenge to stand up straight. And the tears would not stop flowing.
The idea that I couldn’t bring myself to be the energized, functional cancer patient that I had envisioned broke me into pieces.
I cried because I hurt, because I was tired.
On some days, I cried because I didn’t have the energy to play with my kiddo.
On many days, I cried because I didn’t want to play with my kiddo at all.
I was surrounded by family supporting my every move — both literally and figuratively — and pouring their love into Lana, but I was consumed by (my own, self-imposed) feelings of inadequacy and guilt every time I retreated back to bed.
At the root of it all, I cried because I finally felt sick.
And then, somewhere around the sixth day, thanks in part to the company of good girlfriends, several half-slices of carefully nibbled sourdough toast and the assumed waning of chemicals in my system, I began to feel like myself. I reset my expectations for the next treatment. My oncologist floated a spirit of longer-lasting anti-nausea drugs in my chemo cocktail, and I managed Rounds 2 through 4 with increased trepidation and fatigue but decidedly less distress. We developed a routine. My in-laws would come out every three weeks to stay with Lana while I attended pre-chemo appointments on Thursday and chemo on Friday, accompanied always by a game-faced loved one. I’d feel mostly good — normal, even — on Saturday and Sunday. And by the time my appetite declined and my mood began to dip on Monday, my mom would take over, occupying our little Lana for up to a week so I could rest and recover during the hours Chris was at work. We were managing. And I attempted to swallow my pride and allow my body the time it needed to fall unceremoniously apart and reassemble itself again.
By the time Round 5 was upon us, my optimism had almost returned. The end, it seemed, was in sight. Chris reminded me daily that I was so close. That we were so close. As a dangled carrot, I booked a post-chemo trip with my best friend, Kevin — a pilgrimage to see Celine Dion in Las Vegas 15 years in the making. It was the home stretch.
Two days after my fifth infusion — and just a day after my first shot of Neulasta, an injection designed to stimulate white blood cells within your bone marrow to help offset an immune system compromised by chemo — we hosted Lana’s second birthday party, an intimate garden party brunch in the backyard. It was everything we wanted for our sweet (not such a) baby girl. Family, friends, Fruit Loop-topped donuts and, save for the bigass bow on my head, very few reminders of the cancer that had hijacked our lives six months prior.
So when I awoke the next morning, as sick as I felt after that very first infusion, my delicately rebuilt psyche withstood those looming waves of depression with all the strength of a sandcastle. The idea that I had made it so far only to feel sick with failure again dissolved my optimism almost instantly. I was very nearly back where I had started.
A few hours later, I found myself standing in the shower, staring at my glittery, birthday cake pedicure, willing myself to move or cry, but too exhausted to do either. I passed 10 minutes this way. Then 15. Then 20. At 25 minutes, I plugged the drain and sat down for a bath. I wrote the beginnings of this post in my head. Counted the bathroom tiles. Said aloud some of the scarier thoughts I’d had since starting chemo.
(At one point during that very first round, I sobbed weakly into Chris’ shoulder that I just wanted to go to bed and not wake up. To be clear: it’s not that I wanted to die, but in that moment, the only foreseeable way to make the hopelessness stop was to make everything stop. Those were heavy words. If you’ve experienced true depression, perhaps you can relate.)
That evening, I called a Cancer Mama friend (much like blogger friends, they’re often virtual and wholly invaluable) to talk through some of my feelings. Or more accurately, to make sure I wasn’t crazy. That I wasn’t as weak as I was making myself out to be. That others before me had also cowered in the face of chemo’s chemical warfare. Breast cancer patients are painted to be these pink warriors of hope, spewing strength and optimism like pubescent body fluid.
Despite my best intentions, that was so not me.
So I voiced my concerns over the phone. How down I was feeling. How down I was feeling about being down when so many others in our shoes were worse off. Suffering from acute pains or grim diagnoses or fighting for one more day with their kids while I whined my way through a cancer that has, for all intents and purposes, been labeled by my medical team as Curable.
“Who the fuck am I to wallow in misery when others among us are dying,” I asked her. “They’re literally dying, and I’m hiding from my kid because I’m sad. What is wrong with me.”
“You can’t force yourself to be grateful,” I remember her saying, but with that cool, chuckly tone that friends use when they’re telling you something you should clearly know for yourself. “That’s not fair to what you’re going through at all.”
With her permission, I wallowed. And I Hulu’d. From bed, and without guilt, because it seemed like the only possible way to pass the time. “I can’t believe there are nine more hours until I get to go back to sleep,” I moped to my mom one morning, before settling in with one of Lana’s snack cups full of pretzels and the second season of Naked & Afraid.
I desperately wanted to give a rats ass about anything, but the only functional emotion I could access was despair.
Despite my pleading hope that the sixth and final round of chemo would be different, within two days of my last infusion, I was cripplingly sick. My immune system was all but nonexistent, my heart was racing due to severe dehydration and Chris and I logged not one but two date nights in Urgent Care, with me alternating between violent, wracking sobs, and apathetic cat naps.
Chemo was officially done, but I was still staggeringly, unshakably, chemically sad.
Ten days — and four more white blood cell boosting shots — later, I sat in my oncologist’s office, trying my best to communicate how poorly I had handled the last two rounds of chemo without using the phrase fucking railroaded. (I failed.) But for some reason, I couldn’t quite bring myself to fully detail just how down I had been. I found myself generalizing with cute little phrases like, “it was pretty damn bad,” or “the emotional toll was a little taxing,” but there was some underlying, prideful part of me that still couldn’t just say:
“I felt so alone.”
“I wanted to cease to exist.”
Or, maybe the most impactful: “I feel like I was misled about what to expect.”
To be fair, this rambling is not about pointing fingers or setting the record straight when it comes to chemo. And if any of the adages I heard over again from my medical team are true, it’s that everyone is different. Every body. Every cancer. Every treatment. I know this. And if I could somehow ensure that no one ever faces an experience as debilitating as mine again, I would. I would pay in spades. In unicorn lattes. In human baby teeth.
But if you’re reading this, and you feel like shit. If you feel absolutely nothing. If you feel like the Lifetime Movie Channel can’t even begin to touch what real depression feels like — it’s the meds, man. Which means, and you’ll have to trust me on this, it’s a temporary hell. It lifts, even if ever so slowly.
And when all is said and done, there are few more divine than Celine.
p.s. tremendous thanks and big hugs to Kait Miller for all of the imagery in this post. ♥
i’m so so sorry that it happened like this. i don’t begrudge you any of your pain or emotional paralysis or anything. you might have had privilege in fighting it, but it was/is still hard af, and if you aren’t inspiring and strong and kickass, i don’t know who is. and i hate/love that a cancer mama support group exists. hate that has to exist, love that the good vibes flow in spite of its existence.
Thank you, Heather. I hate that it exists, too. (I hate even more that the majority of the women in the group actually experienced chemo while pregnant — I can’t imagine what that journey must be like.) But you’re so right — it’s a shitty reason to come together, but I was so grateful to find it. <3
This is such a beautiful post, Em. You are so amazing. You articulated it so well. I’m so very sorry for what you went through, and I’m glad you’re on the other side of it.
Like Heather said above: if you’re not strong, I don’t know who is.
Hugs and cheesecake, babe. Love you, too.
My heart is with your heart, and I hope you can continue to allow yourself to feel anything and everything you need to. xo.
Thank you, Haley. I’m starting to get better at feeling all the feels — or at least feeling them without judging myself too harshly. Easier said than done!
Yowsa! Just read your p & g blog today… cried in my leftover-chili breakfast, peanut… but in a good-release way (if that’s a thing)…I’m so glad you took the time, energy and emotion to share a reality check, along with your normal get-real recipes, with your community of friends, family and fellow recipe creators/hunters… I really think it’s an integral step in the healing process… just like the pain and despair was (unfortunately)…
Love you the most, Momma. <3
Em- you move mountains. Your ability to communicate with so much openness and honesty has and will continue to touch and help countless other people in this world. I love you, MA.
I love you, too, Whit. Thank you for your listening ear. And for giving us such a fun occasion to look forward to in light of all this ending! Can’t wait to see you soon. Mah!
This made me cry, Em. So much truth in these words– and though I have no reference point for what it feels like to through chemo, I find myself relating heavily to your words about depression and being mislead about what to expect on a health journey. I’m not even going to pretend that Lyme is the same–but, I’ve had a lot of these same thoughts in moments where my body would not function and my brain would function only dimly and with exhausted dark thoughts. I love you. I know we are a pair of those internet blogger friends you refer too (turned IRL) but, I sincerely love the heck out of you and wish nothing more for you than total healing–in all the ways! Thanks for showing this vulnerability. There’s so much strength in vulnerability. Ok, I’m gonna stop saying words because I’ve written a small novel. But, I’m here–rooting for you, and always willing to make you soup, or fuck up some fried rice and smoosh it into patties.
Oh my gosh, Gina, don’t discount your own experiences because they’re not fucking cancer. Even my fucking cancer isn’t the worst fucking cancer, but when shit sucks, it sucks, and I know you’ve had your fair share of sucking when it comes to health. You are one of the folks who inspires me to be as vocal and vulnerable as I am when it comes to personal issues — you always do the same with such frankness and humor. (Here’s something humorous — how weird is the word frankness?!) I love you, too, Gina. From the moment I saw your wedding pictures on your About page, I knew we’d be internet besties. All the love.
I feel so many things…sadness, anger, sorrowful, pain, and yet hopeful. I thank you for sharing this with us so that we might be better able to try to understand. I am grateful you are strong and even more grateful that your mother is stronger. You have persevered amazingly. You are so beautiful and courageous.
Emily, your ability to open up and truly express what you experienced is sotouching. You are an amazing women and I think sharing this will touch so many others. I have too many friends going trhrough Breast Cancer and chemo right now. As one of your friends just said, there is so much strength in vulnerability – you are one strong mama.
I 100% felt exactly the same way. I’m six weeks out from my last chemo, one week into radiation and the fatigue and depression is real. Chemo was not ‘like a bad hangover’ or ‘a flu’ like I had been told. It was like those 2 things combined to the power of about a thousand. I basically didn’t get out of bed for a week after each infusion. I couldn’t watch tv during that week in bed because it made the nausea worse. I could only (barely) stand up for 5 minutes at a time before my jelly legs gave out. I couldn’t drive for up to 2 weeks each time because my head was so foggy I didn’t trust myself to drive safely. And although I got more used to what to expect, each round was harder as my body got worn down. I’d heard about women working whilst undergoing the same chemo as me and I felt like a failure too. Like maybe I was just weak even though my whole life I have been described as strong-willed. And the tears, oh the tears! They streamed down my face. Panic attacks were also intense. I was convinced I was going to die, or my 4 year old daughter was going to die, or my husband was going to die. Ugghh. All these side effects add up and are so hard to deal with. Nobody who hasn’t been through chemo understands, though they try. You are so not alone, thank you for writing this post and letting me know I’m not alone either.
Who authorized that “bad flu symptoms” line!? And as much as I hate to hear you can relate to this all too well, thank you for telling your story, too, so I feel that much less insane. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy but I’m so grateful for the camaraderie of this community — and hopefully our stories can help someone else prepare for their journey more appropriately. Hugs to you, friend.
Yes, they lie to you about chemo. They lie to you about radiation. They lie. You are right. There is nothing much worse. They lie because you have to do it and they think you won’t do it if you really knew how bad it was. But what choice to do you have- let the damn cancer win? I think not. You will win. You must win. Yes, for your daughter. Yes, for your husband. But mostly for yourself. I got my husband through cancer. It was hell. But he’s still here. We finally had a beautiful little girl. And most importantly cancer did not win. F**k cancer. You are better and more important than it is. Go win. It’s hard, but it doesn’t matter. You will win.
Emho – you are so incredible. Strong. Smart. Hot!! Funny as fuck… cute and witty (punny!) too. Sometimes even all the gratitude in the world or thinking about how others have it worse cannot discount how shitty some shit is like some fucking shit ass chemo. Sorry (not sorry) for all the cursing. I love you. Your voice is powerful. Thank you for sharing. I wish I could be with you and Al and Naris and Dani this weekend! Send me photos from Seattle! Love you and see you soon, peezer
Thank you for writing this. I underwent chemo for leukemia almost 20 years ago, when I was very young, and while I escaped much of the awful illness it was still (probably will always be) the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I’m told that I too said I didn’t want to do the chemo anymore–it was just so much. I actually don’t have a ton of memories of that time because (apparently) denial is a kid-favorite way to cope with trauma.
All that to say, thanks. Cancer sucks; chemo may well suck more. I’m glad you made it.
Em….I want so badly to give you a huge hug right now. You are the one blogger I have admired and always chuckled when reading the post. Your sincerity bursted out, and your wonderful personality has grabbed my heart ever since. I can’t say for certain that I know how you feel, but I am glad you wrote them out for all of us to read. I feel your tears and I feel your frustration, but I also feel how strong you have been & will always be. Sending huge hugs your way…
P.S. No need to reply… I would rather you save your energy for that most adorable little one 🙂
This November will be 3 years since my BC diagnosis. Mammogram found my tumor and then an MRI found the second tumor in the same breast. Did a double lumpectomy, but so realized the tumors were too far apart for radiation. I had to have a mastectomy. I decided on a bi-lateral mastectomy. No chemo/radiation. The emotional roller coaster is crazy. During my diagnosis and procedures my emotions were in check, nose to the grind stone. All the emotional stuff hit me hard a year later. That was my worst time….every ache had me running to the doctor thinking it had spread. PTSD hit hard. I am now doing better, but it’s always in the back of my mind. You have written about your experiences so eloquently. Best of luck, peace of mind and love to you and your family.
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I am so late in commenting, but ever since I read this your post has been on my mind. What a spectacular human you are, Em. Letting your guard down to share these feelings with us is as much a beacon of your strength as it would be to spew it like pubescent body fluid. You’ve always radiated strength and optimism to me before this, during this, throughout it all — and your words here only reinforce that. Thinking of you all the time.
Thank you, sweet friend. You have your hands so full at the moment, you shouldn’t be sparing too much time thinking of me! But I’m so warmed by your constant thoughtfulness and am always tickled to know you’re reading. Love you, mama!
Thank you for your blog. So helpful to know as I begin my 5th cycle that all that I have experienced is not unusual. Nurses act like I am some odd exception. As I read your blog I realize now that I am not crazy and others have had it just as bad. Thank you for writing this for all of us.
You are so welcome and YOU ARE NOT CRAZY! I swear, there’s some big conspiracy among medical professionals to downplay the misery that some of us face going through modern treatment. (Or else I supposed we might not be so quick to comply…) So very sorry that’s been your reality and sending you mega good vibes for the rest of your treatment. <3
This is the best, most articulate description of the chemo hell on earth I’ve ever read. Im new on this journey, am sick as hell, and feel absolutely duped- this “new” knocked flat is the antithesis of my typical energetic “persona”…..
I can’t thank you enough for putting into clear expression what has been lurking in my brain, untitled, for weeks…..
Best of my love…..
Ugh, I’m so sorry to hear you’re going through it, too, Page. A couple of years out, I can tell you it most definitely gets better, but I’ll never lose the perspective that the experience gave me. Few things in my life I can recall with such clarity (including childbirth! so you know chemo must be a sticky bastard!). Sending you lots of good vibes. Give yourself grace, wallow when you feel like wallowing and eat whatever the hell you want if it sounds good to you. Hugs, friend.
Thank you for your honesty. I finished my 6th tchp a week ago and am feeling worse than ever. I almost went to the emergency room last night. Im gagging when I take a drink. I hope this hell is over soon!
Your 6th TCHP! Does that mean you’re done? I sincerely hope so, Shelby. I so remember the complete disinterest in drinking…and eating. And moving in any way. I sincerely promise that even though the days can feel SO LONG when you’re counting down to the end of treatment, they WILL pass. You WILL make it through. And all the shit that currently feels absolutely debilitating will be soon a memory. A vivid one, to be sure, but it’ll be behind you, friend. Big hugs — you’re so close! <3
Thanks for sharing your journey and putting into words thoughts I have had recently on my own TCHP chemo journey. I am on cycle 3 of 6…and those down days are SO HARD! Thank you for sharing so myself and so many others know we are not alone in feeling this way… and it is ok to feel this way.
Thinking of you, Sandee. You’re so close to being done! Sending hugs, too. 🙂 — Em