Shortly after my family arrived in Denver and moved in with my mom on January 1st, 2011, she began her treatment plan. I, and often my sister Bree, accompanied her to her frequent visits with the Kaiser oncologist, during which we sketched out a roadmap of what the next few months would look like.
You’d think if you had that much cancer in your breast, the obvious answer would be to undergo a mastectomy post-haste. But, because the cancer involved her entire breast, including the skin, the doctor recommended that Mom begin with aggressive chemotherapy to shrink it before we moved on to surgery.
I should touch on the brief “no chemo” conversation we had. As I’ve mentioned before, Mom was pretty heavily into natural health, and she had said more than once that if she were to get cancer, she would likely want to go a treatment route other than chemo, as she felt that the chemicals would do so much harm to the healthy parts of her body and immune system, and diminish her quality of life. The aggressiveness of her cancer, though, left her with few options. It was pretty clear that if chemo didn’t begin right away, she would likely be dead within months. And, I have to tell you, we can talk all we want about what we would do in this and that situation, but when death is staring you in the face, it’s so very hard to say no to conventional wisdom.
So, she began two types of chemotherapy, an oral medication that she took at home, and infusions that she would receive at the Kaiser facility downtown. For the first couple weeks, we were amazed by how good she felt. I had never before this been up close and personal to a person in chemotherapy, but, based on anecdotes, I had been expecting lots of nausea and vomiting. and extreme fatigue. I had been anticipating her being bedridden, and having to have IV’s placed for fluids. But these things did not happen on this first round.
After a time, though, it became apparent that the treatments had a cumulative effect, and that each time she went in for an infusion, she would feel a little sicker and have lower energy. But, she was still very functional. At some point, we began to notice that her hair was shedding a little bit, and then more and more, until one day, all that she had were little tufts of hair that were left in odd places around her head. We wondered why every last hair didn’t just fall out? Having those odd ones left made the experience all the weirder.
Mom started wearing stocking caps everywhere, including to bed, so it took a little while before my children realized that their grandma had lost her hair. My son, Hayden, surprised her downstairs in her basement bedroom when she had her cap off one day, and there was an awkward “naked head” moment. This was so interesting, because I know Mom had no intention of keeping any piece of her experience from the kids, but I think the side of her that was self-conscious about her baldness wanted to keep this part private as long as possible.
As much as Mom had spoken of being one of those courageous women, boldly going about their daily business with their beautiful, bald heads out in the open for the world to see, like a badge of honor, I think the reality was harder to bear then she had realized it would be. So, she wore hats. And soon got into a program that helps connect people on chemotherapy with donated human-hair wigs. These masks gave her the nerve to go about in public like a “normal” person, but nothing could really hide the effects that chemo had on her body.
And this was the tip of the iceberg on the chemo roller coaster that was to come. Mom was so right about the chemicals “poisoning” her body, but they kept the cancer at bay and began to shrink the tumors. They also almost killed her a couple of times.
The next step would be surgery.