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I got the news in late November 2014. World tilting, everything-you-know-about-your-own-life-will-be-shaken-up-in-an-instant news -- which is weird, because it was literally four words.
“You have lymphoma. Hodgkin’s.”
“WHAT. THE. FUCK.”
I didn’t actually say that. What actually happened was much less dramatic, and far less bad ass than I would’ve liked. My eyes filled with tears, and the damn water kept coming, so in an instant they were streaking my cheeks in a really un-brave kind of way. I think I said something like, “What?!”
Not an “I didn’t hear you” what. More like, “This is a joke, right?” kind of what. Because there’s no way I have cancer. I’m 25. I eat clean 85 per cent of the time, the gym is my happy place and I run for FUN. I’ve never smoked a cigarette, I’ve always worked indoors in clean environments, and -- this is the kicker -- I feel fine. I feel healthy. I just ran four and a half miles without breaking a sweat. How do you expect me to believe that I have a life threatening illness?
But apparently, I do. Apparently the swollen lymphnodes that wouldn’t go away weren’t a result of an infection -- which, in spite of doing everything “right,” I’ve gotten a ton of in my life. They weren’t something that I could choose to get removed in a few months, or a year, if they were “bothering me.”
They were cancer. Are. They are cancer.
I started chemotherapy to treat my disease on January 9, 2015 – shortly after returning from a trip to Mexico, which had been planned for months. Long before the “c word,” as I would come to call it, entered my life. A trip where I often snuck away to have some alone time, to try to wrap my head around the fact that as soon as I returned to my “normal life,” I’d be beginning a battle that I was in no way ready to tackle. I found myself crying into my pillow while my in-laws, who had arranged the trip, my husband, and his brother and girlfriend, were all off having a great time. Oftentimes my husband would come to check on me and I’d end up crying on him, too.
The treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is widely standardized, in both the US and in Canada where I live. It consists of four drugs – Adriamycin (more commonly called doxorubicin by nurses and “the red devil” by cancer patients), Bleomycin, Vinblastine and my personal nemesis, Dacarbazine. It forms the acronym ABVD, and that’s what most doctors, nurses and patients call it. ABVD is given on days 1 and 15 of a 15-day cycle, which means it’s administered every two weeks.
January 9th is memorable for me – it was the first night I threw up non-stop and briefly wondered if the treatment would kill me faster than the disease that was apparently ravaging my body. I was weighed at my doctor’s appointment on the 6th and the scale read 110. By the time I got a PET scan ten days later, I’d lost 10 pounds. A pound a day – and there was no dieting, no exercise. It was all vomiting.
My cancer was staged from the PET and a bone marrow biopsy, which is a procedure that involves shoving a needle the size of a turkey baster into your backbone to suck some of the marrow out of it. The results showed the marrow was clean and the cancer was localized to the lymph nodes in my neck and chest. So my diagnosis was HL stage 2A – two meaning it was in two (or more) groups on the same side of the diaphragm, “A” signifying my lack of symptoms. No night sweats. No fevers. No unexplained weight loss.
“Stage 2A is considered to have a favourable outcome,” my doctor said. That meant I’d have a good chance of beating it.
My hair fell out a few days before my second treatment. There was no warning. I just woke up one day and tried to brush it. It fell out. I had crazy thoughts, briefly.
“Maybe if I just don’t brush it for the next six months, it’ll stay.”
It didn’t. Before the day was even over it was falling out when I touched it. The next day I had my husband shave what was left of it. I couldn’t stand watching it fall out slowly. He used a guard though, so I was left with about an inch of hair.
I’d like to say the inch stayed, but that would be a lie. It kept coming out, and a few weeks into treatments I had a nice big bald patch on the top of my head while the sides and back maintained some of the post-shave length. It looked ridiculous, but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it.
I knew to expect most of this, though. I mean, not the constant vomiting – that part was a surprise. But the hair loss, I knew.
I knew because my mom had been treated for breast cancer only two and a half years before my own diagnosis. My cousin on her side had just received clean scans from a lengthy battle with metastasized colon cancer. A cousin on my dad’s side was struggling with the effects of metastasized breast cancer. All of them had their own chemotherapy regimes, surgeries, radiation. I’d had aunts and uncles who had their own battles in the past – an aunt who had passed from lung cancer, an uncle who had been treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma many years before I knew what cancer even was.
My guilt started there. I didn’t have to have any surgery, aside from having my lymph node biopsied to confirm my diagnosis – but does it really count as a surgery when you’re awake during the whole thing and go out for lunch afterward? I still have all my body parts.
My chemotherapy was scheduled to last for six cycles. At a month per cycle, I’d be all fixed up by the time summer in Saskatchewan really arrived. Twelve treatments at most. It turned out to be even less when my midway CT (I had it on St. Patrick’s Day) showed “significant shrinkage.” My doctor decided we’d stop after eight, pending the results of my follow up PET.
I still haven’t had my scan, but I’m pretty confident that it will show that my cancer is in remission. Four months of treatments and I’m basically good to go.
The chemo made me really sick, to begin with. But after the first two treatments I had another appointment with my doctor. He significantly increased my anti-nauseant dosages which really changed the game for me. I started to throw up much less – really only when my heartburn got too bad. After a few more weeks, I realized I was causing my own heartburn by drinking way too many carbonated beverages. I cut them out and the heartburn – and the vomiting - disappeared.
At the start, my family said stuff like, “I feel so bad for you, that the cure is making you so sick.” “We love you and support you.” “If you need anything, let us know!” But within a month or so, it all but stopped. Almost everyone stopped checking in once they learned that my treatments -- and ultimately, my cancer -- was no longer making me physically sick.
I stopped talking to a lot of my family after I posted a status update before treatment number eight that sarcastically told cancer to “send me a bigger one next time” because I was confident I’d beaten this round. One of my aunts angrily told me to “watch what I was saying because some of my family members were fighting to stay with us.”
That’s hardly true. I knew she was referring to my cousin, whose last scans had been clean, meaning her cancer was in remission. But because her initial prognosis had been so much worse than mine, everyone was still so worried about her. As for me – who might still be far from remission – I had to watch my mouth.
So it wasn’t enough that I felt guilty for my relatively easy time of it in terms of treatments. I now had to feel guilty for the way I’d chosen to deal with the fact that cancer had turned my entire life upside down at the age of 25. And I did feel guilty – for all of it. I cried so hard I threw up when the same aunt decided to berate me about disrespecting her instead of trying to understand why I might react in a harsh way for being told to watch my mouth.
My sense of humour has always been my coping mechanism. I’ve always used sarcasm and laughter to deal with scary situations – but never in my life have I meant to hurt anyone else with it. I was just trying to figure out how to wade through cancer when a large part of my support system had basically dropped off the planet.
I’m hopefully done with treatments now. My hair’s already started to grow back – the bald patch is gone. I’m doing some freelance print journalism, so in a way, I’m back to work. I’ve started running again, and I just renewed my gym membership. My life, it seems, is “back to normal.”
And I still feel guilty. I feel guilty that I chose to cut my family out – even though the reason I did it was because they chose to stop supporting me. I feel guilty that the only lingering symptom I have is being easily tired out. I feel guilty that my cancer was caught early and treated quickly.
But I shouldn’t have to. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is still cancer. Ten per cent of people diagnosed will die. Sure, that’s a significantly lower number than what comes with other cancers, but death is death. It’s scientifically proven that chemotherapy – ABVD included – can cause secondary cancers. There is a chance that I will relapse with Hodgkin’s, and if that happens, the chances of a cure are slashed in half. I’ll have a lifelong battle with these fears, and frankly, the odds are stacked against me. So I don’t have any time to deal with my guilt over my “easy” treatments or my coping mechanisms and nobody should’ve made me feel that way in the first place.