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The 3,800 Club: Dancing with the Red Devil
I want to be strong. Fierce.
But if I am honest with you, I am afraid in this moment.
A nurse is about to push "poison" into my veins. It’s my first day of chemotherapy, and I feel nauseous just thinking about it. But I guess that’s the point. Chemotherapy drugs are chemical substances designed to kill cancer cells, but they also have a big impact on the rest of your body.
I’m the kind of person who likes to exercise. I eat healthy (well, mostly… I have a weakness for chocolate and fries). Putting something toxic into my body goes against everything I believe in. And yet, here I am.
The first drug is red. I ask if this is the drug I read about online that’s dubbed "Red Devil" because of how sick it can make patients, and it’s devastating side effects. My nurse says she calls it healing juice. I like her. It’s about perspective.
You might be wondering how a Stage 1 breast cancer patient like me ends up in a chemo room. I wonder the same thing.
A few weeks earlier, and more than a month after a successful mastectomy and the great news that my cancer hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes, a booking nurse called with my appointment date at the oncologist. She said I would be there for about two hours. What? Two hours? I thought she must have my file confused.
I said I was sure the oncologist wouldn’t need me for such a long time. She assured me it was a standard first appointment. At this point, I started to seriously worry I might need some kind of follow-up treatment, but chemotherapy wasn’t really on my radar. In fairness, it’s not that my family doctor hadn’t earlier raised it as a possibility. But when my surgery results came back so positive, I thought I was all clear.
What I didn’t realize before the appointment was that I have several factors putting me at a high risk of recurrence, like the fact that my cancer, while detected and removed at Stage 1, is also considered something called Grade 3, the most aggressive form of the disease. My oncologist explained that if even a single cancer cell was somehow left behind during surgery, I needed the chemo to get rid of it. It’s a bit like an insurance policy. I guess this is what they mean by "better safe than sorry."
My oncologist wants to give me the best chance of never facing breast cancer again but I struggle with whether the risks associated with chemo outweigh the benefits.
She shows me the statistics and survival rates for those who do the chemotherapy versus those who don’t. The numbers seem to say this is the right decision, but I keep thinking about how toxic chemo drugs are. It’s a lot to put your body through. But then I remember somebody had asked me this question: if the cancer came back and I had not done all I could to prevent it, would I be angry at myself? For me, it’s a yes.
I know this road is going to be hard, but I have to at least try. So I take my anti-nausea drugs (which help, but don’t quite keep the nausea at bay) and surrender to the medicine and the science that supports it. And I pray I’ve made the right decision.
Michele Brunoro will be providing ongoing updates during her medical leave on her blog, The 3,800 Club.
If you or a loved one is going through cancer and you have questions or just need to talk to someone, the Canadian Cancer Society has great supports in place.