Real life with the Big C


Here you’ll find answers to both frequently asked questions (FAQs) and those inquiries you are too polite to ask.

Last edited on Nov. 5, 2019.

How are you feeling?

As of this writing, I’m 1.5 years out from treatment and I can unequivocally say that I’m feeling… eh.  I am six whole years from treatment and I’m doing GREAT. In fact, I feel like I never even had cancer. After a rough couple/few years, I stopped getting sick all of the time. My energy level is normal. I just cut my hair into a bob cut after keeping it long and reveling in its un-chemoed, un-chemically treated glory for a few years.

Of course, it wasn’t all roses and sunshine. This is what I wrote 1.5 years post treatment:

I’ve learned that cancer doesn’t stop when treatment ends.  The mental fallout can be long and ugly.  The physical toll doesn’t evaporate.  Fatigue can linger for up to a year.  I get sick all the time, even though my blood counts are totally normal.  These things are all treatable, by the way, but that means more appointments and stuff to do when you’re ALL DONE with those endless appointments.  Other than that, I’m physically great.   My surgeries went amazing (thanks to Michelle Specht and Jonathan Winograd).  Advocating for a fantastic breast surgeon and plastic surgeon made a huge difference in my physical and mental outcome and I urge anyone with cancer to give this your fullest attention.

I will say that NOT having chemo and radiation while having hair to color is AMAZING.

Where did you/do you get care?

Mass General’s Cancer Center.  I love it there so much.  Here’s why: the doctors are amazing, my chemo nurse was so nice and awesome, the support offered to patients and families is top-notch, the facilities are gorgeous, and I never have to wait for my appointment.  You know Mass General is doing something right when you feel like a VIP on your way into chemo (ok, exaggerating a little but only a little).  Oh, one more thing… the view from the Cancer Center is stunning.  The hallways are lined with beautiful glass windows so you can gaze out at Boston.  I took this picture from a Cancer Center hallway.  The State House dome is in the upper-left quadrant of the pic.

view from mgh

What was your treatment plan?

In Dec. 2012, right after learning I had a huge tumor that measured 9 cm x 6 cm and cancer-ridden lymph nodes, I started 12 weekly chemo infusions of Taxol and Herceptin.  I then had a modified radical mastectomy with immediate breast reconstruction on April 19, 2013, two days after the Boston Marathon bombing.  Later, in August, I started four bi-weekly chemo infusions of doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide (known in the cancer-world as AC).  After that, I had 28 radiation sessions that wrapped up right before Christmas 2013.  Then I had to get more Herceptin, the drug that saved my life, until June 2014.

As of 2019, I go to MGH just twice per year. One appointment is with my oncologist and the other is with the oncology nurse practitioner who was another angel during my treatment.

What’s it like to get chemo?

It’s doesn’t hurt but it’s a lengthy process.  I would have to go in an hour before my appointment to get bloodwork done.  As long as my white cells were OK, the docs ordered the chemotherapy drugs from the MGH pharmacy.  In the meantime, my wonderful chemo nurse would set me up with pre-treatment drugs that ward off any negative reactions.  When the chemo drugs are finished being prepared in the pharmacy, the infusion of the drugs takes about two hours.  During chemo, people can do whatever they want — read, watch TV, listen to music, chill with friends and family.  At times, MGH even has a contracted acupuncturist who will stick you. If you are ever in this situation and have the opportunity, do it.  Acupuncture is the bomb.

Will you die from this?  When will you die?

In early 2019, my oncologist said I had a zero chance of a recurrence. Zero.

Originally, my doctor said there was a 40 percent change the cancer could return within five years and that when breast cancer returns, it especially likes to attack the liver, bones, and brain.  But then an amazing thing happened.  I had a pathological complete response (pCR) to my first round of chemo, which means that when they did my surgery and examined my removed breast and lymph node tissue, they couldn’t find ANY cancer cells.  I remember the surgeon calling this the “Holy Grail” of treatment.  Although my original oncologist wouldn’t give me modified stats, another doctor at Dana-Farber said to expect only a 10 percent chance of recurrence.

How can I help my friend who is newly diagnosed?

Really, there are only three things you need to remember about the needs of cancer patients: money, childcare, and food.  If there are no kids, then it should be money, money, and food.

What are some shitty/less-than awesome things to say to cancer patients?

“I don’t know how you do it.”
“You are SO strong.”
“You’re a warrior!”
“My aunt/friend/friend’s aunt had breast cancer and she died.” (yes, people really do say this)
“Oh, I don’t know why I’m complaining about my [dirtbag husband/hangnail/crazy child/whatevs] when you’re going through this.”

Let me tell you a little secret.  I won’t even charge you or make you read some too-long book to get it: When people have cancer, they remain PEOPLE who happen to have cancer.

Although some may transcend their worldly body to become demi-godlike creatures with amazing perspectives previously unknown, this did not happen to me, nor did it happen to the majority of cancer survivors with whom I’ve talked.  Nothing is more patronizing than hearing “I don’t know how you do it” or that someone else’s problems aren’t as important as yours.  Because, well … I’d much rather have cancer than your dirtbag husband.  And more important, all suffering is relative.  If your hangnail is the worst pain you’ve ever felt, that’s JUST as valid as my pain getting sliced and diced and radiated until my skin blistered. Truth.

Also, cancer does not make someone a “warrior.”  Just like when you have a baby and you realize, “Oh crap! It’s sink or swim time,” cancer throws you the same dilemma.  Deal or don’t deal.  Take the drugs and get the surgery or don’t.  But wanting to live doesn’t make anyone a warrior.  It makes them human.

What are some good/acceptable things to say people with cancer?

“Dude, that totally sucks.”
“What’s your treatment like?”
“How are you feeling?”
“Want some money?”
“My aunt/friend/friend’s aunt is a breast cancer survivor. Want me to put you in contact with her?”
“I’ll take the kids [SPECIFIC DATE] so you can chill.”

To reduce the amount of thought it takes when deciding what to say, just make believe your friend has some common illness and ignore the popular cultural perception of cancer patients.  Act accordingly!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: