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BREAST CANCER: FIGHTING BACK : My Battle

October 22, 1995|BARBARA LASSER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the cabinet under the kitchen sink is the Gatorade bottle, full of used syringes, that somehow I can't throw away. Veterans of other wars have their monuments, and I have mine. Under the kitchen sink.

When I felt the worst during chemotherapy, I tried to sip diluted Gatorade. And between infusions, I gave myself daily shots to help my blood regenerate more quickly, to withstand the next chemotherapy course.

I learned about the breast cancer after a "suspicious mammogram" and a positive needle biopsy. Two days later, after a lumpectomy and lymph node removal, I began to learn how bad the cancer was.

What was described as a "wisp of a thing" in my breast had exploded like a Fourth of July firecracker, most likely activated by estrogen that I had started taking to treat menopausal symptoms.

My friends, who have been with me every step of the way, came quickly to my side. We sat together, stunned at first. We discussed treatment recommendations and identified personal and business matters that needed to be addressed. I took a leave of absence from my psychology practice, transferring my clients to other therapists. The loss felt like another chunk out of my flesh.

My surgery was followed by six months of intense chemotherapy and seven weeks of high-dose radiation. Then came concern that cancer might have traveled to my ovaries, so there was more surgery. I'm recuperating now from a hysterectomy, buoyed that no more cancer was found. I will take the anti-estrogen drug Tamoxifen daily from now on. And soon I hope to return to the parts of my life pushed aside by this yearlong battle.

All along the way, I found it useful to write about my cancer and treatment. In fact, I found it necessary.

*

As chemotherapy was to begin, my cousin Gerry came out from Colorado to be with me. A psychiatrist friend observed that Gerry was as important as any chemotherapy, and I'll drink to that--anything but Gatorade.

Gerry has been home four months now, but I still find signs of her, little Gerry artifacts. Like a note I came across telling me of a man helpful in locating references at the UCI medical library.

We were frequent library patrons, seeking primary sources--studies I could read and use in my decision-making.

My cancer treatment became my work, in a way. For six months, life was structured by chemotherapy infusions. I quickly came to know their rhythm and their aftermath.

The anti-cancer drugs were administered intravenously, every two to three weeks. Infusions varied in length depending on the chemicals. Some lasted two or three hours, some about six hours. Most I received in an "infusion center," a part of my oncologist's office. I was hospitalized for one, my initial exposure to a chemical with a higher risk of allergic reaction.

I felt safe in the shelter of aggressive chemotherapy, as though while there I could not be touched by more disease or by death.

And I felt at a loss when it was over.

"Of course you want more," breast oncologist John Link said in late April. "You would have me give you chemotherapy forever. But it's time to stop." Time. I remember a blackjack pit boss, somewhere in time, asking me: "Don't you know when to stop?"

*

Veins had never before been important to me. I took them for granted, like eyebrows. After a few infusions, however, my veins began to sclerose--to become hard and inhospitable to the chemotherapy needle.

And we had only my left arm to use because of the lymph node removal in my right arm. We made it through the full six months, just made it, finally using a valiant little vein in my left hand.

One day at the infusion center, several of us were receiving chemo and watching a TV show. Someone commented on the attractive woman being interviewed on screen, and I said, "Sure, she's pretty, but I wonder what her veins are like."

At the center, you could count on discussions about wigs, hair and how hair was growing back. Is it curly or straight? Is the color different? Is it thicker than it was, will it fill in on top here, in front?

"There's an interesting new man in my life," I told Gerry one day. "I'm looking forward to going out with him."

"I hope he's not bald," my cousin replied thoughtfully, and I reminded her I was hardly in a position to be particular about that.

*

Three days after I started chemotherapy, my friend Phil came over to help around the house. When he entered, I was lying on the couch, dehydrated, nauseated and drenched in sweat. He kissed me twice on the forehead and then went to work on lamps, toilets, the dishwasher, an answering machine. Whatever Gerry said needed fixing.

Several days later, Phil called to ask if there was anything else he could do. I told him I was better, Gerry was back in Colorado for a respite, and I was sorry he had seen me so sick. "A man should see a woman when she first gets up, at her worst, before he considers a commitment," he said. "So, will you marry me?"

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