Chemo’s long tail

I’m feeling good. The brain fuzz is clearing. I have something close to a normal amount of energy. But it’s still difficult to forget that I’ve just been through chemo.

There are some things I don’t think they have the heart to tell you when you’re in the thick of it:

• You can lose your eyebrows and eyelashes AFTER chemo is over. I haven’t quite lost them, but they’re definitely very, very thin, thinner than they were after my last infusion. I now have to use an eyebrow pencil to avoid looking freakish. I really hate mascara because of its tendency to run, but I have to use it now. Otherwise, my several dozen eyelashes would be imperceptible. I know I should not complain. The fact that I’ve got most of my hair allows me to “pass.” Still, I hate the fiddly nature of having to wear makeup. Most of the time, when I’m not dealing with cancer treatment, I don’t bother.

• Chemo not only makes people lose their hair, it can make them lose their fingernails. I haven’t bared any nail beds yet, but the nails have become incredibly thin and brittle since chemo ended. It does not seem over-dramatic to wonder if one day they will just flake off. Look this up on the Internet. Apparently, you can develop a ridge in your nail for each chemo infusion. I put the reading classes on and check, and there they are: six tiny ridges on each nail. Like the rings of a tree, there’s one for each poison party.

• Chemo dries out your skin. This effect seems to last well beyond the actual treatment. I’m still putting baby oil in the tub, slathering with moisturizer and Aquaphor. Even so, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, scratching dry skin.

I guess it will take three to six months for my nails to settle down, enough time to grow new ones. I think the eyebrows and eyelashes are on the same timeline. Friends who’ve gone before me in this adventure say they’ve needed wigs for three to four months post-chemo. Guess it will be a comparable time until I achieve facial hair and skin moisture normality.

These are not big things: not mouth sores, not nerve pain, not bone-crushing fatigue, not a flip-flopping stomach.

These things are not nothing either.

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About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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3 Responses to Chemo’s long tail

  1. kymlucas says:

    Thank you for this blog. I can’t tell you how much it has helped to read it. I’m due for a mastectomy in a little less than two weeks, followed by chemo. Now I feel like I have a better idea what I’m in for.

  2. Alison Quoyeser says:

    Heather, I just love reading your blog. Your writing is compelling! That’s GREAT that you already feel like you have something close to a normal energy level. I just attended a Coping with Fatigue workshop at UCSF yesterday. I knew most everything already from internet surfing and the staff at UCSF, but one thing that sticks with me is how chemotherapy affects our aerobic capacity and muscle mass. Bummer. So far I’ve only had one TCH infusion plus one Herceptin alone, but this week I’ve worked out two times, taken two Zumba classes, taken a walk around Lake Lagunitas (ahhh! saw an osprey catch a fish!) and taught my usual children’s Tae Kwon Do class. I’ve been reading this evening about exercise during chemo, and I’m determined to do as much as I can to fight loss of aerobic function and muscle mass. All the best to you!

    • leftbreast says:

      Alison, Keep moving as much as you can. But remember, chemo is cumulative. It gets harder each time. If you have to slow down a little as things progress, don’t get down on yourself. Just do what you can. I was hiking to the top of Ring Mountain in the beginning. By infusion 5, I could barely make it a quarter of the way up. I kept walking, though.

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