It looked like the worst part of the life-saving treatment for breast cancer was behind me. My future was hopeful. I just had to be patient.
I had adopted a new routine to battle the morning sadness. I began to browse through a small booklet titled Myself: Together Again by breast cancer survivor Debbie Horwitz. It has a series of photographs showing the breast reconstruction progress she underwent when she was 32.
I had become a beneficiary of her last year’s resolution: “We are going to continue to empower and educate women with knowledge of the reconstruction process through relevant and descriptive images and information, as a means of helping them cope,” Horwitz said in a video posted on her website, MyselfTogetherAgain.org.
Her booklet helped me start my day with a new attitude. The last photo, labeled “Whole Again,” showed Horwitz’s permanent implants. Her breast looked beautiful. I was on my way there.
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As my hair began to grow back, I stopped wearing wigs. And the world didn’t stop and stare. Except for a cute little boy with big green eyes. As his mother and I stood in line at the drugstore, he was examining me with curiosity. In a failed attempt at discretion when I glanced back, he looked away and began to whistle. I laughed. His mother scolded him, “DON’T bother the young lady!”
“Hi, it’s OK. What’s your name?” I asked.
“My name is Jordan. Can I ask you a question?”
I smiled. “Of course, I bet is about my hair.”
“Did you just come back from war?”
And then he had to go, so I couldn’t explain how I felt like I had been a prisoner of war.
After months of avoiding crowds, I celebrated New Year’s Eve at Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center in Orlando. And for the first time in my life, it felt great to be stuck in pedestrian traffic. Long lines did not bother me. By the time 2012 had arrived, I had undergone about a dozen sessions of daily radiation therapy at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, and my immune system was holding up.
The anxiety rush as I walked into the therapy room was part of the routine. I took off my clothes from the waist up. I had gotten used to being topless for the weekday outpatient treatment. And no one was horrified.
On a bad day, fear would boil up when a red “BEAM ON” sign lit up and a buzzing sound filled the room. As the machine, known as the linear accelerator, rotated around me, my heart would sometimes beat faster, and my mind would scream out possible side effects: “Lymphedema. Secondary cancer. Narrowed coronary arteries. Rib fracture.”
On a good day, I closed my eyes and a brief self-guided meditation would help me picture a peaceful beach in Nantucket, a desolated forest in Chile, or the top of a mountain in Peru, as the radiation easily destroyed the cancer cells. The healthy cells that were damaged were able to survive and repair themselves. That was the ideal.
Aside from some minor skin irritation, the only evident side effect from radiation that I was struggling with was fatigue. Time slows down when you are tired. Breast cancer survivors say the feeling can last for weeks or months after the treatment ends.
“It feels like you are dragging your feet all the time. You have to take it easy,” said a cancer survivor.
“Radiation drains you,” another warned.
Taking vitamins to get a boost was not advised. UM radiation oncologist Dr. Cristiane Takita, whom I had been meeting with for a weekly hug and a reminder to rub a clear alcohol-free aloe gel on the radiated area, said I should avoid taking supplemental antioxidant vitamins.
“Vitamins C, E, A and D might interfere with radiation’s ability to destroy cancer cells,” Takita said. “Vitamins that come from food are OK. When radiation is finished, you can resume taking your supplements.”
This is because there is a potential conflict. Radiation creates free radicals, highly energized molecules that damage cells. These free radicals target cancer cells. Antioxidants keep free radicals from forming, or neutralizes them.
During our first meeting of 2012, she was unusually enthusiastic.
“Everything is going really well. This is great! Great! Great! Great! Great! And you are almost done,” she said. “There is no time for depression. This is almost over. You are halfway through.”
Part 8: Facing my fears after mastectomy
Part 11: Radiation therapy gives her hope
Part 12: Finding strength from others