WELCOME TO MY EXPERIMENT

Hanging on to Fitness and a Few Strands of Hair Through Breast Cancer Treatment

I am a Medical Oncologist, a wife, a mother of 4, runner of 12 marathons training to run my 13th with a goal to qualify for Boston when the diagnosis of breast cancer caused a significant detour in my well-planned life. When I asked for guidance on how to continue to stay fit while receiving treatment, I received blank stares and found little data. While I never intended to be in this experiment, I find myself now generating my own data about fitness through the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. I am writing this in hopes to help others who find themselves in this same situation.

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4th Chemo

I did my 4th shark dive yesterday. Or as my good friend Natalie puts it, I have reached the half marathon point of this marathon journey. If predictions are correct, these first 4 treatments are the "hilliest miles". I have now completed the 4 cycles of adriamycin and cytoxan and will move on to 4 cycles of taxol. I am looking forward to gentle downward slope for these last 13.1 miles. And even these hilliest miles have not been that bad. I have come to know a pattern, but also know that each of these cycles has been slightly different. I typically feel mostly fine for the first 3 days. My guess is that this is the dexamethasone talking. This wonder drug prevents nausea but has a bunch of side effects; some good and some not so good. The good is that I have had no nausea to speak of. I feel pretty energetic in both body and mind and therefore have had some pretty productive work days on Thursdays and Fridays post chemo. But one of the significant downsides is that sleep is very difficult and it is not unusual for me to sleep about 4 hours each of these nights when I have dexamethasone in my system. Then the energy crashes on Saturday corresponding I guess to discontinuing the dexamethasone and the build-up of these several nights of poor sleep and likely just my body processing the chemotherapy. The fatigue these last 2 cycles has been like no fatigue I have ever felt. It is like my body yelling with full force: you need to rest so just get yourself on the couch and relax! You probably know me well enough to know that sitting for hours on the couch is not something that makes me very happy. It is a very frustrating feeling for me. But I am learning to surround myself with good yarn and knitting projects and Netflix. So if you have any good Netflix or movie recommendations, please send them my way in a comment so that I can hunker down for the weekend and embrace this forced downtime.

More on the hair situation. When I last spoke about this, I had just had the big haircut that resulted in the cute sassy short haircut. Even though I may not have chosen to have this short haircut had I not been anticipating that my hair was going to fall out, I really enjoyed it. I received lots of compliments from random strangers. This was also strange for me. I have been used to having a pretty boring hairstyle for so many years. Admittedly, I don't really like to project a style of any kind where I may stand out in the crowd. I am most comfortable blending in with the background. But I also believe now that this new, more dramatic, potentially attention-getting look has a lot of life lessons in it for me. Anyway, as predicted, I got to enjoy this sassy style for about exactly one week. Saturday, May 25, I noticed that if I touched my head with my hand, it would be covered with hair that was beginning to fall out. Saturday night also happened to be the night that my youngest son had a bunch of friends over for his 13th birthday party. I had this fear that I would wake and find that all of my hair had fallen out and then frighten the kids the next day. I know this is irrational on so many levels: when do 13-year-old boys even notice what their friends' parents look like and apparently the hair doesn't just all fall out at once. For some reason, I had envisioned that my first chemo cycle was like some kind of machete that had taken a whack at all of my hair follicles in my body and that I would have this sudden complete hair loss. Turns out, that is not how it works. The Sunday hairstyle did not look any different than the Saturday hair, so no children were frightened at breakfast that morning. But then I found myself wanting the hair loss to be over as quickly as possible. I found myself giving the hair a pretty aggressive scrub in the shower each morning for the next few days. This resulted in piles of hair on the floor and walls of the shower and the sassy style was looking more pathetic each day. On Thursday, May 30th I decided that I couldn't take it anymore and asked my oldest daughter to shave it all off with some hair clippers I bought long ago when I had aspirations that I could learn to cut my boy's hair. I was grateful that she was willing to do this for me. It turned out to be a hilarious and fun experience. She practiced creating some new styles for me including a mohawk that we tried to dye purple with food coloring (mostly just dyed my scalp...) and then finally the Sinead O'Connor look.





This shaving of the head turned out to be incredibly therapeutic for me. Watching the hair dribble off my head and the resulting look I was faced with every time I saw myself in the mirror was much harder emotionally than any of the other transformations that I have observed in my body through this process. Although the bald look is definitely dramatic and does not blend in with the crowd as I prefer to do, I have become very comfortable with this look. Mostly physically it feels really good. It did not take me long to find that I had ventured out in public without my wig and no one gave me a second glance. Again, another reminder that maybe the world doesn't care what my head or hair looks like. I do mostly wear baseball caps or this new great hand-knit hat that my good friend Adrienne knit for me, and if I want to feel really fancy, I wear my wig. It is kind of fun to have options. And I am also finding that there are a lot of perks to not having hair: Showering is faster, but I am still trying to figure out what to do with my head. Is shampoo needed? Body wash? Who knows?  If I want to look a little more put together, my hair is sitting there on my dresser ready to go: no blow dry or styling needed. Running and working out is great without hair. Attending hot sweaty swim meets without hair is a bonus.

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