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My Story

the adrenaline rush of deadlines. I refuse to think about what comes next.

One afternoon, a colleague sits down next to my desk, looks me in the eye, says he has something to tell me. I nod expectantly. "Two of my friends have done chemo," he tells me. "And it was the worst experience of their life." He looks at me a second longer, shakes his head, gets up, and leaves.

To this day, I'm astounded at his insensitivity. But I learn quickly that cancer is a strange bedfellow. A sister-in-law may desert you and a casual acquaintance may become a best friend. The experience touches all of us differently.

Enduring the infusions
August 17 is my first day of chemo. I'll have a treatment every 21 days for three months. I quickly learn that the infusion suite is a den of horrors, mitigated by the curative poisons it wields and by the kindly people who deliver them.

The first thing I see, walking in, is kids. Bald kids, kids with needles in their arms. And their mothers, haggard with worry, some with tears in their eyes, but holding it together, being moms. The littlest children play; at age two or three, they don't understand that this isn't how life is supposed to be. The older kids, teens, sit in wheelchairs, eyes lowered, or lie in beds, faces to the wall. They know. This is the worst part of every chemo treatment: walking past these kids. Knowing that some of them will never grow up.

I learn quickly that I'm a challenging patient. It takes agonizing minutes to find a vein—prick after prick of the big chemo needle in the back of my hand, the crook of my elbow, the inside of my wrist, where veins should be easy to find but, at least on me, aren't. I laugh with the chemo nurse in her lead apron, sympathize with her fear of touching even one drop of the lethal liquid she's about to drip into my arm.

I spend hours sitting in an easy chair, watching the bags of poison drain into me, one after another. Red-jacketed volunteers offer ham sandwiches on

Hamel's job as senior editor of the King Arthur Flour Company involves writing for the company catalog, blogging about baking on the King Arthur website, and creating recipes. Here, she works on refining a recipe for that old standby—chocolate chip cookies—in the King Arthur test kitchens, located in Norwich, Vt.

With trepidation, I force myself to look at my chest. I see bloody bandages swathing an open wound. But sure enough, despite the massive swelling, I can detect the solid feel of a breast.

damp-looking white bread and fish chowder. To this day, I don't enjoy sandwiches and can't bear the smell of fish chowder.

Then I go home and wait to be sick. One day, two days, three days. I take first one combination of pills, then another, trying to ward off nausea, will it away. I realize that my hatred of vomiting is working in my favor: though I sometimes hang over the toilet, sweating and gasping, I refuse to throw up. Simply refuse.

And at that moment, I discover something about myself: I have great willpower. Me, who always gave up when faced with physical adversity. Who refused to run the long races in track, because they were too painful. Who never even considered drug-free childbirth. I can face

down nausea. I can bend it to my will. And I do.

I'm two weeks into my chemo regimen when 9/11 occurs. The Twin Towers collapse; thousands die. Destruction is everywhere—including within me. Chemotherapy is skinning me alive from the inside out. My mouth and throat develop sores so painful I can't swallow. I bleed from every mucous membrane; I never knew there were so many vulnerable spots on my body, places where the blood courses a bare half-millimeter below the skin.

And then my hair falls out.

I stand outside on my back porch, in the soft September air, brushing out clumps of hair and consigning them to the wind, watching them drift down to the ground or be carried aloft on an updraft. Later, my skull as patchy as an old tomcat's hide, I'm told of a woman who specializes in "chemo haircuts." I shyly present myself at her house on a side street in Lebanon, enter a room holding a beauty-shop chair. She sympathetically crops what's left into a semblance of a hairstyle. Even that disappears within a month, and I'm left with nothing at all.

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