My eyebrows are gone, my eyelashes, all the hair on my body. Every last bit of it. I'm as bald as a cueball. At first I wear a baseball cap, which limits my vision; I knock myself silly walking into doorframes. I finally ditch the hat and show my naked skull to the world. And it's fine. All of it. Losing my hair means losing the last of the "old me." I embrace the new me, happy to be alive and to show the world this very obvious badge of cancer.
Chemo ends on November 30. I look awful: beyond wan, ravaged. But I did it, by God.
At the start, I'd been convinced the experience would turn me into a trembling heap of tears. Instead, I learned that sickness can be faced . . . and faced down. When you have cancer, when the game is life or death, you're exactly as brave and as strong as you have to be.
Two weeks later, after spending endless hours on a project at work, I come home on a Friday evening and collapse into bed. I have a slight fever: 100*F. Thanks to the chemo, my white cells are at a low ebb; any infection is dangerous. I telephone the on-call oncologist; he tells me to come in. Back to the hospital I go. I'm admitted with a spiking fever, cause unknown. Christmas is less than two weeks away.
I spend the last weeks of 2001 in a large, empty room on the fifth floor of DHMC. I have a neutropenic fever—a high fever that sometimes develops in cancer patients who've undergone aggressive chemotherapy. I'm tired, white, bald, weak. And dangerously ill.
The doctors can't identify the source of the infection and so can do nothing other than wait. And keep me isolated. That means no visitors (germs), no flowers (dirt), and no activity (too tiring). The only time I leave the room is to get some tattoos to mark the site where I'll get radiation therapy, which is due to start in three weeks. As long as I survive this fever, that is.
At last, a chest x-ray reveals the problem: pneumonia. A week of IV antibiotics
I spend hours sitting in an easy chair in the infusion suite, watching the bags of poison drain into me, one after another. Red-jacketed volunteers offer ham sandwiches on damp-looking white bread and fish chowder. To this day, I don't enjoy sandwiches and can't bear the smell of fish chowder.
gradually lowers the fever, and an oxygen tank, hissing beside me 24 hours a day, keeps me breathing. Two days before Christmas, I earn my release by walking laps around the nurses' station, pulling the tank behind me.
All through Christmas, I'm tethered to the oxygen tank on its heavy cart. It noisily pours oxygen into my lungs through tubes in my nose. Clearly, it's a companion I look forward to shedding.
After Christmas, I ask Dr. Schwartz when I can get rid of the oxygen. He tells me
just as soon as I no longer need it. "Uh, and when would that be?" I say.
"As soon as you can march up and down the corridor, up and down the stairs, singing your college fight song, and keeping your oxygen level up on your own." I can tell he means it.
Me, sing . . . in public? No way.
But Gary, serious Gary, pulls me to my feet, disconnects the oxygen, and off we go. He breaks into a rousing chorus of the Michigan fight song; I respond with "On Wisconsin," deeming the fight song of my actual alma mater—Brown—to be too wimpy. We walk briskly down the oncology hallway, up the stairs, and back down the stairs again, belting out competing songs, to the great amusement of everyone we pass.
Back in his office, Gary clips the oxygen monitor to my finger, takes a look at the reading, and says, "You're free. Go home." I happily leave the hospital without the tank, without the tubes, but with a peek at the human side of the doctor who's spent the past seven months saving my life.
And right then and there, I realize that cancer has changed me. I'm not embarrassed to stand out in a crowd. And I'm not afraid anymore. Of anything. Going into cancer treatment, I was a 47-year-old woman who was a reflection of a totally typical upbringing—a woman of my times. When I was old enough to wear a bra, girls didn't go braless. Period. So I wore one. When I was old enough to marry, girls didn't have career paths; they had husbands. So I got married. Then I mindlessly drifted through life, vaguely happy, not questioning, doing and being what I was supposed to.
But in facing cancer, I find my whole world changing. I haven't taken a sick day in 25 years. Hospitals are someplace I go to visit other people. Me, in a hospital? Never.
But here I am, sucked into the health-care system, and I mean big time. My life has become a revolving door of donning and removing the dreaded hospital johnny. Doctors and nurses and med students