Dellani Oakes

Making People Fall in Love One Couple at a Time

Coping with Cancer

This deviates somewhat from my usual blogs, but I wanted to share some experiences I’ve had lately. I’m finally at a place where I can talk more freely about this, though it still isn’t easy. Part of the healing process is to face the demons and conquer them – so here goes!

Sense memories are the strongest – especially the sense of smell. I know this is true for me. I associate smells with events, like holidays. Turkey and stuffing cooking on Thanksgiving, combined with pumpkin pies and everything else we prepare for that meal. Christmas is cinnamon, hot chocolate and succulent, glazed ham.

There are other odors, not as appetizing, that evoke memories. The repugnant smell of dog poop or spoiled food makes use wrinkle our noses at the memory. Then there are hospital smells. The antiseptic cleaners and rubbing alcohol, layered with illness and despair. I mention hospitals because I’ve spent a lot of time in one lately.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in December. A routine mammogram found a tiny lump, about 1cm in diameter. After more scans and a biopsy, I was told I needed surgery. Three days before Christmas, I had a lumpectomy.

My first visit to the oncologist was a little frightening, but he was reassuring and made me feel confident that I was going to be alright. He recommended radiation treatments and a pill that I’d be on for five years. I could live with that. He suggested a new test to determine my percentage chance of recurrence. They did the test and the doctor was stunned to have it come back putting me in the highest risk category. His recommendation, chemotherapy.

From the time I found out that I had a tumor, I was fighting the chemo. The idea of pumping myself full of toxic chemicals wasn’t a happy thought. However, I finally agreed to it. The doctor prescribed four treatments, one every three weeks.

Chemotherapy departments smell different from everywhere else in the hospital. I can’t describe it because the smell is, to me, indescribable. I don’t mean that they smell bad – just unique. Perhaps it’s the drugs they use, or it could come from the patients. I honestly don’t know. But when you’re on chemo, you become familiar with the smell.

Things don’t smell, taste or feel right when you’re on chemo. What was appetizing a day ago, turns the stomach the next. The sense of smell is heightened, making even pleasant smelling things noxious. Food doesn’t taste right, the texture is all wrong. Even thinking about it can turn my stomach all over again, and I’ve been done with my chemo for over a month.

I think the thing that upset me the most was losing my hair. Not all chemo drugs will make your hair fall out, but mine did. First, it turned coal black, then it started falling out in clumps. I finally shaved it off to about a quarter inch. It didn’t seem quite as bad then, and it certainly was more comfortable.

It’s coming back in now, but I can’t tell what color it’s going to be. The doctor says it should be thick and curly – something it never was before. At the moment, I have dark patches and light ones, so I think I’m going to be spotted like a Dalmatian. I can make jokes now, but at the time, it was horrible. It’s hard to believe how much of the self image is attached to our hair. When you look in the mirror and see a bald head reflected there, it’s traumatic. I’m more used to it now, but it still upsets me.

Through all this, I’ve tried to keep my sense of humor. I stay upbeat, even when things start to get me down. Admittedly, I’ve avoided things that can bring me down. I’ve even avoided people I knew who wouldn’t be positive. One thing a cancer patient doesn’t need is negativity.

I never knew what to say to someone who was going through what I’m going through, but I’m learning. Smiles, hugs, jokes – all of these are important to anyone with a long term illness. I’ve tried to find the humor in my condition – and I’m still working on it.

I’ve had an easy time in comparison to some. The cancer is gone. What we’re doing now is going after random cells that might have escaped my surgeon’s knife, so that the cancer can’t get a toe hold and come back. It could have been much worse, and I’m thankful every day that it wasn’t.

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