Five Things I Hate About Chemo
by Kerry Blair
When I began chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, I wanted to keep it private. Two weeks later, not only is it the worst-kept secret since Neiman Marcus’s chocolate chip cookie recipe, but I feel like a fraud. I recently got a letter from a friend outlining how brave and candid and long-suffering I supposedly am. Oh, gosh. Is that a load of . . . um . . . that all-natural material everybody’s spreading on their gardens this time of year, or what? Not only would I never cut it on Moment of Truth, but I can gripe and whine with the best of them!
I’ll prove it. In a drastic departure from “to review or not to review” – and just for the record – here are the top five things I hate about chemo:
Mouth sores and chapped lips. I go through two tubes of Chapstick and one bottle of mouthwash a week with no noticeable improvement. It is the first time in my life I’ve been grateful for thin lips and a small mouth. Julia Roberts and/or Joan Rivers would not survive this.
Trashed taste buds. Everything tastes terrible. Some people say it’s metallic, but I think it’s more . . . I don’t know what it is . . . but it changes eating as I know it. Bland is barely tolerable. Sweet is nasty. Salty is at least close to normal. Anybody remember the salt-craving creature from Star Trek? I feel such a strong kinship these days that I downloaded her picture and put it on the mantle with the rest of the family photos.
The singular opportunity to observe results of my body’s semi-digestive process up close and personal. Repeatedly.
Soliloquies. “To wig or not to wig. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (as in the looks one is bound to get when bald) or to take arms against a sea of troubles (as in poaching somebody else’s hair) and by opposing end them?” Of all the thousand natural shocks that chemo-flesh is heir to, hair-loss might be the worst. I’ve spent hours looking at wigs. Long hair. Short hair. Brown hair. Red hair. Goth hair. Mohair. Even a curly blonde bubble-do Barbie wore in 1955. Suffice it to say that despite being sorely tempted by a purple shag, I decided to hope for the best instead of prepare for the worst. I will think positively . . . and avoid hairbrushes. If I go bald anyway, Plan B is already in the closet: the knee-length curls Hilary wore at the last Mystery Dinner. Bonus: Since I'm so short, all I will need to reenact Rapunzel is a stepladder and a witch.
Pity Parties. While I do allow that an occasional intimate tea with self-pity is gratifying, I despair of larger soirees held in my honor. Almost everybody I know feels so dang sorry for me they can’t stand it. Well, I can’t stand it either.
Most of my phone conversations now go like this: Hello? Did I get you up? No. Oh, uh, good. So, er, how are you? I’m fine. How are you really? I’m really fine. No, you’re not. You puke toenails. Well, sure. I meant other than that. I knew I shouldn’t have bothered you! Click.
It’s not much different in cyberspace. I used to get silly stories and incredible pictures and tales of woe and requests to read manuscripts. This morning, every single e-mailer wanted to sell me something or pray for me. Obviously, the word has spread. While I am practically certain that I am the same person I was before I started feeding on salt and kneeling in the presence of toilets, I may be the only one who believe it.
Nobody take this next part wrong, even if I phrase it badly, okay? I deeply appreciate prayer in my behalf. Prayer is, as Elder Maxwell taught, the most efficacious thing one person can do for another. Thus I am richly blessed by the effort and faith of my family and friends. Pity, on the other hand, leads people to think that all they have to offer is prayer . . . and sympathy. That is not the case.
Please don't feel sorry for me. I don’t feel sorry for myself – at least not because of that stupid “Things I Hate about Chemo” list. Everything on it pales in comparison to my many blessings. They are too numerous to list, but I have a great doctor, adequate insurance, lovely bathrooms, and the best family and dearest friends in the world. Yes, I also have cancer, but I have a kind that is almost never caught in stage one – and yet it was! This means that if I endure a little discomfort today, I have a 95% chance of living enough tomorrows to . . . I don’t know . . . see Rob grow up? Watch the Cubs win a World Series? Something miraculous, for sure!
I do recognize that ignoring cancer is like overlooking an elephant in the room. But in my case, it is a very large room and a relatively small elephant. In fact, I think it looks like this one – about eight inches high and six inches wide. Since it’s made of solid brass, it is a little heavy to carry around all the time, but one does what one must. Here’s the thing I wish more people understood: If I hold this thing up to my nose it is all I can see. Its width and breadth obscure the room and make everything seem as dark and cold as it is itself. Anyone would be afraid to be alone with a beast of that magnitude. But when I manage to push it out to arm’s length, the perspective changes. It’s the same elephant, and we’re still together in the same room, but now there is light, and around its greatly-diminished dimensions I can clearly see all the places I have yet to go.
You’d think, knowing this, I could keep that elephant where it belongs. But the thing I really hate about chemo is the lack of strength I sometimes have to keep the elephant at arm’s length. Then, more than I need barf bags and pretzels and sympathetic shoulders, I need friends who still see me behind the elephant. Living and laughing and growing and serving despite cancer and chemo is the only way to keep the pachyderm in perspective.
So, quick, somebody tell me an elephant joke!