“What are these doing in here? They aren’t even my presents! Do you SEE my name on them? I’m sick of this mess! Get these out of here!” I too was surprised at my reaction and knew it was rude and uncalled for, but the fury was building and I was on the verge of an emotional explosion. The woman blocking the door to my bedroom turned to me and gently probed, “Chemo or Radiation?” I glared at her and asked, “Excuse me?” I was getting more angry and impatient by the second. Who was this stranger in my home and how dare she invade my privacy? She asked again, “Chemo or Radiation? I can tell you’re very upset. Which one are you going through?” As quickly as my uproar began…it subsided, and I broke into deep sobs. She held out her arms to me, and I rushed into them, allowing her to nurture my weary soul. For a small second I felt safe and without pain. I felt her warmth and understanding and knew if I could just stay in her embrace just a little longer that all would be right again. And then I woke up with a painful cough as the gathering of mucositis in my throat threatened to block my airway during my sleep.
As I laid in bed, I quickly regained an awareness of my surroundings. I was at the beach on a short weekend getaway with my parents. They rented a beautiful two-bedroom house with large open windows, overlooking Bodega Bay. The day was Saturday, May 1, 2010, and I had survived 13 days of Radiation Therapy. I swallowed carefully, aware of the new sores beginning to develop throughout my mouth. With the rumble in my stomach notifying me that there was a need for sustenance, I silently whispered thanks for the tube implanted in my stomach which would give me the necessary pain medication and nutrition without having to overuse my already bruised throat. In addition to the sores, my taste buds were quickly racing towards a tunnel of nothing-ness. Salty foods tasted more like metal and dishes containing sugar had little to no taste for the first several bites but hit me with an overwhelming richness that left me feeling ill by the 4th or 5th sample.
I joined my parents in the living room where we spent most of the morning soaking up the gorgeous view and talked about the feelings of anger I was experiencing in my dreams. For the most part, we all agreed that I had been doing well throughout the process. I was able to vocalize that maybe my outburst while asleep was an indication that I hadn’t quite worked through the anger stage of the journey. The rest of the morning was dedicated to reading, relaxing and breathing in the smell of the fresh ocean air.
Around mid-afternoon I showered and prepared for our daily drive to the ocean. As I pulled on my long, dark hair to ring out the excess water, dozens of strands came out in my hand. At first I assumed it was the normal shedding that occurs on a daily basis; however, I quickly realized that it wasn’t stopping and soon my brush was overloaded with an abundance of hair. I rushed to my mom to show her what was happening. We were both under the impression that losing my hair was not one of the symptoms I would experience from Radiation. In fact, my oncologist had been very clear that it only occured with Chemotherapy. There it was; however, and as the bathroom trash can began to fill with my hair, I began to cry.
It started with slow tears and quickly escalated to uncontrollable sobs. Sobs that left me breathless but failed to cease with comfort coming from my mom and dad. Despite my desire to crawl back in bed and curl up in the fetal position, I pushed myself to get ready and off we went for our drive around the bay. We drove further than normal, taking in the beauty around us. The ocean stretched in the distance far beyond what we could see, and we soaked up the sight of the waves building for miles only to crash against the huge rocks in a grande finale. There in the midst of the drive, I again cried. As the sounds of “Three Plus” my favorite Hawaiian band played throughout the car, I allowed the emotion of my heartbreak to beat against my need to be strong. Much like the waves against the rock, eventually the tide changed and I came to a place where I knew I had to make a decision to continue to be angry and sad or to be at peace with the new changes invading my body.
On the phone with my sister later that night, I again allowed the reality of my new situation to take control and her sympathy led to more tears. As we sat in sadness, she gave me the permission to express my fears and acknowledge that the loss of my hair was just one more symptom of this destructive illness. When enough time had passed, she moved into the roles of protector and “Miss Fix it” and reminded me how cute my hair is when it is cut short. By the end of the evening, with the help and love of my family, I was in a place of acceptance, and I knew that no matter what else happened, they would be there to sit with me, hold me and support me through the journey.
In bed that night, I closed my eyes and allowed the exhaustion of the days events to lull me into a silent sleep and more importantly…a dreamless night.