The Important Lessons I Learned From Chemo

It gets better than this.

It gets better than this.

 I refused to curl up into a ball and die, even though there were days when I felt so fatigued I barely had the strength to breathe.

In 2013, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. I never would have imagined the whirlwind my life became — mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, emergency surgery to remove the reconstructive tissue expander hardware because of a terrible infection, and finally, chemotherapy. 

In the thick of it, my friend Danielle, who, only two years before had become paralyzed from the chest down after falling 300 feet in a rock-climbing accident, told me, “I’m sure you will go through a period of grief, but I’m glad they found your cancer. You’re going to be OK. Now you’re in the club of super-strong women who conquered this! Sometimes I feel like this accident is the best thing that happened to me.”

Part of me thought Danielle was crazy, but another part knew she was right. And she was! More than two years later, I not only conquered cancer but I also kicked chemo’s butt. I refused to let myself feel defeated or depressed. I refused to curl up into a ball and die, even though there were days when I felt so fatigued I barely had the strength to breathe.

Just like Danielle learned life lessons from her fall, I learned from chemo.

1. It’s Only Hair.

Hair grows back, sometimes bigger and better than before. Besides, I’m not defined by my hair — none of us are, chemo or not. I started to appreciate the fact that a “bad hair day” was infinitely better than a “no hair day.”

2. Appreciate Life’s Simple Pleasures.

There were days when I felt so crappy that the best thing that happened to me was sliding between the bed sheets. When even your skin hurts, there’s something to be said for simple pleasures like those clean, soft sheets or the scent of lavender on your pillow.

3. Don’t Make A Mountain Out Of A Molehill.

In a weird way, being on chemo forces you to take everything else in stride. You realize pretty soon that everything other than cancer — i.e. missing a train, being late to your dentist appointment— is no biggie compared to the suck factor of chemo.

4. Savor Every Bite Of Food.

When you feel nauseous most of the time, even a morsel of food that doesn’t make you retch is a gift. Although I had meds to keep the queasiness in check, my mouth felt as dry as ash. I tried to savor every bite as best I could, and chew slowly and thoughtfully. And I try like hell to keep that thought with me afterwards.

5. Size Doesn’t Matter.

Only being, and staying, healthy does. I didn’t lose weight on chemo — the steroids I had to take along with them made me ravenous. I was getting up in the middle of the night and eating cold hamburgers from the fridge. My main goal was to get strong enough for my next chemo infusion so I could get the nightmare behind me and focus on being well. So I stopped weighing myself. I stopped counting Weight Watchers points. I just fixated on staying strong. And even today, carrying around extra pounds from the meds I take daily to keep my estrogen level down, I still try to take that in stride. After all, there are worse things than a jelly belly.

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