I finished chemo last week. By some minor miracle, I still have a respectable collection of intact eyelashes – almost 20 on the bottom of each eye and too many to count on top, according to Brian. Likewise with my eyebrows. I wish I could say the same for the friendly flora in my gut, which seem to have taken a beating, but I figure in about ten days I’ll be clear of residual toxins, if not entirely over their effects. Here’s hoping I’ll also be clean of cancer – the surgeon plans to cut it out in five days.
I never did break into the make-up haul I scored at a free Look Good … Feel Better® workshop I attended in July. I thought it would offer tips or encouragement for dealing with hair loss and keeping skin healthy through chemotherapy and radiation. There was some of that, but mostly we just went through our goodie bags and put on make-up under the guidance of a 60-something esthetician who volunteers on the side to help women like me.
When we signed up for the class, we checked Fair, Medium or Dark for our complexion. Our friendly esthetician doled out big magenta bags to each of us, and as we rifled through them it became apparent that our bags were assembled with whatever surpluses donor companies had on hand. My Medium bag contained different types and shades of make-up than the other Medium women’s bags. We did a little trading, and tried to help the Fair woman, whose bag didn’t seem to contain anything light enough.
I had figured that without hair, I’d really need make-up, but it turned out to be the opposite. I don’t doubt that looking good helps one feel better, but I’m not convinced that make-up improves anything on a bald woman, at least not when that bald woman is me. Hair – especially my dark, thick hair – tends to conceal, shade and distract from a face, and make-up can bring the face into balance. Without hair, I’m all face. Make-up would look garish. I’d feel like a clown or a guy in drag or a 90-year-old woman trying to make up for some perceived deficit.[i]
So for me, the best part of Look Good … Feel Better® was meeting the four other participants, all of whom were currently on chemotherapy. None of us knew each other. Two were probably in their 70s and both wore short, coiffed wigs they said looked like their real hair. The other women were in their 30s, and each had three children and found a breast lump during or shortly after the third pregnancy. One wore a hat over a scarf and looked beautiful. Of course, she was 32, which helps. The other had had three chemotherapy treatments and her hair was thinning but still passable; I had started chemo but hadn’t yet lost my hair.
The older women seemed exhausted, mentally and spiritually. One carried the burden of stage 4 breast cancer and was grappling with the twin demons of death and regret: regret that she had ducked chemotherapy when her stage 1 cancer was diagnosed and treated. She was told there was a 2-3 percent chance of recurrence if she opted for hormone therapy, and a 2-3 percent chance of recurrence if she did chemo; logically, she opted against chemo, but she now wonders if that would have prevented her cancer from metastasizing to the bones two years later.
Now she’s on “maintenance” chemotherapy and living with pain, fear and the everyday presence of death. Dying while living, living while dying -- the two are intertwined with stage 4 breast cancer, which at present can’t be cured but only managed to mitigate pain and prolong life to varying and largely unpredictable degrees. National Cancer Institute statistics give people diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer a 15 percent 5-year survival rate. While most undoubtedly experience at least intermittent joy and fulfillment, for many it is a slog through a swamp of horrors toward an inexorable death.
This may sound bleak, but there is a vast chasm between stage 3 breast cancer – which can, with luck, be vanquished permanently – and stage 4 breast cancer, which cannot. Once cancer is in the bones, modern medicine has no way of eradicating it. Ongoing or maintenance chemo is to my mind worthy of outlaw by the Geneva Convention. I can only admire the people -- like a vivacious woman on one of Brian’s photo safari tours this summer – who find a way to embrace the life they’re living. Brian texted me a picture of her bald smiling face with warm words of encouragement about living fully.
But I digress. Back to Look Good … Feel Better.® Older Woman #1 was not feeling vivacious and I was moved by the depth of her sadness. Older Woman #2 was just worn out. Her cancer was not metastatic, but chemotherapy was raining the ten plagues on her; she was tired, sick, depleted. I thought of a friend in his 70s who was diagnosed with a slow-growing cancer a few years ago and chose to forego chemotherapy. He said he looked around his retirement community, where there’s a lot of cancer, and concluded that most people on chemo never really recovered from the ravages of the treatment, even if they recovered from their cancer.
The three younger women at the workshop, if I include myself, were having an easier time of things. I believe the distraction and immediate demands of raising children help us mentally and spiritually – they give us something to cling to, something to live for, something to worry about besides ourselves. We are also physically better armed to withstand the chemical-weapons assault that is chemotherapy.
I will probably end up tossing the makeup I garnered at the workshop, but I will keep the insights. I looked into the pained eyes of stage 4 cancer and saw the misery aggressive chemotherapy can bestow on older patients. I was inspired by the two mothers-of-three who smiled like Mother Theresa throughout the workshop, who laughed and joked, who thanked the presenter warmly despite the fact that she was 30 minutes late, despite the fact that our makeup bags were a hodgepodge of cast-offs[ii], despite the fact that they had stage 3 breast cancer.
I haven’t seen the women at the workshop since then. It was enough to cross paths for 90 minutes of our lives, to voice the truth about our experiences while penciling in eyebrows, to touch each other with our stories and our shared humanity.
[i] Plus, I’m not sure make-up is that great for people on chemo. The make-up we were given is conventional stock replete with lord-knows-what chemicals. And I sometimes wonder if my eyelashes hung on because I didn’t harass them with fake-eyelash glue or mascara as the authors of You Can Do This! Surviving Breast Cancer without Losing Your Sanity or Your Style did. I couldn’t relate to most of that book, which was given to me by a social worker at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Mostly the book made me feel like I could never live in lower 48 again – I just don’t care enough about clothes, cars and cosmetics.
[ii] I don’t want to denigrate their contributions, but will point out that the big cosmetic corporations that donate to Look Good … Feel Better® no doubt understand how to play the tax deduction game. They also know how to play the distraction game – being cancer heroes helps stave off questions about the cosmetic industry’s contributions to rising toxins in our air, water and homes, as well as the link between such toxins and cancer. But that is a subject for another day.
|Rosie at the pumpkin patch, October 12|
|flowers and coins for John, October 12|
|Alder with Leo from Juneau and Jerry from Bainbridge--all in high spirits!|
|Pumpkin minions. Bainbridge people take Halloween seriously!|
|Last taxol infusion! October 16.|
|"Running" earlier today. Probably little faster than speed-walking.|