A few times in my life I’ve experienced a duality of time. A time period where it seems to telescope into slowness while simultaneously shrinking to nothing. One of those times was between January 30th, 2016 through February 29th, 2016. Those are the dates when it was determined that my mother, Jo Altman, had stage four lung cancer, and when she passed from this world into the next. One year later I experienced another duality of time when I received my own diagnosis of breast cancer. My thoughts raced with what I “knew” about cancer. This consisted of my mom’s experience and what I had seen on TV and in movies. I have one month to get my affairs in order. This thought kept echoing in my head, but unlike my mom’s ordeal, my cancer was detected early and I was quickly put on a course of treatment. This, of course, didn’t stop me from overreacting, which I am inclined to do from time to time, or so I’m told.
After the initial shock wore off from the explanation of my diagnosis, triple positive right breast invasive ductal carcinoma stage one verging on stage two, I quickly realized the length of the road that lay ahead. The lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy came first. The cancer was confined to just the lump and had not spread to the lymph nodes, a tremendous blessing, and relief. Next came the port insertion surgery for my chemotherapy. I vehemently argued against it, but was told that the smaller veins in my arms could not withstand the powerful chemotherapy drugs I’d be receiving and the larger vein in my chest was the standard delivery route for infusion therapy. It was further explained that because of the so-called ‘triple positive’, the HER2 receptor made any cancer much more aggressive and thus the reason for both the chemotherapy and the radiation treatments with only the stage one diagnosis.
The days that followed were filled with consults with radiation and medical oncologists, with lots of medical jargon and information being hurled at me from every direction. My head was spinning, and flooded with strategies, protocols, statistics and probabilities and possibilities. Trying to navigate these waters was trying, to say the least, but having a nurse assigned to me to help me understand things every step of the way was invaluable. My chemotherapy began May 1, 2017, with four rounds (every 2 weeks) of what was termed “the Red Devil” IV infusion, which was the worst part of the treatment in terms of side effects. Next, twelve rounds (weekly) of a less harsh chemo cocktail. Lastly, thirteen Herceptin infusions (every 3 weeks) that suppressed the HER2 receptor, ending on June 28, 2018. My 30 rounds of radiation lasted from October to December 2017. There was some radiation site dryness, and some itching and burning involved, and an odd shade of purple that human skin should certainly never be, but all in all, nothing like the chemotherapy side effects. One of the worst things was the constant, absolute exhaustion, and having to be hospitalized for dehydration and decreased blood volume. It was hard sometimes, putting up a good front, especially to those closest to me. But those who saw through it understood, and let me break down when I needed to, and let me act like I was tough when I felt like I needed to (but we knew damned well I wasn’t). My life drastically changed from a once a year doctor visit to a life of constant bouncing between my doctors, surgeon, oncologist, and radiation specialist every week or so. It takes an emotional toll on you that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but you have two choices. One, lie down and take it or, Two, pull up your big girl panties and fight like hell. I’m still wearing my big girl panties.
I would love to say, “It really wasn’t that bad,” but I would be lying. The going was rough. Crippling fatigue and lethargy, nausea, mouth sores, and not wanting to eat because nothing tastes right. Weird phantom smells, and dehydration and fainting spells to the point of hospitalization. On top of that, I was going to lose my hair. My hair has always been thin, fine and mousey brown, but that didn’t mean I wanted to lose it. I decided I would take this one thing into my own hands, literally, and to get a jump on it. Cancer was not going to take my hair, and by that I mean I had it shaved off before it started to fall out. It wasn’t much, but it made me feel like I still had some measure of control over my body. Weeks before, my sister had dyed it pink for me, but I refused to wait for the chemo to slowly take it away. One afternoon, my fiance’ and I went again to my sister’s house for her to shave it off, and yep, she shaved his head, too, and suddenly my Facebook news feed began showing the support of my friends. Many of them changed their profile pictures to show their new pink hair. I am lucky to have many supportive people in my life. My sister, her family, my fiance, my many friends and other loved ones, all the doctors and nurses on my treatment team, and I think most importantly, my theatre family. Not to disparage all the loved ones in my life, but they treated me as Kari with the Cancer while my theatre family just treated me like Kari. Ok, a bald-headed Kari, but still just Kari. I was in rehearsal for two plays with a third on the horizon when diagnosed, and while I made it through the first one alright, I had to drop out of the second one three weeks from opening due to the chemotherapy treatments and their side effects. By the time the third production rolled around I was past the worst of the chemo and used to the remaining side effects; I was just battling the fatigue and waiting for my hair to come back in. Throughout this period the theatre helped me maintain some semblance of sanity by giving me something else to focus on.
Although I pray I never go through anything like that again, I never thought, “why me”? The question became, “Why not me”? I am grateful it happened to me rather than to someone else in my family; we had already lost our mom. I wasn’t angry. I understood that this was not any kind of punishment, but simply the way things were for now, and I needed to keep my faith, stay prayerful, and just keep putting one foot in front of the other, though that was mighty difficult some days. Sometimes it felt interminable, like the infusions and the poking and prodding would never end, but I kept going because I wasn’t going to give up. That was never an option. I’m far too stubborn for that, and I still have lots of things I want to do with the life I have left.
I have met many wonderful, supportive people along this journey and am blessed not to have gone through it alone. During this time, the bad days really made me appreciate the times when I felt good. I think sometimes God puts things in your path so that you are forced to take stock and maybe reevaluate things you’ve believed about yourself. I have never thought of myself as brave, but now I know I am brave. And I’m strong enough to tackle whatever arises, with God’s grace, my beloved friends and family, and most important of all, a sense of humor.