Chemotherapy: Feeling Lucky in the Wide World of the Unlucky

So I began crying again. Daily. And a horrifying feeling of complete helplessness took over my days. No one could force me to undergo chemotherapy or to put some pill meant for post-menopausal women into my body, but the truth was that if I rejected the oncologist’s recommendations, it would be my fault if/when cancer showed up in my right breast. I could buck the recommendation, but I had to be prepared for the consequences.

Reading about chemotherapy and tamoxifen, even though I was looking for information that would support my stance of not partaking in either, left me feeling more terrified than I had at any other point. I had been wrong this whole time, not necessarily misinformed, but I had never asked if this would even be a possibility. My negative lymph node left me thinking I was home free, but I’d never asked the imperative question: What next? And now that I knew what could be next, I was completely unprepared.

I began reflecting back on conversations with my doctors, and how they might say something like, “Once you’re done with chemotherapy, we can then replace the expander with the silicone implant.” I had assumed at the time that we were talking worst case scenario so I had dismissed the statement entirely.

My mom agreed to go to the oncologist with me, and it was as tense as you would expect for it to be. I was sure he would recommend further treatment, if only to err on the side of caution. The oncology area at the hospital was terrifying. Surrounded in pink… everything, nurses bustled in and out of half-closed doors where men and women were undergoing their chemotherapy. I didn’t want to even imagine myself in those rooms.

Dr. M was out that day, so another doctor met with me instead I didn’t even care who came in to see me. I just sat tensely, listening hard, trying to figure out where the conversation was going to go and gauging how much I would need to fight with this man to get him to agree to the things I wanted. But I had prepared for a battle that ended in surrender.

And I started to breathe again.

He began by talking about the reason why we needed to consider further treatment: it was purely preventative. But as the conversation progressed, I realized that he was trying to talk me out of chemo! I wanted to tell him that was totally unnecessary, but he continued to prattle on about statistics and probabilities. I asked some questions, mostly to make sure I understood what he was telling me. I knew I had to be careful since he was telling me exactly what I wanted to hear. I needed facts, and I needed to make an informed decision since I would live with the consequences forever.

I realized as he was trying to talk me out of chemo that most people must just insist on chemo, even when not entirely necessary. I surmised that there are possibly two processes at work: the first being that people equate cancer with chemo. When someone has cancer, chemo is always the expectation of treatment, and in an odd way it validates the person’s illness in a very visual way. The second is that fear drives people to do strange things. And while fear was prevalent in my thoughts, I was not going to let it drive my car to chemo-ville. Sure, it would reduce my chances of developing cancer in the other breast, but not in any significant way. That was all I needed to hear. Tamoxifen too would only reduce my chance for recurrence minimally.

While I nodded enthusiastically, the doctor concluded that he did not think either treatment would be necessary, however, he would leave it up to me if I wanted to pursue either (or both) options. I briefly envisioned frightened, nervous women in this very seat insisting that they begin chemotherapy ASAP and oh yes, write me a prescription for tamoxifen too!

Thanks, but no. I’m good.

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