Day Before Chemo –

February 3, 2014. I spent the day before my first chemotherapy treatment at the office readying myself and my colleagues for my new schedule.

In the weeks following my surgery, I started to open my “cancer circle” to encompass a few more people. This included my boss, who was the CEO of the company where I worked.

I was nervous about this discussion. Although I knew my boss would be incredibly supportive of me personally, I worried about how my status as a chemotherapy patient would alter his perception of me as one of his trusted lieutenants. How people perceived me, especially at work, was something I placed vital importance.

Before this conversation, my oncologist assured me that I would be able to work through chemotherapy. His physician assistant, who had been through chemo herself, reiterated this belief.

As I continued to gather information on the chemotherapy regimen that I would soon begin, there seemed to be universal agreement that my drug combo was one of the more desirable options, relative to side effects and the ability to maintain some semblance of normalcy through treatment.

With this information, I prepared for the discussion with my boss as I would for any other meeting.  I wrote up a project plan, which outlined expectations and dates.

I have six rounds of chemotherapy, all of which will take place on a Wednesday. I will be back in the office on Thursday since steroids will mitigate initial side effects.  On Friday, I will work from home as the side effects start to kick in.  I will recover over the weekend and be back in the office on Monday.

After verbally vomiting this information to my boss in one long rambling sentence with a desperate undercurrent of “everything’s fine, nothing will change,” I stopped talking and took a breath.

My boss replied, Christine if you want to work through this, I support you.  If you want to take a leave of absence, I support that too.  I am going to follow your lead on this.  But you need to make taking care of yourself your priority.

Wow, I thought to myself. I really know how to pick good people.

Despite my boss putting me at ease, I still didn’t feel comfortable sharing my diagnosis more broadly at work.  I was still viewing my situation as strictly “need to know”—meaning, if you didn’t need to know, I wasn’t going to tell you.

I did feel a responsibility to tell my direct reports. It wouldn’t be fair to leave them in the dark. The reality was that despite my outward projection of business as usual, I wasn’t in total denial. I knew I was going to need help, especially as the treatments progressed.

Like my boss, my team could not have been more supportive, but seeing the worry on their faces was extremely hard.

I scheduled an acupuncture appointment for after work. My office was in Bellevue, WA, which from Seattle, requires crossing Lake Washington via the 520 “Floating Bridge.” As commutes go, this is a good one.

The 520 bridge is over a mile long. Occasionally, drivers find their commute to take more time than anticipated, not because of traffic but because the bridge lifts to let large boats pass through. Despite my aversion to being late, I always enjoyed this unexpected delay, as it provides the rare ability to get out of the car, stand on the bridge and take in the majesty of Lake Washington and Mt. Rainier.

And when standing on the bridge, one realizes that the “floating” reference isn’t an exaggeration, for depending on the strength of the wind, you can feel the ground beneath you sway back and forth.

But what I loved most about my commute was the mental prompt the bridge gave me every day.  In the morning, I used my time crossing the bridge to start nudging my brain into work mode by thinking through the things I wanted to get accomplished over the course of the day.

In the evening, the prompt did the reverse, as my goal was to leave the day’s events behind me by the time I reached the Seattle side.

But the night before chemotherapy, my bridge travel felt more ominous. As more of the bridge reflected in my rear-view mirror, I felt sick to my stomach thinking about what I was driving “towards.”

The daily decompression I typically experienced was replaced with extreme anxiety, which was surprisingly specific. The thought of the six chemotherapy treatments that lay ahead of me was quite daunting, but during my travel home, my thoughts and fears localized on one thing.

I can’t believe that I am willingly going to allow poison into my body.  

When I received my treatment plan, I felt a certain irony over the fact that the woman who rarely took an aspirin was now going to be medicated at an epic level. I have always been suspect of foreign substances, most notably drugs and alcohol.

I left my drinking days behind after graduating from college. The totality of my experimentation with recreational drugs can be summed up by one cannabis-fueled ski trip in the 90s. Drugs and alcohol were never my thing, which may have contributed to my having no use for prescription drugs either.

And now here I am, the night before chemotherapy, contemplating a cocktail of drugs with names I couldn’t even pronounce.

As I stood in the elevator, I saw my hand shaking as I pushed the button for my acupuncturist’s floor. When I entered the office, I was fully sobbing.

Fortunately, my acupuncturist was in the circle. She was the one who recommended that I come in the night before chemotherapy, to help settle my energy and prepare me for the next day.

Tell me what the tears are about, she said.

More run-on sentences followed, with multiple utterances of the word “toxic”.

I can get my head around cancer, I said. But I just can’t get myself to be ok with willingly injecting myself with poison.  I am more afraid of what the chemo will do to my body than I am of cancer.  

What my acupuncturist said next still gives me goosebumps to this day.

Christine, you need to think of what lies ahead as a noble war.  War is never pretty.  It is bloody, and it is painful.  But your war has a deep purpose. The chemo has a purpose. When the side effects you fear begin to manifest, it will be a sign that the treatment is working. That you are winning the war. It’s not fair that you must fight this battle, but reclaiming your health is a noble war.  Hold on to this thought.

I stopped crying and started to relax.  My acupuncturist inserted needles into various meridian points on my body and left the room.

I closed my eyes and had one thought.

Wow. I really know how to pick good people.  

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