Postcards of Grief

Mourning is a process.

Comments on breast cancer by proxy, written by a woman coping with the loss of her mother.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Push it

Mom went in to the cancer center to get poisoned today. They’re doing it every week, alternating poisons. That’s what chemo is. Radiation too, only that’s a cooking kind of killing, not a chemical kind of killing. It kills the fast growing cells, and by that, it’s meant to kill the cancer. That’s all well and good when it actually works.

Chemo most often wreaks havoc on hair, fingernails and toenails, and all of the most sensitive tissues that heal quickly. The mouth, the eyes, and the nose can all develop sores. The mouth gets the most outside contact, so it tends to be worse than the others when it’s in the line of fire. Mouth sores are painful. It’s painful to eat, to drink, and to clean the mouth. Toothbrushing is usually out of the question. Soft foods, non-acidic drinkable foods, and foods which are not chewy are most often consumed. The very thought of salt and vinegar potato chips, my particular vice, is enough to send sufferers of mouth sores over the edge. Healing from an injury or surgery takes far more time, and surgery is frequently delayed by date of last chemotherapy infusion.

After enough chemo, hair doesn’t ever quite grow back. Patients often have a constant rash. The tissues in the body are usually permanently changed and sometimes damaged. Mom, for instance, never had a day of heartburn in her life (excluding while pregnant) before chemo. It started slowly, as a side effect of one of the drugs, but now she takes a daily prescription, which is only enough to make it tolerable.

In the locker room at the Y, we compared rashes. For giggles, we called mine a sympathetic side effect to what was causing hers: cytoxan.

Cytoxan. Sigh-toxin. Sigh…


Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could get this Toxin pumped directly into her superior vena cava? “Pumped” isn’t exactly the right word. It’s called a “push.” Toxin push. Nancy Reagan could have used this as material.

Yes, I appreciate what chemotherapy is designed to do. I understand that by our current understanding of cancer, killing lots of cells is necessary to kill a few. As long as we get the cancer, I’m cool with that. I know that cancer sucks, even though I haven’t done it myself, and that most of us would tolerate a few horrible months of treatment to extend our lives substantially. It’s just that when she’s already doing so poorly, we really need those other cells—the ones that aren’t killing her.

Today, for the first time since it began, I had a few moments of pure, vile, puerile hatred for my job. It forces me to be distant from my mother, my parents, my real obligations. Farther from my mommy. I stomped a few times for good measure.

Then I went back to loving my work and the people and the office and the subject matter. Medical students. They’ll be pushing toxins on people some day. With any luck, it’ll work.


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