This is what I have to look at after each of my SIX fucking rounds of chemo. A sick, achy, acne covered, Jen. That is sadness behind my eyes. It is what I feel after every single round of chemo. It only lasts for one week but that one week can last 7-10 days. And that is a long time mentally. I keep wondering why I'm not tough enough to take each punch this bully has to give. Why is this so hard? I’m in a constant state of trying to pull myself out of darkness. But it keeps swallowing me up some days. I keep my room dark during the week I’m at home. I don’t want to face the light. I don’t want my husband to have to see me like this. I scare myself when I look in the mirror. I am no longer the beautiful woman he married. That faded fast. No matter how many times he tells me I’m beautiful, I still look for the lies behind his eyes. How can he love me like this? I am weak, helpless, hairless and breastless. He opens the blinds while he is at home with me during the day. He gets to spend a few hours of the early part of the day with me. Then starts getting ready for work around 11:30 am. When he leaves for work I get up and close the blinds back tightly again.
The week following chemo I would begin to call “hell week.” My bully would dump all of these side effects on me for at least 1 week (sometimes longer) and then show back up, late and rude to collect her shit only to come back again and do the same thing 3 weeks later.
I have come to realize that my body could give two shits about how old I am. Those nurses were wrong! And exercise? Unless you can carry me to a yoga mat and prop my ass up to do the downward facing dog, there is no way in hell that I can muster the energy. The only thing my body has been doing during “hell week” is contracting from being in a ball to sprawling out on my back as I stare up at the ceiling asking God, “Why???” Chemo is making sure to not only bully me but also show me that the bullies during my childhood were angels compared to her. Oh, she's showing me who’s boss alright. She’s doing way too much. Doesn't she have someone else to taunt?
These side effects are beating me down. I'm so weak. I literally cannot open a can of ginger ale on my own. And if bullying me isn't embarrassing and frightening enough, she has one last move in her back pocket. I am now covered from head to shoulders in a RASH. Oh, this isn't a rash that can be kept at bay with Benadryl or some sort of ointment. No, no this is acne. Big red pimples popping up all over my head, face, and shoulders. This broad wants to see me cry, cry. Well, you’ve got it, girl. I am mortified. It's unsightly and literally makes me want to cover every mirror.
I contact my oncologist immediately. What is this? Why is it happening and how do I make it go away? She explains that although it’s unfortunate, it's just my body reacting to all of the hormones. I am literally back to being a kid with acne with a bully that I’m not strong enough to fight! And, what are the statistics on people getting “chemo rash” anyway? I have literally not heard about this happening to anyone that I know. My oncologist prescribes a topical ointment and a pill to combat it all. What I would soon come to realize is that I was going to break out this badly after EVERY round of chemo. So on the list of shitty things I would experience throughout this battle: nausea, body aches, constipation, heartburn -- this chemo rash was probably the harshest move my bully has ever pulled. It was like getting pushed down the bleachers at the high school homecoming game and having the entire school watch and the players stop playing just to see what the hell is happening. This rash has me unable to look in the mirror. I've been looking at all of these beautiful women fighting cancer. Embracing their bald heads, with beautifully drawn on eyebrows and a little blush or lipstick to make them as stunning as can be. That was supposed to be me. But here I am, stuck with the most grotesque acne breakout I’ve experienced in well over a decade.
To think that something like a rash, that has caused me minimal physical pain in comparison to everything else, would be my most despised side effect. This battle isn’t just about my physical endurance but my mental endurance. It's about the mental fight and looking in the mirror is a constant reminder of what I'm going through. It's a constant reminder that I have to fight for my life. That is some heavy shit to deal with every day.
The Saturday following chemo MJ and I try to do something fun. Maybe a trip to the Amish market (because we’re greedy), breakfast at one of our favorite diners, a trip to Target to prepare for “hell week” remedies or maybe just a quick drive. It feels like I have to enjoy every second of the Saturday following chemo because once my bully shows up with her shit I slip into a dark hole mentally. I am sad, depressed, weak and filled with so much despair some days. I lay in bed for days unable to do much of anything. Rotating between sugar-free Gatorade, Ginger Ale and Alkaline water. By the end of hell week, the distaste for Gatorade and Alkaline water are enough to make me never want to let the liquids enter my mouth ever again.
Like clockwork, my bully kicks my ass for a week and when she’s done she collects her things, leaving me battered but happy that it’s finally over. She takes all of the side effects with her - rash included. I am always so grateful to see that bitch go. I’ve gotta change the locks, transfer schools, move to a different state, SOMETHING has got to give. This bitch keeps finding me and she doesn’t give a shit how much I plead with her.
During my hell weeks I ”work” remotely from the bed. I roll my eyes at each and every email that requires me to actually answer a question or do work. Don't you realize that I'm sick and tired? And sick and tired of y'all bothering me? Leave me the hell alone. Especially the first 3 or 4 days of ”hell week”. I literally just want to sleep it away. TF do you need??
Each time I find myself sinking into that dark hole I try to shake it off. Some attempts at cheering myself up are easier than others. And on those days that I can't snap out of it, I call my survivor sisters to vent, cry, and commiserate. Sometimes listening to them share their symptoms make me laugh. ”Girl, I cannot get off the toilet!” Or, “I just want to poot and it won’t come out!”
Sometimes I meet up with Jasmine who lives closest to me and have a quick lunch. I feel like a rat scurrying out of the sewer trying to remain unseen each time I leave the house. This rash, plus no hair is a dead give away that I’m sick. Some days I try to add a little foundation to cover it up but it only makes it look worse.
One Friday, I decide to go to the dermatologist. Maybe a doctor can help me with this. I walk in and tell her that we have the same Alma mater. That’s code everywhere for, “Take extra damn good care of me.” Well, homegirl is trying to get scalp samples first. Yeah, the rash made its way to my scalp too. It itches, so some parts are very irritated and red. I’m annoyed. Forget my scalp. Let’s fix my face! I can put a scarf on my head and people will never know. So, unless I’m going to walk around with a Hajib, we.need.to.fix.my.face.
“Maybe it’s ringworm,” she assesses.
“Uhhhhh, people still get that?”
My face! My face! What are we going to do about my face??!
“We will take a sample of your scalp,” she says using a tool and gently scraping off what looks like dandruff. Which is slightly confusing since I’m bald.
“And, I’m going to recommend Retin-A. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. But it will get better.”
Girl bye. I’ve never used Retin-a before but I know people from childhood and college who have. That shit is basically going to light my damn face on fire. No thanks. I can do that myself. For FREE!
I march out of that office and never look back.
Time for a mani. Yep. That will make me feel good. Ahhhhh. This may turn out to be a good Friday after all. I have on a black baseball cap that I wear pushed down over my eyes. The hat makes me feel protected from the stares. It makes me feel I'm in disguise. I take a deep breath and a quick glance in my rearview mirror to see if my rash has magically disappeared in the last 15 minutes. It hasn’t. Well, these nails aren't going to beautify themselves. I walk into the salon, trying to keep my head down as I make my request. Barely able to look the receptionist in the eye. I scan the room. People taking quick glances and then looking again a little longer, and again. Oh great, I really feel like a monster now. They feel pity for me. I can see it in their eyes. I sit down at a chair and show the nail tech my color. A shade of bold red. Raaaaawr. 45 minutes later my nails are fly. Yes, bitch! Getting up brings my anxiety back. My face puffy from the chemo, pale from the winter and covered in a red, bumpy rash. I try to move as quickly as possible, gathering my belongings and going to the front to pay. More stares. Don't worry guys I'm heading back to my sewer to hide. I pay for my services and walk quickly to my car where I feel safe, alone and free to cry in private.
I head home and immediately feel better. Back in my PJs and in my bed. Back to my new obsession, Sing. I will watch it on repeat as I've been doing every time I feel like I'm being yanked deeper into that dark place.