Early May birds, and a cancer look back

Today was a banner day for me in Prospect Park: six hours spent outside, six miles run, and 67 (count ’em!) species of birds seen. That total includes a gorgeous bay-breasted warbler (which should really be called the “red velvet bird,” because that’s what its head and throat appear to be fashioned from), rare cerulean and Kentucky warblers, a roosting nighthawk, and a cutie-pie Lincoln’s sparrow.

Ten years ago, in contrast, I was wondering when my hair would start falling out.

Yes, it’s time for another “ten years later” breast cancer update. In my spring migration birding frenzy, I missed the April 24 anniversary of my first session of the ever-popular adriamycin/cyclophosphamide combo. The infusion itself went smoothly. I settled into the big reclining chair with something to read (most likely the New Yorker – I naively hoped that chemo would get rid of rogue cells and my New Yorker backlog), snacks from home and a bottle of Jamaican carrot juice that the oncology nurse looked at doubtfully but didn’t veto outright.

Let me explain about the carrot juice. In Brooklyn, I’d discovered a brand of West Indian-inspired, Bronx-made juices at the late, lamented Christie’s Jamaican Patties storefront on Flatbush. Oh, how I loved those juices! I don’t remember the name of the brand – “Taste of the Islands” or something like that – or all of the flavors, just that each was more delicious than the next. I especially loved the carrot. It was a little creamy, subtly spiked with nutmeg, and I couldn’t imagine anything healthier or more comforting. I was practically blubbering as I told all this to the cashier on my last, pre-chemo trip – cancer turned me into a terrible over-sharer – while buying out their entire in-store inventory to take home to Detroit in my suitcase.

The experts say you should be careful about favorite foods during chemo. Linking particular tastes and smells too closely to your treatment experience, they warn, may create unpleasant associations. I figured I was tougher than that: so tough that I swigged carrot juice even as the nurse, wearing protective gear, pushed bright red adriamycin through my port and into my veins.

The experts were right, and I haven’t been able to drink carrot juice since.

That day, and the day after, I felt slightly spacey, but mostly fine. A visiting nurse came to my house to teach me how to inject myself with Neupogen, a growth factor that boosts white blood cell production. She watched as I bravely pinched the skin of my belly and pierced it with the tip of the needle. I looked up at her, expecting an “Atta girl!” and instead getting a gentle nod and instructions to put the needle all the way in.

Surely she wasn’t serious . . . that needle must have been two inches long! I couldn’t possibly, and then, I did.

The nausea began that second night. My care team was relentlessly empirical, which I generally appreciated, but I came to wish that just this once, they’d brought out the big, expensive, not-entirely-proven-to-be-necessary-or-beneficial-to-all-patients anti-emetics for my first treatment. I was queasy all night, threw up in the morning, and stayed queasy for the next two days. (My anti-nausea meds were adjusted at the next treatment, so this was the only time that happened to me.)

The bone pain kicked in toward the end of my first ten Neupogen injections, but it was mild, and even oddly reassuring. I envisioned tunnels within my lower spine full-to-bursting with shiny new blood cells to replace the ones rendered raggedy and weak by chemo.

And that’s where I was, ten years ago today: thinking about my overactive bone marrow, wondering when my hair would fall out (spoiler alert: the big drop came on my birthday), preparing for my next treatment. Spring migration was going on then, too, but I don’t remember noticing. I wonder, in retrospect, if seeing a warbler or two might not have made the process ever so slightly easier.


1 thought on “Early May birds, and a cancer look back

  1. I, too, barely noticed those “cancerversary” moments yet somehow they are still in the back of my mind. Tomorrow is a bar mitzvah and as I was thinking that it was Cinco de Mayo I was also remembering that that was a chemo day. And , like you, I have to wonder if having the distraction of chanting Torah and a bar mitzvah would have been so distracting that I wouldn’t of even noticed that sucky chemotherapy. So, tomorrow while chanting, I will appreciate the challenge of that over the challenge of chemo.


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