Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
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Cancer Changes You

lauren.jpgBy Lauren Lopriore

I have been changed by cancer physically, mentally and emotionally (the latter two are forever up and down). However, despite all of these changes, I feel that I have been able to come through cancer this far because of my attitude. There were times I was mad, sad, frustrated, angry, and confused, but I knew I was not the only cancer patient who would have these changes, feelings and emotions. That’s why it was important to me to share my story - to support those out there who may be going through something similar - and some who may not know their family history, don’t have the best support system, or just need some hope. This is also why I started, where you can find out more of my story, where I share things I’ve learned along the way, and where you can find resources and support.  

For twenty-nine years, I was pretty much scar free. I had a few scars from falls and a scuba run-in with some coral; however, other than that, I had never had a broken bone or been to the hospital for something personal. On the cusp of turning thirty I would soon experience more physical changes from head to toe than I had ever felt before. I was diagnosed with stage 3 triple positive breast cancer and confirmed BRCA positive.

I was immediately prescribed chemotherapy, but before starting treatment, my medical team informed me of the high risk of damage to my ovaries by the chemotherapy and recommended IVF and egg retrieval and preservation. This would be the first time - other than a tooth procedure - that I would be put under anesthesia. I came out of it feeling good, which helped comfort me for the next few procedures. But then I had to face the reality that having non-functioning ovaries would make it less likely that I would ever carry a child. This physical change was really painful to swallow.

As soon as I started chemotherapy, it went to work and wiped out my white blood cells. I came down with a fever and took myself to the ER where they pumped me with vancomycin, from which I had an allergic reaction. I ended up with red man syndrome - a red rash all over my body that gave me an itch worse than I had ever felt before. I am used to getting eaten alive by mosquitos and this was much worse - until two Benadryl calmed the itch down. I was warned, but certainly not prepared for the side effects I would encounter over the 4 months of infusions. The first effect that took me by surprise was the loss of my taste buds. For the first week and a half everything either didn’t have a taste or it tasted like metal (aka, the utensils). Staying hydrated was so important, but each sip of water would taste like butter. I wasn’t able to drink much until I realized citrus wasn’t so awful. Lemon and orange flavored Vitamin Water was what I drank most days.

I would also experience the worst exhaustion. I have pulled all nighters in College and stayed up all night for camps; however, I have never felt so tired in my entire life. I am not someone who likes to nap so I fought sleeping during the day, but it was really hard when all that my eyes wanted to do was shut. Another side effect for me was nausea. I am grateful I never got too sick, but I was queasy most days right after the infusion. Acupuncture was my saving grace to help with this. I already had a sensitive stomach so I struggled with this side effect a lot.

Surgeries were a new experience for me. Before starting chemotherapy, I had a port put in; just a small slice on the upper chest, but, WOW, did it hurt for the first few days. Unfortunately for me, I started my chemo on the same day as my port was put in. The poke of the needle hurt so bad. Over time, it did calm down, but it was never a pleasant experience. A few months later, I would prepare for a double mastectomy and reconstruction, as well as the removal of my fallopian tubes (and one ovary). I was surprisingly calm for someone who is easily anxious. I remember the feel of the marker on my torso and across my real breasts - the breasts that I would feel for the last time that day. Luckily, I handled the anesthesia well; I was only groggy for a little while after waking up. I did have a slight fear of not waking up, but as my husband held my hand tight before I left I knew I would be okay.

Aside from surgeries and chemotherapy, another major physical change I experienced was the loss of my hair. I struggled, at first, with seeing my hair in a pixie cut, but having my head shaved was the worst. I cried every minute of sitting in the chair while having my head shaved. I only have one photo that my husband snuck and took of my shaved head. After a few weeks of my head being bald I finally got comfortable walking around my house without a headwrap or cap. When I left the house I always wore a hat, cap or wrap. I just felt more comfortable with my head covered. Let’s be honest, though, many times my head was just cold!

The way I saw myself in the mirror definitely changed over time. I was so used to my long blonde hair that having it cut as short as a pixie and then buzzed was a big shock. I already didn’t want to look like a cancer patient and now I wasn’t going to even look like myself. I also had to look at myself naked without my real breasts and scars all over from each surgery. The physical changes that cancer puts you through are more than anyone would think. After a few months, I realized that my hair was not what made me me - even though many times I wasn’t recognized with my new bald head or dark curly hair. My chest was not what made me me - even though I would never feel my real breasts again. And lastly my scars were not me. They showed my fight to live and that’s what’s important. The scars I have from the hospitalizations and surgeries will line my body for the rest of my life, but I feel that’s what makes me unique. Scars show I went to battle to save my body from cancer and I don’t ever want to hide them. Even though I don’t always want to talk about it, I will always know the story behind each scar. You are you and I am me and no one can change that - not even cancer. Crazy - but after my cancer diagnosis I sometimes feel more myself than I ever have before.