Pandemic Chemo

By Ashleigh Armstrong 

Chemotherapy for 12 weeks, once a week. Three months of treatment to save my life. I told myself that I carried twins for 9 months and was sick for the entire time. This would be a piece of cake.  

Every single Friday, like clockwork, I went into the cancer center. I got labs drawn from my port then I was taken to a separate space for my chemo infusion. It wasn’t like you see in the movies where everyone sits in a circle or in a line and gets to talk to each other and makes friends. This was pandemic chemo. All of us were safely in separate spaces. All of our nurses had masks and shields and all of us patients were required to wear them too.  

The rooms were normal empty exam rooms. The only thing special about them was one single tile on the ceiling of each room. This tile had a different design for every room. I would send a picture to my family of the tile. “Today, I’m in the Upside-Down Hammock Room.” It seems silly now but it was a way to make them feel like they were with me.  

We couldn’t have any family or friends join us. But that didn’t stop my mom, Lissa, from driving me to and from my chemo appointments every single week. To stay busy, I would play iPhone games with some friends, watch TV, color “Fuck Cancer” coloring books or even nap. It’s not as exciting as one might think. Chemo is just a series of IV bags being pumped through your veins. Mine took about 5 hours in total each Friday.  

The day of chemo I typically felt full of energy, crazy right? They have pre-meds that they give you, one of which was a steroid to help you not feel ill. I would come home like nothing ever happened. The day after chemo was usually similar to this, no big changes. Days three and four however, were always when it hit me. The nausea, the exhaustion, the bone pain. In the first couple of weeks, I described it as a bad hangover.  

In the second week of chemo, I decided I was going to cut all of my hair off and donate it. Hoping it would make its way to another woman like me. I knew right around week 3 is when hair starts to fall out and I wanted to get as much as I could to someone in need. Hair salons were closed because of the pandemic but luckily one of my closest friends is my hair stylist. She came right over for the big chop. I very often was told that I had more hair than anyone else they’ve ever met. Plus, my hair was far down my back. We separated it into braids and one by one cut each braid off. We even let my twins each cut a braid. I thought it would be so much more emotional for me but in that moment, I was just ready to get it over with.  

I hated my new haircut. Love my hair stylist. She had never failed me but I hated this cut on me. This is when I started wearing turbans and scarves. It was actually a blessing in disguise because within 1 week my hair started falling out and I was already used to covering my head.  

One thing I rarely hear talked about, is the pain that some women feel when their hair is falling out. One week later it felt like someone had every piece of my hair in the palms of their hands and were just yanking as hard as they could. It was time to buzz it all off. The next day my hair stylist came over again and this time buzzed my hair all off. I did this in the company of a few friends on Facetime. I shared pictures on Facebook. I was incredibly supported, surprisingly I didn’t feel sad. 

My hair was now gone. My skin was getting paler by the day. Chemo is cumulative. I never knew this until meeting with my oncologist. As the weeks went on it became harder and harder on my body. The first 7 weeks weren’t easy by any means but they were manageable. I started to become much weaker around week 8 and couldn’t stand or walk for very long. I was sleeping much more and my body was hurting.  

My beautiful 11-year-old twins stepped up and helped their mom out. I would sleep for hours on end some days and wake up to fresh glasses of water on my bed side table. I could only tolerate peanut butter and jelly and cup ramen noodles so my son and daughter would make them for me often and encourage me to eat. I used to feel guilty for how alone they were when I was just laying around in bed and sleeping. Now, I look back and realize it was a Fortnite and popsicle party for them. Plus, most nights we’d have a movie night after dinner.  

I have a lot of friends and family that wanted to help. They would’ve gladly taken my twins on weekends or helped with their school work during the week. The pandemic made this especially impossible with my nonexistent immune system. My friends and family still were helpful. They organized a nightly meal train so food was either delivered to my house or made and I didn’t have to worry about cooking.  

Friday after Friday, I went in and finally I made it to week number 12. My best friend was texting me during my infusion asking me how long I thought I had left. I knew she was up to something. Everyone was up to something. I could feel it. My mom picked me up and says “hold on, I just have to update everyone that we’re on our way.” That wasn’t obvious at all. But cute mom, I’ll pretend like I didn’t notice.  

We pulled up to my house and was directed to enter my backyard and my family was standing there safely distanced clapping. My best friend had a bell in her hand, a chair setup and 12 flowers in the ground. One for every chemo session. She told me to ring the bell. I was so excited. One of the things, I was most sad about was not getting to ring the bell in the clinic that symbolizes your done with treatment with family being present. Now I did and it was beautiful! I was high as a kite from all of the Benadryl and Ativan but it was still a moment I will never forget. 

My aunt got a huge cake with a beautiful bell on it. We celebrated for 30 minutes, ate cake, then everyone went their separate ways. I needed to sleep it off. But this was it, it was over. I finished 3 months of chemo.