Coming through Chemo

For two local women who underwent chemotherapy, the experience
brought emotional and physical pain
– but also a new perspective on life
Deb Sanchez cried when she had her mid-back-length hair cut short. When her newly shorn locks started falling off her head and into her hands, she had a stylist shave her head.

And when the peach fuzz that capped her scalp fell out in the shower – along with her eyebrows, eyelashes and every other hair on her body – Sanchez said she bawled like a baby. But this was part of the harsh reality of chemotherapy.

Sanchez, a Gilroy resident, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003. After the diagnosis, she had several surgeries – including a lumpectomy and six treatments of chemotherapy, one every 21 days.

“You walk into a room, and there’s chairs and other people sitting and getting their treatments at the same time,” said Sanchez, 40. “A nurse hooks you up to an I.V., and for part of my treatment, a nurse had to sit and push in medicine slowly because if it went in too fast, it could eat up the (skin) tissues.”

The treatments were awful, Sanchez said, and she often felt a burning sensation in her arm from the injection of the potent medicine. Before each treatment, she had to soak her arm in hot water to bring the veins toward the surface of her skin because so many of them had already collapsed.

“I was so nauseous, I really couldn’t eat or drink anything for about two weeks because of the chemo,” Sanchez said. “I lived off watermelon and lemon water. I also started getting purple spots on my hands, feet and tongue from the chemo.”

For Sanchez, however, the most difficult part emotionally of undergoing chemo was losing her hair.

“People looked at me with pity on their faces, and people stared,” she said. “I had some people laugh at me when my hair started growing back because they thought I just had a bad style. It was so hurtful – I felt attacked. I pointed to my head and said, ‘This is because of cancer.'”

Because a large number of drugs or combinations of drugs are used in chemotherapy, side effects vary from patient to patient, said Dr. Joseph Mason, chief of oncology at Kaiser Permanente Santa Teresa Medical Center.

Some people lose all their hair, and others may just experience slight thinning. Chemotherapy drugs lower a person’s white blood cell count, making them very susceptible to such infections.

Nausea is also common and can set in anywhere from an hour to two days after treatment, Mason said. The most common side effect is severe infection.

“Some people may have relatively few or no side effects, but people aren’t going to feel completely normal when they’re having chemotherapy,” Mason said. “They’re going to be able to tell they’re getting some very potent drugs.”

Chemotherapy is used in three ways, Mason said: to prevent the recurrence of cancer in patients who have had tumors surgically removed; to cure certain forms of cancer, such as testicular, Hodgkin’s and lymphoma; and to shrink tumors in patients who can’t be cured, hopefully decreasing their symptoms and increasing the length of their lifetimes.

Evelyn Brokaw, a resident of Royal Oaks near Watsonville, also went through chemotherapy when she was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer in 2003. After a lumpectomy and the removal of approximately 19 lymph nodes, Brokaw had six sessions of chemotherapy.

“It was horrible, and it just makes you see how vulnerable you really are,” she said. “My bones would ache terribly. The nausea is excruciating, so they give you medicine to help with the nausea, but that makes you groggy and constipates you, so even though they’re taking care of one symptom of chemo, you get another side effect.”

Brokaw’s voice broke with tears as she recalled other side effects of chemotherapy.

“I lost all my hair and I got sores in my mouth, so I couldn’t eat,” she said. “And chemo pushes you into menopause if you haven’t already gone through it, which I hadn’t, so then you have to deal with that.”

A few different factors influence the length of time cancer patients have chemotherapy, such as what kind of other treatments they are having, what kind of cancer they have and how they respond to the drugs, Mason said.

Curative chemotherapy for testicular cancer may be a 2 1/2 month program, while a leukemia regiment may continue on and off for more than a year.

Despite dreading her chemo treatments and enduring difficult side effects, Brokaw, 47, said she was glad she didn’t give up.

“I fought the cancer, I beat it and I have my life,” she said. “Life is precious. It’s beautiful and it’s worth it.”

For Sanchez, the chemo was effective, but if she had to do it all over again, she isn’t sure she’d take that path. Finding a balance between medical treatments and holistic therapy may be a better form of healing, Sanchez said.

“By my last treatment, I really wanted to just die,” she said. “I don’t know if chemo is the best thing to do. I think there are other alternatives out there that people should look at, but it’s hard when you’re so emotionally caught up in it all.”

One thing both women agree on, however, is that those diagnosed with cancer should have a positive and communicative relationship with their oncologist, and they should surround themselves with supportive people. Both also recommended getting in touch with the American Cancer Society.

“The American Cancer Society gave me wellness classes, they taught me how to apply my makeup when I was having chemo and looked terrible, and the support you receive is just incredible,” Brokaw, who lives with her husband and two children, said.

And although the experience of dealing with cancer is difficult, adopting a positive attitude helps, Brokaw said, recalling a day when she accidentally wiped off one of her eyebrows.

“I’d been drawing my eyebrows on after the hair fell out, and that evening I saw myself in a mirror and realized I’d been helping customers all day with one eyebrow,” Brokaw said. “I just had to laugh about it.”

For Sanchez, her husband and their daughter, the brightest part of her chemotherapy experience was seeing how many people loved and supported her.

“I’m so thankful to my church family at South Valley Church,” she said, her eyes tearing up. “People would bring us dinners because they knew we were too tired to cook, we had people come over and clean our house, they took care of my garden, and to know I had so many people praying for me was just very powerful.”

Even with support and love from family and friends, there were days Brokaw felt depressed – but that was OK, she said, as long as she got back on her feet the next day.

“If you need to have yourself a pity party, then have yourself a pity party,” she said. “But the next day, you have to get up and you have to kick butt. You can do it.”

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