Cancer, Side Effects of Treatment, and Addiction

In February, 1996, at age 44, I decided my life had become unmanageable, and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. After years of dealing with monkey mind (learn more about monkey mind at, depression, anger, and addiction, it was time to get help. Helpful members advised me to get a physical just to check on what, if any, damage I had done to my body in the previous 25 years. Well, my liver survived as well as could be expected but, at 40 days sober, they told me I had a lump in my left breast. Now, I had just “turned my will and my life over to the care of God,” so this seemed like a really mean practical joke. But, I did what I was told, and went to a meeting that night, eagerly seeking out another woman with whom to share my tale of woe. Well, God had another practical joke in store for me — not one woman showed up. The person who had dropped me off was gone, so I couldn’t leave. I was in a room with over 40 men. I went to pieces, sobbing and hiding in the back, until the chairperson noticed and said, “I think that girl back there has something she needs to share.” Well, it turned out all right, the men were wonderful, if not entirely comfortable with the whole thing.

I had a lumpectomy the next day. The biopsy showed first-stage cancer, with an undifferentiated appearance (which means it was funny shaped and they didn’t know why) and a lymphectomy now was required to see if the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes. The lumpectomy was a walk in the park, just a small incision and a few stitches. This other operation involved slicing open my underarm and, since they were concerned about the unusual appearance of the lump, removing more than 20 lymph nodes, which required going pretty deep. It was painful and involved weeks of recovery, along with requiring me to go home with a drainage device, which was uncomfortable, disgusting and annoying to tend to. This is also when I became addicted to Percocet.

Never a drug abuser, I wasn’t too concerned when they gave me narcotics, even though my AA friends told me not to take them. Within a week, I was eating them like mints. They didn’t really take away the pain, but I didn’t care. Evidently, my body was searching desperately for something to replace the alcohol. When I told the doctors I thought I was addicted, they dismissed my concerns saying no one gets addicted in a week. Evidently, they neglected to check my records where it was clearly noted that I was a recovering alcoholic. Since they wouldn’t help, I went cold turkey. It was the worst week of my life. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, nothing came out of me but black liquid and I nearly ruined my teeth with the grinding. All I could think was, “You mean people put themselves through this more than once, on purpose!?”

I had been looking for another job before the cancer was discovered. The attorney for whom I worked was fine with it as I promised to give him three weeks notice and train the new girl, and he promised not to hire anyone until I found a job. When I was diagnosed with cancer and it became apparent that I would be losing a lot of time from work, he broke his promise not to replace me, and let me go. He also lied to unemployment and I was denied, losing both appeals. So now I was an out-of-work recovering alcoholic with breast cancer. Luckily, I was covered on my husband’s medical, but the lack of a second income depleted our savings.

That spring, I was ready to begin radiation and chemotherapy. Originally, I was only scheduled for radiation, but the shape of the tumor concerned them and the doctor told me I’d have to have chemo after all. Well, since my long, thick, naturally curly hair was my best feature, I went to pieces again, until he explained that I was getting low-dose chemo and would not lose my hair. But, he added, my cycle would stop. “For how long?” I asked. When he replied, “Forever,” I leapt from the chair, pumped my fist into the air and yelled, “YES, there IS a silver lining.”

They started the radiation and a few weeks later, the chemo. The combination of the two caused me to become badly burned, so they stopped the chemo until the six weeks of radiation was done. I had chemo for six months, which consisted of taking pills one week a month and then getting three injections (one named 5-FU, which I insisted on calling FU-5, much to the doctor’s wry consternation). When the last injection was made, I always got a God-awful rush of nausea, but it passed quickly. For a week or two I would have what I called “shadow nausea,” not really bad, but enough to make me uncomfortable. I used this as an excuse to “self-medicate” myself by smoking an illegal herb said to relieve nausea. I was also extremely fatigued, but not nearly as tired and sick as others I saw at the cancer center. I was extremely fortunate in that I lived on the street that rings Jeanes Hospital and the Fox Chase Cancer Center, where I got my chemo and radiation. I just walked through my back yard and crossed the parking lots. Many others patients were not so lucky, having to either commute long distances every day, or move in with nearby friends or relatives. And they were getting what I called “real chemo.”

I soon found that my “silver lining” came with a price. I went through instant menopause. Most women become pre-menopausal in their early to mid 40s, and work up to the real stuff — hot flashes, night sweats, emotional outbursts and weight gain — over a period of years. I had had no pre-menopausal “practice runs” and mine hit me like a sledgehammer. I went completely nuts! Along with the cancer and my attempt to stay sober, instant menopause made 1996 my “Annus Horribilis.” It’s a miracle I’m still married or that anyone still talks to me!

Late that summer, I was so depressed, curled up in the fetal position on the sofa, that my friends literally dragged me to a coffeehouse one night. This is when I discovered karaoke. I didn’t want to do it, considered it extremely uncool, but when my friends dared me, I did it just to shut them up. I got a standing ovation. When it was revealed that I could actually sing, I was encouraged to expand my repertoire and make the rounds. I was just nuts enough to try it, and went on to become a “karaoke junkie.” The karaoke, in my opinion, saved my life. It didn’t make me any more sane, but I was no longer depressed. I was able to release my pain through song, which is also what made me appear to be such good singer. I wasn’t just singing that song, I was living that song. My Brenda Lee and Patsy Cline brought old men to tears. And this how I became the Country Western Karaoke Queen of Northeast Philadelphia.

I returned to work the following year. One August day in 2000, I became dizzy, was having hot and cold flashes, and was nauseous. I went to the ladies room where a co-worker noticed an angry red rash crawling up the back of my left arm. I called the doctor, who told to go to the nearest ER and tell them I was a breast cancer survivor with cellulitis. Well, thickhead that I am, since I was downtown and my hospital was in my backyard, I decided to get on the train and go there because I didn’t want to be admitted to a hospital so far from home. When I reached the hospital, after walking five blocks from the train on a hot July day and nearly passing out in front of a bus, I had a temp of 104, and BP of 190 over 140. I was admitted before a heart patient. My doctor told me I could have had a stroke. I spent four days in the hospital on antibiotics and I now have to carry them around with me at all times. I am now prone to contract cellulitis once or twice a year, but I know what to look for and head it off immediately with the antibiotics.

The cellulitis subsequently triggered lymphedema in my left arm. Let me explain lymphedema. When we injure ourselves, say a cut or a bruise or a burn, our body rushes lymph fluid to that area to heal it, and the lymph nodes flush away this fluid. Since I no longer have enough lymph nodes, a paper cut or mosquito bite can swell up my arm. Massage, exercise and wearing a compression sleeve are the main treatments for this condition, although there are machines that will do the massage more effectively. Unfortunately, most insurance companies won’t pay for them. This condition is permanent. It’s worse than the cancer if you ask me.

I have been clear of cancer now for 12 years, with one subsequent lumpectomy for what turned out to be scar tissue in 1997. I also had one scare in 1998 where they thought the cancer had metastasized into my chest, but that too was found to be a false alarm. They did, at this time, however, put me on Prednisone, which put 40 pounds on me in three weeks, which I have never been able to lose. I follow up with my mammos religiously every year, and try not to think that every ache and pain is cancer. But, once you’ve had cancer, you are forever in fear of its return.

I buried a brother in 2004 from liver cancer directly related to drugs and alcohol, and my Dad is presently being treated for lung cancer. My uncle died of colon cancer. My one sister has lupus, my other sister has Lymes. I buried another brother in 1986 in the first wave of the AIDS epidemic. I used to think, why does all this stuff happen to our family? But AA showed me that we were not unique at all. Many other families have much more tragedy in them.

My initial attempt at sobriety was a bust, but, after five years of going in-and-out of the program, I finally collected my first-year coin in 2002, and now have six of them on my key chain. Many people would say, geez, how do you live through all that and not drink. My answer is, “they never promised me a rose garden, just that if I practiced AA principles in all my affairs, I would stay sober.” The trick is not to look for something to solve your problems, it’s to learn how to cope with the inevitable trials and tribulations of life.

Cancer will always be looming over me, as well as the normal bumps in the road we all face. I am no one special. But, now I have the tools to deal with these things. I will be just fine, with the help of God and AA. And my yearly mammogram.