Heather Cleland is a writer who lives in Toronto.
Dear Makayla Sault,
Cancer sucks. But when you’re young and you otherwise feel pretty darn good, chemotherapy sucks even more. Chemo really, really sucks. But it works. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck though. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with some really scary moments.
I had cancer when I was eight years older than you are. I had a weird lump in my neck that wouldn’t go away and after almost a year of doctors telling me it was nothing to worry about, finally they took a look inside and they found out it was cancer. And it wasn’t just in my neck, it was in my chest too. Still, I felt totally fine! I was going to school, I was having fun with my friends, life was good! Then I was told I’d need six to eight months of chemo.
So I had to leave school, leave my friends, move back in with my parents. So not only did that suck, but the chemo made me feel pretty terrible, too. I lost my hair. I had to give myself shots in my stomach 10 days each month. The chemo even caused damage to my lungs, which made it really hard to breathe. Then the doctors put me on another drug to treat the lung damage, which caused my face to puff up so much I had to stop eating salty foods (I love salty foods!) so my body wouldn’t retain water and puff up even more. And the same drug would make me cry for no reason, which was really frustrating because the only reason I needed this drug was because one of the chemo drugs was wrecking my body.
That’s what sucks about it. Chemotherapy targets the good cells as well as the bad cells because unfortunately we don’t have enough medical knowledge to target just the bad guys while leaving the good ones alone. And then as the chemo damages the good cells, you might need more medication to fix that damage, and those drugs might cause even more side effects. But fortunately in your case, like in my case, the vast majority of the time all of those downsides are temporary because the chemo actually works.
At the same time as all of that bad stuff was happening, the chemo was shrinking my tumours and it eventually destroyed all of them. Eight months after I started, I finished chemo because it had done its job – the cancer was gone, the chemo had worked. The lung damage was gone, because those drugs had worked, too.
When I first found out I had cancer I asked my doctor what would happen if I didn’t do chemo. She told me I’d probably die within two years. But if I did the chemo I’d have a 90 per cent chance of surviving much longer than that.
That was almost 13 years ago. If I hadn’t done the chemo, I wouldn’t have felt crappy for eight months. I wouldn’t have lost my hair. I wouldn’t have had my lungs damaged. But I also wouldn’t have been able to move back in with my friends. I wouldn’t have finished school. I wouldn’t have spent nine whole months travelling around the world. I wouldn’t have gotten my master’s degree. I wouldn’t have met this amazing guy named Steve and he wouldn’t have met me and we definitely wouldn’t be getting married next month. Chemotherapy is the only reason I was able to do all those things. So was it worth it? Worth the major changes, the interruptions, the nausea, the hair loss, the crying, the fear, the what ifs? Absolutely.
At the time, chemo felt like this endless race where the finish line kept moving farther and farther away. I felt like I’d never get to the end of it. I felt like I’d never be “me” again. Looking back now, it feels like a tiny blip in my life so far. I literally owe the past decade of my life to chemotherapy.
I hate chemo. It brings about fear and pain and misery. But it often works, sometimes really well, and when it does, it’s incredible.