I’ve always had a somewhat dark sense of humor. Cards Against Humanity, aka the card game where the goal is to be as offensive as possible, is one of my favorites and you can bet that I will be that girl who is loudly demanding that we play it at any get together at my best friend’s apartment. I think that this lovely gift of being able to laugh at things you’re not supposed to be laughing at is what got me through having cancer.
I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma on March 30th, 2017. Yes, it sucked that at the ripe age of 23 I learned that I had cancer and would have to go through 6 rounds of intensive chemotherapy that would prove to be physically, mentally, and emotionally draining when all I wanted to be doing was going out to bars, dancing like an idiot at said bars, and working as many concerts as humanly possible at my job at a radio station. Yes, it sucked that at an age where I felt like I was finally growing into my looks and had finally shed the overwhelming self-consciousness I assume that most teenage girls have, that I would lose all my long, curly, brown hair that I had grown to love and have to feel like I was constantly walking around with a big sign that screamed “HEY, LOOK AT ME I HAVE CANCER” emblazoned above my head. Yes, it’s been the hardest time of my life. However, I’d like to think that it’s made me stronger. I’d also like to think that my dark sense of humor is what helped me get through some of the toughest times.
I shaved my head after my first cycle of chemotherapy. About a week or so after getting out of the hospital for my first cycle, I started to notice my hair falling out in the shower as I was shampooing it. It was quite the traumatic experience. The image of those long, dark chunks of hair spread across the shower floor will forever be ingrained in my memory. When I stepped out of the shower and started to comb through my hair, even more fell out onto the countertop. “Here we go…” I captioned the Snapchat of the huge chunks to my close friends. Only about a few days after I started noticing it is when I decided that it was time to shave my head. I definitely did not want to slowly watch it all fall out, piece by piece, while I longingly clung onto it like a child’s blankie. When I made this decision, my best friend said something that resonated with me: she said that she thought it was a bold and empowering choice to shave it now. If I waited until the end, it wasn’t really my choice, it was the cancer’s choice. If I just said “fuck it” and shaved it now, it was MY choice. So, in my kitchen on a normal Monday afternoon, I shaved my boyfriend’s head and then he proceeded to shave mine. Romantic, right?
Here is an incomplete list of people either I have compared myself to, or someone else has compared me to whilst being bald: Sinead O’Connor, Amber Rose, Dr. Evil, Voldemort, Eleven from Stranger Things, the list goes on and on. In my kitchen on that fateful Monday afternoon, after a few tears were shed and my boyfriend successfully made it through shaving my head without nicking me, I couldn’t bring myself to look in the mirror. I had to admit, it felt pretty damn good. I wasn’t sure if it looked good yet, but it felt good. I wondered for a minute if I could just avoid looking in any mirrors until my hair grew back. This moment before I looked at myself in the mirror was surreal. There I was, sitting on a chair in the middle of the kitchen with hair ridden newspaper on the floor surrounding me and my boyfriend and my mom staring back at me. Of course they said it looked fine, but I’m pretty sure they’re obligated to say that. After both my boyfriend and my mom encouraged me to just look at myself already, I slowly got up and looked in the mirror. There was a little brown stubble over my whole head but there was no questioning it or denying it, I was definitely very bald. I used to hate my curly hair but in the past couple years I had grown to love it. And now, staring at it all cut off and thrown in the trash can, I can’t say I wasn’t emotional.
To cope with being a baldy, I turned to humor. I joked to my best friend that rubbing my head would bring her good luck. When my mom would exclaim “Oh no! I forgot to bring a hair tie!”, I would respond “DAMN IT, ME TOO!!”. I bought a baseball hat that said “bad hair day” and wore it to run errands, hoping that it would give someone a chuckle when they saw me. I also vividly remember asking my boyfriend, long before by diagnosis, “would you still love me if I shaved my head?” When we shaved each other’s heads, I joked to him how neither of us knew he would actually have to confront that question. Spoiler alert: he does still love me.
One day, my best friend and I were at the mall. We were catching up and casually perusing through racks and racks of clothes and accessories that we probably didn’t need. While she was turned away looking at some dresses, I picked up a horoscope necklace and said “Hey look! They have my sign!” When she turned to face me, I was posing with a Cancer necklace. I am a Pisces. Not a Cancer. (I know the movie My Sister’s Keeper made the joke before I did, but come on, it was funny). The look on her face as she laughed, but then paused to wonder if she should be laughing at a cancer joke or not, was priceless.
Chemotherapy treatments vary a lot from person to person depending on many factors. One person’s experience may be completely different from someone else’s and everyone’s body reacts to the medicine differently. The treatment plan my doctors thought was best for my particular cancer and my particular body was particularly grueling. I would spend 5 straight days in-patient at the hospital, with the chemo drugs being pumped into me via my Mediport 24/7, and then I would have about 2 weeks at home until the next cycle started again. Every single cycle, those 5 straight days felt like they would never end. The nurses and staff were some of the nicest people I have ever met, and my family and friends would visit be constantly, but it still felt unbearable. Since I was connected to the IV the entire time, I needed to take the IV pole with me anywhere I went. I usually went on a few walks each day. I’m using the term “walk” here very loosely. My walk consisted of me shuffling by the length of the cancer ward hall, then maybe if I was feeling adventurous, down the NICU until the dead end. On the majority of my walks, I would Snapchat my friends and proclaim that this was me making my big escape; busting out of this joint! They’ll never catch me!
On a few special occasions, I would walk down into the courtyard to get a fleeting moment of sunlight and breeze. The courtyard ground was made of brick so my IV pole, with the bag of dangerous chemicals precariously hanging from the top, would rattle and shake with every step. Every single time, this made me afraid that that toxic cocktail of drugs would fall and explode everywhere on the ground, causing the courtyard to go into lockdown like that scene in Monsters Inc. when the monster has a kid’s sock stuck on his back.
My particular chemo drugs were an unsettling sight, to say the least. The bag at the top of my IV pole was bright orange and did not look like something you wanted being pumped into your body by the bagful. I’ve compared its look to orange Gatorade, but my favorite comparison was my aunt referring to it as “just a nice rosé blend”. I guess they’re similar, rosé would also make you throw up if you drank that much of it.
I was lucky enough to not experience nausea and vomiting until my last two cycles of chemo. I don’t know if it was the horrible hospital food, or the chemo itself, but when I was in the hospital those last two cycles, there were many times when I had no appetite at all. My friends and family will attest to the fact that for me, that is very rare. When I did have an appetite, I would get excited that I could finally eat something. On one occasion, I scarfed down a salad from the Panera Bread attached to the hospital, then proceeded to throw it up a few hours later. My mom sat by my hospital bedside, consoling me and rubbing my back as I hurled into a dull pink hospital bucket. In between heaves, I looked up at her and said “Thanks for lunch, Mom”. Even in the moment, she thought it was funny.
Even though I joke around a lot and love a good cancer joke as much as the next girl, I obviously have some bad days as well. Out of my 6 cycles of chemo, it took until my 4th one to not cry while I was in-patient for 5 days at a time. Those hospital stays felt like they would never end. I’ve also been mistaken for a dude while running errands in my signature look of a baseball hat, sweatpants, and no makeup, and that didn’t exactly feel too great either.
Now, I’m 3 months post-treatment and everything’s looking good. My eyebrows and eyelashes have completely grown back (you don’t realize how important eyebrows and eyelashes are until you lose them and look like a naked mole rat). I think I cried the first day I got to use mascara again because I actually had eyelashes. When I lost my eyebrows, I was forced to learn how to draw them in because let’s face it, everyone looks weird without eyebrows. Just like when I got to use mascara for the first time again, I also got weirdly emotional when I didn’t have to draw my eyebrows in to go out and run some errands. The hair on my head is slowly but surely growing back and I’ve been rocking a nice little buzzcut as of late. I think the humor is what got me through the darkest days. In my personal experience, a good cry and a good cancer joke can get you through a lot.
Sincerely, Katie Petralia (AYA patient | non-Hodgkins lymphoma)