I love this so, so much. But you knew that.
In approximately sixty hours, and for the second time, adriamycin and cyclophosphamide will be infused into my body through a plastic port surgically implanted into my chest and is connected to my jugular vein. Adriamycin is named for the Adriatic Sea — it is also called Doxorubicin, and part of that name comes from “ruby.” I like to think of this then as the ruby of the Adriatic, where I have never been but would very much like to go, but also it is called “the red devil” and sometimes it is called “the red death,” so maybe it is like a satanic jewel of mortality on the shores of Venice, too.
In order to administer it, the chemotherapy nurse must dress in an elaborate protective costume and slowly, personally, push it through my port: because it destroys tissue if it escapes the veins, it is too dangerous to drip. For several days after it is administered, my body’s fluids will be toxic to other people and corrosive to my body’s own tissues. It is sometimes fatal to the heart, has a lifetime limit of which I will reach, by the end of my treatment, 50%.
Adriamycin is also a Central Nervous System Toxin, and my brain mitochondria will most likely begin to die after three hours after its administration. This death will continue for up to twenty seven hours; then the white and gray matter of my brain will decrease. There is no particularly way to know how this will change me: its effect is cumulative and only recently documented. Although the drug has been commonly used for over half a century, doctors did not believe women about its cognitive effects or minimized their complaints. MRIs of other women with breast cancer suggest damage to the visual cortex, “significantly reduced activation of the left middle dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and premotor cortex,” and “ significantly reduced left caudal lateral prefrontal cortex activation, increased perseverative errors, and reduced processing speed.” Women complain that they lose the ability to read, to recall words, to speak fluently, to make decisions, and to remember. Some say they lose not just short term memory, but the memories of their past. These effects, which I was told were inevitable and for which nothing can be done except to be endured with “good humor,” can last throughout treatment, or for one year, or for ten or more.
For four days after the first treatment, I struggled to make decisions, process visual information, and understand written words. Despite this, I wrote. I wrote in my journal, in emails, on social media. My writing was done, then, by something that felt like word memory. Language was not something I could see with my eyes, but something I could excavate from another part of my brain, as if I had been keeping it in a shadow site of deep memory to which my hands had to reroute.
By the fifth day, my mind begin to clear. I read books, began to write with some ease, began to have my usual rush of ideas and insights. But when I began to work on my manuscripts, I felt baffled by what I saw, as if I was no longer bright enough to understand myself as I had been even two weeks before. This alien complexity discouraged me. For as long as I had been alive, for each day I had ever worked, the work I once made always looked dull compared to whatever sparkling and promising thing I was making, what I knew I would make the next minute, the next year. Every record of my mind every month ago always looked naive to me, who was a month smarter, had lived and read and practiced a month more.
For the first time in my life that mind of yesterday and its record looks impossible, seems made of parts of me that are gone for good, and will go again, and again, and again each time I sit in the infusion chair.
I’m linking my story here, but definitely read the rest of Untoward’s new issue. They do God’s work there, and I’m thrilled they’re back. (And “thrilled,” like “amazing,” is one of those words I generally avoid.)
Fun fact about this story: It works well as a Mad Libs. There are two slots for celebrities in it. Who you pick for them can change the story entirely, even if you don’t try very hard. Here are some to get you started:
Channing Tatum/Burt Reynolds
Nikki Sixx/Mick Mars
Ariana Grande/Miley Cyrus
Any of the Kardashian sisters/Rob Kardashian or Bruce Jenner
Bret Michaels/Donald Trump
Erin is kind of burying the lede here, but go read her story about Beyoncé, which is great.
— Nobody Is Ever Missing, Catherine Lacey