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Cancer In Times of COVID: Melissa's journey

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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) -- The coronavirus pandemic has shut down businesses, schools, and every day life as we know it. Unfortunately, those battling life-threatening illnesses don't have the luxury of pressing pause. 

I'm Melissa Stern, and I'm a reporter here at CBS46. I was recently diagnosed with stage two breast cancer and I'm sharing my story to help others who are fighting for their lives during a pandemic. 

Here's my story. 

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The nurse taking my blood pressure after I got today’s bloodwork done. About to meet with Dr. Meisel before starting round 2 of 6 rounds of chemo. (I go every 3 weeks)

Blog entry on April 28:

I told my boyfriend, Jordan, I couldn't breathe shortly after the nurse walked away.

She had asked me about an hour before if I was allergic to anything. “Not a thing,” I said with confidence. At the time I had no idea how harrowing this experience would be.

They told me my first day of chemotherapy would be the longest day of all the treatments because they administer the drugs slowly to make sure you don’t have any reactions. But they hadn’t even started the chemo, and I was already having an allergic reaction. It turns out, it was from the anti-nausea medication they administer before you start chemo.

It was a matter of seconds after the nurse attached the bag holding the medication to my chemo port. My stomach started to hurt, I felt my chest closing, and within seconds I was gasping for air.

Jordan was sitting in front of me prepping the next cold cap for my hair. I could barely make out the words, but managed to tell him I couldn’t breathe, as the room started to spin. He initially looked at me, probably thinking I was just nervous. But, after a few seconds, the expression on his face made me realize the situation was quickly escalating.

“She’s saying she can’t breathe!” he yelled to the nurse. "We're having an emergency!" a nurse, who was tending to someone next to me, shouted. 

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My sweet boyfriend, Jordan Rosenbaum, and I in our masks at the hospital.

Several other nurses and doctors ran over. My nurse quickly disconnected the medication. The feeling of suffocating probably lasted less than 10 seconds, but it felt like forever. Now, I could finally breathe again. The doctor said my whole body and face had turned red.

I was hysterical. I couldn't control my tears. “This is a really bad sign,” I said as I covered my face with my hands. If I’m allergic to the anti-nausea medication, I’m obviously going to react poorly to the other drugs, I thought.

Thank God Jordan was that close to me. Without him, I don’t think I would've been able to get anyone’s attention that quickly. They reversed the drug and pumped me with Benadryl. It goes straight into your bloodstream, and I couldn’t lift my head anymore. I was convulsing and grinding my teeth.

After about 30 minutes, I started to feel better. They waited a bit to start the chemo, but at this point, I was extremely paranoid. Terrified of having anything else enter my body. After the nurse administered the first chemo drug, I stared her down as she walked away. I wanted to make sure we had eye contact in case I had another reaction.

Another nurse walked by and asked, "which one was it?" referring to the chemo drugs. "It was the Emend..." said my nurse. "Interesting," the other nurse replied. My nurse told me it's surprising because so few people are allergic to it. She said maybe two other people in her entire career had that reaction to it. "Go figure," I thought. 

There were no other issues that day, thankfully. But the heavy dose of Benadryl made for a very sleepy afternoon. At one point, I got up to go to the bathroom. Just doing that was challenging. Why? Because in order to do it, I have to unplug the machine that's connected and bring it with me.

Later, Jordan told me a young girl who was there with her mother getting chemo walked over and gave him a small coin. “My mom wanted me to give you this,” she said to him.

One side of the coin says “Protect me,” and the other side features an angel.

I wondered why they waited until I left to give him the coin. They clearly saw him working hard to change out my cold caps, which you're supposed to use before, during, and after each chemo treatment to help prevent or reduce hair loss. They could tell what a sweet boyfriend and caregiver he is. It was such a nice gesture and made me realize how going through this firsthand instantly connects you.

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My chemo port. Cancer patients can get a port put into their chests because you would have a lot of pokes and pricks in your arm otherwise. This is an easy access for doctors and nurses to deliver chemo meds directly into the port rather than a vein; eliminating the need for needle sticks.

It was a long day. We arrived at 7:30 a.m. for blood work and an appointment with my oncologist before the infusion. We didn’t leave until about 7 p.m. that night.

Round two was almost as long.

“I happened to overhear your conversation,” said a nice woman in the waiting room. “This is your second round?” she asked. I told her it was, and we chatted a bit about the process.

She told me how the cold caps worked for her years ago, and seeing Jordan reminded her how her husband did that for her. Another lady told me about a shirt she was wearing that zips down for easy access to your port. Jordan ordered it from Amazon right then and there.

Again, I started with blood work and a doctor’s appointment before the infusion. It was supposed to be half the time, but again, I had a mild reaction to the first chemo drug. It wasn’t the same drug that sickened me before, but since the Benadryl was already in my system the first time, there was no way of knowing if I’d react to the drugs after it.

This reaction was very mild, and again, the doctors and nurses acted swiftly, but they decided to administer it slowly to play it safe. We left around 5:30 p.m. that evening.

Before we left, the nurse who was there during my first round of chemo came over to visit me with me. We joked about how I stared her down after she administered each drug last time. I laughed as I thought to myself, “I’ll be doing that with every nurse and every drug until I ring the bell on my last day.”

The fatigue is no joke, and it makes me wonder how elderly people are able to go through chemotherapy. In the days after chemo I sleep more than 10 hours a night. I wake up in the morning, but eventually need a nap. 

Besides the fatigue, the symptoms were almost nonexistent the second time around, thanks to some steroids my doctor prescribed me. I miss feeling good enough and having the motivation to get things done. You really learn that nothing else matters when you don’t have your health, because there’s not much you can do without it.

Blog entry on April 29:

“Today was a good day,” I thought to myself as I swayed in the shower. John Mayer was playing on my speaker and I was finally feeling like myself after a week.

I took a long shower just dancing as the music played. I really took my health for granted before, I thought to myself.

Round two of chemo was definitely easier than the first round, but it still took a full week to feel good. I genuinely felt happy as I realized it was the first day in a week that food tasted normal, I could take a walk, or feel like doing anything other than lay on my couch.

The night before was a different story.

I feel like a manic person these days, having good and bad days… quickly going from happy to sad, and vice versa.

That night when my boyfriend came over after work, we were eating dinner, and he asked, “Did you talk to your mom today?” “Only eight times,” I thought, as I wept into my hands.

But I didn’t say a word. I just sat there ... and cried. He rubbed my back and stood there silently, just letting me get it out.

Right before he came over, I had a meltdown looking at double mastectomy pictures. Everyone told me not to look. I know it’s coming in the near future.

That night I FaceTimed my mom, again, hysterically crying after I washed my hair. I wanted her to see the chunks that came out as I brushed it. The cold caps seem to be working because I still have a lot of hair on my head…although I don’t quite know how, given the amount that falls out each week.

I went to bed early that night....just emotionally and physically exhausted from feeling like crap that whole week. I’m the type of person that loves dressing up, putting on makeup, going to events, socializing…etc.

These days, I feel like I look disgusting when I look in the mirror. The thought of anyone seeing me gives me anxiety … and I work in television.

But, I’m thankful for the two good weeks I have in between treatments. One bad week, and two good weeks, after each round. I think I can live with that ratio.

Blog entry on April 30: 

I was already living my “new normal” after a February breast cancer diagnosis. A week or so later, everything was shutting down around us, and, all of a sudden, I wasn’t the only one experiencing a “new normal.”

Now, anyone battling a life-threatening illness was once again left to figure out, “what now?”

I’m hoping to share my story with all of you to provide insight, a personal look, and helpful resources to help anyone fighting for their lives during a pandemic.

“I’ve brought a book, a comfy blanket, some numbing cream and Chapstick,” I told my photographer Richard Breaden when he arrived to film me. I was packing up my bags for my first chemo treatment.

I just turned 31. There's no history of breast cancer in my immediate family. I found a lump a few months ago and decided to get it checked out. Thank goodness I did because it’s stage two breast cancer. Now, the hardest part of all of this is the unknown.

I’m self-isolating in my apartment, only going out for doctor's appointments. I’m working from home and the support from my friends, family, and the entire CBS46 team has helped me get through these past few weeks.

I started chemotherapy on March 31st. The side affects from chemo are tough. Overall, I'm a healthy 31-year-old who went from going to Orange Theory Fitness several times a week to needing to lie down on my couch after going downstairs to get the mail.

I’ve experienced everything from fatigue to loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea, acne, night sweats, restlessness, rashes…you name it, I've had it. The worst of it lasts about a week and as soon as I’m feeling like myself again, I have to go back for the next round of treatment. I'm on more medications than I've even been on in my entire life.

My boyfriend Jordan is supporting me through this. He's the only person I can take with me.

“We can't say enough about him, he's been amazing,” my mom Debbie said as she teared up during a Zoom call with my co-worker, reporter Brittany Edney.

It’s too risky for my family to visit. But even if they could, I'm only allowed one guest to minimize patient and doctor exposure to the coronavirus.

This is especially challenging for my mom, who told Brittany that she just wishes she could be there for me. 

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Me before my first chemo treatment back on March 31st.

So, as a result of this pandemic, my family is doing as much as they can, virtually, from out of state.

My father, David, is a physician and seeing patients. He doesn’t want to put me at risk by coming to visit. In addition, my oldest sister, Cara, is pregnant. They all live in south Florida.

My middle sister, Barrie, lives in Philadelphia, and is hoping to make the drive down in the upcoming months.

"I think it's hard enough to go through dealing with cancer treatment in a normal day-to-day situation,” my mom told Brittany. “So with this pandemic, it makes it so much harder and so much more dangerous," she said.

The doctor handling my treatment, whom I affectionately refer to as the Marvelous Doctor Meisel, works with a lot of young patients. Many of which are concerned with the coronavirus circumstances. 

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Stern family picture taken last Thanksgiving. 

"All that anxiety gets compounded by a pandemic because there's the anxiety of finding out you have cancer but also 'what if I put myself at risk for this virus by coming in to get treatment for my illness?” Dr. Jane Meisel, a Medical Oncologist at Emory, said in an interview with Edney.

Thankfully, I’ve been leaning on family and friends. But, I can see how social distancing during treatment can take a mental toll. I’ve been doing FaceTime calls with friends and loved ones, but not being in person makes the whole ordeal even tougher.

I'm amazed by the outpouring of love and support. I can't believe the amount of gifts and cards I’ve received. I might need a storage unit because they're taking over my one-bedroom apartment!

I was on a Zoom call the other day with my mom when I said, “I could really use a hug right about now!" 

“We’re sending lots of virtual hugs your way!” she told me. I guess virtual hugs will have to suffice for now. 

Maintaining your mental health is paramount when you're going through such an ordeal with a pandemic. Dr. Meisel offered some advice. “We don't want people to be socially-isolated," she said. "I'm always telling people, call those people you love, set up a FaceTime chat with your college roommate. Do those things that help you reach out, so you don't get depressed,” she said.

But no matter who you are, or what you might be going through, these are tough times and I think we could all use a hug right now.

I have numerous treatments ahead, so I'll be sharing my experience over the next few months. I'm doing this because I want anyone who has to go through it to have a better idea of what to expect. I want to help you, and your caregivers, and others in your support system. 

Stay strong. Please keep up with my story here on CBS46.com. I hope it helps. And if you ever want to chat, feel free to reach out to me via email at melissa.stern@cbs46.com.

Here are some resources that I found helpful:

Spiritual Health at Emory Healthcare has a YouTube channel offering ways to cope during times of distress. These include self compassion meditations, support through poetry, grounding yourself, deep breathing, nature, prayer and more.

Winship Spiritual Health is available for phone or Zoom support to patients and families. Contact winship.spiritual.health@emoryhealthcare.org or at 470-446-7844.

In addition to the options at Emory, many cancer peer support groups are doing virtual meetings, yoga etc. Here are some examples:

Living Beyond Breast Cancer, which offers online and phone support.

Cancer Care has online support groups for all types of cancer.

Sharsheret offers yoga and meditation groups.

Visit Immerman Angels for one-on-one peer support.

Cancer Wellness House has lots of virtual programs for exercise, wellness, etc.

Emory Winship Cancer Institute support groups provide a unique opportunity for you to connect with others and learn more about treatment options for your specific cancer type, find ways to improve your quality of life, and make friends.

Atlanta Cancer Care, which is affiliated with the Northside Hospital Cancer Institute offers caregiver information and support

The American Cancer Society offers resources to find local cancer support and programs and services in your area.

Blog entry on May 10:

It’s been months, yet every night when I hear a loud “woooooo”, someone banging pans together, and the music echoing through Midtown, I look down at my watch. It’s 8 o’clock.

I stick my head out my living room’s sliding doors to get some fresh air and listen to the cheers. Whoever started the idea of cheering for our healthcare and front-line workers each night is a genius. It brings a smile to my face every time.

Not only am I thinking of everyone continuing to work through the pandemic, I’m thinking of my own doctors, nurses, and everyone who works in the hospital. I think of the people who keep everything running to allow me, and everyone else needing treatment, to continue.

I know one day the cheers will end. It’s bittersweet. For one, that means things are sort of getting back to normal. And two, it means I’m inching toward the finish line as I pass the halfway point of my chemo treatments.

As the music fades into background noise, I walk past my desk to the kitchen. I can’t help but think about the mammogram paperwork that sat there for months.

I still wonder...what if? What if I ignored my lump? What if I put it off any longer? Would I be stage 3 by the time I went to get checked?

I remember looking at the paper every day I passed it. My gut told me something was wrong. “You know your body, Melissa,” I remember thinking to myself, “A lump that hard doesn’t just appear and mean nothing.”

But I didn’t want to go. Then it would be real if it was something.

I remember the radiologist coming in after my mammogram and ultrasound telling me that both looked abnormal and I need to get a biopsy.

"Who does this guy think he is?" I remember thinking to myself, "This can't be true."

You know how in movies when someone is processing something, and the person's voice talking to them fades into the background, as their heart beats faster and their thoughts grow louder?

That's what happened to me. He had to repeat everything he said.

The music outside my apartment lasts about ten minutes, then starts to fade, then it’s back to the eerie quietness that has taken over Midtown. Things are back open, but it’s not the same.

As that happens, I can’t help but think there’s a silver lining in my story, kind of like all the acts of kindness, like the cheers, I’ve been reporting about.

Thankfully I caught my cancer early, and I have my whole life ahead of me. If I can help even one person by sharing my story... it all was worth it in the end.

EDIT: This was the last night I ever heard the cheers. Isn't that ironic?

Blog entry on May 12

“We’re limiting the amount of guests even more starting today due to the coronavirus,” said the woman on the phone from my doctor’s office yesterday.

I saw the 404 number on my caller ID and immediately knew something was coming.

“But you’re doing the cold caps, right?” She said right after.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Ok, we’re making exceptions for patients who need assistance,” she said, as I breathed a sigh of relief.

I can’t imagine sitting in the chair alone for hours. I feel terrible for anyone who has to do that. But I understand.

Today was Chemo day #3. I feel like we’re pros at this point. We've got the routine down. We know what to expect, and the day went smoothly.

The woman across from me was also allergic to the anti-nausea medication, Emend. It was her first treatment... and my boyfriend, Jordan, and I, looked over and immediately felt for her and her husband. The look on his face was just like Jordan’s: horror, as you watch helplessly when someone you love reacts to medications that way. The doctors and nurses rushed over.

I was told it’s unusual to be allergic to Emend, the anti- nausea drug they give you before chemo. “So, what are the odds that this woman has the same reaction as I did, that we’re at the same hospital, at the same time, and I’m sitting in the chair across the room from her...can’t be that unusual,” I thought to myself.

Her husband asked Jordan what to expect in the upcoming hours and days. Jordan told him what happens to me, and gave him his email address and told him to reach out any time. I think everyone going through this is in the same boat... you can read about it all you want, but no one really knows what to expect. Chemo affects everyone differently.

As I sat across from her, I could relate to her on a deep level as she sat recovering the same way I did just 6 weeks ago.

Six weeks. It’s hard to believe that much time has passed since my first treatment.

Blog entry on May 18

The clock is ticking.

I never realized how much I wanted kids until the moment I was told it might not be possible.

“You need to freeze your eggs,” my sister told me on the phone.

This was just days after I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Why is she talking about freezing my eggs?” I thought.

“Chemo can potentially affect your ability to have kids,” she said.

The thoughts in my head went a mile a minute. I was still trying to digest my diagnosis, and now I had another obstacle to overcome before starting treatment.

Why would you think about that? According to the American Cancer Society, rates of breast cancer are low in women under 40. About 4% of women diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. are younger than 40.

Most women who are diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime are probably done having kids, if they wanted them.

I was never the person who lived to be a mom. I want kids, but I would consider myself more of a “career woman.”

But the moment when I thought it may never be a possibility changed my whole perspective.

I called the fertility office the next day and made an appointment.

I had 3 weeks before starting chemo. 3 weeks to save whatever fertile eggs my body would make after 15+ years on birth control. I refused to put off saving my own life beyond that. It was one and done, and whatever will be, will be.

I was in that fertility office every other day. Luckily, it was close to my apartment, but I would go before work, on my days off, even on the weekends a few times.

The office grew quieter each time. The pandemic was in full swing now, and no new patients were coming in. I was one of the last few patients allowed in.

My insurance didn’t cover the cost, but at this point, my mind was made up. There would be no price tag on having peace of mind while going through chemo.

“At least you’ll know afterward that you did everything you could,” my boyfriend, Jordan, said to me.

He’s right. Having the eggs, or not, doesn’t guarantee a thing. But I did everything I could.

I paid half of the cost as I waited for the various grants I signed up for. I spent the next few days feverishly filling out paperwork for anything I could find.

I couldn’t help but feel sick to my stomach about the whole situation…and not because of what you’re probably thinking. While the situation was quite depressing for me, I felt sick thinking about the people who can’t afford it.

I consider myself to be comfortable. Although, the last thing I wanted to do was burn through my savings as a 31 year old, to freeze eggs for a hypothetical child that may, or may not happen, regardless.

I read somewhere that some young patients aren’t even told about the effect chemo can have on fertility. I sincerely hope doctors everywhere provide that information.

But for the patients who want to, and insurance won’t cover it, the clock is ticking. And I don’t mean biologically.

They don’t have time to wait to come up with the money, and they don’t have time to push off chemo.

I had two different grants come through that covered all the costs of my medication. I don’t know the exact number, but it was somewhere around $7,000. Free. The medications were actually even more expensive than the procedure itself.

Team Maggie gave me a grant for part of the cost of the egg retrieval….helping me slash the remaining balance on my bill, somewhere around $3,500, by $1,000.

Keep in mind that some people do several cycles of this when trying to have a baby.

So far, despite all of these grants, the cost of my fertility treatments will cost more than all of my medications, procedures, and anything related to my actual breast cancer combined for the year.

Why? My insurance covers most of that, and I’ve already met my out of pocket maximum for the year. I actually met that three weeks after diagnosis.

Once I had all the medications and the information on how to administer them, Jordan gave me all my shots each day. He became a pro at mixing all the solutions.

I had bruises all over my stomach, and I felt bloated all the time.

The number of shots increased as the days went on. Did I mention I hate needles?

Finally the day came for the trigger shot.

36 hours now. 36 hours exactly until egg retrieval.

Everything went smoothly. I was told I had 14 follicles, and got a call a few days later that they were able to freeze 8 mature eggs.

I’m told, on average, that can lead to one or two live births.

“Ready to start round two?” the nurse said on the phone.

Absolutely not, I thought. I have to start chemotherapy...the clock is ticking.

Blog entry on May 27th

“Breast cancer and chemotherapy

Took away her crownin' glory

She promised God if she was to survive

She would enjoy every day of her life, oh

On national television

Her diamond eyes are sparkling

Bald-headed like a full moon shining

Singing out to the whole wide world like, hey”

The lyrics above are from India Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair.”

I’ve been playing that song a lot lately…you should listen to it, I find it comforting, and her amazing voice doesn’t hurt either.

To be honest, I was never in love with my hair. I have extremely curly hair that I straighten 95% of the time.

We always want what we don’t have, right?

When I was younger, my hair was so thick it took about an hour to straighten it. Over the years, it has thinned out…I attribute it to hormones and stress.

When I was told I would lose my hair during chemotherapy, that was the most devastating part. I know, to a lot of women, it feels like you’re losing your identity without your hair.

Again, while my hair wasn’t so great to begin with, I started thinking about being bald. Would I feel less womanly?

While doing this series for CBS46, the photographer who has been filming a lot of my journey is completely bald…it didn’t even cross my mind telling him all of this until he goes, “It’s not so bad!”

Many of my friends are in the medical field, and one of my best friends from college told me about cold caps. I had never heard of that as an option before.

My oncologist wrote me a prescription for alopecia – the medical term for hair loss – but my insurance denied cold caps.

I spoke with several women who used cold caps before me with great success. The statistics vary, but cold caps don’t work for everyone, and the success rate isn’t so high given how expensive they are.

“Why not try it?” my boyfriend, Jordan, said. “At least you know you did everything you could.”

He was right.

I got a grant though a program called “Hair to Stay,” the company helps cover the cost of cold caps. I ordered my caps through a company called Penguin Cold Caps. It’s nearly $500 a month for them usually. It varies per person, but “Hair to Stay” covers a significant portion of it, and the company lowers the price, as well, for grant recipients.

I had to pay shipping when they sent them to me, and you just ship them back when you’re done.

If someone asked me if it’s worth it, I would definitely say it depends on the person....it is a lot of work.

I buy 40-50 lbs of dry ice the day before each chemo session. In we go to the hospital each time with a giant rolling cooler.

The process for the cold caps is different for each patient, but for me, Jordan changes the caps every 25 minutes (there are 4 caps total). The first session he changed my caps 12 times!!!

“At least it gives you something to do!” I joked to him.

Each time I go in for chemotherapy I sit in the chair for hours with this frozen contraption on my head. The first one is always the worst…I mean, it’s absolutely freezing.

Your head kind of goes numb after that.

I’ve still lost about 50% of my hair, and I’m halfway done with chemo. I’m curious how much will be left at the end.

I’m surprised I have as much hair left on my head as I do. My hair sheds A LOT and comes out in clumps very regularly. But to the average person on the street, they would not know I was going through chemotherapy by just looking at me.

My hair was thinning already, so I had been taking biotin pills to help with growth for about 8 months right before I found out I had breast cancer. I truly believe that made a difference.

There are three rules with cold caps – no chemicals, no heat, and no pulling. That means for the hair I do have left, I have to wash it in cold water, cannot use a blow dryer, and I barely brush it. It usually looks like a hot mess and I’m basically just maintaining it.

There is hair all over my apartment and my bed…I feel like I’m cleaning and washing things every other day. To many people this probably sounds crazy to go through all this, as it’s just hair…it will eventually grow back.

Looking back, would I do it all over again? I’m not sure. Probably.

But given the coronavirus, I would say yes.

“We’re limiting the amount of guests even more starting today due to the coronavirus,” said the woman on the phone from my doctor’s office before my last chemo session.

"But you're doing the cold caps, right?" she said right after.

"Yes," I replied.

"Ok, we're making exceptions for patients who need assistance," she said as I breathed a sigh of relief.

“That would have been a lot of work for nothing!” I thought to myself. You cannot change out the cold caps yourself, and since each treatment is cumulative, you have to wear it each time.

Without the cold caps, I would be sitting in that chemo chair, alone, for hours.

I guess there’s a reason for everything.

Blog entry on June 3rd

I’m exhausted. 

I’m exhausted not only because I had my 4th round of chemo yesterday, but I’m exhausted from watching the unrest in our country unfold over the last few days.

I’ve been up late every night watching my coworkers cover the protests and riots for hours.

It’s tough as a journalist to sit on the sidelines and feel helpless as history is being made, but I know now is the time to take care of myself and put my health first.

It seems like ever since I was diagnosed with breast cancer in February the world has been turned upside down. Not just for me, but everyone else.

First, the global pandemic, which is still going on, although it seems like many have forgotten. Second, our economic crisis, and now, the fight for racial equality in this country that has made countless cities look like war zones.

Although Atlanta police and the National Guard have filled the streets mere blocks from my apartment, I haven’t seen any of them in person. I’ve seen it all unfold on TV, but I’ve been cooped up in my apartment for months while undergoing chemotherapy.

Yesterday was round four of six. I couldn’t help but look around and wonder about the personal lives of the nurses, doctors, and healthcare professionals, many of whom were minorities, taking care of me.

Do they have young black sons? Are they worried about them peacefully protesting as they take care of me?

I told my oncologist yesterday that I’d like my chemo port out by the end of the year. I want everything related to my treatment, which will hopefully be over by the end of 2020, if all goes well, to stay in this God awful year.

I have to continue getting Herceptin, an immune targeted therapy that helps slow or stop the growth of breast cancer for HER2 positive breast cancer patients. I am triple positive, and even once my chemo and surgeries are over, I’ll have to continue getting Herceptin until next Spring. It can also be administered through your port, instead of your arm veins.  

“Think of it as preventive,” my doctor told me, “You’ll be leaving chemo and your double mastectomy in 2020, the Herceptin doesn’t have side effects like chemo, and studies show it helps prevent the re-occurrence of breast cancer.”

I remember the day I got my port in. I was fine until they rolled me into the operating room. Once there, I burst into tears. It was all so overwhelming. The nurse stroked my arm and told me it was all going to be OK.

“You’re going to make me cry!” she said to me, as tears rolled down my face.

Another nurse asked me what kind of music I wanted to listen to, to make me feel better.

“I can’t really think right now, but I guess Sam Smith,” I said, “I know that’s a little ironic given a lot of his songs are depressing,” I said with a laugh.

Hey, he has a great voice.

They all laughed and told me they’d put on some of his upbeat songs. 

“I’ll be knocked out from the anesthesia in a few minutes, anyway,” I thought to myself.

My oncologist is right. There’s no point in rushing to get my port out. Sometimes there are things we can’t control, and we can’t rush change. Although it’s been a tough year, I couldn’t help but think of it as a metaphor with what’s going on in our country.

The coronavirus and the fight for change when it comes to police brutality or racial injustice in our country are far from over. 

While we can all leave the negativity, violence, and anything cancerous behind, it’s important to remember that changes are coming, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I think I’ll leave my port in until the very end. Doctor’s orders. 

Blog entry on June 9th

It’s been a tough week…I feel a bit useless these days.

Chemo round #4 left me bedridden for nearly 72 hours. While I had 3 days off following my treatment, it took a full week to start feeling better. I worked through it, though, although I probably shocked some of the people I interviewed for my stories.

I’m doing all Zoom interviews these days, but I haven’t had the energy to put on any makeup or look presentable. Just a few months ago, I wouldn’t be caught dead the way I looked on those calls. I’m sure the people I’m interviewing are wondering how I could be so lazy.

I also spent some time on the phone with my insurance yesterday. My medication for nausea was available for pickup, but despite meeting my deductible already, the pharmacy was telling me it would cost money. After some back and forth, my insurance told me that they only cover 9 pills in 30 days. 9 pills. What?

“Oh, but if you get your doctor’s office to call us, we can override it,” the woman on the phone said.

“Why is this even an issue?” I thought to myself.

I’m sure most people just pay their pharmacy, despite having it covered.

I’m sure most people don’t have the energy to argue with their insurance company.

I’m sure most people don’t feel like contacting their doctor’s office, then calling insurance back, then calling the pharmacy. It’s never ending.

I wanted to make sure I wrote about this so people know you don’t have to take what someone tells you as final. If you’re not sure about something, or don’t believe you should be charged for something, or something doesn’t seem right …ask!

My doctor’s office cleared everything up and made a few calls for me. The medication ended up being free.

Working full time and having responsibilities while going through chemotherapy is no easy task. I commend anyone who does it while also having children to care for.

I have two sessions left, and I’m absolutely dreading going through this again, but I know I’m getting closer to the finish line.

I’m meeting with a surgeon tomorrow to discuss my options following chemotherapy.

I feel like once my immune system is back to normal, and I can live my life like I did before, I will give 110%. I was always a very driven and hardworking person, but now, more than ever, I can’t wait to feel like a contributing member to society again.

Blog entry on June 25th

I was supposed to have my 5th round of chemo this past Tuesday, but my platelet count was too low. Each time you go in for your infusion, you have to get blood-work done first to ensure it’s safe to get the chemo.

The normal number of platelets in the blood is 150,000 to 400,000 platelets per microliter.

“You’re at 63,000,” my oncologist told me.

The good news is, I’m getting some scans done in two weeks, if the scans look good, I can still get my last treatment in July. If the scans don’t look good, I’ll have to tack on the chemo I missed on Tuesday at the end.

I’m hopeful everything will show improvement, and my doctor seemed optimistic.

I also got my genetic testing results back recently, and everything came back negative. I was expecting to be BRCA positive and was pleasantly surprised when I wasn’t. When you’re BRCA1 or BRCA2 positive, you have a mutation in one of the breast cancer genes.

What that means is, you have a much higher risk of developing breast cancer or ovarian cancer as opposed to someone who does not have the mutation.

While it’s a relief that I tested negative, now it’s even more baffling that I have breast cancer at such a young age.

My sister and her boyfriend drove down from Philadelphia to visit me this week. They planned to be here while I was recovering from round #5 of chemo. This is the first time any family member has been able to visit me in Atlanta since I was diagnosed.

Since I didn’t get chemo this week due to the low platelet count, I feel good! So, we can actually spend some time together without me feeling lousy and just wanting to lie in my bed all day.

It kind of feels like I got a “get out of jail free” card!

Besides being told I wasn’t getting chemo this week; the best part of my doctor’s visit was a huge surprise put together by my sorority sisters. I was a Kappa Alpha Theta at the University of Florida. My friend, Dayana Koester, got a bunch of girls from my pledge class to create a video and raise money for the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University.

It takes a lot to surprise me, and I was absolutely blown away! My oncologist walked in with a giant check and told me the money would go toward helping cancer patients. My boyfriend, Jordan, helped them coordinate everything. 

In the video, and in well wishes I’ve received since I was diagnosed, many people spoke about memories they had of me, and talked about qualities that I have that will help me beat cancer.

I couldn’t help but laugh at things like, “You never took no for an answer, so as long as you stick to that, cancer has no chance.” I’m glad the traits that got me in trouble throughout life will help me!

I just told my family a couple days before that I’ve gotten so many gifts, that I’ll need a storage unit because my apartment is too small…so I was thankful that my sorority sisters donated in my name to help others.

Here is a link to the donation page Dayana started in my name to raise even more money for cancer patients in need.

Blog entry on July 15th

“I mean this in the nicest way, but I hope I never see you again,” said the nice man at Continental Carbonic Products.

I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Same,” I said.

I went there every three weeks like clockwork right before my chemo infusion to get 40-50 pounds of dry ice for my cold caps; he always had it ready for me, and always threw in extra.

It’s people like that, the small things, that have really helped me over the last few months. I know people are truly good at heart and I think it comes out when you need it most.

I had a repeat MRI last week to compare it to my MRI from before starting chemo. My oncologist said it looked amazing, and there was no enhancement anywhere. I’m responding well to the treatment.

I had my final chemo infusion yesterday and got to ring the bell. I really can’t say enough about the doctors, nurses, and staff at Winship. They were not only so kind and helpful, but I really felt like they cared about each patient and made you as comfortable as possible given the situation.

They all clapped and cheered as I rang the bell, and I thought, I mean this in the nicest way, but I hope I never see you again. At least in that setting.

I mailed back my cold caps this morning, first thing, and I’m excited to start growing out my hair!

I’ll be having a bilateral mastectomy in a few weeks which will knock me out of commission for 4-6 weeks. Hopefully, after that, I can put this all behind me...for good.

I covered a story at work a few days ago about the death of actress Kelly Preston, John Travolta’s wife. She died from metastatic breast cancer, which means it spread beyond her breasts.

Several people commented on social media in response to my story, upset that I had included information from experts regarding early detection. Many of them stated that early detection doesn’t make a difference for patients with metastatic breast cancer; that the only thing needed is funding and research.

In no way was I intending to place blame on those who are living with metastatic cancer or disrespect those who have died from the disease. Drawing from my own experience, my goal is to educate those who might have the opportunity to catch it early, BEFORE it spreads. God forbid, should my breast cancer come back and show up elsewhere, I would still push for early detection.

Another person told me not to use the words, “fighter,” or “battling breast cancer.” Listen, you do you, and I’ll do me. Regardless of my outcome, I’m a fighter until the end.

No one wants breast cancer, and certainly, no one wants to die from it. I think we can all agree that there needs to be a cure. Plain and simple. 

Blog entry on August 10th

I spent several months right before I was diagnosed covering the wrongdoings of a local doctor being investigated by the District Attorney’s Office.

I can’t help but think of the irony in spending hours exposing a doctor taking advantage of vulnerable patients, then spending the majority of my time in doctors’ offices over the last six months.

I’m thankful and lucky I’ve had the most amazing doctors and care, but it made me think about the patients who trusted this man.

When you have a health issue, you rely on your doctor to help you in the best possible way. I couldn’t imagine what the victims I interviewed went through, and even more so now.

That doctor no longer has his medical license, thanks in part to our investigative journalism.

All of the doctors caring for me throughout my breast cancer journey were recommended by several people. I can’t stress enough the importance of doing your homework when it comes to your health.

Aside from the health benefits, having to wear a mask over the last few months, has been helpful during my random breakdowns to catch my tears… it’s another upside of having your face covered.

It’s weird walking through the hospital and interacting with the medical professionals without being able to see their faces and expressions.

http://www.courtneyeinhorn.com/

I had a COVID test today and some other pre-op appointments leading up to my double mastectomy tomorrow. I’m extremely nervous and scared, as I know the next couple of weeks recovering aren’t going to be easy.

My phone has been ringing off the hook today and I’ve had so many deliveries and well wishes. It truly helps the anxiety and stress knowing you’re loved and supported.

My boyfriend, Jordan, will drop me off tomorrow morning, but no one is allowed inside with me. I’ll have to stay overnight, but when I’m released from the hospital, my parents will be there to pick me up.

They’re coming up to Atlanta from Florida to help take care of me over the next few days following my surgery.

While this is a very serious surgery and a tough one for any woman to go through, Jordan, and I decided to lighten the mood.

Breast mold

We bought some silicon and plaster to make a mold of my breasts so I can always have them, even though they tried to kill me.

I hope anyone who goes through breast cancer can have a sense of humor, despite some very dark days.

Blog entry on August 20th

“Why are you crying, mommy?” asked my 5-year-old niece, Evie, looking up at my sister, clearly distraught.

My sister, Cara, was hugging me goodbye as I was getting ready to leave Florida after a quick visit before my double mastectomy.

We probably hugged for about 3 minutes. Evie stood there watching, confused as to why her mom would be so upset.

“Mommy won’t see Melissa for a while,” Cara’s mother-in-law told her.

Evie asks me all the time how I’m feeling when we FaceTime, not really understanding the gravity of the situation. “Aunt Melissa is sick,” my sister explained to her.

The next few days leading up to my surgery were a blur.

When I woke up in the recovery room after my surgery, I heard the patient next to me moaning and groaning loudly.

“1957,” I heard him say, as my anesthesia started to wear off.

The curtains were closed, and I didn't have my glasses on yet, so I couldn’t see anything, but I heard his nurse asking him questions.

“What year is it?” was the question she asked. When he said 1957, I started to panic.

“What kind of surgery did that guy get?” I thought to myself. My nurse joked that it must have been a good year.

Soon after, a man came over with my backpack filled with my belongings that they put away while I was in surgery.

Minutes later they wheeled me upstairs.

When I finally looked at my phone, my boyfriend, Jordan, and my family told me what a great job the hospital did notifying them each step of the way. No one was allowed inside with me because of Covid-19, so I was relieved after finally speaking to loved ones.

I spent one night in the hospital and slept most of the time.

I started looking on Spotify for guided meditation playlists. It helped me tremendously in the days following surgery...although I was on a lot of meds, it put me to sleep, kept me calm, and helped with my breathing.

The nurses were so helpful and showed me how to use my drains. They also showed my loved ones how to empty them via FaceTime, so they would know how when I got home.

The drains are the most annoying part. There are tubes connected from your body to the drains and they hang down. It collects blood and excess fluid as you heal, and you have to empty them several times a day. I find them to be incredibly uncomfortable.

You have to measure the amount of liquid that comes out each time you empty them in a cup. You also have to log the amount on a piece of paper. When it falls below a certain amount you can get them removed.

I don’t think I’ve ever been in such constant pain for this long ever in my life.

My parents and my boyfriend have been taking care of me ever since I left the hospital.

The week following surgery I didn’t shower much, and when I did, my mom had to help me, as I lost a lot of mobility in my arms. I’ve also been taking pain medications every few hours around the clock.

I slept a lot, lived in button-up pajamas, and needed someone to help me get up out of bed. You don’t realize how much you use your chest muscles and arms to do things. Even opening a pill bottle was difficult.

The pain was excruciating the first couple days and I really depended on medications to make me feel better.

It took about 5 days from surgery to be able to do anything independently. I still have a few weeks to go before I can lift anything heavy.

My boyfriend has helped me overnight and my parents have helped me throughout the day. I think my mom has cleaned every crevice of my apartment, and my cabinets and fridge are fuller than they’ve ever been. Her cooking isn’t too shabby, either :)

I'm used to sleeping on my stomach, so sleeping on my back has taken some getting used to.

Besides having several pillows propped up behind me, a couple things that have gotten me through the week are my neck pillow you use on flights — I would highly recommend it to any patient going through a double mastectomy... it helped me sleep.

I also have a mastectomy pillow with a pocket. It has openings for your arms while you sit/sleep and a pocket on the front for glasses or your phone. It’s great when you wake up in the middle of the night and don’t have to look or reach for things.

It’s been nine days since surgery. I’m slowly getting my mobility back and feeling better each day. My parents have gone home, and I can do most things by myself. 

While I’m still very bruised, and sore, I’m so happy this is over with and the worst of it is behind me.

I start radiation soon...the next step of what seems like a never-ending process.

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