In her PEOPLE.com blog, Diem Brown, the Real World/Road Rules Challenge contestant recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer for the second time, opens up about her desire for a child and the ups and downs of cancer and fertility procedures
Taxol with a splash of Carbo, please.
Yeah, soooo, a “chemo cocktail” isn’t as much fun as ordering a drink from your local bartender. Although you might say the hangover can be just as, if not more, rough.
My new favorite pastime is trying my skills as an honorary MD. Oh yeah … in my mind I’m becoming a medical expert in fertility drugs, menopause and of course, cancer. When dealing with any illness, you are so entrenched in your disease that you slowly but surely become your own best medical advisor. I swear, Harvard should grant me some sort of honorary medical degree!
I walk into my doctor’s office and sit down in front of her desk. I glance around at her many diplomas on the wall and stack of research on her desk and realize, “Wow, she’s one busy super-brain lady.” Still, she allows me to bounce my newfound Internet knowledge about various “chemo-cocktails” off of her cranium.
Last time I had ovarian cancer, I did the standard Carbo-Taxol “cocktail” (that’s a blend of Carboplatin aka “carbo” and Paclitaxel aka “taxol”). Yes, that one … where the side effects include extreme weight loss, a lasting metal taste in your mouth and hair loss.
This time, I wanted to study all the chemo cocktail combinations, and with my doctor, discover the best chemo blend for me.
I will be very forthcoming and say that over the years I have always envied those public figures who have gone through cancer and haven’t lost their hair. I understand this envy sounds vain, but for me, those who didn’t lose their hair had a mental advantage that I didn’t.
My main form of coping is, and has always been, denial. So it was impossible to deny I was sick when my hair fell out. I had to visually recognize I had cancer every time I looked in the mirror or adjusted my wig.
I was jealous of those who didn’t have to lose their during cancer treatments because in my mind they could continue to walk down the streets without the visible side effects of having cancer. But that got me thinking …
You Can’t Always See Pain
I have many girlfriends who have found themselves at the mercy of invisible illnesses. I have a girlfriend with advanced Lyme disease, a girlfriend with Cystinuria and a girlfriend with an auto-immune disease that I had never even heard of – Ankylosing Sponylitis, aka AS.
All three of my girlfriends have suffered both the emotional and physical torment that accompanies these ailments; but to the general public’s naked eye, the side effects of their diseases are invisible. No “doors” are held open for them as they pass through.
My girlfriend with AS shared this amazing story that made me dissect and ponder the way our society treats “invisible” illnesses. She shared her annoyance about someone’s Facebook status update complaining about a particular handicapped spot occupant at the gym. The post basically said that if a person is going to gym then she/he must not be that handicapped. And here’s where our society has shown poor judgment.
A person emerging from his or her car parked in a handicapped spot may seem completely healthy and completely “normal” walking towards the gym. But what’s lying beneath the surface?
Maybe this person is dealing with an autoimmune disease or some other ailment that is unseen. Maybe this person has cancer but is currently undergoing a type of chemo treatment that doesn’t cause hair loss. Whatever the reason, this person is parking in a handicapped spot at the gym, so why must our initial reaction be to judge the severity of his or her illness?
Why not applaud someone who is handicapped making an effort to fight the hand that has been dealt to him or her? Judgment is such a nasty vehicle, but admittedly, we all have been in the driver’s seat of the judgment car at one point or another.
I myself was in that nasty judgment driver’s seat six years ago. I was bitter and jealous glancing at the locks of hair surrounding the beautiful faces of actresses with cancer. I could not understand why or how they had become so “lucky” and missed the chemo head bald train.
I have now come to realize that maybe I was (and am) the lucky one, because currently I have cancer, yet no one would ever know it from just looking at me. Even though I’m suffering from an illness, I’ve continued with life of a “normal” young adult in New York City.
Maybe I am the lucky one because once my chemo starts and I lose my hair, there will be a visible “tell” sign that I am sick to the outside world.
Sympathy is given through human nature to those who have “tells.” As a society, we hold doors for the elderly, people with visible disabilities, or people in casts suffering from short-term setbacks. On the other hand, those who go through cancer with no “tells” don’t get the same society care … they are treated as “normal” even though their insides are fighting for survival.
A Small Price To Pay
I’ve studied almost every chemo cocktail I can imagine. Of course I would love to keep my hair, but after researching the best chemo treatments, I realize that wouldn’t be a wise decision for me. I have come to understand and accept that my hair loss will be just a phase and a small price to pay for kicking this cancer out of me.
This isn’t to say that I’m happy about losing my locks, but I have accepted it as my future and part of my treatment, so I’ve come to be at peace with it.
I know some think I should be on bed rest awaiting my cancer treatments, but that’s not my way. I am Southern, I am a fighter and I will whip my hair to the beat of some cheesy pop music until every strand falls out.
As always, I return to my mom’s little saying: “Aim to be a stranger’s bright spot in their day and not the straw that breaks their back.”
You will never know the road the person next to you is going down. You will never know if today is their triumphant high, or their lowest of lows. From a grocery store checkout clerk, to a cab driver, to the person who cut you off in traffic, you can’t possibly ever know their story. Their pain might not be visible.
Check back for updates every Thursday: Diem will be chronicling her journey through fertility treatments, chemotherapy, and her quest to educate others about ovarian health exclusively for PEOPLE.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @DiemBrown