Cancer Memories Can Taste Different

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Most cancer memories are triggering for me, but one place is particularly sweet when I think back on it.

cartoon drawing of blogger and cancer caregiver, Debbie Legault

There are a number of things I associate with Adrienne’s breast cancer experience that are huge triggers. My favorite TV shows are medical dramas and cancer is often a plot point. Some stores aisles I walk down make me freeze in my tracks when I see certain items on the shelf. My son-in-law recently said, “pizza is pizza,” but it takes me back to Adrienne’s chemo days, so when I take a bite it tastes like sadness mixed with helplessness covered in despair.

But there is one thing, one very special place, which while it should bring back painful memories of that summer of awfulness, still brings me joy.

My entire family started going to a resort with old-school cottages in the summer of 2018 and we loved our time there so much that we have been back every year since. It just so happens that the week we go always includes Adrienne’s birthday, so there’s an extra reason to celebrate. In July of 2019, because of how the treatment schedule fell, it was there we went the week after her last dose of Adriamycin (doxorubicin).

I had watched the Adriamycin, or the Red Devil as it is “affectionately” called by breast cancer patients who receive it, reduce my child to a shell of her former self over the eight weeks of four bi-weekly of treatments. We had been told that the effects were cumulative, that it would get worse with each treatment, but nothing could have prepared us for how bad thingsactually got. In the days after that last infusion, Adrienne wept in my arms saying in a very small voice that if the next course, the 12 weeks in a row of Taxol, were like this she didn’t think she could do it. She had signed on to take whatever they threw at her to kill the beast, but the reality of her dance with the Red Devil had let her know that she might have taken on more than she could carry.

Adrienne told me in later conversations, when she was able to look back on the experience with less distress, that after the four doses of Adriamycin she was ready to give up. From day one, facing multiple surgeries, months of chemo and weeks of radiation, she had been determined to do all it took to survive. But at that point in July of 2019, she was weighing whether the suffering was worth it, especially since she had no idea what the following 12 weeks had in store for her, and no one could guarantee that it would be worth it in the end.

They say that you can’t ever know what chemo is like until you’ve been there, and nothing makes that statement more true to me than knowing that after Adriamycin my vibrant, kick-butt and rule-the-world daughter was ready to wave the white flag of surrender.

The day we were supposed to head out to the cottage Adrienne had not recovered enough to get in the car and she was so disappointed. The next day she was determined to not let cancer steal her vacation with her family, so she pushed through, and we drove the hour and a half to the resort with her cushioned by pillows and blankets in the back seat, the air conditioning at full blast because the cold air helped with the side effects. Everyone was so happy to see her, and she was given the best camp chair in a place of honor under a shady tree. And as the hours and days passed, I saw magic start to happen.

I watched the delight on her face as her nephew ran to her with the treasuresthat he had found on the most recent scavenger hunt. I saw her laugh as she joked that her niece, still almost hairless at eighteen months, was her mini-me. I heard her join in the tender teasing that only siblings seem to be able to do with each other. I had to turn away when I noticed her lay her head on her Dad’s shoulder in a tired moment. Most of all, I felt the love, the unconditional, all-encompassing, joyful love that surrounded her and lifted her up.

During that week, Adrienne decided that while she couldn’t do it for herself anymore, she could do it for us. She loved us back enough have the courage to stand on the edge of the abyss once again. So now when I drive the last piece of road that leads me to the resort that’s what I remember. I remember how this place was where my child chose to keep trying. I remember the power that came with all the love, all the “please stay with us” energy that flowed her way. I remember that it gave her back a future. That it gave me back my baby.

If I could eat it, I think it would taste like sweetness and joy and light. Maybe like warm apple pie and ice cream.

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