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Claire's Story: Part 2 - Hope and Perspective Shift: My Summer of Chemo and Hair Loss

My biopsy in April 2015 revealed a 2.7 cm invasive ductal carcinoma in my right breast. In early May, I learned from my surgeon (to my great joy) that I might not have to have a mastectomy. She also told me that the rate of recurrence for breast cancer at ten years after treatment was roughly the same with or without a mastectomy. There are varying breast cancer survival statistics out there but they all pointed to high survival percentages (70-95%) five to ten years after diagnosis especially when discovered early. This was so much better than I imagined when I first got the diagnosis!

The surgeon performed my breast-conserving surgery (aka “lumpectomy”) in late May. I went into the Ottawa Hospital at 6am and was home late afternoon. Before going into the operating room, my surgeon patted my hand, looked directly at me and smiled a warm smile. Her words, “I will take very good care of you” gave me reassurance. I felt no fear contrary to what I had anticipated. 

In early June at my post-surgery appointment, I found out that my lymph nodes and the margins of my tumour were both clear. My cancer was classified as early stage (Stage IIA - under 5cm, no spread, no lymph nodes involved). All good results in cancer terms. However, the surgeon then told me that my tumour was grade 3 (high grade - meaning aggressive). I would therefore need chemotherapy. In addition, my hormone receptor tests showed that I was positive for HER2 possibly driving the aggressive nature of my cancer. Fortunately, I learned that an effective targeted treatment called Herceptin (Trastuzumab) is available for the 20% of women with HER2+ breast cancer.

I recovered quickly from my surgery diligently doing physio exercises twice daily. At this point in my cancer journey, some things gave me hope (having the cancer caught at an early stage and having no lymph node involvement). Other things were still unknowns for me and very scary, including the fact that I had a high-grade aggressive cancer and would need chemotherapy. In mid-June, my oncologist recommended four chemotherapy treatments with the TC regimen[1]. The chemo treatments were to be three weeks apart beginning in late June. She also told me that I would be treated with Herceptin once every three weeks for a year.

Claire two weeks before her first chemo treatment
Claire two weeks before her first chemo treatment

It was a huge blow knowing that I needed to have chemotherapy because I knew that I would lose my hair. A social worker at the Women’s Breast Health Centre supported me through this early part of my treatment. She told me where to get wigs and about the many resources and support groups available for breast cancer patients in Ottawa. She also encouraged me to cry whenever I felt like it. I did indeed bawl in her office several times.  

Conventional medical treatments have vastly increased survival rates for breast cancer compared to 25 years ago. As well, many side effects of chemo are substantially reduced with steroids, anti-nausea medications as well as drugs which protect and build white blood cells destroyed through chemo. Still, I had some unpleasant side effects, mostly occurring about a week after each chemo treatment and lasting about a week. These included a very dry mouth, changes in taste, and muscle and bone pain. For the most part though, I was able to do pretty much everything normally. In fact, the day of my first chemo treatment, I went home and spent four hours weeding my garden. Except for the day of the chemo, I was allowed to have a glass of wine with dinner and I did.

Claire during chemotherpay with cold gloves to prevent nail loss
Claire during chemotherapy with cold gloves to prevent nail loss

The worst side effect of chemo for me was temporary hair loss. In preparation for this, I got my chin-length hair cut quite short. I started losing my hair in mid-July, 17 days after my first treatment. The day I first noticed hair loss, I downed a glass of red wine and Jim lovingly gave me a buzz cut. 

As a coping mechanism in the early days of treatment, I intensively researched everything about breast cancer and cancer generally. I came to realize that I could and should take more control of my own destiny and also take advantage of resources such as support and education groups available to help me[2]. These programs, where I met and got to know other women going through breast cancer, were just what I needed to gain perspective and help with my anxiety. Some of the dread of cancer started to recede. Now I thought about not just surviving cancer but eventually thriving, living a normal life and even going “above and beyond” (whatever that would mean – but NOT skydiving!).    

Claire in her wig before her last chemo treatment
Claire wearing her wig before her last chemo treatment

A huge turning point during my chemo summer was my discovery of integrative oncology. This is where conventional and complementary treatments work together to provide the best possible outcomes and quality of life for cancer patients. Like many people, I used to think that complementary treatments were alternatives to conventional treatments for cancer. Far from it. Many patients at every stage of cancer greatly benefit from combining complementary therapies with conventional cancer treatment. Therapies such acupuncture, massage therapy, naturopathic medicine (especially around nutrition and exercise), yoga therapy, and many others help with cancer treatment side-effects, anxiety, and prevention of recurrence.   

For me, these therapies contributed enormously to my psychological well-being and reduced physical symptoms during my cancer treatment. The Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre (TOHCC) and the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre (OICC) have a medical data-sharing protocol for people like me who are patients at both institutions. My nutrition, exercise and complementary therapy plan was based on my medical data and tailored to me as an individual patient. I was truly excited with the discovery of integrative medicine and felt hope that all would be well with me - mind, body and spirit. But I still had to deal with the fear of every cancer patient – recurrence.

Claire, with her duaghter and husband, ringing the Bell of Hope after her last chemo treatment
Claire ringing the Bell of Hope after her last treatment with her daughter Alana and Jim

Article written by Claire McCaughey, breast cancer champion, wife, mother, master gardener, Ikebana practitioner, serious introvert, good listener, and believer that it is never too late to try something new.

[1] Taxotere and Cyclophosphamide. 

[2] I attended both the OICC’s Babes for Breasts Head Start Program and the Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre’s Stepping Stones Program. 


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