I’m Gretchen, a 40-year-old freelancer book editor and writer currently based in Portland,
Oregon, though my partner and I are moving to Madison, Wisconsin, as soon as my active
treatment is over. I was diagnosed with breast cancer basically during my first ever
mammogram three months before my 40th birthday. I have no genetic predisposition for it
and am a former yoga instructor and runner, so my diagnosis basically sent me into a fear fugue state for about week before I could fully process it.
I’m here to tell you though, you will get through it. And if you need, I’d be thrilled to try to help you find the humor in your day.
One thing that has amazed me as I’ve navigated breast cancer at 39 (and now 40) is that it’s remarkable either how little the doctors explain certain things about treatment or how little it can really sink in since it’s all so overwhelming.
One of the things I heard all about before chemo were the possible side effects. On top of the regular warnings, I was part of a clinical trial, so they were very careful to call me in beforehand and go over pages and pages of possible, probable, and nearly certain side effects. During this, they were very clear about the ramifications if I were to accidentally get pregnant during my chemotherapy, to the extent that they had me sign a statement that said I was opting to not get a copper IUD (my breast cancer is hormone positive) and therefore I would abstain from sex.
I sort of shrugged — having a cancery boob had made me feel a bit less sexual anyway — went
home and laughed about it a little with my partner of 16 years.
Jump to my first day of chemo and my nurse in the infusion bay explains to me I have to flush twice after chemo has started. Confused, I asked why that was. It wasn’t until that moment that I found out my bodily fluids were dangerous to those around me for up to 48 hours after infusions.
My tears, my snot, my urine, my saliva, and yes, any vaginal secretions. The nurse tells me I
should really use another bathroom than the rest of my household, which I laugh at. We live in a two-bedroom apartment in Portland, Oregon, so no, I do not have another bathroom I can use.
She tells me to be sure to close the lid before flushing, to flush twice when I go, and advises me to get gloves in case I get sick, get a nosebleed, etc., that my partner needs to clean up at any point.
It’s as I’m relaying this to him later on that day that I start to laugh hysterically.
“Why wouldn’t they just tell me this at the beginning to get me to promise not to have sex?” I
asked him. (For the record, some can have protected sex with a condom during this time,
depending on your white blood cell count, but it did not sound fun to either of us.)
“No kidding,” he replied, brow furrowed. “You’re kind of like a supervillain.
I laughed so hard I cried. “Basically,” I said, agreeing. “I’m going to go bald and my vagina
could kill you. I’m the next MCU villain.”
Note: For anyone looking at this for medical advice, A) please don’t. I got my medical education from Grey’s Anatomy. B) My vagina (or tears or whatever) would probably not kill someone.
They suggest it as a precaution, but you gotta find the humor somehow.