Cancer, With a Twist (One Cancer Survivor’s Story of Humor, Hope and a Hint of Sarcasm) Chapter 3: Fun With Chemo Side Effects!

My treatment regimen consisted of six months of chemotherapy. I’ll go into more detail in another chapter but for now, a little sarcastic look at some of the side effects that I dealt with. I saw this next part in play form so that’s why it’s written the way it is:


I’m thankful for traditional medicine but I’m also a believer in alternative medicine if the situation calls for it. If you can treat something without the use of a harsh drug I would rather go that route if it’s safe, and frankly the thought of going through chemotherapy scared the shit out of me, but I had a family at home that I wanted to live for and the prognosis for me was good if I went through chemotherapy, so chemo won the coin toss!

NARRATOR: Let’s see, chemotherapy… here are some chemo side effects: nausea, vomiting, dry mouth, indigestion, acid reflux, possible lung damage, possible heart damage, skin changes, possible sterility, mind numbing fatigue a general feeling of crappiness…

JENN: Wow, where do I sign up? Everyone’s chemotherapy is different and I’m certainly no authority on anything but what I went through. For my treatment my “cocktail” was called ABVD which stood for the four different medications being pumped into my veins twice a month for six months. Adriamycin (which turns your urine red…Thankfully they tell you that ahead of time so that you don’t think that you’re hemorrhaging the next time you go to the bathroom and it usually only lasted for a little bit that day), Bleomycin, Vinblastine (which when injected into my IV gave me such a gross taste in my mouth. I tried to eat different types of mints when it was being injected so that I wouldn’t taste it. The only ones that worked for me were Altoids. I would literally put at least three in my mouth as it was being injected and they would mask the taste of the medicine which to me tasted like moth balls. Yuck, I know. God bless those curiously strong little mints!) And last but not least Dacarbazine which burned while it was being infused. They would run saline at the same time to minimize the disintegration of my veins who now hide whenever I need any bloodwork.

NARRATOR: Wait I have some more possible side effects: Emotional instability.

JENN: Like I needed more of that.

NARRATOR: Hair loss.

JENN: You say hair loss I say I don’t have to shave my legs for six months, I’m a glass half full kind of gal, and since most of my chemo took place during the spring and summer, it was a little chemo perk not to have to shave.

NARRATOR: Oh wait here’s a good one, apparently chemo can either give you diarrhea or make you constipated.

JENN:  Yeah, I don’t know what’s worse, shitting your brains out or being full of shit, that one’s a toss-up.

NARRATOR: Mouth sores.

JENN: They’re as fun as they sound.

NARRATOR: Weight gain from anti-nausea meds which are also steroids.

JENN: I was happy to gain weight rather than lose it during chemo and possibly be more immune compromised but most of my weight went right to my middle. Let me tell you, looking three months pregnant when you are is really cute, looking three months pregnant when you’re not, not so cute and in the irony of it all one of the side effects from my anti-nausea medication was that it may cause nausea. Wait a minute this is an anti-nausea medication that may cause nausea, am I missing something here? But I took it anyway and it worked.

NARRATOR: Chemo brain. What the hell is chemo brain, did you make that up?

JENN: Ah, good ‘ol chemo brain. Let me explain. In very simplified terms chemo brain is a general sense of mental fogginess, cognitive and memory issues that can occur during and after treatment. For example, one time I went to the grocery store to recycle my plastic bags and I was carrying my canvas reusable bag on my arm. As the cashier finished bagging my groceries into three plastic bags, I looked down, saw my reusable bag still on my arm and laughed to myself. That’s chemo brain. It’s the madness we all feel normally, what day is it? Where did I put my keys? What did I do last weekend? Now magnify that times one hundred and you have chemo brain. Okay maybe my formula isn’t scientifically valid but that’s what it feels like.

NARRATOR: Chemo can throw your body into early menopause.

JENN: Now prior to my cancer diagnosis I had already been wondering where my libido had gone. I even put up signs, “If you see my libido can you tell it to call home?” I told my doctor that I thought my libido may be backpacking through Europe, she laughed. Maybe it was a pity laugh but I’m not above taking a cheap laugh. Then my period starting getting weird around July. I would get it and then it would go away after a couple of days. Then it would come back again the next week. My period did that again in August and then in September I didn’t get my period at all. My uterus didn’t know whether to shit or wind its watch.

– Jenn G.D.


Cancer, With a Twist (One Cancer Survivor’s Story of Humor, Hope and a Hint of Sarcasm) Chapter 2: How I Found “It”

Here’s my story. It was a dark and stormy night…(just kidding). In December of 2008, shortly after my thirty-seventh birthday, I was shaving in the shower and I noticed that my right underarm looked swollen. About a week before I had noticed some swollen glands in my neck that seemed to be coming and going. It was winter time so I chalked it up to my body fighting off a cold or a virus. I mean the typical response to swollen glands isn’t, “oh crap, I might have cancer.” Post cancer, swollen glands are a different story, but more on my newfound hypochondria later on. When you haven’t had cancer you think, oh, it’s probably just a cold. The underarm swelling though, well, that raised an alarm in my head that I wasn’t as willing to brush off. I got out of the shower and compared my underarms. The right one definitely looked swollen to me but I didn’t want to freak out and jump to conclusions. Ok to be really honest I was slightly freaked out, but being a relatively rational, Type A personality (yes, I realize the irony in that statement) and being a person who likes to see the glass as half full, I did my best to remain calm and try to think rationally about what it could be.

I thought maybe since I get itchy after shaving, perhaps I had scratched my underarm too hard one day? Maybe I scratched one too many times and that was the cause of the swelling? Maybe I had an ingrown hair? These were logical questions, but in the back of my mind there was this nagging thought of how you hear about lymph nodes with cancer. Even though I wasn’t an expert on the exact location of lymph nodes in the human body, I knew that there were some in my armpits. I felt around my right axilla (armpit to us lay people, but doesn’t axilla sound so much classier than armpit?) and I could feel the slightest little lump but it was there.  I waited about a week and a half, not wanting to seem like a hypochondriac, hoping that the swelling would go down, but there was also that part of me that wanted to run to the doctor screaming “I think I might have cancer!”

As I came to the end of that week and a half I was now obsessed with my armpits. I compared them in the bathroom mirror incessantly and felt for the lump every day. On the flip side I was trying really hard to leave it alone thinking I could possibly be making it worse by poking at it every day. “Maybe it’s nothing, leave it alone!” I would try to tell myself before forcing myself to walk away from the mirror.

I asked both my mother and my husband on separate occasions if they thought my armpits looked different. They did. I could see the swelling wasn’t going down.  I took a deep breath and made an appointment with my doctor. It’s important for me to mention that I wasn’t feeling particularly sick at this time. Sure I was very tired, but my children were seven and three, and my son had never been a good sleeper from the moment he came out of the womb. The fatigue I was feeling wasn’t new for me and wasn’t much different than most other parents with young children; we’re all exhausted. The only other symptom I had was that I was itchy which I would later learn is a symptom of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (Are you suddenly itchy now?  Don’t freak out. Strange how the moment anybody mentions itching, we start scratching, isn’t it?) I’m still itchy all of these years post-treatment and cancer-free, so who knows?

In retrospect, I’m thankful for the lumps and bumps that started showing themselves because who knows how long I would have gone undiagnosed had they not appeared since I wasn’t feeling much different than normal. I want to take a moment here to stress the fact that I didn’t wait long at all to see the doctor after I found the lump in my armpit and it was already stage two. Pay attention to your body. Don’t wait to go to the doctor if you think something might be wrong: go with your gut and get it checked out. I’m not going to get political here but if you’re lucky enough to have insurance, because plenty of people aren’t and no one should die from something treatable, thank your lucky stars and go to the doctor. I have my own nightmare story about being underinsured in another chapter. That was fun…not.

When I saw my primary care doctor in her office, she and I could barely feel the offending lump at the time. Thankfully she sent me for more testing to rule out the possibilities. She referred me to an oncologist and my appointment with her was scheduled for a week later. By then the lump in question was much bigger, and seemed to be screaming “Here I am! Bet you can feel me now!” The doctor questioned me about possibly being scratched by an animal. Who knew Cat Scratch Fever (also called Cat Scratch Disease) was actually real? Score one for you if you did. If you’re like me and you didn’t, you learned something new already! I explained that the only animals in the house were my children, (whom I love and adore), and that nope, they hadn’t scratched me. I hadn’t been around any other animals lately either.

The oncologist then referred me to a surgeon so they could biopsy my new unwanted friend, the lump. I had my biopsy done and the surgeon called me about a week later, confirming everything that I had Googled and was afraid of. Here’s what that sounded like:

Me: Hello?

Surgeon: Hi, can I speak to Jennifer Donohue please? (Sometimes I leave out my maiden name so as not to confuse people more than I have to. You’d be amazed at the confusion that a simple little hyphen can cause,…but I digress).

Me: This is she.

Surgeon: Hi Mrs. Donohue. (Uncomfortable pause) We got the results back and I didn’t want to make you wait until you saw the oncologist to hear them. (Yet another uncomfortable pause) You have something called Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Me: Ok. That’s cancer right? (Who was I kidding by asking? I totally knew it was cancer she was talking about. I had Googled and Yahoo’ed the internet like crazy looking up everything I could about lymphoma, because the surgeon had mentioned that my oncologist was probably looking for some type of lymphoma. I just needed to hear her say the word CANCER).

Surgeon: Yes, it’s cancer but it’s very treatable. There’s a very high cure rate with the Hodgkin’s.

Me: Ok, well that’s at least some good news…thank you very much for calling me back so soon. (Third uncomfortable pause. I can’t imagine that this call is easy for the doctors to make. The surgeon had been so nice to me throughout the biopsy and everything.  I wanted to console her and say “It’s ok, I’m going to be fine, cancer knocked on the wrong door” but I didn’t really know what to say in this situation either, so all I could muster was a thank you).

Surgeon: You’re welcome. Good luck with everything.

Me: Thank you very much, doctor.

I let out a big sigh and dialed the phone to call my husband. Here’s what that sounded like:

Me: Hi, hon.

Dan: Hey babe, what’s up?

Me: I just heard back from the surgeon. They got the test results already. It’s definitely cancer. It’s the one we thought it might be, the Hodgkin’s, not the Non-Hodgkin’s. The good news is it’s very treatable. I have the good cancer (sarcasm intended, this was an unfortunate term that I would hear over and over again from well meaning people. I know what they meant, I had a good prognosis, but the terms “good” and “cancer” should never be used together. There is no such thing as a good cancer.)

Dan: Isn’t Non-Hodgkin’s better? That makes sense by the name.

Me: I know it’s confusing but the Non-Hodgkin’s isn’t as treatable. It’s the Hodgkin’s.

Dan: So it’s not the Non.

Me: Not the Non.

Dan: It’s the Hodgkin’s.

Me: Yes, the Hodgkin’s. I’m sorry to ruin your day but I just couldn’t wait all day until you got home to tell you.

Dan: Don’t apologize. Damn, this is crazy.

Me: Tell me about it. All right, I’ll let you go. I have a few more phone calls to make and a few more people’s days to ruin.

Dan: Ok hon, I love you.

Me: I love you too, babe. See you later.

Thus began my cancer journey and being diagnosed with Stage 2 Mixed Cellularity Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (try saying that five times fast) or Hodgkin’s Disease as it’s sometimes called. It’s a blood cancer, and fortunately for me, one of the most treatable forms of cancer.

– Jenn G.D.

Cancer, With a Twist (One Cancer Survivor’s Story of Humor, Hope and a Hint of Sarcasm) Chapter 1: Hi, My Name is Jenn

(Disclaimer: The first paragraph in this chapter and the first paragraph in my “About Me” section on my blog are practically identical, if you read them both, sorry for the redundancy! Also, I refer to the blogs as my “book”. Originally it was going to be a book so just forgive me when it says book. I hope you enjoy this chapter and the ones to follow!)

First and foremost thank you so much for checking out my blog! So…Who am I, what do I want from your life and what’s so special about what I have to say that you should read yet another blog? That is assuming you read other blogs on a regular basis. My full name is Jennifer Giuffre-Donohue. Yes I’m one of those: the dreaded HYPHENATOR. Because Giuffre (don’t worry, no one ever knows how to say it. It’s pronounced Joo-Fray) hasn’t been difficult enough for people to say my entire life, so I thought I’d add another seven letters to my name. I’m a glutton for punishment, what can I say? I’m a forty-four-year-old writer-actor-mother-wife (look more hyphens!) AND cancer survivor of a type of blood cancer called Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. This book is about my cancer experience in 2009, the good, the bad and the hairless.

I think that getting through life requires a sense of humor and I’ve learned that in life there are a few ironic certainties. True, there’s a lot we can’t control, but some things are fairly certain. For example, there will be times that your significant other will want sex when you don’t, it just happens. If you have kids, nine times out of ten, they’ll have to go to the bathroom exactly when you do. When you’re in a rush you’ll hit every red light. Every. Single. One. And probably one of the biggest certainties of all, cancer SUCKS. There’s no classy way to say it, because it doesn’t deserve to be classy. Bottom line, it sucks. Everything about cancer sucks. The treatments suck. Even if they save your life, say it with me, they suck. The side effects suck. The exhaustion sucks. And yet, ironically, when you can find little opportunities to laugh or at the very least pull off a cynical chuckle through some of it, it can suck just a little less.

I wanted to write this blog for many reasons. First, I want to help people going through similar situations. I want them to laugh, give them hope and maybe learn something new that can help them through this crappy time in their lives, like some books that I read during treatment did for me (one of my favorites, Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips by Kris Carr). At certain points her book had me laughing out loud…about cancer. Any writer who can do that is a writer after my own heart. I’m hoping my blogs will fall into that category for you. Or maybe my blogs will remind you of what you already know but may have forgotten, like how to put self-care on your to-do list. There’s also a chance I might not say anything that you haven’t heard before, but maybe I’ll say it in a way that really strikes a chord for you this time. I read a lot of books on the same subjects. Sometimes a different author says something in a way that really makes sense to me at that moment, when in the past the same thing didn’t make sense, or it just didn’t resonate in the same way. I also wrote these blogs for people who aren’t going through any particular hard time, to remind them to go after what they want in life because (here comes the first cliché) life is short and you never know when your time is up.

I also wrote these blogs because it was cathartic for me to talk about what I went through and it still is. It was either write some blogs or keep telling everyone who asked “how are you?” way more than they really wanted to know. That tends to make some people uncomfortable. Ask any of my friends and they’ll tell you that I tend to babble when asked even the simplest question. I always feel the need to explain myself. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s something deep rooted from my childhood. Oh shoot, I’m doing it again. Sorry! So in lieu of alienating people who don’t really want to know all of the spectacular details of my experience, enter the blogs.

I think when you share your story it really helps you to heal. It’s my hope that by reading these blogs you’ll learn something new or just think about things differently than you might have before, in a more positive light. It’s not about looking at life and saying everything is great all of the time, I’m talking about being positive not delusional. But what I have learned is that when bad things happen to us, the way that we deal with the situation has a huge impact on how we move forward or not. If we’re in a bad situation and continue to dwell on everything bad that’s happening to us, we connect to that negative energy and will continue to get out of the situation what we expect, which is more negativity. If we try to find the lessons and the silver linings, though we may have to dig a little for them, we’ll see the blessings that we do have. I certainly didn’t get cancer and say “yay, there are going to be so many lessons to learn and blessings to find!” But I also didn’t say “why me?” or “poor me” either. True there were days that I was like “this sucks” but I’ve learned that when you resist what’s happening it makes you more miserable. It’s not about pretending that everything is fine when you’re in a crappy situation – pretending eventually fails. It’s about acknowledging it, saying ok this happened, I had no control over it but what I can control is my attitude moving forward. You can choose to dwell on the misery or find ways to move forward and grow from it all. You can choose to stay stuck, but I’m hoping that you won’t.

I know this is obvious but I just want to say if you have cancer, if you’ve lost someone you love to cancer or if you’re watching someone you love go through it, I’m not saying to be happy about it. I’m saying that you can let this situation crush you or you can choose to honor your loved one’s memory or their courage if they’re still fighting and choose to take the lessons from this situation. Like realizing how lucky you were or are to have this person in your life and to realize just how precious every day really is. That’s something that we all should remember but we don’t. Going through life dwelling on all of the negative things and thinking “poor me” really makes for a sucky existence. Bad things happen to everyone it’s just that not everyone complains about them. The people who have a smile on their face are choosing to have that smile, they could bitch and moan, but they choose hope and joy. I hope that you will too. You deserve it and so do the people around you. I want to make this clear, I’m not saying that you should never complain, you’re more than entitled to that (and bottling negative emotions is unhealthy). Sometimes life is too damn hard and you need to vent. I’m just saying that living in the space of anger and negativity 24/7 isn’t helping you or anyone around you. This book is about dealing with whatever comes your way in the most positive way you can.

So as we go forward and hopefully laugh a little (if you laugh a lot that works too!), know that the spirit of this blog isn’t meant to make light of any of the devastating effects of cancer or its various treatments. It isn’t meant to make light of the loved ones that so many of us have lost to cancer and it isn’t meant to make light of the people we know who live with cancer and manage it one day at a time. Rather this blog is to show how a little laughter can go a long way when it comes to facing such a devastating diagnosis.

– Jenn G.D.

On Procrastination and Following Your Dreams

Here’s a quick video on YouTube to go along with this blog:

I wrote some essays about my cancer experience……eight years ago. In a few days I’m going to start posting them to my blog. But first, I wanted to let you know why, eight years after treatment and in remission, I decided to finally share them.

I’ve actually shared some of them already in one way or another but let me give you some background first. Sometimes you have a creative project, you work on it, realize it’s not going anywhere and you’re okay to let it go. Other times you have a project that you’ve put on hold for any number of reasons (we’ve all got a million excuses as to why something isn’t getting done and I’m no exception). And even though you may have put this project off for months (or years, ahem) you think about it all of the time and you know you have to finally do it. Or you can live with regret, which will also haunt you, so why not just do the thing you’ve been putting off? We all know the cliches about regret and they’re true.

I want to inspire anyone who has been procrastinating about something that they’ve been wanting to do. It doesn’t have to be a major project, it can be anything, a class that you’ve been wanting to take, meeting a friend for dinner that you keep putting off because you “don’t have the time”, taking some much needed time for yourself, anything! There’s only one rule, as long as it’s not hurting anyone else, do the things you’ve been putting off!

Most people take baby steps. For me it was fetus steps, okay maybe even zygote steps. Regardless, my blog has gone through many transformations. First it started out as a journal about how I was feeling during cancer treatment. As time went on and I continued writing I thought maybe it could be a book. Maybe it was a play, a one woman show? At one point I was sending it to publishers and I have some very nice rejection letters in a folder somewhere. Then part of it did become a one-act play which I performed in a play festival in my hometown. And then, I let it sit as I thought about it day after day. About a year ago I was determined once again to turn it into a book and I was going to self-publish it. I even had my close, very patient friend Michele edit some chapters for me. After a few chapters were done, once again I put everything on hold as I went back and forth in my mind wondering if I was taking the right creative direction.

In one aspect, yes you should make sure that the work you put out is as polished as it can be. But in another aspect that can be the thing that holds you back, some sense of perfection (which doesn’t exist) or not good enough yet, etc. So while part of me still wants to wait, I know that I’ve waited long enough and it’s time to put my project out there.

I didn’t write this because I think I have all of the answers now, or any of the answers. I love to learn new things and read books on self-improvement. What I’ve learned is that the best teachers/leaders are those that share what they know and then leave it up to you to decide how to use that information or not use it in your life. They encourage you to question things. They’ll tell you that they don’t have all of the answers, because no one person does. The best teachers know that no one ever gets to a point where they can’t learn something from someone else. I wrote this because having a disease reminds you of all of the important things in life, the things that we take for granted (like our health) because we’re so caught up in the busyness of everyday life. I’m not saying that to give you a guilt trip, I think we’re all doing the best we can. But I think that those of us who have gone through any kind of trial are in a unique position to remind others of what we’ve been reminded of during the course of what we’ve been through.

All of the blogs are a sarcastic and hopeful look at what I went through, because humor is one of my coping mechanisms. I hope it helps anyone going through a tough time. I also hope it helps people who aren’t going through a tough time, to learn from my experiences and really make the most of your life.

– Jenn G.D.



To My Pasty Peeps

Welcome to summer! Okay, I know it’s been summer for awhile now, but for the sake of this blog just humor me. So…welcome to summer! Also known as, that time of year when other white people like to point out just how pale I really am. If you tan well, you may not be aware of this phenomenon or maybe you’re one of the perpetrators, hmm???

Dear fellow Caucasians…

First of all, I’m white? WHAT? Now that’s a brilliant observation. Please point out something else blatantly obvious while you’re at it.

Some white people, not all of us, but some white people get a little weird about other white people’s skin color as soon as the summer comes along. As if those of us who don’t tan well or choose not to tan are somehow offending their delicate sensibilities. It’s not like my skin color is going to miraculously change when the rest of the year I’m as pasty as Elmer’s. I mean, come on.

Some of us are melanin challenged and I apologize if my paleness offends you.

Yes, I’ve heard it all before; I’m so white, I’m pale. Let’s face it, I’m practically translucent.

Let me answer one of the questions that I usually get asked; Why yes, I go out into the sunlight everyday, but with SPF 700 it’s kind of hard to get a tan. And before you say anything about my SPF level, know that if I don’t use it I’ll get as red as a boiled lobster and that’s just not the look I’m going for. Not to mention that little thing called skin cancer, but I digress. All four of my great-grandparents came from Italy, but apparently my DNA either didn’t get the memo or just doesn’t give a shit.

So white people who tan easily, it’s going to be OKAY. You can’t catch it. Your savage tan will not disappear in my pale presence. And to all of my pasty peeps I say…stay pasty my friends.