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Fighting Cancer at AGH

Sarah Cooper sits in the infusion chair receiving her round of chemotherapy prep – Aloxi to prevent nausea and a steroid followed by Benadryl – through the tubing connected to the IV port hidden under her clothes. This part of the process takes roughly an hour, and she sits with her legs crossed at the ankles while her father, Ben, reads a newspaper by the window of the infusion room located on the second floor of Atlantic General Hospital. One of two inpatient rooms retrofitted for chemotherapy treatments, it’s a temporary abode for patients receiving their weekly or bi-weekly doses of cancer-annihilating drugs while a brand-new infusion center is being built downstairs.

Ben, although focused on the newsprint, is a quiet but powerful presence in the room. He tries to make it up to Berlin from his home in Marshall, Virginia – a four hour drive away – as often as he can for his daughter’s treatments; but now that the treatments are weekly he usually misses one in between. Lacey, Sarah’s best friend and long-time co-worker at Phillips Crab House, makes it to every treatment. She sits in a chair on the opposite wall from the infusion set up, joking with Sarah and making runs down to the cafeteria for their new favorite fix – sugar-free peach iced tea. The Benadryl makes Sarah’s tongue feel thick and sticky.
Sarah just turned 41 the previous Sunday. She has big brown eyes and a ready, engaging smile. Possessing a hearty sense of humor and a strong outlook on life has carried her through since receiving the cancer diagnosis.

“It’s the only way I know how to be,” she says, with a shrug.

She looks to her mother, who is fighting her second battle with leukemia, as her inspiration.

She also talks of her sister, just 15 months older than her, who was also diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 40. She is now cancer free, and Sarah is on the same path. She goes through the timeline, ticking off the mastectomy of her left breast in September, her eight weeks of AC (which stands for Adriamycin and Cytoxan) chemotherapy that she received every two weeks, the 12-week round of weekly chemotherapy she’s currently undergoing that adds Taxol to the mix, and then reconstruction (with an exclamation point).

Sarah spouts off the names of the chemo and the prep drugs, conferring with her nurse, Polly Brannon, regarding the timing, like an expert. As the patient, she has become an expert of cancer – her breast cancer.

She decided to come to AGH for her chemotherapy because it would be more convenient during a time that she knew she would be fatigued anyway. And, she was familiar with the hospital from when her boyfriend was a patient during his fight with colorectal cancer.

“I knew this place because of Chris, and it’s close to home, which makes things easier,” Sarah says. “And now, I’m glad I did because everyone is great here.”

Dr. Jessica Lee, the medical oncologist at Atlantic General overseeing Sarah’s care, stops in to see how Sarah is feeling. Sarah offers Dr. Lee a chocolate from the box that she received for her birthday, and tells Dr. Lee frankly that she’s tired. But, she can handle that. Sarah is more concerned with the hot flashes she has been experiencing since starting chemo that leave her drenched in sweat.

Dr. Lee explains that the drugs have lowered her hormone levels and stopped the function of her ovaries – something you want to happen while fighting the cancer. But, one of the side effects of that will be hot flashes. She asks Sarah if she can handle the hot flashes until the chemotherapy is finished on March 23. She doesn’t like to start hormone therapy in the middle of the treatment process if she doesn’t have to. Sarah nods OK.

Dr. Lee begins talking of Sarah’s hair growing back – something she seems to be looking forward to almost as much as Sarah probably is. It may be a different color, and will be much softer, she says. Sometimes, patients’ hair will grow in curly when it was straight before treatment.

She leaves with a wave and a thank you for the chocolate.

Sarah describes the food cravings she’s currently experiencing. Since starting the Taxol, all she wants is chocolate. On the last round, the AC, she had a craving for pasta, but now she says she can’t even taste it.

Other than the cravings, she just feels tired a lot. So, she sleeps when her body says sleep. She eats when her body says eat.

“I just do what my body wants right now. I’ll deal with the weight gain later,” she says, alluding to the inability to exercise, the strange food cravings and the steroids that have left her “puffy.”

Sarah has had to slow down, but she has experienced no nausea. She continued to work after her mastectomy and after a lymph node dissection. “Be strong,” she says. “This is not a death sentence.”

All of the sudden, Ben flicks down the corner of his newspaper. “Don’t be afraid of it,” he says. “This is not the cancer treatment of the previous generation that left people so weak and sick they could barely function. Do what your doctor tells you.”