Making the Difficult Choice to End Chemo Early
Deciding to stop chemo early
By Marianne Aleardi

 

PHOTO BY DAVID MICHAEL HOWARTH
Queen Stewart was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer at the end of 2021. We continue our special series following her as she continues her cancer treatment and her quest to live a full life.

Only 6 months since receiving her Stage 3 breast cancer diagnosis, and Queen Stewart has become something of a medical expert. “I think of it like a very important class or my job,” she says. “I immediately started to research. When the doctors talk to me, I take notes. I come with questions. Because I want to do the very, very best for my body.”

One crucial decision she made recently was to stop chemotherapy early. She had completed the first phase – receiving 4 doses of 2 drugs over a 2-month period – and had begun the second phase, which would be 12 treatments of the drug Taxol. She stopped about mid-way through that second phase.

“That was a hard decision. It was scary because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. “I thought about it. And I spoke to my doctors, but they can’t speak in absolutes. At first, they give statistics about if you do this treatment, you increase your chances of being cancer-free by a certain percentage. I started asking what the percentage was for only doing half of the treatment, but they can’t give you that. They don’t look at it that way. I just had to make the tough decision.”

Queen decided to stop chemotherapy because she had developed neuropathy, a condition where damaged nerves cause chronic numbness and pain. “After my fourth treatment with Taxol, my hands and feet started itching. So when I went in for my fifth dose, I told them what was going on and they said it could be neuropathy, and they lowered the dose. They suggested I use CBD cream, which I did and that was helpful. But it didn’t stop it.”

“When I would walk, my feet felt like they were on fire. I would have to put on the cream and just lay down. My nerves were going crazy. They’d been damaged, so it was very painful. I would take a short walk and end up crying. It was getting to the point where I couldn’t walk at all.”

“The neuropathy completely changed my quality of life,” Queen adds. “A lot of people have a great quality of life post-cancer – but not if you’re left with neuropathy. That’s what was on my mind when I decided to stop the chemo.”

“I never, ever, ever think why me. I do think, ‘Oh my God, when is it going to stop? When will I be done?’”

Queen was in the second phase of her chemo when she made the decision. And while she was able to complete the first phase, that was also difficult.

“That was the heavy stuff,” she says. “It’s what people think of when they think of chemo: You feel weak, you’re nauseous. You look really bad. Your hair is coming out. My nails got really dark. I would have chemo on a Tuesday, and I wouldn’t be out of bed until the next Monday. My appetite was gone, and everything tasted bad. Even water tasted like metal. Red Gatorade was helpful and also barbecue sauce – I would put barbecue sauce on everything. But those were the dark days of chemo.”

About 4 weeks after stopping the chemo, Queen’s neuropathy went away, and she has returned to feeling her normal self. She’s begun radiation, having the treatment every day, Monday-Friday, for 6 weeks. She also had surgery to remove her ovaries.

 

“My cancer is estrogen positive, and the ovaries are the main estrogen-producing part of a woman’s body. Because of my age – I’m 36 – the doctors said it was a good idea to just take them out. Otherwise I would have had to take an estrogen-b

locking pill for 10 years. So I’m in menopause now. Over the next few months I’ll discover what that means for me – the hot flashes, the higher risk of osteoporosis. I keep saying I’m 36 on the outside and 66 on the inside.”

“I’ve also changed my diet. My doctors told me how important that is because estrogen is found in all animal products,” Queen says. “I’m completely focused on eating more plants and vegetables. I’m eating so good. My biggest challenges are processed foods, junk food, but I know I need to create a healthy environment for the cells in my body.”

And of course, as we’ve seen throughout this series with Queen, she continues to stay positive despite the rigorous treatment and frustrating setbacks.

“I never think, ‘Why me?” because I worked with a woman whose 5-year-old son had cancer. And you know, you hear about babies who have cancer, so I never, ever, ever think why me. I do think, ‘Oh my God, when is it going to stop? When will I be done?’ It just seems like there’s always another thing. Life is coming at me really hard. It weighs you down, for sure. But I can’t stay down.”

June 2022
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