"I Wore Red" by Deb Wesloh

Like my dress? People tell me I look good in red. Do you agree?

I wore red that day. I wore red and looked good! Damn good! Okay…that may be a stretch…I wore an old red t-shirt, slightly loose around the neck so it could be easily be pulled down to allow my oncology nurse access my chemo port on my the left side of my chest. I wore a matching red bandana that I had bought at Walmart for a whole dollar to cover the peach fuzz that had replaced my almost long beautiful brown hair a few months earlier.

I was excited as I made my way up to the oncology clinic at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) with my husband Kevin and two friends, Danette and Katherine. This was my last day of chemo. My last day of putting poison into my body as part of my treatment for invasive ductal carcinoma, aka as breast cancer that I was diagnosed with in September of 2016.

After I finished the infusion, the nurses gathered around and presented me a certificate complete with red accents that I held up proudly while everyone cheered. Following that, the moment all chemo patients wait for, I stepped up to ring the bell. I rang it hard to signify the end of my treatment while a multitude of pictures were taken and hugs were given.

I left that chemo treatment that day ecstatic and with an incredible sense of relief that it was over; that my miserable chemo experience was done; no more achy steroid withdrawals, no more ER Thursdays and no more in-house sequestering.

I rang that bell that day…but my journey with cancer was not over.

2016 was a rough year for me. Before the breast cancer diagnosis, my primary doctor noticed that my blood levels were all elevated. A hematologist at BAMC diagnosed me with a rare blood cancer called polycythemia vera or PV. Two cancers in one year? Seriously?…I thought I was healthy. I ran every day, never smoked, rarely drank and with the exception of a slight candy habit, ate nutritiously my whole life, how on earth could I wind up with not one, but two types of cancer?…Like I said it was rough year!

PV causes my bone marrow to make too many red blood cells. This makes my blood thick and my frequent labs trips always an adventure. PV not only causes severe fatigue, headaches, spleen enlargement, and itching and it also significantly increases my risk of heart attack, stroke or blood clot. This cancer is chronic, progressive and extremely rare. It can't be cured but treatment can manage it effectively. Most people have never heard of PV, much less know anyone that has it (I guess I'm your token person…lucky me). Because so few people are diagnosed with PV, research has been limited. However, I remain optimistic that there will someday be a cure. I’m working with a number of organizations to help educate others and promote research fundraising in an attempt to make this a reality.

Despite two cancers, right now my overall prognosis is good. Everyone says "you don't look sick". This is especially true now that my hair has grown back and thanks to the PV my face is usually bright red. Most of the time I feel okay. However, sometimes this former runner who used to get up before the crack of dawn to run 5 miles struggles just to get out of bed. Sometimes it takes the endurance equivalent to running a marathon (or at least a 5K) to make it to the end of the day. Fortunately I have an awesome and understanding support system; family, friends and co-workers that keep me motivated and are my motivation. For that I feel especially blessed.

I’ve always lived life to the fullest, even before the cancers, but now even more so. As like any other cancer survivor, I realize that life is finite, that I may not be around as long as I planned. Therefore I live large, take risks, do crazy and unusual things (like this) and make each day count. I am determined not to let this all defeat me or diminish my joy of life!

So why did I wear red that day? Why did I wear red my final day of chemo? Red signifies the thick blood that runs through my veins. Red is the color of the blood cancer ribbon. I wore red to symbolize the PV, the blood cancer that still continues to impact my life. I wore red to represent my never-ending cancer journey…

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