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A Day in the Life of…. a Winston-Salem chemotherapy patient

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Lila Canty only teared up once — when she heard the actual word “cancer” out of a doctor’s mouth.

“I definitely was not expecting cancer,” she said. “It was shocking. The hardest part was telling my daughters.”

That was June 3. In the three months since — and her friends, doctor and co-workers back this up — Canty’s attitude has been nothing but positive. She most certainly hasn’t been crying.

“That’s probably why I have cancer,” she said during a recent doctor visit, “so I can show people you can still be positive.”

Her cancer was discovered during an annual mammogram and follow-up sonogram. Really, she has every right to be upset. At 64, she has stage 2 breast cancer. She just completed her fourth round of chemotherapy, and soon will switch medications and return weekly for 12 weeks more weeks of chemo. After that, she could face surgery, followed by radiation.

“We’ll have a big party when it’s all over,” she said.

Canty proved her positivity during a recent chemotherapy treatment day.

She woke at her usual time — 6 a.m. — and made herself a fruit smoothie. “My oldest child thinks I should have a smoothie to coat my stomach,” said Canty, who has two daughters, Ashlee, who lives in Chicago, and Alyssa, who lives in Raleigh. Both daughters were with Canty, who is divorced, at her first treatment. Canty was born in Darlington, S.C., and moved to Winston-Salem after attending North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro.

Since her cancer diagnosis, she has been trying to eat healthier. Although she has had very little nausea, she said she doesn’t feel well when she eats greasy foods, for example. On this particular Wednesday, she already knows what she’s having for lunch — a grilled chicken pecan salad from Cheddar’s.

A Typical Chemo Day

After eating her breakfast smoothie, Canty headed to work at American Airlines, arriving at 7 a.m. There, as a manager, 26 people report to her. As a customer care manager, she stays quite busy. “I have to be careful because sometimes I push myself too hard,” she said. She has missed very little work since her cancer diagnosis.

She then left work with a co-worker — she has a tremendous support system — and made the 10-minute driving to Forsyth Medical Center, arriving about 8:45 a.m.

Wednesday was her fourth treatment, given every two weeks. On Aug. 31, she will switch to a new chemotherapy drug and return weekly for 3 months. The first step to any chemotherapy day is to head into the Derrick L. Davis Cancer Center and have her blood drawn. There, she met up with another friend, who was also there to support her during her treatment.

After bloodwork, Canty headed to a second waiting room where she waited before meeting with her oncologist, Dr. Erin Jepsen.

Jepsen reviewed Canty’s bloodwork numbers with her. Everything looked good.

Most chemo days, Canty said, she feels fine. But a couple days later — usually by Friday afternoon — that she gets really tired. “I just sleep a little more and then I am OK.”

Her only other symptom so far has been hair loss, which is common among cancer patients. “I started to lose my hair after my third treatment. I was getting ready for church and it had started coming out.”

“Ms. Canty has great great social support and a positive attitude which I believe is an asset for chemotherapy patients going through this difficult journey,” Dr. Jepsen said. ” It does help that she is tolerating chemotherapy very well which keeps her spirits positive.”

After sitting in a third waiting room for about 25 minutes, Canty headed into what is called the infusion room, a spacious room that holds 28 chairs. Next to Canty’s chair, a man receiving chemotherapy sleeps soundly.

She jokes, “I can’t do that, I like to talk too much.”

Registered nurse Laura McKnight discusses the results from that day’s earlier bloodwork – from white blood cell count to hemoglobin – and says Canty is ready to go.

Then, it was time for chemo treatment. Chemotherapy is giving intravenously (through a vein) into an arm or a port.  Before Canty’s first treatment, a surgeon implanted a port underneath the skin near her collarbone. A port can remain in place indefinitely and can reduce the number of needle sticks a person gets.

The hope is that the chemotherapy medication will interfere with the growth of Canty’s cancer cells and slow their growth and spread in the body.

On this day, Canty waited two hours for the last drips of chemo medication to course through her veins.

Then, it was off to Cheddar’s for lunch, followed by three more hours at work.

“Be positive, think the best,” she advises others going through a similar struggle. “Have a great support group of family and friends. Keep the faith and always pray for successful treatments.”