Chemotherapy For Life: One Woman’s Story

Marie Pechet and her son, Aidan

Marie Pechet lives in Cambridge and has written about her cancer previously for CommonHealth. In this piece, part of our Listening To Patients series, she grapples with the reality of being on chemotherapy for the rest of her life.


At age 15, I was working as a cashier at our family’s small grocery store in a sketchy neighborhood.
Just before closing time one day, after I totaled a customer’s sale and the cash drawer sprung open, a gunman appeared. He aimed his gun at my stomach and grabbed frantically at the cash.

My initial reaction was to push the cash drawer closed; his reaction was to push the gun more firmly into my stomach.

In that moment I realized, “He has a gun. This is real. This is happening.”

Time slowed, and I took in the details of everything around me: The exact number of large bills he was grabbing, the faces of the customers, the sound of my father’s voice as he approached the robber with a butcher knife. And then, it was over.

I wasn’t scared, but I was shaken and oddly alive with adrenaline. I was held up, and I survived! It felt like an adventure.

Years later, I heard the words, “You have cancer.” More than one time. Each time, it felt like standing in front of a loaded gun. I initially felt like this can’t be real, then realized I had an underlying threat to my life. I wasn’t sure whether or when the bullet would fire, and I wasn’t sure what I could do about it. So, I tried to pay attention, do what I was told, and each time, survived. And each time, the survival was exhilarating and empowering in its own way.

Stage IV Colorectal Cancer

The most recent diagnosis came last January. A team of familiar doctors was in the room: My oncologist, my radiation oncologist, a Fellow who had been following my case from the start, and my surgeon. There was also a resident from New Orleans, a tall woman with dark skin and long, curly hair, wearing the most awesomely stylish outfit under her white coat and a lovely smile. I remember wanting her shoes. Or maybe I just wanted to be in them. I figured that this must be serious to have so many doctors in one small room at the same time.

I already had an ostomy bag from the previous surgery (an eight-hour ordeal involving three surgeons and removing several body parts) but that concern was pushed aside once I learned that there was one tumor that they couldn’t completely remove, and that they found cancer cells in my abdominal fluid. This meant that my diagnosis was now Stage IV colorectal cancer, and the doctors recommended chemotherapy for the rest of my life.

A gun to my belly. Again. Unbelievable.

Chemo For 20 Years?

I hated the thought of being on chemo again. I hate the smell and taste of it, the crappy way it makes me feel, the time it takes away from everything else. I don’t even take aspirin. This stuff felt like poison, a concoction that includes the drug whose shorthand is 5FU. A hilarious name for a cancer drug, though I wasn’t sure if it was FU to cancer or FU to me.

My chemo regimen involves essentially one day in the infusion unit at the hospital, and the following two days hooked up to a chemo pump at home. It allows me to move around but I don’t want to. I mostly stay in bed and count the minutes until it is disconnected. Then I go the hospital the following day to get a shot to boost my white blood cell count. That is four days, every other week. Not counting the days that I need to recover from all that crap in my system.

I would need to do this for the rest of my life? Though I hoped that would be at least 20 years, that still wasn’t enough time. In 20 years, my sons would be 26 and 23. Still too young to lose a parent, but at least they would be adults. In twenty years, I would be in my sixties. Still not old. And surely, if the cancer didn’t kill me in 20 years, the chemo would.

I woke up, every day for the next two months, depressed about my future. I cried. I made a list of the things that my husband should know about taking care of the boys. I thought about the best ways to let my sons know how much I loved them, and the kind of person I was. I considered my shortcomings as a wife and friend. I tried to plan my funeral.

And then, one day, I realized something: I woke up. That alone was amazing. I went to bed, fell asleep, and then, woke up. I was not dead yet. In fact, on my non-chemo days, if I didn’t sit around feeling sorry for myself, I didn’t even feel close to dead. I was still alive. And, I would most likely be alive tomorrow.

It was a weird realization, and something that, pre-cancer, I took for granted. It made me sigh with relief. I had that day, and I could do whatever I wanted with it.

Rethinking Life

I started to go outside. I’m not an outdoor pet by any means, but I admit that the fresh air does wonders for a fresh attitude.

Then, instead of always thinking about what was happening to me and what I needed to do, I began to think about what I wanted. Here is a partial list:

– A house that didn’t reek of illness but instead held positive energy, light and joy
–Ways to impact my life and health in a positive manner
–A life bigger than cancer

And I said a simple prayer: Show me what to do, and I will do my best to do it.

Suddenly, a myriad of graces started to come my way.

For example, friends shared stories of their friends and relatives who lived years beyond doctor expectations, and whose tumors surprisingly disappeared. This gave me hope.

People I didn’t even know sent uplifting emails, sharing their positive energy. This was like getting little caffeine boosts at a critical time.

People shared all kinds of healers with me, and I tried every one that I could squeeze into my schedule. I’ve done reiki, cranial sacral therapy, yoga, acupuncture, Chinese teas, supplements, and tinctures. I’ve practiced meditation, prayer, visual healing and energy healing. I tried a macrobiotic diet and a raw vegan diet. I read books and attended workshops and therapy. Some of these added healing to my life for awhile; many, I continue to do. Further, these practices helped me to see that chemotherapy was a choice, my choice, and if I chose to do it, I had to think of it as a healing choice and not poison to my system. Frankly, that’s one I am still working on. All these practices helped me to feel like I could impact my own health.

I slowly started to live life in a way that didn’t center around cancer. Our first big outing was a surprise birthday party dinner for a friend. I was thrilled to be invited but afraid to commit; what if I got sick before then? Or at the party? And I didn’t want to use “cancer” as an excuse. I was so tired of making it the framework for my life.

Though this sounds simple, it felt incredibly daring to me: I said, “Yes, we will be there. We look forward to it.” No mention of “if I feel well” or “we hope to be there.” Just a simple declaration that we would be there.

And, we went. We had dinner with a group of wonderful people, none of whom knew I was dealing with cancer. And we experienced a fun celebration, fabulous food and alot of laughter. In fact, we forgot about cancer for most of that evening. 


Chronic Cancer

Seeing friends again was like breathing fresh air into my being. Over time, many of them shared with me that they are living with chronic diseases. They shared their approaches, that they read the primary research on their diseases, and often, they know more about the current research than their doctors do. They looked fine to me; there was no way to know they were living with a disease. In fact, the more I looked outside myself, the more I realized that almost everyone is dealing with something difficult, whether physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, and they are all making the best of it. I could, too.

I began to carry myself differently. I started to act as though I was healthy. In response, people treated me as though I were a normal person. The first time some crazy person screamed at me in a parking lot, I actually cheered inside. I was not someone to be pitied! They assumed I could hold my own. I was so excited that I wanted to dance.

My weeks slowly fell into a rhythm: chemo on Tuesday, so out of commission from Tuesday through Thursday. Lay low on Friday, do things with the family on Saturday and Sunday. By Monday, I usually felt pretty good. I could usually count on a good week, then back to chemo the following Tuesday.

I was integrating chemo into my life, but it wasn’t taking over my life. And the more I did this, the more I started to notice when other people did not. I also started to notice when people began looking at me like I was dying. Now I’m trying to figure out what to do with that. Cancer has a pretty bad rap in our society, and I don’t think I would choose it as a fun life path.

I can finally begin to admit that it is indeed my life path. But it is still my life.

I don’t know what cancer wants from me. Unlike the robber, it isn’t the money. I try not to spend too much time wondering why or how I got this; I’ve worried about that enough.

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  • Jodi Slater

    Marie, Somehow I missed this almost two years ago when you wrote it. You are seriously one of the brightest lights in my life. I have so much respect for how you live your life, how you share your experiences with everyone around you. Thank you for everything that you are. Love. Jodi.

    • Marie Pechet

      Oh, Jodi, your comment brings tears to my eyes! I LOVE having you in my life – thank you for being there and being the powerful being that YOU are!!! You transfer so much of that to me, and it helps more than I can say. Love, Marie

  • Cowgrammy

    Thank you so much for writing this.  I was told today that I also would be on chemo for the rest of my life.  Though I am good with this, never having to shave my legs again is a good thing.  Your post eased my mind.  I will not be alone.  God bless you and take a day at a time.  Hugs and positive thoughts are coming your way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Frank-Orzell/1373104562 Frank Orzell

    Marie…You are a winner! I salute your power and your resolve. We all have stories; many deny them to their detriment. You have come to embrace it and that makes you a winner.

  • Marie

    Oh, I do wish the best for your husband, and for you. Sometimes it feels like a longer road than other times, and there is no doubt that this road is not easy. I find that I can’t look far ahead or I risk feeling like I can’t do it. I literally have to take one day at a time and look for the blessings in that day or even that moment. Losing 75 pounds is alot especially if he doesn’t have it to lose; I hope he can gain some of that back in some way. Do take good care, and I will send my good thoughts and prayers your way.

  • Pickowitz

    My husband is in the exact same place, ostmy, stage IV colorectal cancer, chemo the rest of his life….5fu.  I do not know how long he will be able to keep doing this, since April when he started the chemo he has lost 75 lbs and is nothing but skin and bones at this point

  • Jim

    Great read.  My dad was just diagnosed w late stage pancreatic cancer.  He is living.  Not in a “I’m going on vacation” kind of way, but in a meaningful way.  We all are. The fact is we never know when our time it up.  Life is precious. Make the most out of it.  Thanks for the article.

    • Marie

      This is beautiful, Jim. Thank you. I wish the best for your dad and for all of you, and it sounds like you generate that as well.

  • Byronroberts17

    great article im going thru the same thingand i needed to hear that so bad i hold on to the word im newly dignosed and go tru my ups and downs have not started chemo yet but will look at as my healing process once again thks  

    • Marie

      I hope you are healing well and weathering the ups and downs. And in the downs, please remember that you are not in this alone. Not by a long shot. Be well.

  • Msdaisy1129

    Loved reading your story. I was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in 2008, had more then one surgery, and in August of 2010, my cancer came back. Started chemo again and thought that I was going to have something to celebrated once the six-months was up. I was just told by my doctor that I will have to be on chemo for the rest of my life (10 years according to my doctor) and I was devastated. Really? Ten years? What can I expect knowing this? But after reading your story, I too, look at life differently now. I live for the moment and keep a positive outlook. Who knows for sure how many years I have!!!! GOD DOES…Man’s word’s can’t trump God’s!!!! So, I’ll do whatever I have to and thank God for the good as well as the bad…….Keep that positive attitude and God Bless you…..

    • Marie

      Thank you and you keep that positive attitude as well! I hope you are doing well in all ways, but especially spiritually, as that is the true you. And you are right – in the end, God determines the length of time and no one else. Take good care and keep on smiling strong.

  • http://healingspot.yuku.com Mimi B

    I’m so glad you are keeping positive through it all. I applaud you.
    I’m surprised energy healing hasn’t worked for you because I’ve seen some amazing things happen first hand. I do energy healing for myself and for others and I know how fast it works and how powerful it is. Maybe you should try it again. Just keep your head up like you have and I know all will work out just fine. Take care.

    • Marie

      Thanks, Mimi B!

  • Mg

    There’s a hero!

    You go Marie! I am thinking of the Mariah Carey song “There’s a hero If you look inside your heart you don’t have to be afraid of what you are…..”

  • Deb

    Hey, hey…what do you mean by a “sketchy neighborhood”???

    • Marie

      :-) No offense meant, of course, but we were held up several times, and one of my strongest memories is my dad running after the guys who would snatch purses from old ladies waiting for the bus. I always loved when he caught them. I always hope that everyone we know and love there is safe!

  • TracyDoricich

    Marie, I am so proud and lucky to have you as my cousin. You have been an inspiration to me from childhood through adulthood. I truly learn something every time I read your postings and writings. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and positive energy. YOU are incredible! xo Tracy

  • Melinda

    Marie,
    What you said you wanted is what you ARE! You are positive energy, light, and joy!
    Melinda

  • El

    Marie….writing about your own personal story is helping me find inspiring things to say to people I know who are affected by their own chronic illnesses. Hearing you reflect on your new way of thinking inspires me to try to do the same.
    El

  • KW, Cambridge

    Marie , You have a remarkable gift – seeing yourself as healed and as healing. Your attention to little moments, your humor and grumpiness, the hope and the knowledge. This a beautiful piece. Just makes me want to say more, more! Thank you for your freshness, your eye, your sense of irony, and your love of life. Very very inspiring.
    KW

  • Dianne Fiumara

    Hi Marie,

    Your story is so beautiful. My daughter’s cancer has gone to her brain, she had brain surgery 12/2 removed one which has affected her eyesight but they found there were more in the front, she also has some cancer in the spine/hips. She had radiasion on head and spine while being in hospital, so this week 1/5 is re scanning/testing and Friday 1/7 RESULTS are in……….I tell everyone that it is a HARD PRAYING WEEK.
    Marie please email me I think of you often and wonder how you are doing, give my Aiden a BIG HUG for me and tell the rest of your family HELLO & HAPPY NEW YEAR.
    Dianne (bartender w/Paulette)

    dmfiumara@comcast.net

  • http://www.harvardsquaretherapy.com Katy Aisenberg, PSY>D

    What a wonderful piece. The writer, the story, the message of just going on–radical acceptance vs fighting and yes the unutterable joy of being ‘normal’ which we all just hope we can go on being each day.

  • Ttttina

    to order Cantron/Protocel, which increases the cancer-killing effectiveness of chemo, call Medical Research Products in Florida at 1-800-443-3030. Or go to Cantron.com. I’m using it during my chemotherapy, and I think they’re both working well together. Good luck, fellow patients!

  • Februarydenise

    Marie, I know now why your simple words were so uplifting when I needed them most. You are absolutely correct; this morning, I woke up. Every day that happens is a miracle. I am so very fortunate to have you in my life.
    Denise

  • Vivian

    Like your prayer, so simple but yet powerful. “Show me what to do, and I will do my best to do it.”

  • Annie

    Marie,
    Thank you for sharing so openly and honestly. This is beautiful, and inspirational. We all need to wake up and celebrate being alive, and this is a wonderful reminder of that.

  • Anna

    All I can say is, “wow.” Thanks for jerking me awake with your story-so well told-and helping me appreciate the beauty of every day even more.

  • Maja

    Thank you for a lovely piece!

  • Sarah

    Beautiful piece! Or, should I say “Peace”? Marie, your courage, strength and spirit is inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing your incredible story.

  • Hilary

    What a great piece! Marie’s positive energy, articulate reflections, spiritual acceptance, and underlying thread of humor throughout life’s indignities never fail to inspire.

    • Marie

      Thank you, Hilary! :-)

  • Mimi Hertzog

    I’ve been blessed to know Marie for 40 years. She continues to
    inspire me as she weaves her way through this journey. I truly
    admire her courage, strength and grace, as well as her ability to
    always find some humor in all of this. This really moved me.

  • Kristi

    Thank you for sharing. You are an inspiration