And then it became sort of magical.
In the package was a red Wonder Woman T-shirt. Complete with a cape. And a crown. It was my armor.
I put it on immediately. And was so in love with the joy it provided.
When my first round of chemo came at Nebraska Medicine in 2015, I was terrified. I was beyond scared that I was, at 33, going to be filled up with toxic juice. I was terrified that chemo might hurt. I was scared for the aftermath — nausea, bone aches, loss of hair. I was more nervous than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockin’ chairs. So I put on my armor.
I walked into my first chemo, hair curled, makeup on and wearing my Wonder Woman outfit. I would do chemo my way. I would make this fun. And my boys — my three young sons and husband — and I, we would consider chemo days as gloriously beautiful because they would actually be attacking the cancer. Like little Pac-Men eating up every bit of my disease, chemo would be evicting this horrible, unwanted guest. So we would party.
My first infusion nurse, Denise, could tell I was scared. Despite my costume, she could sense my nerves. And she brought in the pharmacists to assuage my fears a bit. I hugged them out of fear. And I hugged them because as they explained the process, I knew that the actual act of getting the chemo wouldn’t hurt. I would be able to sit and relax over the course of the treatments. How I immediately loved those people.
Chemo days began to be my jam. I began to look forward to them. Not simply because of the fighting. But also because I brought some joy to myself on those days. As did the people who were in my tribe. I often got to see some of my favorite people — my friends, my family, my pastor, and the doctors and nurses on whom I’d developed huge crushes as they avenged my disease. And, I wore costumes.
The Wonder Woman get-up set in motion a trend. The second chemo round, I donned a hilariously witty shirt that says “F— Cancer.” It had also come in the mail. And my oldest son called it my Fix Cancer shirt because of a sideways cancer ribbon in place of the letters so it looked like “Fix Cancer” to a 6-year-old’s eyes. And bracelets. I wore stacks of bracelets sent by friends and family. My armor to remind me that I was strong and that they were all praying for me. And that I could be a warrior. I wore earrings — big leather earrings sent by a former stranger. And a stocking hat. Because wigs just weren’t really my thing.
And then the next round. It was the day after Thanksgiving, so I wore Christmas leggings. A corn stocking cap in honor of my favorite team playing football that day. And again, the Wonder Woman gear.
The fourth round. It was Christmastime. It was a holly jolly time of the year, and so I got an elf costume, complete with a red “Love Your Melon” stocking cap to cover my fully bald dome. I took pictures with my boys, and we celebrated the joy of the season. And the joy of mama getting past the halfway point in my 20 weeks of treatment. I posed with my oncologist as though I were an Elf on the Shelf — except I was really the Elf on the Exam Table. And the day was so darn wonderful.
The fifth round. I stepped up my game. I wore my high school cheerleading uniform. Well, actually, I had to borrow one from a friend because I had sold mine, BUT I wore my school colors. As a grown adult, I walked into chemo wearing WCHS letters (from Wilber-Clatonia High School in southeast Nebraska). And my husband wore his letter jacket (he still had it, though it was from a different high school).
We were so thankful to all who had been cheering us on and supporting us. It was the appropriate way to share that message. I tried to pull off the dance routine to my high school spirit song, but my infusion nurses were a little nervous as I was hooked up to chemo at the time. My girlfriends hung with me that day, and we laughed a lot. My pastor popped in for a visit. It was a cheerful event.
I knew what I had to do for my final chemo session. For Round No. 6, I pulled out my wedding dress. Why? Because my wedding dress was the outfit I’d worn on what had been the luckiest day of my life. It seemed fitting.
The hubs and I walked arm in arm. I wore my gown. He wore a top hat and a tuxedo tee. And so did the boys. And our nephews. And for our niece, I’d sent a fancy dress. A few of my besties showed up in bridesmaid dresses. One showed up with cookies. I had a village there that day as I rang the gong. I cried. I rejoiced. I hugged my village — my pastor, my nurses, my doctors, the staff, my parents, my in-laws, my boys, my friends and my husband.
I thanked God for that dress and the miracles I knew it could work. For the grace it had given me on my wedding day. And for the way my husband had upheld the “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health” and all the other pieces of our vows so beautifully as I had high-risk pregnancies, early babies and, then, cancer.
We partied after that chemo session. A reception of sorts. We toasted. We laughed. And, oh, I cried.
And it was one of the very best days. It could have been terrible. I was receiving toxic sludge. But the beauty came in a different form of wonder. It came from the people, from the vibe. And, for me, the dress.
The costumes were my coping mechanism, a way to shift my focus from the fear to the festivities. It worked. We each get to choose how we go into life’s battles, and I chose to suit up.
Blogger Ashli Brehm lives in Omaha with her husband and three boys, ages 9, 6 and 4. She has been cancer-free for two years.