Friday, February 28, 2020


Feet. The word brings up an emotion, a feeling, a smell…. A thought. Come on, you know it. Say it with me.....Feet.  

I don’t personally care for feet. I understand most of us have two, most of us use them to get around. And therefore, kinda important, I just don’t care for ‘em. Don’t want to see feet - mine or yours. Anywhere. Or any portion of 'em. Like toes. A "no open-toe shoe" policy is in every Employee Handbook I've ever authored.

So, I have a beautiful toe I’d like to introduce you to. A big toe. More specifically, my big toenail. On my right foot, actually. “She” (if you don’t mind) didn’t get out of the gate like my other nine toes. Nope. The nail on my right big toe from my earliest memories seemed discolored, odd, different. It looked for most of my childhood like it would just fall off. But the skies parted sometime around my high school years, and my toenail “cleared up”. Yep. She eventually fell in line and looked just like my other toes. Great. Ok, let’s move on. Remember, no open-toed shoes. Ever.

So why introduce you to her? Well, she’s not just a big right toenail. She represents renewal, resilience, persistence, survival. She reminds me to be grateful. She makes me smile. She gives me a sense of normalcy. She has become an important element and signal of my recovery.

Each of my fingernails turned black during chemotherapy. It was known, potential side effect of Taxol, which I had infused every week for 12 weeks. As a precaution, my team suggested I use tea tree oil on my nails each evening and like a champ, I was faithful. Still, my fingernails turned black. All of them.  I was certain they would all fall off and I would be forever left with these nail-less, finger stubs. Not to be left out, one single toenail joined the dark, shadowy team. Yep, you guessed it…my big right toenail. The rest of my tootsies looked fine. Other than a pestering, sometimes clumsy numbing due to neuropathy or being victim to “hand and foot” syndrome – blistering and soreness - courtesy of my “extra credit” chemo, Xeloda, they looked “normal”. All but my big right toenail. It, like my fingernails turned black, just a nasty color. And like my fingernails, I hated looking at it. Collectively, they reminded me that something horrible had happened to me. That a poison, powerful enough to burn through hospital linoleum flooring, had been infused into my body for 38 of the 52 weeks of 2017.

I painted my nails (actually Liz painted them for me) when I cared enough to hide them. To not look at them – or to keep from anyone else looking at them. My hands looked dirty. It was comfortable for me to be in public. Not having hair was far easier to accept then having black fingernails. Gratefully, within months of finishing my treatment, my fingernails began to clear up. I was convinced they would just fall off in my sleep. I’d wake up, find them in bed sheets, and be that nail-less-stubby-fingered cancer patient. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, my nails evidentially came back to looking “normal”. Today my fingernails are brittle yet oddly thicker, and weirdly shaped if you look closely, but to the average Josephine they look fairly normal. 

Then there’s my big right toenail. Like a shrine to the power of all things chemo, it remained black, a bit greenish - 30 months post chemo. Really thick as it had lifted up off my nail bed, easy to catch on socks. Pushed down by the top of my shoe, often sore. A constant reminder of what I had gone through. Just another reminder of cancer.

After 2 years of “black toe”, I decided perhaps this is NOT normal side effects of chemo and something else may be amiss. Nail infection? I didn't know. I just wanted it to be something other than cancer. Something other than a permanent reminder of cancer. Actually, I just wanted the damn thing to just fall off. But at this point, I would be ok with a diagnosis and prescription or an over-the-counter ointment to make it go away.

Tests were negative for any infection. My podiatrist shaved and trimmed it down to a reasonable size using electrical Dremel-like instruments and a pair of clippers similar to what I use on my bonsai. She hadn’t seen anything like it. Didn’t know what to do with it. So I returned to the hope it would just fall off.

Look, it may not seem like a big deal. After all, it was just one toenail. Covered 90% of the time with either socks or shoes – remember, no open-toed shoes allowed in my house. But for me, it was how I started and how I ended every day. Looking at my feet. And to be reminded of an awful time of my life. Of the effects of an awful time of my life. Constant. Reminding me of that awful time. How can I possibly escape reminders of cancer?

So, when my big toenail recently began to change. Began to look like a big right toenail ought to look. I was delighted. Over the moon, to be exact. Three years post diagnosis. Can’t describe it actually. Today, I look at my right foot and I see nothing ordinary. Nothing out of place. Nothing odd. Nothing. It makes me smile to look at my right foot. All toes, all toenails look like each other. Look like they looked “before”. My nail has a pink color to it, like the others. The thickness and soreness have dissipated. I have cried over my right foot. Cried because it seemed I couldn’t shake the physical affects of cancer. Look, I will never again have breasts, I will always get those looks from folks staring at my chest ink, peaking from my shirt, and wondering – trying to figure out - what is missing. I’ve made peace with that.  But I hadn’t resolved my big right toenail.  

So there. May I introduce you to my big right toenail. Say hello! She represents renewal, resilience, persistence, survival. She reminds me to be grateful. She makes me smile. She gives me a sense of normalcy. She has become an important element and signal of my recovery. Remember, no open-toed shoes allowed! Onward! #KeepRooting4Me

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